Update: Listen to John’s speech here.
On July 7th John Abbott was invited to present the prizes on the annual speech day of the secondary school where he himself had been educated – St John’s School, Leatherhead, in Surrey. What he had to say explains part of the origin of the thinking behind the 21st Century Learning Initiative.
He entitled his speech ‘How goes it with the Children?’ You can read the PDF of the speech here – St John’s Speech Day – and below is the transcript in full . . .
Thank you headmaster for inviting me to present these prizes almost exactly 60 years after I, as a rising 14 year old, received a prize here myself! This is a daunting experience! When I shook hands with Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery, never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would, one day, be me distributing the prizes. Therefore I look at you prize-winners and suggest that you should start thinking about what you would say in 40, 50 or even 60 year’s time! Make sure you live lives that are worthy of reflecting upon.
Amongst hunter/gatherer tribes in the remotest parts of Africa, there is a traditional greeting– ‘Umbutu’. ‘Umbutu’ doesn’t mean ‘how are you’, but ‘how goes it with the children?’ It is a most serious question about the skilfulness and resilience of the upcoming generation. To people living on the edge, ‘Umbutu’ is a matter of life and death.
I doubt if teachers at St John’s in 1953 had ever heard the word ‘Umbutu’. But they would have approved of the sentiment. Most of them had served in the War and knew that the continuation of what already seemed a pretty fragile peace required that youngsters should grow up to be thoughtful, resilient and responsible. The threat of nuclear war was terrifyingly real.
‘J school’ was then small – only some 350 of us. One man, DW Pitt, nicknamed ‘Horsey Pitt’, taught me both A Level History and English, but his real passions were music, Renaissance art and cricket. He was no oil painting – with a Hapsburg sloping jaw and a sagging stomach – but his fascination with knowledge knew no bounds. His lessons passed seamlessly from English history to the writings of Adam Smith or Bunyan, to the Treaty of Versailles and the poetry of Donne, Goldsmith and Dryden. Not for him the artificial silos of separate disciplines – ‘your job is to join ideas together’, he insisted, and we did just that (and I have done ever since). He fired our imagination and worked us hard.
My Latin teacher however was the ultimate digresser. Keener to recount his experiences in the tank corps in the African desert than in helping us with the details of Latin grammar, I became so disengaged that I failed Latin O Level three times. I was all set to take it a fourth time (and bound to fail) when a curious event changed the course of my life.
As a youngster earlier in Portsmouth I had been taught to wood carve by an old retired sailor. Amongst things in my tuck box when I came to Leatherhead were that old sailor’s carving chisels with which I continued to carve even though this had nothing to do with any exam I would take. Just as I was despairing at my chances of passing Latin, I discovered I had been chosen as the best schoolboy woodcarver in the country at an international exhibition.
With a burst of confidence, I told my Latin teacher I wouldn’t come to his lessons anymore and instead I would teach myself all I needed to get through the exam. Knowing that I was now on my own, I worked harder than I had ever done before and when eventually the results came out, I got 89%. I quickly forgot all that Latin that I had learnt for the exam, but I still wood carve. That was the experience that largely accounts for my subsequent life, and standing here.
There were many other influences in my youth; an inveterate hitchhiker, I was intrigued with the conversations I had on endless journeys with lorry drivers. One conversation stands out more clearly than any chapel sermon; ‘I’m not a philosopher’ said the driver over the hum of his engine ‘and I’m not sure about religion but I do know that I want to leave this world in a slightly better state than when I came into it’.
I left school in the summer of ’58, when England was embroiled in a possible war with Egypt, so rather than going to university, it seemed all of us school leavers would be sent to fight in the defence of the Suez Canal. Horsey Pitt, of course, was up to the challenge; ‘If you’re possibly going to die for your country, you’d better know why. So here’s my final essay for you; “the roots of civilisation are 12 inches deep” discuss’.
Fifty or more years later, I’m still trying to answer the question.
It was a mixture of all these experiences, together with a natural empathy for young people that persuaded me to become a teacher. Note I didn’t say schoolteacher – just teacher. Schools as institutions trouble me. Although I’m told that I’ve had a successful career as a teacher, head teacher, researcher and confidant to politicians and policy makers, schools leave me with a dilemma.
Let me explain. Too often I have observed that those who excel in school often fail in later life to deliver on their early promise, while significant numbers who struggle in school pleasingly surprise us in later life, “it’s an uncommonly puzzling thing” as Mr Tulliver rightly pointed out in ‘Mill on the Floss’, when speculating on how children’s thinking develops.
By the early 1990s I was asking audiences to question whether schools weren’t being forced into treating children like battery hens rather than free-range chickens. In 1995, nearly 20 years ago, I was invited to Washington to set up an international foundation to consider what research in subjects such as neurobiology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology and philosophy might help us to understand the wonder of human learning.
For four years I met with some of the world’s most fascinating scientists as we began to tease out what I (the essential woodcarver) called ‘the grain of the brain’. We concluded that humans are endlessly adaptable but it seems, only up to a point. Driven to live in ways which are utterly uncongenial to our inherited traits simply drives people mad.
At a conference chaired by former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev in San Francisco in 2001, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists was asked to explain what all this research meant. Thinking carefully he said “I don’t think I can put it any better than Confucius 2,500 years ago when he said ‘tell me and I forget; show me and I remember; let me do and I understand’”.
That is the dilemma of modern schooling. It is far cheaper to tell somebody something than it is to show them, and it needs even more time (therefore money) to let them discover it for themselves.
The German philosopher Nietzsche said it succinctly: “It is a bad teacher whose pupils remain dependent upon him.”
This is serious stuff, for England is again living on the edge. That edge to my generation was nuclear war – to today’s school leavers it is global warming, a world population out of control, the collapse of the world economy, shortage of water, and the threats of uncontrollable epidemics. You have even more to think about than we did but unfortunately society has allowed itself to become too dependent on telling you what we think you need to know, rather than giving you a range of challenges to work out the answers for yourselves. Every head teacher in the country, as well as Michael Gove, needs to remember what Milton said 400 years ago, that ‘a complete and generous education (should) fit a person to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously (in private as well as in public affairs)’.
In as far that half a century later I am still trying to answer that question about the roots of civilisation, I believe we had a pretty good education back in the 1950s. It may sound corny to quote Frank Sinatra, but he got it pretty right in his song I Did It My Way… I wouldn’t dare do a karaoke but let me remind you of what the song says:
…there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spat it out
I stood tall and did it my way.
So, parents and teachers of the graduating class of 2012, I ask you “Umbutu – how has it gone with your children?” Long may St. John’s aspire to prepare young people to grow to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously, to stand up for what they believe is right, and have the courage not simply to go along with the herd…. and good luck to whichever of you 14 year olds may have to present the prizes somewhere around 2075.