You can’t step in the same river twice! At least according to Heraclitus, pre-Socratic philosopher of ancient Greece and no big fan of fly-fishing. OK, I am just guessing about the last remark. His observation has survived the centuries because of the significance of his comment for the reality we inhabit. Essentially he is observing that everything changes, nothing stays the same and life is lived in a state of flux. What a bracing way to begin each day!
The notion of change came up earlier this week as I sat with colleagues planning a number of Prep School and Senior School programmes of study. Now, I have to be careful not to give the game away, but there may be some among this readership who are familiar with Only Fools and Horses and the erstwhile Trigger. You will no doubt recall the episode where Trigger proudly boasts of how long he has been using the same brush, he goes on to explain that over the period he had replaced the handle and head several times.
Clearly Trigger is no disciple of the Heraclitian world view and the modern recasting of the ‘Ship of Theseus’ has passed him by unnoticed. The Ship of Theseus is an example used in the metaphysics of identity to develop an understanding of the relationship between identity and change. Over time, each component of the ship is replaced; sails, rigging, timbers so that what remains is in appearance the image of the original but not a single piece of the original ship exists. The question is one of identity, is it the same ship? My meeting with colleagues went on to explain that after seven years our bodies have replaced every cell, are we the same person?
I meet with the reality of change every day, well I would if you have been paying attention to the first paragraph. Many parents talk with me about their children. Among the themes that emerge, one is worth mentioning here. You may be familiar with it… that their child was good at x or y when they were in Prep or elsewhere and now they seem to be struggling. The seven year old has become a 14 year old and parents wonder why they don’t like what they used to. “I remember he always had his head in a book, now I can’t seem to get him to read at all; she used to love Maths now she is struggling”, sound familiar?
It may not be about reading or Maths, it may be about anything that once held the interest of a seven year old. What follows is a process of rationalisation, sometimes cause or blame (which are not the same thing) is apportioned to school, to friends, to technology or to whatever moment or object that can be found that seems a likely suspect and to which causal connections can be tentatively drawn. Whatever the rationale it seems to omit a key issue, the child of seven is now a 14 year old. If they are changing physically, why do we expect continuity and why are we surprised by other changes?
Yesterday was National Poetry Day, they took ‘Change’ as their theme and it drew my attention. In the eye catching way of things, I noticed a suggested reading list and Yeats’ poem “He mourns for the Change that has come upon him and his Beloved, and longs for the end of the world.” Well you couldn’t help but notice it could you? An arresting title from a man who was familiar with change.
Post 1916, Yeats’ work took on a darker mood as the consequences of revolutionary nationalism began to shape and reshape a national identity. Remember he is putting pen to paper amid the greatest conflagration the world had ever seen and presaged a national change that echoes to this day. Yeats’ metaphysic and mysticism had always held out for a reality beyond his grasp, a Neoplatonism that was ill at ease with the state of affairs and longed for change; the eschatology of release. He holds this in sympathy with another ancient, this time of the Latin world. Virgil’s Eclogue 4 holds out the same sort of Messianic expectation though delivered for Virgil by a new political regime. In another place Yeats’ political change is not so charged with optimism… “changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born”. But this is where we can part company if only for now and come back to him later. What has this to do with us and with children?
For Yeats and for us, there is one common theme with the change we realise. “A man with a hazel wand came without sound; he changed me suddenly; I was looking another way.” That we observe the change in retrospect, we see it more clearly as we stand on the edge and look back. The imperceptible nature of it is the greatest surprise and our discomfort with it is more in the anticipation than the lived reality. We don’t feel it, we may fear it, but ultimately we must face it. Into each life comes the hazel wand, we are all changed while busily getting on with things and looking another way, it’s no different for the children.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School, (@HeadmasterHCS)