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Only connect – the true value of citizenship

Published on 22/04/14

I would be ashamed to disclose how old I was before I realised that Denis Healey was a real person.

Whether it was his association with the fabled Bilderberg Group or his unfeasibly exuberant eye brows, I cannot say, but he retained for me, for many years after I first became aware of him as a regular on the news broadcasts in the 1970s, the quality of a Colossus, greater by far than life-sized and adamantine. In short, as far from being part of the stock of flesh and blood to which I belonged as the Colossus of Rhodes itself.

Such moments of recognition remind us that, though we move in childhood, as Piaget described, away from a sense of ourselves as coterminous with the universe to an awareness of the independent existence of other people, yet, the strangeness of the world of adults we knew as children remains intact in our mind’s eye long after childhood itself has passed. In just the same way, when, in later life, visiting our first classroom or playground, we contrast the vast space of our memory with the modest dimensions of the actual place before us. Lilliput meets Brobdingnag.

The process of understanding both the otherness of that other world, the world outside ourselves, and also its likeness to what lies within us is, in large measure, the work of maturation. Managing the interplay between, in Sir Ken Robinson’s apt encapsulation, ‘the world which exists whether or not you exist’ and ‘the world which exists only because you exist,’ and reconciling the tensions that such interplay generates, without a threat either to the self or the world, is the province of education.

Much of Sir Ken’s career in recent years has been devoted to pressing the claims of the internal, subjective world in the face of what he sees as the privileged position given to the external world in all education systems. The resulting stifling of creativity, in an education system based on functional, technocratic imperatives and designed to offer a linear progression to qualification milestones in preparation for the impersonalised world of work, deprives young people of the scope to develop their capacity for individual self-expression and empathy. They cannot live fully meaningful lives, he would argue, unless they make rich connections between the outer and inner worlds in a context which validates their own beliefs, thoughts and experiences.

His concerns, voiced through the up-to-the-minute medium of a Google Zeitgeist talk, echo earlier commentaries. We recall, for example, E M Forster’s injunction, ‘only connect,’ in Howards End (1910), as he presented a clash between the cultured and emotionally intelligent Schlegels and the dynamic but utilitarian and philistine world of ‘telegrams and anger’ represented by the Wilcoxes. And yet, without rejecting Robinson’s critique, I would argue that the opposite is also true – that the practice of ‘connecting’ with the external world, the world which exists whether or not I do, should be given greater weight in our curriculum than is presently the case.

I speak here of the formation of a kind of calibration knowledge. Calibration knowledge (the phrase originated with Professor David Perkins) is usually associated with knowledge and understanding in the STEM subjects or social sciences – for example, the understanding of geological time, distances in our solar system, epochs of human civilisation. It concerns the apprehension of the scale of things, of relative magnitude, of correct perspective. We understand that a radio-active isotope will take longer to decay than an apple core and this will help us to make sense of arguments relating to nuclear power. We know that a centimetre is a hundredth of a metre, a penny a hundredth of a pound sterling and this will help us make sure we know how to cost the fabric for our curtains. But, as a means by which we approach the burning question - ‘how much do I matter?’ – and find an answer that allows us to find our place in the world with self-confidence, it has even greater valence.

In our internal world, each of us sits at the centre, the sun in our personal solar system and the solar system itself. Our thoughts, feelings, fears and desires reverberate with full force. Put simply, in my internal world, I matter more than anyone else. In the external world, by contrast, I matter, but, in law, no more than anyone else and, in all reality, not very much. Lilliput meets Brobdingnag in earnest.

How do young people learn to travel between these two worlds without ascending into solipsistic inflation or descending into asocial nihilism? Paradoxically, their exposure to the vast resources of the online world, with its 24/7 news and webcam intimacy, may actually contribute to the difficulty, as the ubiquity and relentless vividness of the drama of world events serve to rob it of force by virtualising it. (Susan Sontag observed this very phenomenon in her study of the impact of war photography over ten years ago.) And might a culture of limitless communication and self-projection allow immersion in an atmosphere of self-referencing subjectivism in which the claims and beliefs of others are similarly virtualised? (Might the increasing substitution of the vocabulary of affect for the language of cognition in the classroom – as, in a recent debate in a GCSE lesson about the reasons for Stalin’s rise to power in the USSR, ‘I feel that Trotsky’s weaknesses were more important than Stalin’s strengths’ – be a symptom of the same phenomenon?)

Just as the calibration knowledge of the physical kind is achieved through exposure to well-taught mathematics and science, so the calibration knowledge I am speaking of, which allows us to establish our true sense of self-worth, is achieved through guided discovery of literature and – we encourage them to connect themselves to a shared humanity. Through exposure to well-written, well-researched journalism, and through the cultivation of the analytical skills to enable them to distinguish this from the welter of pseudo-news and half-baked editorialising evident in much of our news media, they acquire purchase on the nation’s and the world’s affairs and a sense of the scope of their rights and duties in relation to these. The physical and imaginative encounters which a good Citizenship education programme makes possible - with the resident in the senior citizens’ home, the parish councillor or the long-retired government minister - encourage them to approach the colossi of the adult world and find that, the nearer they get, the closer they become to life-size.

Sources

Sir Ken Robinson The World We Explore, Zeitgeist Americas 2012

E M Forster Howards End (1910)

David Perkins, Keynote Lecture, IB Leaders Conference September 2010

Susan Sontag Regarding the Pain of Others (2003)