My sons are far better read in contemporary literature than I am, and if it were not for their frequent references to the power of the minimalist writing of Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses etc.) I would not even have noticed the release in Britain last Friday of the film version of his novel The Road, the winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Knowing me better than I had realised my sons pressed me to see the film, but warned me that I would find it strong stuff, and psychologically disturbing.
The Road is a post-apocalyptic story of the struggle of one man to help his young son to survive an unspecified catastrophe that had scourged the world into a burnt out cinder. Using all the arts of contemporary film making The Road is a harrowing account of ‘the end of days’ as father and son are equally at risk to bands of cannibals seeking to devour them, as they are to death from cold, earthquake or radiation. In such a grey, lifeless world of utter desolation the father teaches his son about self-survival, human empathy and the power of love so that the boy lives – at least beyond the end of the story.
Several times over the weekend, as Anne and I have made our way through the snow-covered fields and negotiated the ice-covered pavements, I found myself going back over that story, haunted by the sheer horror of what might happen should the tenuous threads that hold civilisation together, actually shatter. To my admiration for this demonstration of human love, expressed most poignantly when the father is dying, the boy is able to recognise in the genuine humanity of the little family which comes towards him on the beach, the possibility of his own salvation. Shocked as I was by the degradation of humanity that the film portrays it is the grandeur of human possibilities which remains strongest in my mind.
The Road took me out of my preoccupation with thinking about the politics of schooling, and the raising of children, and reminded me of what really matters in human relationships. As I looked again at the snow-covered fields sparkling in the late winter sunshine, I realised how few had been the number of children tobogganing on such perfect slopes on the previous days – days in which, to conform to requirements of health and safety regulations, their schools had been closed in case a child might slip, and its parents sue the school for negligence.
Had my own parents, I wondered, been negligent years ago in letting me and my friends play to our hearts’ content in the parks, and batter each other with well-earned snowballs, or did they know – or intuit – that this was a vital part of my learning how to look after myself?
If the worst were to happen (as the current President of the Royal Society has predicted might happen with a 50% probability within a century) are we giving children the physical, emotional and, in particular, the moral strength to deal with the unpredictable? I am fearful that it is not, for it seems that we are bringing up children – and their parents – to believe that they can live in an ever more uncertain world, not by common sense, but by conforming minutely to endless red tape.
This morning I received an email from a colleague headteacher that exactly reflected on my own thoughts and tied them most specifically to schools in January 2010. It went as follows:
I have jotted down a few thoughts on the recent nonsense over the snow! I thought you might enjoy them. There is an irony to the anger that has been expressed in the media regarding the recent “snow closures” of schools.
For the past decade at least, and with massive acceleration recently, the cumulative impact of interventionist and reactive, populist, political interference in education has led to a world where we are statutorily timid. Indeed we are required to attempt to bureaucratically eliminate the risk from life.
Which is really odd, because learning surely is a risky activity by definition simply because learning is about thinking, not just conforming (as totalitarian regimes have sought to persuade their people). The current political rhetoric is all about learning, but in reality it’s all about litigation – OfSTED, safeguarding, health and safety, and everything that serves to utterly choke learning.
Schools now have to assess everything. They are required to have policies and plans and schemes that predict and offset every possible eventuality so as to make sure that everyone is safe and secure and wrapped up, and away from all the hazards that actually have always existed…. and which always will exist. Anyone can see that the evil that caused the high profile cases which, in turn, provoked the CRB’s (Criminal Records Bureau) and the security fencing and so on, will always exist. As they are bound to do, given the contrary nature of human behaviour and natural disasters. They will never be checked by silly decorative (and expensive) paperwork.
The angry press thundered on about the good old days when we all trudged through the snow whatever. That was fine. But did they also mention the good old days when we lived with the village pervert? When husbands hit their wives as a matter of course after a great session on a Friday night? When bullying was institutionally essential to the existence of empire, never mind encouraged? Did they talk of the days when children just played in the road and came home at dark and talked to strangers (or got a clip for being rude)? No, of course not.
This is the problem. We have a culture that does not know what it wants. It wants freedom and security, learning and the elimination of risk, true grit and bureaucratic timidity, risk assessments and freedom, litigation and liberty. It just can’t be done!
Just as every one of our ancestors were on a journey, so too were their Roads unpredictable. Likewise today our individual Roads are made by walking. If anyone doesn’t know how to walk – mixing my metaphors I’m afraid – they won’t know how to dig themselves out of a snowdrift, recharge their souls by wondering at the beauty of a starlit night, or know what to do when everything around them collapses into chaos.