Headmaster's Newsletter Friday 18th september 2020
As much as I enjoy reading dispatches from the DfE, this summer I attempted to read some writers whose prose sings a little more. One such author was Natalia Ginzburg, the twentieth-century Sicilian author. Even if I was planning on having a few days away from the world of education, my gaze inevitably drifted towards Ginzburg’s essay on education, which she titled ‘The Little Virtues’. This is a somewhat misleading heading as Ginzburg actually wants us to focus on the great virtues when it comes to education, virtues she summarised as: generosity, an indifference to money, courage, frankness, love of truth, love for one’s neighbour, self-denial, and ‘not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know’. As a significant part of my existence is dedicated to decent education and preparing our boys for happy and successful (however defined) futures, I am always keen to read the guidance of wise authors like Ginzburg. I am not suggesting that she was right in everything she wrote, and some of her points make me ponder rather than nod vigorously in agreement. But there are certainly some ideas worth sharing towards the beginning of this academic year.
A significant proportion of Ginzburg’s essay is devoted to the issue of money and how to bring up children with a healthy attitude towards it. Ginzburg is not a supporter of using cash for children’s rewards, as it mixes money (‘an ignoble thing’) with learning, which is ‘admirable and worthy’. Money is not, for Ginzburg, the ‘crowning reward for work’. In addition, by encouraging children to save money in money boxes, week after week, month after month, Ginzburg argues that children develop too serious a relationship with money. Once that cash has gone on some longed-for item, she argues that children experience a sense of loneliness and end up preferring money to things. A proper relationship with money, for Ginzburg, involves ‘being moderate with oneself and generous with others’, creating an indifference to money rather than worry and regret about it. If children were to spend small amounts of money more frequently, they would consider it to be what it truly is – ‘silly’ – returning instead to the more important concerns of childhood.
What were those concerns? Well, naturally, a lot of them relate to schools and schooling. Ginzburg is all for parents letting children face their own difficulties in school. She is of the view that life is full of misunderstandings, misinterpretations and injustices, so it is good practice for children to face them from a young age and process them rationally as a preparation for that later life. (I should add here that we try to minimise such things here at NCS, but assuming we are all human, they are sometimes going to happen – it is how we react to and remedy them that matters.) Ginzburg argues that if parents fight their children’s battles, it just makes those children bored and distanced from parents who are themselves posing as ‘victims’. The best reaction, for Ginzburg, is for children to avoid committing injustices themselves, then of course they are minimised in the community as a whole. Parents are there, instead, to console their children when things go wrong, to give them courage to get back up, but also to keep their offspring humble when they do achieve success. Ginzburg implicitly lands on that bedrock of the educational process: the partnership between home and school, when there are appropriate expectations between the two. School is, she argued, ‘a display of offered tools, from which it is perhaps possible to choose one which will be useful tomorrow’.