Way back in the 1930s, looking on at the rise of Fascism with horror, the playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote the words “Change the World. She needs it!” His work aimed to shock audiences out of apathy and passive emotional engagement into action. He was not happy with the thought that theatre was a pastime. For him, theatre was an agitator – a means by which we might make more obvious to people, the forces and assumptions that were shaping their lives and leading them blindly into war and genocide. Where are our agitators today, I wonder?
In the face of the rise of some of our less kindly human traits – xenophobia, self protection, isolationism, self absorption, materialism and general sneering and jeering at anyone with an opinion other than our own, we can sometimes simply retreat. In recent months, worried about the political landscape both here and abroad, I’ve definitely drunk more, switched the telly off, spent less time on twitter and more in the gym. All (except the drinking) probably better for me, but not for the world in general. Because if we’re to stand in the way of what increasingly looks like a wave of disaffected self destruction and avoid a future in which our children look back at us with disgust saying “but what did you do?” we need to take some action now.
I love theatre, but I don’t think it’s going to change the world. Not with ticket prices as they are. But education. That can change the world. And she needs it. Still. How do we change the world in schools? We develop pedagogies of hope.
We’re distracted from such work by drudgery. It’s a great way of getting people who may have power and influence to avoid using it by a) making them feel too tired to think and b) too overworked to care. In this respect, this and other governments across the world have done a sterling job in ensuring that education does not cause children, or even many teachers, to lift up their heads and to hound them out of future office. Survival and self interest are best served by appearing to meet the demands of the ‘public’ and the more distasteful those demands are, the more distasteful the policies designed to ensure another political victory. We cannot hold a mirror up to politicians without seeing ourselves reflected back. If we want to change them, we have to change us. Do we think immigration would be as high on the agenda as it is, if it were not perceived to be a vote winner? No. So to change the world, we need to change minds – to shift the nature of public demand and perception- one at a time. And what is a teacher, if not a shaper of minds?
Now that could be quite dodgy, I know. But think of this. If we saw our duty as less about getting children through tests and more about building a deep sense of moral purpose, built around compassion and kindness, what would the impact be on the future? In the former, we keep the status quo. In the latter, we change the demands that politicians, in their short term election cycle world, wish to meet. The wonderful International Baccalaureate is clear in its mission statement that while it aims to create “knowledgeable” young people, it intends that those young people can see “that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” It is, by far, the most important statement I have ever seen in terms of the values and expectations of an education system. For if we see that other people, with their differences can also be right, we have, automatically, a more compassionate society based on wisdom, empathy and understanding.
To be IB minded is to see the world as a whole and its people as having equal importance and value. It is to recognise that a child in Syria needs help and that we have a duty to step up to the mark. It is to understand that our neighbours are our neighbours, no matter where they are born. That the children in our schools are our children, no matter where they were born. That the workers in our offices, are our workers, no matter where they were born. That there is not, as Hitler said in Mein Kampf, a necessity to draw a sharp line between those of us who were born here and those who “domicile” here in order to earn a living. For as soon as those distinctions are drawn, and as soon as we feel that there is a moral right to draw the distinction, we are on a very slippery slope indeed.
All this might be overwhelming to us. But there are many things we can do to build hope and wisdom in children. We can shape our curriculum models around concepts of freedom, democracy, justice, hope and beauty. We can enrich our lessons with stories of people who made a difference, who changed the world for the better. We can choose texts where kindness, compassion, moral dilemma and integrity drive the work and elevate them over those which serve merely to entertain or to act as “I’m more academic than you” modes of self glorification. We can look at places, times, events where human beings have risen and overthrown oppression, violence, terror and inched us towards a more peaceful world. We can find heroes in small spaces – in our local communities who are helping others, volunteering, opening food banks, raising children that are not their own. We can talk to care workers, nurses, road sweepers and cleaners about the importance of the work they do and introduce them to our children, so that they know, appreciate and understand what true graft is. We can model kindness and compassion to all – rejecting no excuses discipline policies for what they are – social darwinism. We can be better and when we fail, we can show we learn from our mistakes.
We need to do this. Because unless we fill our children with the belief that they are the future and that future is full of hope and possibility; unless we show them that the heroes in our world don’t necessarily earn the most money or screen time, but can still be very happy indeed; unless we show them that the value of a human life is not measured in salary, but in love, they will enter a fearful world in which they learn that bowing their heads and retreating is the way to survive. And while their heads are down, hope will take flight.