Aspirations and achievements

By John Gardener

In his book Civilisation, historian Roger Osborne points out that if civilisation is to be seen as including our history and our current state of being, but is also ‘an expression of our enduring values’, then there is a problem.


To whomever the word ‘our’ may refer, there are precious few peoples whose civilisations, despite all their admirable achievements, have not brought in their train destructive elements. Indeed,what does ‘civilised’ mean at all? Consider the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis.

Definitions are conditional and contextual

The clarification is relatively straightforward. Many words have different, though related, meanings. ‘Happiness’ is different things to different people in varying contexts. That applies to words such as ‘beauty’, ‘success’, ‘important’, even ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It applies also to ‘civilised’. Some regard ‘civilisation’ as the total historical  development and manifestation of a people’s way of life. Civilisation can also be seen as those values and ideals which are widely endorsed and deeply respected by a people but, again, are all too obviously not always lived out.

Such aspirational values are closely related to ideology, religion, philosophy and the like. They are sometimes called ‘culture’. But a culture (or a civilisation,
or a tradition) can acquire a sanctity and unimpeachability that may stunt or destroy open-mindedness, humility, critical thinking, tolerance, diversity and growth.
Achievements do not always correspond with aspirations in either quantity or quality. This is true of nations, and it is just as true of institutions, groups and
individuals. The danger is to allow pride in one’s achievements – past and current – to limit one’s aspirations, instead of continually turning one’s aspirations into
one’s future achievements.

Which brings us to schools.

Schools – the most civilised institution of all? One definition of education could be that it is the process of civilising the young – or anybody. Those defining education in these terms are almost certainly using the ‘aspirations’ version of civilisation above, which rests on the values and ideals considered ‘good’. The school is seen as an achievementstype artefact in itself, a civilised institution to be preserved and fought for. This is, of course, often done with considerable justification. And, at the same time, the school can be seen as an agent, interpreter and transmitter of civilised values, usually derived from beyond the school itself, often religious, philosophical
or even ideological at root. This can also be justified.

Aspirations and achievements need careful scrutiny

But both these concepts of the nature of a school intimate that a school is a finished product that should not change, with sets of values that should not be questioned. Some of the ways in which its ‘preservation’ is fought for, can be unworthy of what its civilised values should be, and are indeed proclaimed to be. Other schools with their different kinds of civilisations can be denigrated rather than appreciated for what they are; it is too easy to emulate the Romans in their contempt for ‘barbarians’, whose culture was different from theirs. As with civilisations, the quality of schools goes way beyond the material and technological resources and achievements such as
computers, exam results and sports scores – obvious, measurable and important though they may be. Human relationships, the characteristics that flow from integrity and ethos – it is in such realms that one seeks the true measures of quality and achievements. How realised and shared have ‘good’ aspirations become in the community, in each individual?
Dangers can be detected even in schools’ legitimate pride in their own achievements; in their methods of necessary ‘marketing’ that trumpet their attractions with hyperbolic fervour; in ‘win-at-any-cost’ competitiveness; in the snide edges that can creep into references to and comparisons with other schools; and in some, reluctance even to consider changes, with concomitant assessment and analysis.

Ideas to consider

Enough of the pitfalls. Here are some constructive ideas to consider.

Seek cooperation and colleagueship, both within and beyond your school. By all means be better than others – not for its own swollen-headed sake, but simply because you are trying to be the best that you can and should be. Cooperation and learning from one another will help both you and them to be that best.

• Keep re-examining traditions. There is nothing inherently wrong with tradition. But there is nothing inherently right either. Tradition can give confidence, draw on the wisdom of the past, save reinventing the wheel, help to define and unify a community. But tradition can also stifle innovation, induce smug satisfaction, blindfold to the need for constant adaptation to inevitable changes, close off avenues to improvement – and no-one, no school, can claim perfection as anything but an aspiration. Traditions have value only if they continue to reflect eternal values such as integrity,unselfishness, compassion, valour,  service to others, and the like. Traditions need a regular audit so that their longevity does not gain for them any undeserved authority.

• Subject to the same eternal values mentioned, acknowledge and embrace diversity. Diversity is more than a rainbow-nation spread of languages, races, religions, ceremonies and customs. Diversity as a value allows for a wide range of opinions, styles, personalities and tastes. Diversity understands and accepts others’ points of view, different senses of humour, levels of tolerance, andvarying preferences in many of the ways of doing the things that life consists of.
• Therefore let us encourage – by all means within the bounds of the law, common sense and respect for everyone – originality, spontaneity, experimentation, exploration, newness and risk-taking. Allow mavericks to contribute their otherness. Treasure the nerds and the boffins; they could win Nobel prizes. That
great music and cricket critic, Neville Cardus, said: “Most people have aesthetic sensibility when they are young, but education often ruins it…

One of the drawbacks – and curses – of modern education is that it hasbecome too technical, too standardised, too much geared toward this examination or that examination.” These are some of the ways to strengthen, widen, vary, share, monitor, stimulate, improve the transforming of our aspirations into achievements. No matter how good your school is – and many are indeed excellent and to be celebrated – we are all on a journey, long or short, fast or slow, from our present
realities, warts and all, to the ideal of our visions. Robert Browning urges us on: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Filed Under: Spring 2010 Edition

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