Stimulating ignorance

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The word pedant has an illuminating history – originally a perfectly usable word for scholar, it became freighted with the negative and has ended up by being associated with the pernickety, over-literal and prescriptive – a real pedant isn’t the compliment we are all gunning for. Thinking about what can easily happen to my lot – teachers, schoolmasters and schoolmistresses – you can see how easy it is for adults with a bit of knowledge in specialised areas to believe themselves more and more certain and therefore more and more inflexible of mind as they grow in knowledge and experience. This tendency will be pronounced when in the company of one’s students who seem to be more and more young as you become older – patience becomes sclerotic and (lo!) the crotchety teacher emerges, with a few pedant stars on his shoulder.

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A good antidote to this is to keep reminding yourself how little you know, how bracing it is to be reminded of your ignorance and what fun it is to push back that ignorance, albeit little by little. In a good school this is easy and happens on a daily basis. The current week illustrates it neatly: Monday evening, Bedales Reception, 8pm and I am standing by the new exhibition The Beauty of Maths, looking admiringly and just a tad quizzically at the exhibits. I have timed my visit to coincide with the precursor to the Senior Maths Society’s evening meeting and am surrounded by Michael Truss, head of maths and his warrior band of elite maths folk. We gaze admiringly at a beautifully colourful portrayal of a black hole – Nav K and Will H have a go at explaining it to me and I make a teeny weeny bit of progress, but ignorance still presides. Likewise when Michael Truss himself has a go with some glorious rings of Saturn. I am pleased to release them to their yet more serious society meeting at Michael’s house where the mince pies will stimulate further enquiry. Meandering off to a rehearsal of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, I appreciate how little I know about the play or the man. Tuesday and there is some relief as I teach my weekly Block 3 English class – my own secure, cork-lined world of Frost, Edward Thomas and Shakespeare – comfy territory for sure. But there is more stimulating ignorance to come: a Jaw that reminds me how narrow my knowledge of religion is, a Philosophy Society meeting about Empedocles (Who?) and the History department’s weekly talk on the Makers of Europe, when Joan or Arc is to be compared to Brigitte Bardot. I trust that my Ladybird book/obligatory poster on all 15 year old boys’ study wall view of these two women is to be challenged.


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.