Gosh! The autumnal winds and cloudy skies are doing a good job of blowing away any lingering sense that the hols have only just finished. But the cheery smiles and willing eye contact from crisp and not-so-crisp blazer-wearers are the happiest of reminders that a new term, a new school year, brings energy, optimism and excitement. For those in school as pupils or families, welcome back and welcome to Highgate; for readers connected with or just interested in Sir Roger Cholmeley’s School at Highgate, a warm welcome to this blog!
The beginning of term is always the time to ask what we would like the year ahead to hold. I carted off my senior colleagues to Edinburgh (to see our young actors perform at the Fringe) just before the GCSE results hit our in-trays to discuss just that. I wanted to try out a phrase which had caught my attention on holiday in Le Puy-en-Velay, a beautiful if remote city in the Auvergne which is the stomping ground of my wife’s paternal forbears. Le Puy is the well-known starting point for a pilgrimage route (the Via Podiensis) which takes hardy walkers to St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenées and onward to Santiago de Compostela. There’s a visitors’ centre in the old part of town for those curious to understand what motivates pilgrims, perhaps beyond religious conviction, to make the pilgrimage. I was interested in this (it’s well worth a visit!) but was also curious to know how the recordings of French-speaking pilgrims had been rendered into English. Actors read translations which were accurate and fluent, but which couldn’t but be affected by the way a French-speaker will articulate their thoughts: the wonders and insuperable curiosities of another language! But there was, as I say,a phrase which jumped out at me, and which I am not sure would have fallen quite so naturally to an English speaker: the ‘tyranny of self-sufficiency’.
I explained my interest to my ever-patient colleagues (more anon): they we were keen to warn me of the dangers of unpicking our work on promoting intellectual self-propulsion among the young, or much-needed resilience in the face of life’s inevitable ups and downs, or a younger person’s anxieties about fitting in or happily securing an authentic, unforced identity. Quite right! But that avowedly unreligious, modern-day pilgrim’s experience, of sloughing of this often self-imposed ‘tyranny of self-sufficiency’, was fascinating: he was talking about what he had learnt from being dependent on others for the duration of the pilgrimage (up to three months), for hospitality, for food, for somewhere to sleep; from being dependent on people with whom, initially at least, he had had no prior connection or inter-connection. And how this contrasted with the way he had led life beforehand, where being able to stand on one’s own two feet, making one’s own way in life, had been a goal.
As you can tell, I was taken with this. I wondered , just wondered, if we didn’t need to find space for seeing the strength in weakness, the strength in dependence.
It struck me that if we let young people understand that it is the vulnerabilities and insufficiencies and incompletenesses, dependencies by another name, which make us human and which open us to extraordinarily rich relationships and connection, then the purpose of communities, even ‘compulsory’ ones like family and school, becomes clearer. We know only too well that the break-down of communities generally, and the ability to remain connected virtually rather than physically, leaves the young, leaves all of us, with opt-outs: we can be sufficient of ourselves, we may even strive to be sufficient of ourselves, and develop fear of being dependent – perhaps this is why, or is one of the reasons why, some young people find it so difficult to square the obligations of being part of a community with their individuality: not seeing the advantages or essential humanness of depending and belonging, they slave away under the tyranny of self-sufficiency.
Now this blog is fast becoming an assembly or an address better suited to Chapel! So let me fast-forward so that we can get back to the urgencies of the weekly chores and that in-tray!
I think that there’s the lesson, too, for us to take from those we have supported as a community or as individuals: like our partner schools, our pupils need to be confident and comfortable in being dependent, in relying less on those who have to support them (parents, teachers) than on those who may choose to help them, on being gracious in their dependency, being conscious that they will from time to time need the random help of strangers, that good fortune may come their way only periodically. I suppose I am looking for a way to hardwire experience which will ensure, or help ensure, that our pupils do not chase the false idol of self-sufficiency, and won’t learn how to be isolated rather than connected. An antidote against isolation and loneliness.
The world that faces them – that of our climate crisis in particular – is one where the old order no longer works. The individual will need to feel more strongly the pull on him or her as a fellow human being to change behaviour. The implications of technology are quite obviously outstripping the evolutionary capacity of human beings to adapt. And my hunch is that a very different order of empathy and connection and inter-connection is required. Schools must be ideal places – if they are to continue to have meaning – for young people to practise and to experience this. Thus the relational behaviour between them, between adults and them, and between us as adults, needs to give them the steer to what will make them better, stronger members of this and other communities.
I hope you too have enjoyed very happy days away and have come back as refreshed and inspired by time with your children. Thank you for sending them back to us so that we can enjoy their energy and their optimism, and feed off their excitement!
 Next week sees Highgate’s first sustainability conference (see here for details), the brainchild of our student sustainability champions: creating a community of those who know there’s no Planet B.