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Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman

It feels, doesn’t it, like the worst of times. And that things are getting still worse. Here is another view:

The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. (13)

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Humankind, goes on to say ask why we don’t realise this.

It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. (13)

And it’s because we are susceptible to negativity bias and increasingly to availability bias and come to assume that the exceptional we are being told about is common. And in his book, Rutger Bregman goes on to challenge the myth that humans are but a small step from anarchy and violence, and basically selfish animals.

Humankind: a hopeful history

The pessimistic view of humans is exemplified in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In that fiction, some schoolboys are marooned on a desert island, and after some weeks, when the survivors are rescued, violence has broken out, some boys have died and the survivors have developed a system of rules and beliefs based on humiliation and terror. 

And, you may be asking, if humans are kind and sociable as Rutger Bregman claims, how did Auschwitz ever take place, or the murder of so many women and children in Gaza in the last few months? And I am sure you can think of many other occasions when humans have behaved very badly.

This is a hopeful history, and Rutger Bregman traces back the success of the evolution of homo sapiens to the development of kind communities. He reports a very long history of communal hunter-gathering, but the harmony was threatened when humans began to settle on farms and to create towns. This brought competition for land, from such competitions so many harms in the world arise.

But in small and local communities, he argues, the basic urge to kindness and community spirit holds good. The further you are from conflict the less you care about other humans. He finds a real-life example of boys being marooned on an island and finds that they survived without the conflict of Golding’s imagination. 

The story of the real-life shipwreck of six boys who survived over a year in harmony on a Pacific island of Ata in the 1960s is not well known. Their rescuer, Captain Warner wrote,

‘the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’ [quoted on p32]

The idea that humans are brutish and need rules to control them, a Hobbesian outlook, underpins how many institutions work. Rutger Bregman considers how the world might look, if our social institutions were based on more cooperative principles, in particular, schools, prisons and our governance. He finds examples where innovations have taken place: a school in the Netherlands, the prison system in Norway, a democratic local government in Venezuela. And he reminds us about the Danish under German occupation in October 1943 and their response to the plan to arrest and deport all Jewish citizens. It was defeated by the actions of thousands of Danish citizens who ensured that Jewish citizens escaped, often by small boats to Sweden. Rather than pitched into chaos and panic, the London Blitz produced resilience, helpfulness and camaraderie, known as the Blitz Spirit. While this upbeat approach was not universal, the bombing did not reduce the British population to panic and chaos. (Sadly, the example of this reaction did not stop the Allies using the same tactic on German towns and cities at the end of the war. The German population was not cowed either. The exceptionalism of the British response proves to be another myth.)

Rutger Bregman is not providing a prescription for individual lives, partly because it is not disputed that towards our immediate neighbours humans are for the most part compassionate, caring and generous. Rather Rutger Bregman considers that social institutions based on trust, generosity and friendliness may be more successful and cheaper for society than our current models, especially for prisons and schools. 

But here are three warnings:

  1. The opposing theory that humans are prevented by a very thin veneer from being violent and selfish is like a hydra. ’Veneer theory is a zombie that just keeps coming back’ (19).
  2. To stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be, and you will be seen as threatening, subversive, seditious and a communist (where such a theory has a bad name).
  3. To stand up for human goodness will also produce accusations of naivety, ridicule, lack of common sense. 

Advocating more positive views of humans and their behaviour is not, however, doomed to fail. It is the right time.

The reasons for hope, by contrast [to the doomsayers], are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong – yet. You haven’t been cheated – yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naïve. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible today can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind. (20)

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. 467pp

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

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Imagine a Society of Readers

Reading is good for you. We know this. But imagine if it were national policy to promote reading with the aim of creating a Society of Readers. What would it look like? What are the policy implications of such a vision?

A Society of Readers (2018)

The Reading Agency commissioned the report A Society of Readers from Demos. You can find the full document on the DEMOS site or on the Reading Agency site here.

What are the major social challenges facing our society in the future and how can reading help? These are the questions that the report sets out to investigate and using research (you know, experts) has provided some interesting and inexpensive policy proposals.

The challenges: 

loneliness, especially amongst the growing number of old people

mental health problems

dementia

lack of social mobility

The research findings:

There is evidence on which to build the knowledge that reading has an important part to play in tackling each of these challenges. Reading wards off loneliness, especially where it is accompanied by opportunities for discussion of books, in groups or with reading buddies. The report celebrates book-based social contact.

It is possible to assist someone suffering from mental health difficulties, especially among the young, through reading material. Shelf Help in schools and libraries is becoming more common. You may have heard of poetry pharmacies, prescriptions for reading as aspects of non-medical interventions. You might be familiar with the handbook The Novel Cure: an A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.

Reading promotes empathy and is an excellent reason for encouraging reading in schools, and a love of reading among the young. It is the basis of Neil Gaiman’s eloquent plea for libraries to the Reading Agency in 2013.

There is evidence that reading helps boost performance on tests, and increases a young person’s opportunities to proceed to higher levels of education. 

The recommendations: 

It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society. (cover)

The report provides 12 recommendations for the government, all based in the research evidence and successful practices that already promote reading.

What would a society of readers look like? 

That is what we mean by a ‘society of readers’ – a society that values reading, and which is in turn sustained by the benefits that reading brings. A society that saturates itself with books for everyone at every point of life. A state that marks significant life events with the gift of reading – especially to its children. A school system where children, by and large, arrive with a love of reading that was handed down to them by their parents who were supported at various points in their life to turn to books themselves. A school system where learning continues throughout the year ensuring that disadvantaged children can engage with reading groups – surrounding themselves with books even and especially if their home environment lacks them. A society whose clinicians understand that reading can have a medicinal quality when it comes to illnesses such as anxiety, ADHD, depression and even dementia. A society where a well-resourced retraining and further education systemencourages reading beyond the classroom too. A society where workplacesmay even carve out the time to allow their employees the time to attend further reading classes and reading groups. And a society that does not forget that its ill and ill-informed not only have cognitive needs but imaginations that can still light a fire too – and where we encourage them to share these imaginations by bonding with their contemporaries over the written word. (p41)

(Note: to make this paragraph easier to navigate I put the main policy locations in bold.)

And so why …?

Why are libraries suffering so badly from the policies of austerity?  The latest figures reported by CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy) can be found in a press release from December 2018 here. The only figures that have gone up relate to volunteers and to their hours. 127 libraries closed. Spending was down by £30m and 712 full-time jobs were lost. That is in one year.

So while research and reading charities show that there are some inexpensive and beneficial policies to be promoted to help society, councils and government continue to strangle libraries. That’s why we need to imagine a Reading Society. And readers are good imaginers.

A Society of Readersby Sacha Hilhorst, Alan Lockey, Tom Speight published in 2018 by DEMOS for the Reading Agency. 

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