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Our Headmaster to the 6th St. Paul’s Educational Conference

Our Headmaster to the 6th St. Paul’s Educational Conference

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It is a great pleasure to see you all assembled here and, as well as lots of familiar faces from our own St. Paul’s staff, it is lovely to see so many of you here from other schools, institutions and organisations. My welcome is especially extended to those who have travelled some distance to be here including from the British School in Rio, with whom this conference alternates each year, as well as the Headmaster of the Grange in Chile. Of course, a very special welcome is extended to our keynote speakers, all but one of whom have crossed an ocean to be with us this weekend. Welcome to you all. 

I would also like to thank our various and generous sponsors, without whom this conference would not be possible and I am sure many of you will want to engage with them over the next couple of days and learn more about what they bring to the world of education. 

And that of course is what unites us all here this afternoon. A profound belief in the power and importance of learning and the responsibilities that we as educationalists have in preparing young minds for an uncertain world. 

Since we last held the St. Paul’s Conference in November 2022, much has changed in the world around us. The pace of technological and social progress (if that’s what it is) continues to outstrip our ability to comprehend its full implications, and it is imperative that we, as a profession and as a sector, try and stay on the front foot.  We must equip our students with the range of skills and the depth of character to navigate this dynamic landscape. While, technology and the changing nature of society offer boundless opportunities, they also present profound challenges, not least of which is the potential to erode the very fabric of our humanity. 

Social, technological, political and economic change is often exciting, but, in its wake, many are left fearful and suspicious. Schools, like those represented here, find themselves at the sharp end of these anxieties. We are often expected to be a firewall that protects youngsters from social realities, whilst simultaneously being required to prepare them for life beyond school. Too often we are assumed to have a clear position on controversial matters around which wider society has yet to form a consensus. We are required to stand for high-minded values whilst remaining aloof from day-to-day political debate.  

Yet it is important that schools are clear about their values and maintain an optimistic sense that, despite news headlines, we can still work for a better world for our young people and that with kindness, inclusion, resilience and clear aspirations, we can help them create a future that is brighter than the past. 

We don’t know what that future holds but we do know it’s imperative to equip our students with essential components for life: Firstly, deeper learning skills extending beyond rote memorisation to encompass critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity; skills that prepare minds for the evolving demands of tomorrow. Secondly, the cultivation of "essential people skills," especially kindness, collaboration, resilience, self-control, leadership and adaptability; attributes vital for navigating the complexities of the human experience. Lastly, proficiency in digital literacy, a prerequisite for success in a world increasingly intertwined with technology. Knowing how to harness the digital world, and understanding the responsibilities and risks that come with it. 

A modern curriculum must integrate these elements to prepare youth for the challenges and opportunities of the decades ahead. While education has become increasingly structured around the technological world, we must not lose sight of the fundamental importance of a human and humane education. This conference serves as a platform to explore how we can safeguard and promote the humanity of young people in a world that can too easily dehumanise us all. 

This week our Senior School has celebrated Reading Week, and a great success I believe it has been too. Possibly there were those amongst our students or staff who were sufficiently inspired to pick up a book by either George Orwell or Aldous Huxley.  

Both were British authors of the 20th century and just two examples of big names in English literature who understood that anxiety for the future runs deep in the human psyche.  

Some of you will be familiar with Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future in his famous novel, 1984, where people labour under the ever-watchful and malevolent eye of “Big Brother”; where censorship ensures that information is tightly controlled and manipulated and the populace is kept in a permanent state of ignorant subservience.  Current concerns expressed by some about state power or the influence of the major tech companies, or the rise of CCTV, echo these anxieties.  

An alternative vision was offered by Aldous Huxley in which he foresaw that whilst humanity might not have its information censored, we could be bombarded with too much information and the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. Writing in the mid-20th century, he warned of “information overload” and “technological distractions” where individuals are confronted with so much information and entertainment that they become passive and apathetic, unable to critically engage with the world around them.  

Surely it is this vision that hangs over us as we all try to discern truth amid the millions of TikToks, tweets, Instagrams, messages and images posted every minute of every day. If we as adults cannot cope with our own scrolling addictions and the continual noise of social media, then what chance do our young people have? 

In referencing giants of literature like Orwell and Huxley to make a point, I am conscious that I am straying from my own academic discipline. As someone who has for over 25 years taught History in various schools, I would make two further observations which I draw from the past. 

The first is a general point, which is that the future has always been at least a little frightening for every generation that has existed. Parents have always been anxious for the futures of their children, adults have always been wary of youth not heeding the wisdom of their elders, societies have always worried about their own decay, decadence and decline – almost without exception.  So, though our problems are new, our situation is not. That might at least be a source of some comfort.

The second point is illustrative and takes us back to ancient Rome. I have always been dawn to Roman history – the excitement, the strength, the power, the scale of its achievement was something that captivated my mind. Possibly also explained by the fact that at birth I was given a Roman name.  

One of the traditions of Rome was “the triumph”. This was when a general returned to the city following a victorious conquest of some distant foreign land, perhaps as far off as Iraq, North Africa, Spain or even Britain – which the Romans saw as a mysterious, cold, brutal island on the very edge of the world, populated by barbaric and insular natives. Two thousand years later, some things may not have changed that much after all.  

Following his victory, this Roman general would enter the city of Rome, leading his legions, standing upright on a magnificent chariot, resplendent in a golden toga and a wreath upon his head, his face painted red, and surrounded by his lieutenants, his enslaved prisoners-of-war being dragged terrified behind in chains, the plundered trophies from his campaign paraded for the Roman crowds to see. And the crowds would be there in the tens of thousands cheering our general on through the streets of Rome. This was the high point of the career of any ambitious Roman conqueror, seemingly with the world at his feet. 

But amid all the noise, elation and clamour, there was something else. Because the general was never alone on his chariot. Next to him would stand a slave who had one job. And that was to continuously whisper in the ear of the victorious general the words "Memento Mori" - "Remember you are mortal."

Amid all this adulation and excitement, with crowds cheering your name and lauding your achievements, don’t forget “you are but a man”, “don’t forget you are human”. 

Ladies and gentlemen, we also find ourselves processing through the noise, the excitement, the opportunity, the anxieties, fears and occasional terror created by the technological and social revolution that surrounds us.  Let’s listen to the voice that whispers to us all: remember we are human, remember our humanity. If we do, we can embrace the modern world and all that it offers with confidence.  

This is the theme of our conference “Nurturing Humanity: Inspiring Creativity, Curiosity and Kindness in a Dynamic World”. As educationalists, we are optimists, drawn to our careers by a natural sense of positivity about youth and the future they will inhabit. I am therefore confident that our discussions and deliberations over the next couple of days will generate ideas to help us navigate the complexities and realities we all face in the classroom. 

Returning to the spirit of Reading Week, I will bring my remarks to a close by quoting some poetry. These are words of the English poet T.S. Eliot. Some of you may be familiar with his work, but many of you will not. I think it is fair to say that his poems are hard to understand and even harder to enjoy. Yet in 1934, so 90 years ago, he wrote these words that ask the questions that we as educators face today. This is what he wrote, 90 years ago: 

Where is the Life we have lost in living?  

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?  

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?  

In other words:  We are all alive – but are we actually living? We have information – but do we really have knowledge? And where we have knowledge – do we truly have wisdom? 

Ladies and gentlemen, it is information, knowledge and, above all, wisdom we seek to develop and share over the course of this conference. To ensure that we inspire the young to live their lives as nurtured and humane individuals ready for a dynamic future.  

Thank you for listening and it gives me great pleasure to declare the 6th St. Paul’s Educational Conference officially open.  

 

- Titus Edge, Headmaster

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