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What is the Purpose of School?

Published by St James Senior Boys' School on Wednesday 27th of April 2022

Most people think they know what a school is. Parents are legally obliged to get their children educated and so they pack them off to school. They usually send their offspring down the road with all the other local youth to a large building erected to house as many of them as possible. Here they are occupied for most of their childhood, often in the hope of receiving certificates which will enable them to prolong the process even further. Failing this, they will escape into the world of work where they hope to spend the rest of their lives trying to earn enough money to be able to stop working. With minor variations, this is the experience of us all.

There are certain educational objectives on which we can all agree. Our young people should be able to read and write; they should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide; they should know something about the way the physical universe operates and, perhaps, become aware that the English language is not the only language in the world.

Our founder, Leon MacLaren, was not a great fan of this process. He even suggested that he would happily have avoided receiving any of this so-called education, and, in his view, would have been better off. What he meant by this was that he left school with all the great questions unanswered, and even unasked. He felt disappointed and cheated. What on earth was the point of it? What a dreadful waste of all that youthful energy, enthusiasm and wonder.

He accepted that there were things we needed to know to live useful lives and that these things included a whole raft of information that just has to be learnt. The human race passes on to each generation the useful knowledge it has acquired in previous generations. This enables the species to evolve and to find new solutions to old problems. We inherit knowledge from the past so that we don’t have to waste our energy in re-thinking how to make a wheel or light a fire. It is far better to respect the wisdom of our ancestors than it is to believe that we can do without it. We want to progress as a civilization, and not to regress, to deepen and advance our understanding in the hope of reaching the summit of knowledge. We don’t want to have to clamber through the foothills all over again.

This he understood and accepted. What drove him to become the founder of St James was the realization that this was just the superficial part of education. It was necessary and should be done well, but it was not the main purpose. The real work of a teacher is to feed souls with true knowledge. It is to open minds, to inspire and to enthuse. Every individual is part of the universe and seeks to understand their relationship with the whole. Every subject on the curriculum serves this purpose. What lights up the enquiring mind is seeing how processes follow principles, how everything is governed by underlying laws, how examining complexity leads to an understanding of simplicity. The laws of Physics are universal – they apply everywhere throughout the universe without variation, and always have. What are these constant laws, how do they work and how can we see them working? What mystery! What magic! What fun! Language has rules and these must be learnt. If you cannot write a sentence your potential is restricted. But look at the myriad ways we can express our thoughts. Do our thoughts need language? When we articulate an idea, how do the words go to work? What happens when we choose different words? How do the masters of language use it? What effect does their work have on us? Is Maths a language? Is Maths discovered or was it invented? The greatest scientists can only describe their theories about the cosmos by using mathematics. Why is that? How is it possible that the universe can be described by an equation? In the same way, a universal principle emerges from a study of History: no event is inevitable. Causes may generally result in similar effects, but they are not bound to do so. Every individual, therefore, has the power to change the course of events, to make History. What is this power? How does it work? Can we see it in the pages of History? What enables an individual to influence the course of events and what prevents others from doing so?

In this system of education, questions are more important than answers. Are your sixth-formers leaving your school with enquiring minds, keen to pursue questions and make more discoveries, or are they bored, confused and mentally under-nourished? The key element here is, of course, the teacher. A teacher at St James is expected to be enthusiastic about their subject; they continue to study it and refresh their knowledge and share their inspiration. They are learning too. They share their wonder, their discoveries, their love of their chosen field.

This is the education that Leon MacLaren wished he had received and hoped to engender in St James. The school is still young – not quite fifty years old – and the work continues. The most rewarding aspect of being a teacher at St James is that the school is still evolving and the vision is still being realised. Every teacher can play their part in bringing it closer to fruition. We embedded Mindfulness into our school day long before it became fashionable. The next phase is to create a curriculum that others will emulate in the years to come. A real education is an education for life, not because it fills the mind with information, but because it opens it to the real world.

What is the Purpose of School? - Photo 1
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