Two days, two talks

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Two days into the week and we have had two talks which inspire and help all of us understand better this era of upheaval we are living through.

Monday and it’s the Global Awareness lecture, given by Afghan refugee, Gulwali Passarlay. This remarkable young man tells the story of his flight from Afghanistan in 2007 when he was 12.  The endemic struggles for control, the power of education in this turbulence, the mentality of Pashtun young men, the violent death of his father  – all these bring alive to us the reality of his native land and the need for him to leave.  Most poignant is his account of his year long journey to the UK, the cruelties and rare kindnesses he encountered – those oranges and croissants given by the Italian police.

For his audience,  sitting in the safe oaken glow of our theatre in woody, safe Hampshire,  we are jolted and inspired as we hear of his response to not seeing his mother for 11 years and his swift learning of English, succeeding at school quickly here – 10 GCSEs from scratch in two years – and his subsequent education, achievements such as The Lightless Sky and further ambitions.

Tuesday Civics and it’s John Ridding, CEO of the Financial Times group, on news in the era of upheaval.  As his talk proceeds – 20 minutes of razor sharp observations supported by four slides and 40 minutes of questions – pennies are dropping amongst the student audience.  Yes, I really am listening to someone who leads one of the most influential, opinion shaping news groups in the world; and yes, this is pretty amazing.

John talks about the prevalence of fake news – it’s always been there (think Zinoviev) but now it is systematic and operating at scale. Quality news, which costs money, works through a collision of ideas – “there are… unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know” (D Rumsveldt, unlikely but true source).  On the contrary Facebook’s cunning algorithms give you more of what you like.  He’s had the debate with its boss.

Thinking of going into journalism?  Great opportunities but it’s more about news than it is about writing – increasingly stories area being told through means other than straight writing – here’s the FT’s popular Uber game which takes you into the life of one of their drivers.  If you have determination and initiative you will succeed in his vocation.  And, while we’re at it, cut the adjectives.

Perhaps above all what comes over is the sense of a man whom you would naturally want to follow and whom it is stimulating and enjoyable to be around.  He begins his talk with a reference to the David Watt book An Inquiring Eye.  This is his lode star, it seems.  He feels lucky being able to follow a career which allows him to do what he loves and credits this to a high degree because of the mindset and personality he developed here at Bedales.

We leave the SLT with more questions for John as I shepherd him across the Orchard.  Students return to their boarding houses, clutching Tuesday’s FT (read Janan Ganesh’s  ‘The real saboteurs of Brexit are its own amateur leaders‘ if nothing else).

 

The ripple effect of talks like these two amongst school communities is powerful.

Lucky ducks and big thinks

This headline, a Lancastrian exclamation, certainly doesn’t refer to actual ducks (who are incidentally happy with plenty of water to splash around in after mid-September downpours), neither does it refer to the nine piglets I saw sleeping cosily alongside their proud mum on my walk with my canine friends earlier this morning, nor does it refer to said two dogs, one of whom managed to steal a French loaf from my kitchen table last night and escape detection through subterfuge; but it refers to students who are encouraged to think for themselves and have the stimuli to do so. They are the lucky ducks.

At the start of the last two academic years we have had a potent symbol of this through the “Philosophy Of…” conference. The brainchild of Oscar B-W when he was in 6.1, it aims to explore the thinking that lies behind different human activities.
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This year’s conference, organised by Becky G and Patrick N gave us six speakers who ran across the spectrum: conversation/writing; religion, feminism/the media, journalism in war zones, campaigning for climate justice and literary biography.DSC_0013

Here is a sample of the big thinks we were encouraged to have, drawn from the three talks I attended: when we want to be kind do we want to do so because we have been brought up to be so or because we are intuiting kindness? Would you rather save Venice for posterity or save 3000 people who might die in an earthquake in another part of Italy? What makes for a really good conversation? (Olivia Fane). What pressure can we put on our governments to ensure that the climate change talks in Paris this December are successful? How can we de-carbonize our economies? (Farhana Yamin). What are the most dangerous countries on earth? Why do we know so little about the most dangerous (the Democratic Republic of Congo)? To what degree is our view of what is happening in the world dependent on whether journalists are able to report from that country? What drives the John Simpsons and (this speaker) Oggy Botchev to take the risks they take?

We will run this conference again next year – indeed next year’s student organisers have already stepped forward. Big thinks are good at any point, but especially before the more routine business of A Level courses start to predominate.