Principal's Assembly 22nd June 2021

I really enjoyed researching the life of Marcelo Bielsa for last week’s assembly. As you know, I’m not a Leeds fan and so knew very little about the man aside from the part he has played in the team’s recent success. I did finish by saying that it could be considered a frivolous choice in comparison to great historic leaders who have changed the direction of history. Football really isn’t that important. I had also recorded the assembly before the game involving Christian Erikkson, another reminder of what really does matter.

Like all of us supporting the home nations in these European Championships, I’m hoping to experience what psychologists call the peak-end rule. This basically means that we tend to remember, and be most influenced by, the peak – the greatest highs - of an experience and the closing moments. As an England fan, that might be the peak of beating the Czech Republic tonight and then the final minutes of winning the tournament and lifting the cup on 11th July. Ever the optimist!

The theory also suggests that we tend to forget more easily the more difficult or painful moments of an experience. In other words, finish on a high and it makes everything that went before it feel better. That will certainly apply to the process of preparing for and taking your GCSEs and A Levels.

It might also apply to the way that we look back on the achievements of great leaders. Winston Churchill may be the classic example: his reputation as a great Briton was cemented by VE Day in 1945, eclipsing some of the more controversial parts of his record. Your history and philosophy books will tell you that Thomas Jefferson was one of the great early thinkers and writers on freedoms and rights, but deemphasise the fact that he owned slaves.

On the other hand, we may now have entered a phase of what has become known as presentism. This idea suggests that historical figures should be judged by the values of today and helps to explain the recent controversies over statues of figures like slave trader Edward Colston and colonialist Cecil Rhodes. I understand the theory: some values, including anti-slavery and anti-racism, should be universal, but the fact remains that they were accepted in the context of history.

Schools have become involved in this “woke” controversy. I told you, for example, the story of the Eton College teacher who had been dismissed following a lecture on “current radical feminist orthodoxy”. Closer to home, a Headteacher near Hull was on the receiving end of one of Piers Morgan’s rants after renaming the Houses in his school. Out went the likes of Raleigh, Drake and Nelson and in came Thunberg, Rashford and Malala. This was prompted by a former pupil who wrote to the Head showing concern about those historic figures’ links to slavery and colonialism.

All I can suggest is that you approach your historical studies with an open mind, willingness to reach a balanced opinion and commitment of the time needed for in-depth study. Part of the problem, I think, with social media is that responses to important and complex questions are often limited to the 280 characters of Twitter, leaving little room for nuance. This isn’t always a zero sum game of right or wrong; history, and the humans involved in it, are complicated.

One tutor group suggested Robert Baden-Powell as an example of a great leader. I was really impressed by the originality of the suggestion. On the face of it, it is a great shout. Born in 1857, Lord Baden-Powell is most well-known for starting the Cub-Scout movement. Having retired from the army in 1910, he devoted his life to the scout organisation and I know that many of you will have benefitted from the skills gained by being a cub-scout or girl guide. Perhaps more significantly, communities benefit from the work of the children and volunteers involved.

Less well-known until recently, however, are Baden-Powell’s views on race and homosexuality, and his alleged admiration of Hitler. A statue of Baden-Powell in Poole, Dorset, is currently boarded up for its own protection.

So, Baden-Powell founded a wonderful organisation but held flawed views in other areas. Is it right to celebrate the achievements of the man? I think that is something you can debate now in your tutor groups.

I want to end by quoting Bear Grylls, currently head of the Scout movement, when asked about the statue:

"As Scouts, we most certainly do not celebrate Baden-Powell for his failings. We see them and we acknowledge them. ... But we also recognise that Baden-Powell is part of our history, and history is nothing if we do not learn from it. ... it's right that we take time to listen, to educate ourselves, and reflect on our movement’s history. We need the humility to recognise there are times when the views and actions from our Scouting’s past do not always match the values we live by today. We must learn, adapt, and improve. ... Baden-Powell may have taken the first step in creating Scouting, but the journey continues today without him. We know where we came from but we are not going back.”

What do you think?

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