Paris and schools

Je suis Charlie

Usually the start of a new term and a new calendar year in school has a predictable and inward-looking dimension; this term began in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. At the school’s first meeting on Tuesday morning, a backdrop of a pencil-gun cartoon was on the screen throughout Notices and my first words were about our need to be attentive to these horrific events and the threat they pose to the values that underpin Europe – the very liberal, democratic values of liberty, adherence to rule of law and tolerance that for me were captured in the banner Je suis Charlie, je suis flic, je suis Juif. The attacks on Press, Police and Jews should leave us in no doubt about the nature of the menace.

When on Wednesday evening, Clare Jarmy spoke at Jaw about this, there was a strongly-attuned attentiveness amongst the audience – a sense from the students that this was vital stuff – as complex as it was important. It is not just that all of us as citizens have a responsibility to engage with the issues, but that we as a school are particularly committed to these values, given that, unusually certainly for independent boarding schools, we put a strong emphasis on the values of a liberal democracy in the way in which our school life is fashioned. It is no accident that the Nazis infiltrated and bullied progressive German schools, such as L’ecole d’Humanitie, out of Germany to its current home in Switzerland.

Clare’s Jaw, a fine example of communication of really difficult ideas to a young audience, alerted us to the two concepts of liberal values. The first is where freedom means individual freedom and development is a good thing in and of itself – the idea that citizenship means having shared liberal values. The second where freedom means the government not interfering in what people do unless they have to, so guaranteeing diversity and the ability of different communities to live different lives within the same society without sharing the same values. So, the Enlightenment ideas of the freedom and autonomy of the individual vs post-modern pluralism.

This led on naturally to the nature of causing offence, especially within the Shi’ite tradition of Islam and the quandary that newspapers and TV channels have had over whether, for example, to show illustrations of the latest Charlie Hebdo cover with its images of Muhammad.  Again, we were being asked to engage with the complexity of issues and the competing values – freedom of the Press vs respect for religious sensitivities – that have different emphases in different liberal democracies. Clare’s Jaw ended with a statement from the Muslim Council of Britain which captures this tension.

These conversations need to go on – in classrooms, boarding houses, over meals at home and at school.

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.