It would be impossible to publish my monthly blog without reference to the events of such magnitude that we all witnessed in September – a month which saw the arrivals of both a new Prime Minister and a new monarch. The extensive media coverage that accompanied both events frequently made reference to their historical significance. This was particularly profound in relation to the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II, where our schools and our Trust sought to commemorate in a fitting manner the end of a reign that for many in our communities was the only reign we had ever known.
Such commemorations are important for nations, for communities, for families and for individuals. They serve as markers to us of the things that we hold significant – serving as a precursor to acts of celebration, thanksgiving, or grieving. “Commemoration” is from the Latin, meaning “to bring forth remembrance”. As a teacher of History, a sense of our collective memory is hugely important to me. For our young people, it is this collective memory that makes “the bringing forth of remembrance” possible for events that they cannot personally recall but which they would undoubtedly regard as important were they able to. The work of organisations such as the Holocaust Education Trust and the Royal British Legion amongst others has proven to be vital in maintaining a sense of shared memory of the horrific and the tragic – but also of the human condition in all its fragility. The sentiment that “those who forget the mistakes of the past are compelled to repeat them” has become a cliché, but only because it is so true. Conveying this to children can be challenging. The role of the history teacher isn’t that of a preacher – our morality is our own. Nor is it that of a doctor – with dispassionate diagnoses and prognoses. But causes and consequences are important. They’re also complex and need to be treated with respect by teacher and pupil alike.
Of course, looking at ourselves in the context of history is akin to looking at our planet in the context of the universe (some of you may remember “The Pale Blue Dot” – July 2021’s Blog?). This can lead to children feeling a sense of futility. In so many ways, their lives have very finite limits compared to those of adults, and we can compound this as we reflect on the tiny place we each occupy in the space-time continuum. I think there are different ways to approach this.
First, we should recognise the possibilities that remain within our potential – especially when we are young. Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, advised us to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The scale of our world is still not beyond our influence, and the moment that our children believe it is, is the moment we are truly lost.
Second, we should encourage children and young people to explore philosophy as a way to consider meaning. Without meaning, we become the “Tralfamadorians” – alien creatures in the mind of the protagonist Billy Pilgrim – from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic “Slaughterhouse Five” (which I read this month):
“- Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
(Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five)
It is up to us all to find our ‘why’, and philosophy can be our compass and our lamp, but is neither a roadmap nor daylight. As the Harvard University faculty guide to the study of Philosophy concludes: “The goal of philosophy is always the same: to assist men to understand themselves and thus operate in the open, and not wildly in the dark.”
We all know individuals who appear to be operating “wildly in the dark”, and maybe we have felt that way about ourselves too. It is not something we would want our children to feel – either now, or in their future.
As always, thanks for reading.