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‘Saving Private Reputation’

| August 28, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Tim Middleton

[Miller weakly mutters something and Ryan leans close to hear] Private Ryan: “What, sir?” Captain Miller: “James… earn it.” – Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan was one of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning films.1 It is set three days after D-Day in Normandy in 1944 during World War Two. Eight American soldiers are ordered to go through hostile enemy territory to find and safely bring back one of their own, Private James Ryan, from active service. They are given the order when the US War Department in Washington DC learns that the mother of Private Ryan is about to receive news of the deaths of three other sons simultaneously, and they wish to spare her the possibility of a fourth loss.

During the course of the film, one is compelled to ask the same question that the eight soldiers ask: why are they doing this? For Captain Miller, it is his ticket home to his wife. Others are just carrying out more lousy orders. For the politicians giving the orders, it’s an opportunity to be seen in a good light. As it turns out, when at great cost and peril he is eventually found, Private Ryan does not want to come back with the other soldiers. His reputation as a patriot is at stake.

What informs our actions?

The film provides a useful mirror for educationists – in particular, heads of schools. Why do we do what we do? Are we leading so that we get out alive, safely, metaphorically speaking, from the attacks of our boards or parents? Do we simply execute instructions? Are we making decisions because it will impress the ‘important’ people in our community – be they the board, alumni, parents or generous benefactors? Or are we pushing pupils to do things they don’t want to do but which will cast us in a positive light? At the end of it all, how much are we actually driven by our school’s reputation? Should our schools’ epic stories be titled ‘Saving Private Reputation’?

On the surface, there is absolutely nothing wrong with protecting reputations. Some would argue that it is what school heads are meant to do. But at what cost?

‘Selfies’ and ‘schoolies’

This modern world is a world of ‘selfies’. In the past, we took photos of other people and put them in our private albums, but now we take photos of ourselves and place them on public forums, to enhance our reputation. Schools take ‘schoolies’, seizing every opportunity to record a picture of their achievements and posting them for all the world to see how great they are.

The problem, though, is that we can very easily use, abuse and ultimately lose pupils, all for the sake of reputation. We require extra sports practices as we are playing our rivals at the weekend and have to win – all so that we can say how good we are as a school. Nothing is said about the impact on individual pupils or how this will help sport develop in a country where many children are denied access to school sports.

I know of many an instance where pupils are challenged to ‘earn’ the reputation that the school has developed, all quite simply for the sake of the ‘unbeaten’ record. Why do schools go beyond their borders to ‘scout’ for pupils? How easily does the honourable word ‘tradition’ become the word ‘reputation’? Why do we react to losses as though our school had received a fatal injury?

Move from programme to principle

Instead of reputation, we should promote a depth of character, a uniqueness of character, a substance. All too often, though, we see our children as objects, statistics – not as characters or individuals. We should not need to speak of our achievements; they should speak for themselves.

Many established schools are so concerned with their reputations that they produce programmed youngsters as opposed to principled youngsters. We mandate that pupils wear their uniform with pride and dignity; that they show respect and manners and courtesy to visitors to the school; that they adhere to the disciplinary code. They are conditioned instead of being taught principles that will help them know how to react with honour to situations they may encounter in their future life. But as long as they behave well while they are at our school we are glad, because our school’s reputation is positive and in credit.

An allied offensive

Sadly, reputation invites a false perspective. For the sake of their reputations, schools often only focus on the few, the talented, the first team, the ‘eighty per centers’, the seniors. We focus on success, instead of significance (are sports trophies more important than service trophies?), and on ability, not on effort. We should focus on the long term, on progress, not success; on development, not just achievement; on support, not standing alone. We are just one school of many, each playing its part in educating the young people of this country.

The test of whether reputation counts more than character may be found in how we answer the following questions: Does it really matter which pupils come to us? Are not all children to be educated? Why do we have to have the ‘best’ pupils? Who are the ‘best’ children? Is the student who moves from 40% to 50% not just as important as those who can be relied upon to achieve distinctions?

We are in a war. It is our children’s future that is at stake. It is for the future of our country that we wage the war. If we are so concerned with rankings, let us say that it is General Character who gives the orders, not Private Reputation. We are not fighting against or competing with other schools, but co-operating with them in an allied offensive. American author Margaret Mitchell claimed: “With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.” Do we have enough courage?


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Category: Spring 2015

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