Headmaster's Newsletter Friday 28th May 2021
It was Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday on Monday, so I couldn’t let the occasion go without choosing one of his songs to be our artwork of the week. I didn’t go for the obvious like Blowin’ in the Wind or The Times They Are A Changin’, though it is good for the boys to be introduced to protest songs and poems, to learn about the social and cultural history of those who spoke out (and still speak out) against injustice in various forms. This was, indeed, the theme of the chaplain’s address in chapel this week, when she spoke about the heroism of Darnella Frazier in Minneapolis a year ago. Instead I chose My Back Pages, a song from around the same era of the aforementioned, but perhaps a little less well-known outside Dylan afficionados. Why did I choose it? Selfishly, because it is one of my favourite Dylan songs – it might even be my favourite, I’ll have to think a bit more about that. But also, a little less selfishly, because its chorus repeats one of Dylan’s simplest but, to my mind, most powerful and engaging lines: ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’.
Stepping into the minefield of Dylan textual exegesis, and mindful that I might get a barrage of emails telling me I’m wrong, I think Dylan’s point is that, as he ages, he becomes less sure of his opinions and his own self-righteousness (if that’s the right word). We are accustomed to thinking of people getting more entrenched in their views as they get older, and being more flexible and open-minded when they are younger. By inverting this, Dylan ascribes the self-certainty of age to his younger self, and the less assured flexibility of youth to his older persona. Which is not a bad way to think about how we approach thinking in a community where most people are very young indeed.
In my history lessons, we spend quite a lot of time thinking about historical figures who have earned poor reputations because of their inflexibility, their refusal to face political realities. Should we castigate them for such a lack of political awareness? Or should we laud them for sticking doggedly and dogmatically to their principles? It’s a difficult question to answer, and I suppose it depends on what we are asking them to be or to do: to operate with a mindset alien to their time, or to prioritise cynical survival over devoutly held beliefs. Perhaps the most important thing is that the boys are going through the process of such thinking; that they are not learning the Ladybird Book of something, that Person A is BAD and Person B is GOOD, Idea A is BAD and Idea B is GOOD. This is the kind of creative thought that puts ‘creativity’ in education: taking an idea and throwing it around in the air, catching it, playing with it, maybe finding out it is wrong in the end, but at least giving it a good test first. Inflexible, rigid, dogmatic, obsessive thought can hamper innovation and progress. But, equally, changing everything for the sake of change can lead to the kind of uncertainty and instability that can undermine learning. As ever, it is getting the balance right which is key, and keeping an open mind at just the right time about the right things. The boys tend to be better about it than us adults. Even when they are craving routine and structure to help them get a firm footing in life, they are still asking why we do what we do. So as we approach the end of this half term, and almost the end of another school year, it is worth pondering Dylan’s line from My Back Pages, and to make sure that we maintain the flexibility and questioning nature of youth, even as the clock ticks on towards what might be a tempting ossification of our views.
Have a great half term,
I am delighted to be able to add to our Year 8 awards list. Many congratulations to: Hugh (Academic Exhibition, MCS), Ethan (All-Rounder Award, MCS), Adam (Music Scholarship and Governors’ Presentation Award, MCS), Leo (Music Exhibition, MCS), Joseph (Music Scholarship and Governors’ Presentation Award, MCS), Tommy (Music Exhibition, St Edward’s), Paddy (Music Scholarship, Marlborough), Angus (Academic and Art Scholarships, D’Overbroeck’s), Theo (Music Exhibition, D’Overbroeck’s), Isaac (Academic Scholarship and Music Exhibition, Abingdon), and Lucas (Academic Scholarship, Abingdon). This brings our total this year to 15 awards from a year of 20 boys, which is a phenomenal achievement. Many thanks to all those in our special NCS community who have encouraged the boys along the way and encouraged their talents in such a healthy and productive way!