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From the Headmaster Wednesday 6th January 2021

Dear Boys and Parents,

Welcome back to you all, after what I hope was a happy and restful Christmas break. As with most things in life at the moment, I am sure it was not the usual kind of Christmas that we are used to – but I hope that you had some quality time with your families nonetheless.

We have, of course, returned to a school where most of us are learning and teaching remotely. We would much rather that you were all on site, with our lives getting on as normal. That clearly isn’t possible at the moment – but I am determined that we all make the most of the opportunities that are still available to us. I mentioned at the start of the first lockdown that we can sometimes think that we are immune to historical events – that they are things that happen in history lessons, that happened to someone else in a different place, at another time. This is quite patently untrue, and the history we are witnessing is not at all the kind of history we would have chosen. But we have no choice over that. We will get through this, with our strong community spirit, support and care for one another, and patience for those odd moments when things are more irksome than we would necessarily have liked. Indeed, the Covid generation is learning to become the patient generation, at a time when we are more used to having what we want at our fingertips. This is all to keep one another safe, to reduce burdens on our healthcare systems, and to make sure that we can look forward to a time when this is over. While that horizon might seem far off at the moment, it is there, with the vaccine rollout and much better medical understanding of how Covid can be treated than we had a year ago.

When we started our remote learning again on Wednesday, it also happened to be Epiphany, the time of year when we think about the arrival of the three Magi, often referred to as the three ‘wise men’. At the start of this new term, I want us to think about a simple question: why were they called ‘wise’? They are often also referred to as men of ‘great learning’. But what I want to talk about today is the idea that ‘wisdom’ and ‘great learning’ are not necessarily the same thing. My apologies to parents who may be tired of the hackneyed debate about wisdom and knowledge, but many of the boys will be encountering it for the first time.

Now I am going to ask you a series of questions. You don’t need to say anything out loud, just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to yourself, in your head: 1) Are you good at football? 2) Are you good at chess? 3) Are you good at music? 4) Are you good at art? 5) Are you clever? 6) Are you wise?

Some of those things will be relatively easy to answer to ourselves – I won’t tell you what answers I would give, though I concede that the vast majority of you would easily beat me at chess. It is the final two questions I want to focus on because they can be the most difficult to answer. We might think that we are clever because we can remember lots of things, or we get good marks in our preps. Our answer to question 5 – are you clever? – might depend on the last set of marks we received in a particular subject. If I’ve just received a lower mark than I’m used to, my self-esteem might be a bit lower, and I might forget about all the other good marks and positive comments I’ve received. It is also a very difficult question to answer if, as is the case with most of us, we don’t perform the same across the whole curriculum. I’m much better at History than I am at Physics. Does that make me clever or not; I don’t know. I don’t much care.

If we have answered ‘yes’ to question 5 – are you clever? – does that necessarily make us wise? I would suggest not. I suspect that most of us have read a book or seen a film where the main character is facing a difficulty in their lives and departs on a journey to find ‘the answers’ from the wisdom of a wise woman or man. Those wise people tend to be located atop a mountain, usually somewhere in the East. The one that sticks in my mind is from Season 5 of The Simpsons, when Homer and Apu – who has just lost his job – travel to India to speak to the wise-man-head of the kwik-e-mart to ask for Apu’s job back. Homer is allowed to ask three questions of the ‘benevolent and enlightened’ man – one of which, clearly, is meant to be whether Apu can have his job back. Homer asks: ‘Are you really the head of the Kwik-E-Mart?’, ‘Really?’, ‘You?’. His three questions are up and the key question about Apu’s job doesn’t get asked.

In any of these books or films or TV shows, when our main character arrives at the wise person’s residence, I am yet to see a set of GCSE or A-Level or degree certificates hanging on the wall. It is as if we are being told – not so subliminally – that wisdom is indeed separate from the kind of learning we do for our preps or exams. Because wisdom is not necessarily about being good at learning dates, memorising the periodic table, passing your Latin vocab test, or solving quadratic equations. Wisdom is about good honest judgement, thinking sensibly, and applying our experience.

It is all very well saying that, but how do we exercise that good honest judgement? How do we think sensibly? And how do we apply our experience – especially if we are rather young and still gaining that experience? To answer such questions we can often look to the past, to the wisdom of those who have thought coolly and rationally, and quite often we can see some ideas and themes in common across different countries, cultures, and time periods.

One of our ‘people of the week’ in Michaelmas was the Chinese philosopher Confucius, whose meditations and advice from 1500 years ago are still quoted and used in various different settings today. You could argue that his ideas underpin how much of modern Chinese society works, but you will also hear him quoted in business seminars, self-help books and – yes – in school assemblies. Confucius said that ‘we may learn wisdom through reflection, imitation, and experience’.

Reflection involves us carefully and consciously standing back to examine how we are behaving, or have behaved – and thinking slowly and rationally about whether we have been correct or whether our behaviour could change for the better. As you know very well, one of our housepoint categories is ‘reviewing and improving’ because we want you to get into the habit of looking back over what you have done, and seeing where it can get better. This does not necessarily just apply to your written work – it is also about how you have treated other people, what you have contributed to our community and society, and how you could build on your excellent foundations to contribute even more, even more healthily.

Imitation involves us looking around at others and adopting or mimicking the desirable behaviours of others. We may very well tell you not to copy others in your school work, but we all learn how to become better, and wiser people, by finding those who are wise and adopting what they do. So if you see someone – perhaps a friend, family member, or other member of your community – who you think is behaving wisely, then do imitate that behaviour.

Experience naturally comes over time, and some of you will have had more time than others to develop that experience. Some of you will have had more time to experiment with what is right (and, very occasionally, what is wrong), and will have had time to amend your thinking and behaviour accordingly. No matter how young or old we are, we are always learning – but the key thing here is to indeed learn from our experiences, no matter our age, not to just repeat them unthinkingly. Quite often you will hear someone say that they have had twenty years of experience in something. But this only works if those twenty years have been spent listening, learning and changing for the better. If they have not, then the person with ‘twenty years of experience’, only actually has one year of experience, twenty times over.

So, to return to our three wise men, think of them making their way to Bethlehem with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. As they travelled, were they expressing their wisdom through their conversation about learned subjects, showing off their ‘great learning’ by demonstrating how clever they were? Or were they showing their wisdom by thinking reasonably, rationally, coolly – reflecting sensibly, imitating the wisdom of others, and applying their experience to be truly wise? And as we travel through our term, think about applying those qualities to your own lives and learning – yes, there’s a place for being clever, but as importantly there’s a place for being wise too.

Dr J

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