You may begin today dwelling on the significance of the porch at the Agora in Athens and the school that gathered there, enjoying the mural decorations and listening to the teaching of the day. OK, probably about as far as anything you might have ever thought away from what you are really thinking. Much more likely that you are dwelling on how much petrol or diesel you have and where you might get some more. You may be dwelling on the rather bizarre panic buying of turkeys, much to the alarm no doubt of poultry everywhere who now regard themselves as fair game, no pun intended. The ever-nervous pheasant has all the more to worry about but consoles itself with the absence of the usual traffic on the country lanes. Swings and roundabouts, eh?
The aforementioned aperture to the Agora is the ‘stoa poikilê’, from which we get a particular school of philosophy well known if only by name and not purpose; the Stoics. I have touched on stoicism elsewhere in my musings, largely through comment on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a piece of reflection on how to live, less about lofty theorising than what we might call ‘getting on with it’. He moderates the narcissism of self-indulgence with a hard-headed pragmatism; a good life is not lived in isolation and dreamy towers but in confronting reality and remaining true to what you value. The challenge of the stoic is to see that only virtue is good, only evil is bad and pretty much everything else is fairly unimportant to our happiness. Our lives are neither good nor bad for having much of what we preoccupy ourselves with; so much for diesel and turkeys.
I have no doubt that this kind of thinking will excite some disagreement, that is a good thing of course. In application to our life and work at school I think there are some important points to consider. The present global circumstances challenge us in a variety of ways. But they also refine and distil for us that which is really important. It is a lesson that when the going gets tough, keep going. Travelling through a storm; pull your collar up and keep walking. There is a temptation to dwell and reflect on how tough things are, but to what avail? I suspect this reflection may momentarily allow us to feel good about ourselves, misery does love company, but it doesn’t make things better.
As children grow, there should be many occasions where they will find things difficult. Yep, I said should, not might. This is neither bad nor good so much as it is an opportunity to grow and develop. There is an equal but opposite tendency among some to feel that children should be sheltered from all of this. Well yes, there is a time and place to shelter children, but not at all costs; it needs to be balanced by need. Which need is being served? The need of the parent to avoid a grumpy teenager, to keep the peace or the need of a child to understand that the world does not stop spinning because they wish it so.
Some years ago now, two colleagues of mine delivered a TEDx talk on snow plough parenting and the need for grit. It too had nothing whatsoever to do with maintaining a road infrastructure in inclement weather but all to do with a modern temptation to cosset children unnecessarily. Where they make mistakes, they need to be agents of change for themselves, teaching and parenting supports that and suffers the slings and arrows of misdirected fortune. The grumpy feelings of the present time are as nothing with the glory that comes from developing resilience; responsibility; a firm focus on all the things that matter and a suitable stoic indifference to the rest. The current climate and context is changing, the routines we once knew are challenged at all sorts of levels. In the midst of this, children need the stability that comes with consistency, high standards and the expectation that they are authentic, accountable authors of their own destiny. So much for Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations, I’m off to Morrisons’ (other grocery stores are available) freezers to beat the rush for the last few fish fingers.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)