by Tim Middleton
Roland Barthes once described the Eiffel Tower, built over a century ago, in the following terms: “A vision, an object, a symbol, the Tower is anything that Man wants it to be, and this is infinite. A sight that is looked at and which looks back, a structure that is useless and yet irreplaceable, a familiar world and a heroic symbol, the witness to a century passing by and a monument that is always new, an inimitable and yet incessantly imitated object.” It was built, we are told, as the main exhibit of the Paris Expo of 1889, “to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution as well as provide a demonstration of France’s industrial prowess”. At that time it was the tallest tower in the world but in effect it was simply there for show, as it is still today. In that regard it is perhaps similar to many other towers that have gone before or have been built since.
The earliest tower might be found in biblical times with the infamous Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). The inhabitants of the land, it seemed, with one mind and one language, simply wanted to make a name for themselves and were worried about being “dispersed over the face of all the earth”. The rich irony in that was in the fact that as a consequence of seeking to rival their God by reaching up to Him they were indeed dispersed across the face of the earth and given different languages. Their tower only led to confusion, dispersion and division.
Then, all through the ages, kings and rulers have built towers as a place of protection. The Tower of London was started as far back as 1078 yet, while it was certainly a place of protection it was also a prison. It kept people out and it kept others in, as it still does today, though again it is seen now more as a tourist spot than any place of protection.
All these towers, however, pale in significance if we consider the tallest building in the world now, the Burj Khalifa Tower, which stands at 828 metres tall with over 160 storeys, operating as a hotel, residences and offices. Many will wonder why on earth there needs to be such a high building — certainly such a tower must provide a glorious view but at the same time it presents itself as a serious target, as the attack on the Twin Towers only too vividly and sadly bore testament.
Some might perhaps be tempted to call it an Ivory Tower, as such are seen to be divorced from life and reality. An Ivory Tower is defined by some as the “state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world” while others describe it as “a metaphorical place — or an atmosphere — where people are happily cut off from the rest of the world in favour of their own pursuits, usually mental and esoteric ones”. Such towers are sadly not uncommon.
Then, of course, we have the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a free-standing bell tower for the city’s Cathedral. Its original purpose was to call people to worship, but now its purpose is to make money as tourists come to view this unique structure, caused by its original unstable foundation.
There is another tower that, if we are not careful, will have all the hallmarks of the towers described above — that is the Learning Tower of Pedza. Education, through learning, can certainly take young people to great heights; it can enable them to see far and wide; it can provide great protection; it can lead them to a higher calling; it can herald and celebrate right now the new Fourth Industrial Revolution as we look to move forward. It can equip them well for all that life brings them, by enabling them to finish, and to finish well.
However, education must not become like the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, the Burj Khalifa Tower, an Ivory Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Education must be a sight that looks forward (not an ‘eye-full’ like the Eiffel), a structure that is useful and interchangeable. It must be a monument that is always new, built on a strong and stable foundation, free-standing and far-reaching. Education must not be cut off (or dispersed) from the rest of the world.
Education must not be a prison or even be about protecting our own interests. Education may once have been like a bell tower but must not simply draw attention to itself. Education must not be for show. Education is not a “vision, an object, a symbol”; it is not “anything that Man wants it to be”. If it is any of these, it will only bring seclusion, confusion, dispersion and division. In short, it will indeed be finished!
l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.