11 Sep 2020

Alex Hems, Head's Blog 11 September

Alex Hems‘You can’t say that…’ Why schools must teach children to disagree.

This time last year we were making preparations for the first ever St George’s Model United Nations Conference, held at the start of October 2019, which was attended by over 200 young people from Scotland and England. Sadly current circumstances take such events off the agenda for a while, but I am delighted that our MUN club at school is up and running, and that Debating Society is available through MS Teams, allowing girls to work together, and continue the vital work of learning, not only to put their own point of view in an articulate fashion, but also crucially, to listen attentively to one another, to construct a response and to be able to disagree passionately, but with courtesy.

I feel strongly that one of the responsibilities that we have at school is to help young people process and articulate their responses to ideas and views that they find challenging. By that I mean that they should learn to listen, evaluate, and if necessary express their disagreement in a thoughtful and articulate fashion. That means being prepared to give consideration to ideas that make us uncomfortable, and from which we may instinctively recoil. Dangerous and destructive ideas need to be exposed for what they are, through debate and careful, honest analysis; the response “you can’t say that” simply is not good enough. I would prefer, “Tell me why you think that”, “Why do you say that?’‘ or “You should think about how that might make someone else feel.” And yet, it seems that on social media at least, “you can’t say that” has become the default response, accompanied often by appalling abuse. Of course there are some behaviours and strands of thought that must be considered abhorrent, but I believe that we ignore them at our peril, and it is so important to understand where they come from. History teaches us, after all, that many belief systems that we find appalling have nonetheless proved dangerously popular. The ability to recognise complexity and to accept nuance and inconsistency as part of the human character are also important steps along the way to maturing to adulthood. Oscar Wilde famously said, ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’, and, as so often beneath the surface of his polished wit and cynicism, there is great depth of comprehension of what it means to be human. If we seek to reduce life and especially history to what it is acceptable and not acceptable to say, again we shy away from truth, and from an honest exploration of cause and motive.

Over the course of the summer break I spent a great deal of time, as I am sure many of you did, trying to process some of the events of the past few months. My natural recourse, when trying to make sense of things, is reading. This summer’s list includes Matthew Syed’s fascinating and informative Rebel Ideas, Bernadine Evaristo’s phizzing and magnificent Girl, Woman, Other and a work of biography, Forged in Crisis by Nancy Koehn, which explores the lives of four great leaders in their fields. Matthew Syed’s book includes an excellent chapter on echo chambers, which resonated powerfully with me as I grappled with my growing horror at the development of so-called ‘cancel-culture’. At St George’s we pride ourselves in cultivating ‘women of independent mind’. Indeed, our student publication Independent Women, does an excellent job of showcasing exactly that spirit. I think there is a challenge for us all today, accustomed as we are to receiving our news and current affairs via social media platforms such as Twitter, to ensure that we are actually encountering a diverse range of opinions. I know that if I read a quality newspaper, I may well read opinion pieces by journalists with widely differing outlooks, but social media will tend to feed us more of the same of what we have already read, serving to affirm rather than challenge entrenched opinions. Beguiling and reassuring though that is, we owe it to young people to create an environment in which they are required to confront controversial ideas sometimes, and to learn to live with ambiguity and uncertainty, while not losing sight of a clear sense of right and wrong. I hope that at St George’s our classrooms and rich co-curricular life provide safe settings for this kind of exploration which should lie at the heart of education in its broadest and finest sense.

Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh

If you would like to know more about what a St George’s education could mean for your daughter, please do sign up for our Virtual Open Days on 25th and 26th September.


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