By Will Goldsmith, Head of Bedales
n Monday we held our first face-to-face Jaw since September and my first since becoming permanent Head. It was a very special moment for us as it marked, hopefully, a shift away from many of the restrictions we’ve had to put up with. It’s two years now since the pandemic started and, while it’s not over yet, we’re definitely moving into a different phase. I spoke to students about two things – why Jaws are so important here at Bedales and about how we as a community respond to conflict – which I will share with you here.
Jaw at Bedales is the equivalent to ‘chapel’ that happens in schools with a religious foundation. Our school was founded deliberately without one, not because the founders were not religious themselves (Badley was a very committed Christian) but because they did not believe anyone should be forced to attend a specific religious ceremony at school. However, that does not make us an amoral school – far from it. One of our founding principles, ‘Work of Each for Weal of All’, is not dissimilar to the Christian commandment: “thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself”. It reminds us that, in living as a community of learners, our collective endeavours should contribute to more than just our own individual advancement.
In talking of community, of being together, Jaw is a time when we regularly come together to reflect on specific ideas, moral dilemmas or powerful issues that impact on our lives. It is an important moment for us to reflect more carefully than we sometimes do, to find perhaps a stillness that we normally struggle to achieve. Doing so together is a sign of our solidarity with each other, the support we give to one another in response to some joyful experiences as human beings, as well as more challenging ones. We then finish with the famous handshake (or bow, namaste or fist bump), where we take a moment to properly acknowledge each other’s existence. To connect in a way that says we exist, we recognise each other as fellow travellers on the journey of life. All of these things hold us together and, as we’ve not been able to do this for the past two years, it has placed strains on our community. So now we can do it again, I am feeling very hopeful that we will all benefit from this.
This brings me on to my second topic which is, perhaps, the opposite of community – conflict. I’m sure all of you will be aware of the current conflict in Ukraine. I don’t want to dwell too much on what is a disturbing and fast-moving situation. I know that there are people in our community directly affected by this and it is upsetting to see horrific images of war in Europe once more.
Instead, I’d like to remind you more broadly of the way Bedales has responded to times of war in the past, but also what our approach to conflict on any level should be.
Conflict is as much part of being human as community, so the idea that we can live our lives while avoiding any friction with those around us is naïve. A finite amount of resources, different levels of comfort and security, and comparisons we make between us will inevitably lead to times when we disagree, when we feel angry towards each other and when that might even spill over into a fight. War is the ultimate dividing force we humans have – where one group of people decide another is ‘the enemy’ and that we want to kill them or at least control them by force. As an act, it is one of the most horrific things we can do but should be avoided at all costs. You may have seen the hundreds of thousands of people across the world protesting against the war this weekend, you may even have been amongst them.
Bedales has a strong tradition of being horrified by war, building a library as war memorial, choosing not to have a Combined Cadet Force like other schools and emphasising in both of the World Wars from the last century, our bonds with people on the other side, knowing that students of the school ended up fighting against each other because of accidents of birth and geography. In doing so, we make a strong statement about war and conflict, and it is one the endures today.
Whatever the outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I’d like you to remember that we should always do everything in our power to resolve conflict wherever we find it, whether as national leaders or private individuals. You may not be making decisions about what this or other countries do in the face of conflict but at least some of you may well end up in that position later in life and the lessons you learn here, the habits you develop and the actions you take will shape who you are when you go out into the world.
So I have two messages to finish with – firstly, remember conflict is inevitable for human beings. There will always be times in any community (including this one) where we won’t get on, where we might want to hurt someone or show our anger. Knowing and accepting that we have that capacity within us is an important lesson in life. Secondly, however, you should also know that there are ways to deal with that anger, that pain, that aggression which don’t lead to escalation that leads to war or fighting. While many leaders past and present have clearly not learned this or valued it, you should know that learning is at the core of peace – learning about each other so that we can empathise with how people feel; learning about history so that we can see what mistakes have been made in the past and how people have reacted in similar situations; learning about ourselves so that we can spot the signs of anger or even violence early enough to walk away; learning how to listen to others rather than just to say what we think.
So, as we start this second half of term, remember that in investing energy into your education, in and out of the classroom, you are hopefully on the path to making this world a more peaceful place. As you file past your teachers on your way out, see the handshake (literally or symbolically) as a sign of peace.