Perspective on examinations

At a time when Year 11 and 13 students start worrying seriously about exams, here are three doses of perspective to help them remember what really matters.  This piece was originally delivered as a school chapel talk.

Finding a different perspective just means finding a different point of view. Looking at the same thing from a different angle. Sometimes it helps you feel better.

A lot of you are going through the trauma of mock examinations at the moment. Others are worrying ahead to exams next year. All of you will face them at some point soon.

There’s no getting around it: exams are frightening. Your grades could choose whether you get the jobs you want, your university place or your college place. They will stay on your CV forever.

I took major exams every year for nearly a decade. I know how you feel. Right now, all that worry about how your grades might affect your future is all you can think about as you try to cram your brain with last-minute, life-saving facts.

If this is you, then what you need is a better perspective. Here are three that might soothe your worries.

1. Education is really about life, not exams.

One kind of perspective is to remember the greater scheme of education. The reason you are learning. So often we teachers imply that the main point of learning is to get a good exam grade. A good examination grade will prove that you know certain things, and perhaps help persuade someone to give you a job or a place at college or university.

But the value of learning is much bigger than that. It is meant to open up the world for you. Some things in the world you can enjoy easily, like television and social media. Other things are harder to access, because you need background knowledge before you can appreciate them. So a good education reveals more of the world’s joys to you – if you want them. You can recognise the history all around you. You can find pleasure in the beauty of mathematics. Be moved by the intricacies of nature. Find the profound music that will lift you up. Understand the most deeply moving poetry. Decide whether God exists, and how to live your life. If you focus just on the exam grade, then you have missed the point of learning!

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“O cuckoo, shall I call thee bird?”

To illustrate how a strict focus on exams can stop you enjoying the newly-revealed world, let me share a humorous dialogue allegedly penned by A.E. Housman. It shows two academics strolling through the countryside. The first academic bursts forth with poetic joy: “O cuckoo, shall I call thee bird, or but a wandering voice?” The second academic completely ruins the moment by interrupting his joy with an exam-style question: “State the alternative preferred, with reasons for your choice.” So exams are important, but they can make you forget the point of learning. Don’t forget to seek that joy. Sing an ode to the cuckoo. Because the things you learn here can change your life, if you want them to.

 

2. Even the greatest suffer from fear and doubt.

When I’m facing challenges in life, I love to read the autobiographies of people who seem to have succeeded. Not so I can copy them, but because it usually turns out that they were a bundle of nerves just like I am. For example, you probably know Tony Blair. That former Labour Prime Minister who was famous for speaking and debating so confidently that he easily won three general elections in a row. Under the surface everything was not so easy. In his autobiography he admits that taking questions in the House of Commons  filled him with fear. He prayed to God, superstitiously wore the same pair of shoes every time, and couldn’t eat or sleep beforehand. To everyone else, he looked confident and assured. But inside he was scared. He writes, “Even today, wherever I am in the world, I feel a cold chill at 11.57am on Wednesdays [just before PMQs would have been], a sort of prickle on the back of the neck, a thump of the heart.”

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Winston Churchill, by Sir William Orpen (1916). Churchill said the painting ”revealed his soul during one of his darkest hours.”

Ask anyone for a list of British heroes, and Winston Churchill will surely come near the top. A man so great that he now adorns our £5 notes. But in his autobiographies, Churchill admits that he was rejected from Sandhurst twice. He couldn’t pass the exams until his third attempt. Later on, the First World War was disastrous for him. As a member of the government, Churchill had the idea of winning the war sooner by invading modern-day Turkey. This was the Gallipoli campaign, and it was a complete failure. 46,000 men went to their pointless deaths. Churchill cried to a friend, “I am finished!” and fled government to fight in the trenches as a normal infantry officer. The National Portrait Gallery has a great painting of Churchill at this time. Not the solid and determined man that we have come to know on our banknotes, but a thin, pale figure – full of doubt and shame. Later in life he became a national hero, leading our nation safely out of World War. But I like to look at that painting more than any of his more popular portraits, because it reminds me how even Winston Churchill had his own dark days too.

Marcus Aurelius was a great Roman Emperor – he defeated the Parthian Empire abroad and kept stability at home. He was the kind of figure who would usually be difficult to understand because of all the propaganda and legend that built up around their memory. But Emperor Marcus Aurelius left a personal diary behind. Something that he never expected anyone else to read. So he is completely honest about his worries. He laments that “nowhere in his wanderings has he found the good life. …Not in wealth, not in glory, not in indulgence: nowhere.” He has to work hard to stop himself falling into fear and despair. To get through life, he has to remind himself of a bigger perspective. He says, “Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” … “Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of.” One of Rome’s greatest emperors had to remind himself that in the long run he is nothing. That’s the only way he could get through his day.

I have just told you about three people who I happened to know about. But there are thousands more for you to find. The library is a good starting point. Just remember: even our greatest heroes suffered from fear and doubt. They are just like you – not magic, not heroic, just normal. You can do it too.

 

3. There might be a greater perspective than any of us can imagine.

If God exists, then you are not wandering fearfully alone in the darkness.

If God exists, then we are sitting in the presence of an all-powerful, all-loving being who has a plan for your life.

If God exists, then perhaps this life, this world, is not all there is. In fact, it might only be the minor prelude to much greater existence.

That would change everything. Getting right with God becomes more important than earning money, power, fame, love – even getting great exam results.

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The passage so beautifully read earlier becomes shows us the Christian perspective of hope.  We might be “hard pressed on all sides,” but these “light and momentary troubles” we experience here on earth “are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” So we should not fix our eyes on our earthly troubles, even though they might seem huge right now. Instead, fix your eyes on what is unseen: God. God is your eternity. Everything else will fall away and stop mattering.

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Don’t let any of these perspectives stop you from working hard. You owe it to yourselves, your teachers, your school and your family to do the best that you can. To gain some tangible evidence of all your hard work in recent years. But do use these perspectives to reduce your stress. When it all seems unbearable, and like the world might end for you, remember the bigger picture. And if you believe, remember the biggest picture of all.

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Tradition

“Social traditions, Burke pointed out, are forms of knowledge. They contain the residues of many trials and errors, and the inherited solutions to problems that we all encounter… Destroy them heedlessly and you remove the guarantee offered by one generation to the next… In discussing tradition, we are not discussing arbitrary rules and conventions. We are discussing answers that have been discovered to enduring questions.”(Roger Scruton, ‘Conservatism’)

Photos:

1. Sanctuary of the Public Lares, Pompeii (1st century)

2. Banqueting House, London (17th century)

The Leonard Bast generation

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The BBC’s adaptation of Howards End, starting at 9pm tonight, is sure to be more than a niche period drama. For this novel speaks to us now just as pointedly as it spoke to England in 1910.  It was written for a nation where the opportunities of global expansion, business and material growth seemed to dominate – and for a society too busy to value anything else.  Sound familiar?

Male office worker eating lunch at computer

Office worker eating lunch at computer — Image by © David Burton/Corbis

If so, then pay close attention as E.M. Forster’s novel unfolds on the small screen.  It shows a cultural void that was opening then, and is even wider now.  For in a society that allows itself to value nothing more than commercialism, and interprets success in that light, human existence becomes grey and empty of what really matters for human flourishing.  And it happens without us noticing.  The cultured character Margaret Schlegel complains how easy it is to get sucked into the mindset: “I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin.”  Margaret sees the danger and can avoid it, because her eyes are open to greater things.  She was lucky to receive through her education “a heritage that may expand gradually,” helping transcend the world’s utilitarian hurry.

Others are not so lucky, and in one particular character we should see a timely warning.  Leonard Bast is a tragedy of frustration. He senses that there must be more to life than work.  Yet, unversed in culture and ideas, he cannot put this sense into words. He desperately turns too late to self-education, but only fills his brain ‘with the husks of books’, unable to ‘go to the real thing’.  He continues a dull life, unfulfilled in spirit and ultimately rejected by a society that values utilitarian means and material outcomes.

Leonard could have been saved from a dreary existence – if only he had been educated earlier and deeper in what matters. Too late in life, he finally seeks culture and ideas to “push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe,” but “with an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women who had been reading steadily from childhood?  His brain might be full of names, he might even have heard of Monet and Debussy; the trouble was that he could not string them together into a sentence, he could not make them ‘tell’.” It is not enough for education to help us achieve outward, material comfort. It must improve the inner life too.

Thus E.M. Forster reminds us of the importance of an education full of meaningful art, moving literature, inspirational history, enlightening science.  Through which “by collisions of this trivial sort the heavens may be shaken open.” This is the kind of schooling promoted by liberal educator Matthew Arnold.  He wrote in Culture and Anarchy that students should know “on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” With this basic literacy of ideas and culture, they are free to flourish in personal as well as economic life.  They can avoid the fate that Forster warns us about: that of the businessman who is “eternally tired.  He has worked very hard all his life, and noticed nothing.” Or worse, the grey existence of Leonard Bast, “one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit.” And while we are at it: the fact that all this can be explored through the medium of a century-old novel surely proves the mind-expanding potential of a liberal education.

We have already seen that Leonard did not receive any of this.  Worse, today’s youngsters are not getting it either.  Our state education system seems completely caught up in the utilitarian hurry that Forster described in Edwardian England, and that we see all around us in the computerised information age.  It is at all levels implicitly directed towards material ends.  Parents, Ofsted and government understandably expect students to reach their academic potential as a preparation for gainful employment.  This expectation is enforced by the influence of league tables on parental choice, and the power of Ofsted to damage a school’s reputation or even to put it in special measures. School leaders therefore cannot afford to ignore what is measured: examination data.  And so they gear the entire school machine to ensure this data shows progress. In many schools, teachers’ jobs depend on the performance of their students at GCSE and A-Level.  Whatever their personal ambitions to enhance general flourishing, teachers find themselves forced by circumstance to point all their time and effort at exam proficiency.  And the eventual goal of all this?  The reductive, utilitarian push towards employment is inescapable.

The difference between these two approaches is subtle. A utilitarian history lesson on the Peasants’ Revolt might still include a dramatic narrative to pick out the most exciting moments. Maybe pupils will get to enjoy John Ball’s revolutionary speech in full, asking “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” But they will too quickly have to turn to analysing the mark scheme at every point, practising the skills of source analysis, or re-writing parts of their last essay in green pen to prove to a senior observer that examinable progress has been made. Adding more or wider knowledge is not valued in itself as precious and life enhancing – only insofar as it will gain more marks.  In many schools it will not be valued very highly at all: in the most ‘progressive’ classrooms, ‘teacher talk’ is frowned upon. Students are encouraged to discover information (inevitably less effectively) for themselves, or have it imparted in roundabout ways designed to develop generalised skills. Young people might be better prepared for the workplace this way, but it comes at the cost of a deeper and more coherent grasp of the web of humanity.

Not to say that examination grades are unimportant. But they should not be the goal. We can see a good analogy of this in the way Leonard Bast tries desperately to make meaningful conversation, but succeeds only in naming books and authors. He knows the minimum to get by, but has such a generally impoverished general understanding that he cannot grapple with the writers’ ideas.  “No disrespect to these great names.  The fault is ours, not theirs.  They mean us to use them for signposts, and are not to blame if, in our weakness, we mistake the signpost for the destination.”  In our weakness, we have fetishised measurable exam outcomes so much that grades are now the destination. In fact, they would be better seen as signposts, to signal a certain standard on the route to a full education in the things that matter.

In their hurry to signal exam competence to future employers, today’s students “collect facts… but which of them will rekindle the light within?”  They are at best only vaguely aware of ‘the best which has been thought and said’: the great human conversation through the ages. They are likely to finish their schooling ready for employment, but grasping unaided for deeper personal fulfilment. For as long as we continue to treat exam grades and employment as the primary goal of education, we risk creating a whole generation of Leonard Basts.

All the wisdom not on Google

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It is often suggested that we now have access to all the world’s knowledge through the internet.  This is said or implied so frequently that I find myself seeing Google not as a supplement to my once-favoured libraries, but as an alternative to them.  The information and wisdom that previously would have been found within books is now available at the click of a mouse.

A happy afternoon of serendipitous discoveries in the British Library reminded me why this view is wrong.  This huge institution receives a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom: about 184,000 each year.  The contents of these books largely do not exist on the internet.  A Google search will not reveal the full information they contain.  So if you think we can rely on finding everything we need online, then you will miss most of the conversations between author and reader that are happening every day.

The British Library, in London’s St. Pancras

You might argue that this does not matter, because the most important ideas will be brought out of those books and discussed elsewhere too: in newspapers, magazines, blogs, television and radio.  You could find evidence of all this on the internet, and therefore do not need to worry about missing the books themselves.  Surely this is enough for the lay person.

I disagree, because it is not just the current conversation that you would be missing.  The British Library’s total stock comprises more than 25 million books.  The further back in time a book was published, the less you are to find its contents on the web — even with the laudable efforts being made to digitise the most venerable of our ancient tomes.  These books, accessible in libraries but not via Google, let you see the world from long-forgotten perspectives.  They can lift you above the inward-looking concerns of the 21st century, and let you see our modern life again, as if from the outside.

This post is partly an excuse to share an example which I think neatly illustrates my point.  In today’s 180-character political arguments, we tend to regard patriotism as the hobby of jingoistic reactionaries who wish we could return to a fantasy past of red phone boxes, grammar schools and imperial measures.  But during my afternoon in the British Library I happened upon a speech that is more helpful.  It shows how we might channel patriotism and tradition to help us flourish in changing circumstances, without getting stuck in the ways of the past.  It is a view that we do not tend to hear in our daily peregrinations across digital and social media.  Nor is it a speech that you could have found online; at least I could not find it even by entering direct quotes into Google, or by searching with related terms or exact details.  Yet it is hugely relevant for us now, as we rethink how Britain should re-form itself as an independent nation after Brexit.

By typing the speech into this blog post, I am immortalising it for our internet age.  In future, a lucky browser could find these words.  But I also hope that this entry will inspire you to wonder what else might be found in those dusty old books beyond the internet.

Extract from a speech by Lord Rosebery to the Seaforth Highlanders, circa 1931*:

A great past is the inspiration of the present.  Memories are among man’s finest possessions.  A splendid achievement never dies.  It lives on in the memory of one generation after another, and it fructifies in the hearts of men, becoming the parent of other fine deeds.  

A boy goes to school and a man joins a regiment, and at once they are faced with the obligation to carry on the traditions.  To allow today to be unworthy of yesterday is shameful.  If their admiration is stirred by recalling what has been done, their ambition is also roused to be worthy to be counted among the giants of the past.  It is for them to hand along the record to the next comer unsullied, and maybe with added lustre.  

Tradition is the basis of patriotism.  Great Britain is no mere island on the west coast of Europe.  It is not only the place where we ourselves happen to live.  It was the birthplace of mighty heroes, great poets, splendid statesmen, who made England and the English famous in the world.  It is for us to maintain what our forefathers have won.  It is for us to be jealous for their and our country’s good name.

But traditions may be a hindrance as well as an inspiration.   It is the spirit that matters.  Rigid adherence to the letter means disaster.  Each generation must discover its own methods.  The lives of those who have gone before teach us that success depends on thoroughness, industry, enterprise, experiment.  

These all remain necessary.  But if we stand content with the out-of-date machinery of life, urging as a plea that it was ‘good enough for our fathers’, we are making failure certain and are prostituting their memory, because we are using tradition to cloak lack of courage, lack of initiative, lack of persistence!  When the next naval battle is fought, if it ever be fought, it will be splendid to recall the spirit of Nelson and Nelson’s men, but it would be absurd to fight it in Nelson’s ships.

* Quoted in Lewis C. Rudd, 1935: The Duke of York’s Royal Military School: Its History, Aims and Associations.  This Lord Rosebery was Harry Primrose, 6th Earl of Rosebery (lived 1882-1974) – son of Archibald Primrose, the 5th earl and Liberal Prime Minister from 1894-1895.  He served in WW1 as a Grenadier Guards officer, played as a professional cricketer, represented Edinburghshire as a Liberal MP, and served as Secretary of State for Scotland.

Silence

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For twenty seconds now, try doing absolutely nothing. Don’t move. Don’t speak. Don’t fiddle with your phone or with your keys. Absolutely nothing. Experience complete silence.

Difficult, isn’t it? If that’s the first time you have experienced silence in a while, then this piece is for you.

I first shared these words as a school chapel talk, where our reading was from 1 Kings 19.  That chapter illustrates the power of silence amid chaos. The story begins with Elijah standing alone on a bleak mountainside, awaiting God.

Think about the terror this implies. Nowadays we are more used to regarding Christianity as offering some kind of comfort. C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity reminds us otherwise:

“[God] is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again… Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger.”

Meeting God, when you really think about it, is a terrifying prospect. If Elijah was expecting God to be terrifying, then what came next matched the description. Waiting for God, nature around him suddenly burst into chaos. He cowered to witness a hurricane, an earthquake and a firestorm. Rocks broke before his eyes, the very earth shook, and flames raged onwards.

And then nothing. After the fire came “a sound of sheer silence.” Elijah realised that powerful though God was, he could only be heard in the silence.

I think we can treat Elijah’s story as an allegory: one that applies to our lives today.

Sometimes we allow rage to drive us. Like the wind and the quake and the fire, we let our anger out and expect that whirlwind to change things. I’m sure you can think of such a situation in your own home or school life.

Those who believe in God find themselves railing against the injustice of the world too: why doesn’t God stop all the suffering? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that he feels the same. Indeed, that rage is a regular part of his prayers. He explained, “You see psalms where the psalmist cries out against God with an anger that we would never dream of in our churches. And it’s right, it’s the right way to talk to God in those moments.”

But then, just like Elijah found, after all the raging comes the silence where God is found. Justin Welby says, “When that happens, God is there…. In the moments when I’ve wanted to get away from God, like a child running away from a parent I find myself embraced in arms of love that are more powerful than I am.”

In modern life we certainly have the rage. But do we have enough of the silence that follows it? What can we learn from Christianity?

Christianity has a long history of seeking God in the silence. The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book Silence: A Christian History tells us of those who quietly looked inward before advancing into the world around them. Some early Christians perhaps went too far. For example, the hermits who retreated deep into the Saharan desert. Or the Syrian stylites, who actually lived their whole lives sitting alone on top of a tall pillar.

Some ancient non-Christians took silence to extremes too. The Athenian philosopher Diogenes the Cynic spent much of his time living a life of contemplation inside a barrel. His reputation impressed Alexander the Great, who was at that time king and leader of the world’s biggest empire. Alexander came to visit Diogenes, and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Imagine that. A military conqueror so great that we still remember him nearly two and a half thousand years later. Visiting one poor and humble philosopher. And do you know how Diogenes replied to this dream offer? “Yes,” he said. “There is one thing. You can get out of my sunlight.”

Even if some take the notion of silence too far, that just goes to emphasise its spiritual power. Silence is where spiritual growth happens. In the fourth century a Christian theologian Evagrius was caught sleeping with the wife of a senior official in Constantinople. He fled the city. This Evagrius certainly had a lot of turmoil to think about. He later wrote that silence helped him explore those troubling inner thoughts: first it gave him serenity, and then knowledge. In that silence, he was redirected back on to the right path. He is now remembered in history by the name ‘Evagrius the Solitary’.

I recently spent a year living in a theological college, where priests are trained to join the Church of England. For a few days in Advent, we ‘retreated’ – not away from each other, but into silence. It was silence together. We ate together, prayed together, and enjoyed each other’s company while sharing the life of contemplation. Silence need not be lonely. We all came out of the Advent retreat closer, humbler and more thoughtful about our beliefs and actions.

I think all of us can enjoy the benefits of silence. It challenges you like the stereotypical psychiatrist in his chair, patiently just listening while we reveal not just our thoughts but our thoughts about our thoughts. C.S. Lewis again, in his satirical Screwtape Letters warns of all those times we mistake our own motives: when what we told ourselves were good deeds, actually turn out on closer inspection to be self-serving. Only where we have the space and time to carefully study our thoughts can we possibly realise this. While the hectic world is spinning with all its rage and busyness, there is no time to look inwards at ourselves. But we need it if we are going to do the right thing.

Silence can be disturbing. Last year I taught in a school where an unusually high proportion of the students came from deprived backgrounds. Usually we teachers ask for periods of silence in the classroom, because it helps you think clearly without distraction. But in that school, I was advised not to risk silence, because the students were not used to it. Being left alone with their troubled thoughts for the first time might panic them.

It sounds unbelievable that those students had really never dwelt in silence. Bur we know that in modern life it is increasingly difficult to obtain it. There is always something to occupy our minds. Even when we think we have silence, say when we are alone in our rooms, or even out in the fresh air, still we feel the urge to check our phones and our social media – a kind of inner noise caused by our impatience.

You do not have to be a Christian, or even a believer in God to benefit from silence. Taking the time to judge our own inner motivations, and to think carefully helps us choose the right path whether God is there or not. Mindfulness, a kind of meditation, is increasingly popular in business and schools, and enthusiasts report benefits that continue long after the silence ends.

By the way, silence does not stop us seeking positive change in the world, or for ourselves. Elijah is spurred into action after his silent encounter with God. He takes God’s message back out into the world. But before he did that, he needed silence. Only once the raging terrors had stopped was he able to hear God speaking to him, to find out what was right.

So whatever you believe, silence is the place where we find answers, see our real selves and prepare for what needs to be done. And maybe it is the place where we meet God.

Bach’s passionate challenge

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Lots of us find Bach enchanting. His mathematically complex music seems to satisfy a dual need for order and feeling. So I booked a ticket to hear his St John Passion performed in the glorious Sheldonian Theatre last night, fully expecting to be moved.

I got something more. It was the first time that I have really paid close attention to the words. I heard that familiar story of Jesus’ trial and execution, but found that the soaring music amplified its meaning to send a shiver down the spine. A spiritual challenge, but a joy too.

If you have time today, then ignore all other distractions and join Bach to meditate on some of this:

“My soul, think how a heavenward-guiding flower springs from the thorns that pierce the Saviour’s head. Consider in anxious relief, in bitter joy, with a heart torn between grief and consolation, how his suffering is your most precious treasure.”

History is valuable. Don’t let students censor it.

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History. That shared memory, sustained by the written word and whispered back to life by its remnants all around us. Did you know, as you stand with your Friday pint of craft beer upon the pavements of Southwark, that William the Conqueror’s men were burning, raping and killing on that very spot nearly one thousand years ago? Or that another thousand years earlier, Roman settlers prayed and traded and loved on a crossroads where you now ponder your own week? Do you think about how the Elizabethans – not so different from us – enjoyed the darkly unsavoury life on this freer side of the Thames? These people lived in the past, but they are right beside you. What does the separation of time matter, when you share the same space with your ancestors?  If you are aware of history then you can enjoy the present even more.

Bomb damage to Bank tube station.

Bomb damage to Bank tube station on 11th January 1941, which killed 111 people. Here it is merged with the same spot today.

Yes, I am being romantic. But not too romantic. This aesthetic experience of the past is a real phenomenon. In his book The Aesthetic Brain, neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee describes how “bringing knowledge to bear on whatever we are looking at has a huge impact on our experience of seeing.”  Specifically, we find the experience more rewarding:

“Late visual processing recognizes objects and the meanings and memories and associations triggered by these objects. Along the way from sensations to meaning, emotion and reward systems are activated.”

Antler comb, 10th-11th century. British Museum

Antler comb from the British Museum. 10th-11th Century.

History adds this meaning, and we love it. The British Museum attracts seven million visitors each year, yet it contains mostly everyday objects. We do not usually take much interest in combs, but the one pictured above is different. There is nothing visually exciting about it. Its aesthetic value lies in its provenance: it belonged to someone living in the 11th century. And so this comb sits proudly inside a glass case at the British Museum, to be viewed at our pleasure. We find it rewarding to see simple objects knowing they passed through the hands of our forebears.

Portrait of John Ruskin

Portrait of John Ruskin in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

Even things which are beautiful in themselves can gain added value from historical meaning. For example, look at the little portrait pictured above. It depicts Victorian art critic John Ruskin, and holds two levels of fascination. First, examine its surface features, and it is a beautiful painting. The artist, John Everett Millais, took care not just to represent Ruskin himself, but also to achieve absolute realism in his rendering of the rocks and water that make up his surroundings. The result is perhaps more pleasing than reality itself. This is not all, though. It gets better. The second level of fascination lies in the peculiar history of this portrait. The artist described painting it as “the most hateful task I have ever had to perform.” The reason? During the many hours spent finishing the fine details, the artist Millais had fallen in love with John Ruskin’s wife, Effie. Sitting in the same room as this man who had vocally and financially supported his struggling beginnings as an artist, Millais was left to ponder the dark betrayal he was about to inflict by destroying his marriage and taking Effie for himself. Everyone involved in the affair is long dead, but this portrait remains. It was there, its very brushstrokes moved by perfidious hands. We are left viewing the same portrait as before. But this time mere historical knowledge has enhanced our experience of it.

Being near the objects our predecessors touched is the closest we can get to meeting them in person. Places too. The Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy once described himself as a kind of ‘ghost-seer’. The same expression appears in his writing, to describe those who dwell in romantic connection with the past. Reading the way Hardy renders yesteryear into near-poetry, it is hard to resist becoming a ghost-seer oneself. He describes the experience of first seeing Oxford’s medieval architecture:

“The saints and prophets in the window-tracery, the paintings in the galleries, the statues, the busts, the gargoyles, the corbel-heads – these seemed to breathe his atmosphere. Like all new comers to a spot on which the past is deeply graven he heard that past announcing itself with an emphasis altogether unsuspected by, and even incredible to, the habitual residents.”

History is everywhere. As Peter Ackroyd writes in his new history, “There is scarcely one spot in England that does not contain memorials of an ancient past.”  But knowledge is the thing. We need knowledge to experience its allure. The late historian Arthur Marwick underlines the importance of history by appealing to the emptiness of life without it:

Without knowledge of the past we would be without identity, we would be lost on an endless sea of time. The simplest answer to the question, ‘What is the use of history?’ is: “Try to imagine what it would be like to live in a society where there was absolutely no knowledge of the past.’ The mind boggles.”

None of us has a comprehensive historical knowledge which would enrich our experience of every place we visit. That is why we have statues, memorials and blue plaques. They gift us that knowledge, adding meaning and enhancement to otherwise plain spaces. We are enriched.

Must Rhodes fall?

A disturbing student movement puts this enrichment at risk. With a 2,500-signature petition, the group Rhodes Must Fall seeks to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. They claim that its presence is “an open glorification of the racist and bloody project of British colonialism… As long as the statue remains, Oriel College and Oxford University continue to tacitly identify with Rhodes’s values, and to maintain a toxic culture of domination and oppression.”  The principle is that we should censor these representations of history to prove we have moved on from it.

Oriel College Oxford High Street facade

The statue (top) which ‘openly glorifies’ a ‘racist and bloody project’.

It would be a dangerous precedent. History is full of imperfect characters who deserve destruction under the same principle. We commemorate them with statues, memorials and plaques all over the country. But for the most part these statues were erected by admirers long dead. So their survival does not imply continued endorsement of their actions or philosophies. Instead, they serve a different purpose now. Even though those men and women who were respected in their own time might look bigoted to modern eyes, knowledge of them adds depth and texture to our experience of the history-infused world around us.

We have lived through a period of censorship not dissimilar to the kind proposed by Rhodes Must Fall. During the 16th Century Reformation, churches were sacked to enforce conformity with the new theology. Gloriously coloured windows smashed, sublime artwork burned, and precious tombs vandalised. We mourn that destruction now. Just when we could be enjoying a profound link with the beauty of our ancient past, we find that long-forgotten politics has snatched it from us.

Much better to live with our history. Today’s peaceful and prosperous existence is the unlikely result of a long, juddering journey. Representations of our imperfect past remind us of that, and enhance our present. Leave Rhodes standing. And everyone else for that matter.

The inequality of Facebook?

Here’s a dilemma. Why do we worry about economic inequality? Some argue that it is psychologically harmful to have a large gap between the richest and the poorest. It causes status anxiety. This kind of anxiety leads to social problems too. (See the book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone for this argument.) So what matters is the size of the gap, not just whether the poorest have their basic needs met.

Does this gap have to exist in reality for it to be harmful? What if it is only perceived? If we think that other people have a higher status than we do, then we become anxious about it. We might turn out to be wrong, but at that point it is too late to avoid the anxiety we felt earlier.

Look at your Facebook news feed. All those photographs of expensive dinners. The weddings, engagements and babies. Parties and perfect-looking friendships. Facebook presents a polished version of our friends’ lives. The reality is probably more up and down, but it is mostly the ups that are posted on Facebook.

We therefore perceive a wider inequality. Unequal because our Facebook friends seem happier, more successful, less troubled than we are. It is irrelevant that they are not the same in reality. It does not matter if in secret they live lives more like our own. We feel status anxiety nonetheless.

Below I link to a study that suggests this effect is real. People are happier without Facebook, and it seems to be because they stop comparing their own lives with the synthetically polished lives of their friends. So should we start worrying about social media inequality alongside economic inequality? If not, then to be consistent do we need to drop the ‘status anxiety’ argument as a good reason for fighting economic inequality?

The study: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/health/mental-health/article4610644.ece

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A ticking clock that puts our short lives in perspective

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This clock is 300 years old. It ticked as the French Revolution tore its bloody way through Paris. It ticked as the first steam train emerged from a Welsh valley. It was ticking still as the telegrams started arriving from the Western Front. It ticked while each of its owners toiled about his daily worries, unaware that none of them would matter three centuries later.

It ticks now for you – briefly. It will tick for others soon.

Tories: how can we be so uncaring?

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The general election revealed the worst side of the British people. A quarter of the electorate voted Tory. One thing is clear: whole swathes of the population lack basic empathy.

I know what you’re expecting me to say here. You are ready to read the kind of angry anti-Conservative rhetoric that seems to have taken over our social media feeds, our workplaces, and even our streets. Perhaps you expected me to write something like this:

“What upsets me more than anything is that millions of people actually voted Tory. This election was about morality… That is what’s heartbreaking – that millions of people didn’t care about the lives of society’s most marginalised.”

Or this:

“To those who are arguing that high levels of anger are ‘unnecessary’ and an ‘overreaction’: f**k you. Do not belittle people’s genuine despair and fear at the general election result… This is people publicly and vocally saying that they cannot and will not take 5 more years of this life-destroying s**t… We’re talking about a party that has literally driven people to suicide through their brutal cuts to public services. And you want people to calm down?… If that doesn’t make you angry, why the f**k not?”

Or maybe even this: #FucktheTories I am not going to write anything like that. Instead, here’s my contention: It’s not the Tories who are lacking empathy here. The ones lacking empathy are those who really really, truly truly, cannot understand why anybody would vote Conservative. Those who shout loudly that Tories want to hurt the poor, drive the disabled to an early death, and redistribute more wealth to the yacht-owning mega-rich.

Nobody is like that.

As the journalist Isabel Hardman expressed pithily, “If you genuinely can’t understand why someone voted for another party, the problem might be that you spend too much time talking to yourself.” Isabel is assistant editor of the Conservative-leaning Spectator magazine, so of course she would say that in the smug afterglow of election victory. But she is not the only one. Even Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore criticised the self-satisfied ‘echo chamber’ of social media: “If you can’t even have a conversation with someone who votes differently to you, how do you begin to imagine you might bring them back to your way of thinking?”

It is easy to understand why people vote Labour. For example, in the 2015 book ‘Why Vote Labour‘, Dan Jarvis MP wrote this about their conception of deep freedom: “A genuinely free society is achieved not only through absolute rights like freedom of speech and freedom of worship, but when everyone has the opportunity to lead the lives to which they aspire without being chained to forces that restrict peoples life chances like ill health, substandard education and poverty pay.” Labour governments tend to be more interventionary. They seek to obtain this kind of freedom through direct measures. These measures are easy to see and popular. Labour seems ‘nice’, irrespective of the less visible consequences further down the line.

It is harder to understand why people would vote Conservative. Just after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral I wrote about ‘Why your Conservative friends are so nasty’. I argued that they’re not nasty at all, but the difficulty in explaining their policies makes them seem that way. Conservative governments tend to avoid instant but clunky intervention.  The ‘niceness’ of their policies depends on their long-term effects. For example, “Thatcher’s government privatised industry where possible, so that the profit motive would act as a guarantor of efficiency; they limited the power of unions, believing that short-term resistance to reform in unprofitable industries led to longer-term decline; they sought to lower direct taxes even on the wealthy, arguing that the effect of individuals freely spending their money was more effective than government spending in creating economic growth and therefore jobs too.”

If you cannot understand the intentions behind Conservative policies, then they just seem like cold-hearted actions. Add to that some genuinely difficult short-term consequences, and no wonder it’s so easy to think the Tories are evil. And if you really believe that, it is easy to be whipped up into synthetic indignation. The kind of spewing rage that we saw on the streets of London this weekend.

A mature society cannot let its understanding remain that superficial. Dig deeper! Try to comprehend a politics that is not always instantly ‘nice’, but nonetheless well-intentioned. Get beyond the echo chamber of social media. Ask questions without presuming the answers.

In the meantime, thank goodness the real world is not as cold and inhuman as the anti-Tory protesters think it is.