I passed a blue plaque last Saturday in Romsey and it caught my eye. It celebrates the site of a meeting house, a place of worship for a community which saw the world and our destiny in it very differently from their contemporaries, the Dissenters. I should really have titled this piece ‘In praise of difference’, but the lyrics hijacked by the marketing strategy of a wholly owned subsidiary of a German automotive manufacturer will do just as well.
I’m not sure that Škoda’s marketing strategy is really about everyone doing their own thing so much as it is about buying Škodas. The tension it illustrates is real enough though. In abstract philosophical terms there may well be a solipsism that questions the knowability of reality beyond our own minds, but the lived reality of our students and ourselves is a little more prosaic. It exists as the tension between being your own person and having your own mind is balanced with the need and desire to belong and to conform. It would be hard to think of a context in history where this tension has been more acute than in our present age. Ironic really, given the rhetoric of so much of what our students experience. Our students are encouraged to ‘be themselves’ through a period of adolescence when they are not absolutely crystal as to what that actually means. They serve competing masters, the desire to be authentic and the need to belong. It is of course possible to be both and it is our responsibility as parents and educators to help them to do just that. However, in the shadow of a social media pseudo reality where everyone seems to be having a great time and living a life much more interesting than their own, it is difficult to hold a reasonable perspective.
The Dissenters went about their lives not necessarily in opposition to the established church though circumstance and the prevailing political mood of the 15th and 16th centuries made it so, they just saw a different way. They had concerns with hierarchy, with the relationship between the individual and their ultimate concerns that they believed did not require a tiered system of administration or control. On Wednesday afternoon, a similar situation developed during our Student Council meeting. Chaired expertly by our Head Girl and Head Boy, the meeting went through some ideas that evolved from the Assembly that morning. Consideration was given to the plight of our fellow students in parts of the world where they do not have enough to eat while, regardless of our relative circumstances, none of us are starving or surviving on meals every other day. As the discussion developed, the meeting highlighted an essential tension that we all embrace where we live in community. A decision needed to be made which would place the need or desire of the many at odds with the need and desire of the few.
Ours is an authentic Council where the class reps left the meeting to go back to their constituencies to pick up the real essence of the democratic process. If a decision is to be made that influences the freedom or liberty of others to choose, then it needs to be made sensitively and with great care. People matter, the fact that one or two disagree does not mean that those in dissent do not have the right to be considered and thought of. Daring to be different, to swim against a tide is a wholly laudable endeavour. If we are an enlightened Student Council, we have the capacity to gain insight and understanding, to gain clarity and perspective from the difference of others. Far from being a threat, the voice that suggests a different way can be a heroic one. They may have valid points, but I am humbled and proud of the extent and degree of understanding given in our meetings to those who disagree, to those who may be in a minority but feel the freedom to voice their view, to stand against the tide and be counted.
In so many ways their stand is what we want for all of our children, not a grandstanding to court attention, but a quiet or in some cases none too quiet presentation of a view held dearly by idealistic and impassioned students who care about the issues we discuss. How are we to make any change if the community we enjoy is a collection of homogeneous ‘yes men/women’? How are we to begin to change the world, to make this a better place without the voices of the Dissenters intent on making ‘their own kinda music’?
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School