A letter on recent (January 2023) media coverage of alleged ‘wokery’ at Independent Schools
You seem to be worried for independent schools. That we are somehow losing the plot; being ‘taken over’ by a zeitgeist of ‘wokery’. It’s nice of you to be concerned. But you’re barking up the wrong tree.
You seem to be saying that if you talk about something, you become it. What an odd way to look at things!
If I study a paramecium, I don’t become unicellular.
If we listen to the views of others, we don’t become them. We may, however, become better, more complex beings for considering differing viewpoints. If we listen to new ideas, and are willing to challenge existing ones, we don’t become weaker. We become stronger; improved; maybe even changed.
You seem to claim that ‘private’ (i.e. independent) schools are dancing to a tune that is leading them away from their heartland. That we have lost sight of ‘traditional values’ and become mesmerised by a ‘woke agenda’ – whatever that may actually be.
I can see the media appeal of this narrative: ‘Trad schools lose their way in right-on maze’. But it rests on a shaky stack of misperceptions. Or to put it another way, it’s plain wrong.
It’s not a takeover. By anything. It’s a willed choice to address real issues. Because, as educators, we are serious about respectful dialogue; about opening minds.
It takes strength to tackle such complex and nuanced discussion. It takes guts and it takes honesty to open up to the possibility of being wrong.
It is important for all schools, of whatever type, to engage in meaningful discussion on matters of inclusion. Schools with a strong identity, a long history, are in a great position to explore complex issues connected with gender, race and sexual orientation. How else can we help the children in our care to navigate the world, to think critically and form their own opinions?
I do agree that education should not be pushed about by ideologies. Institutions should have the confidence to define and hold fast to their values. Labelling a school as overly ‘woke’ or motivated by guilt is wrong-headed. It suggests that a very slender or slanted understanding of what actually happens day to day in independent schools.
The word ‘woke’ seems to have two meanings. The first refers to a state of being aware and active in issues of racial and social justice. This is surely a positive meaning. The second is derogatory: the term ‘woke’ is used to suggest that views voiced are not backed up by sincere commitment and action. To be ‘woke’ – in this sense – is to pretend.
Language matters. We need to use words carefully. Especially as educators. We need to be confident and current in setting the right framework for frank and responsible discourse.
As so often is the case, we need to keep in touch with the centre of things; to keep everyone in the room. To be genuine involves appreciating that inclusion is complex; messy even. Inclusive and respectful communities need to chart a middle way between reactionary traditionalism and unchecked radicalism. Both are dangerous. One pulls up the drawbridge to new ideas; the other is like a runaway train.
‘Wokery’ in the second sense risks alienating and confusing with a superficial fixation on labels. Its buzzer seems to sound every time you make a false move, draining confidence to speak. Default traditionalism risks putting its fingers in its ears. And the key here, surely, is to listen. To actually listen. Without prejudice.
The fuel for this exploration in independent schools, as in any place of learning, is not guilt or fear or false virtue: it is respect and a desire for progress. Schools are aware that these are live issues in wider society. We need to be able to conduct respectful conversations to understand these issues. It is not a matter of vulnerability to particular ideologies: it is part of our commitment – our duty – to educate and guide the young for the modern world.
You seem to claim that we are dancing to the beat of other drums rather than staying true to our own rhythms. You seem to say that we are running scared of the disapproval of external ideologies. That we are losing sight of our own values.
You are right that we set down the markers of culture. This is a precious responsibility. We must ensure that, as we engage with the evolution of ideas, we keep hold of the values that withstand the tides of time.
At Shrewsbury, we continue with our work on equity, diversity and inclusion: we call it our Respect Project. The aim is to be better informed so that, as a community, we can have the sort of measured and open conversations that appreciate the nuance and complexity of inclusion. This is an ongoing process that requires commitment: inclusion is an ‘infinite game’. At its heart, it is about appreciating and celebrating of difference. It is about each individual feeling safe to be themselves. Any parent would surely want this.
Our school motto, ‘If right within, worry not’ was coined in 1552. It points to the centrality of inner virtues and character strengths. Whole person education, which is the DNA of full boarding schools such as Shrewsbury, is child-centred. This does not mean abdicating responsibility or ceasing to exercise professional judgement on what is (or is not) ‘good for the young’.
Experience brings wisdom. Certain truths last. If you don’t believe that, it’s time to hand over the microphone altogether. As adults and as professionals, we back ourselves to make good judgements. But we also stand against the hinterland of our own experience. Our biases; our gaps. As individual teachers, we need to keep learning and moving. Which means we need to understand the issues of the day.
We need to allow all manner of views to be aired and understood. We need to acknowledge that this means travelling into uncertain terrain. But we can’t stand still. We must venture forward. Is it possible to navigate the complicated terrain of current ideas without losing our footing? I hope so.
We have confidence because we do this with a clear compass as our guide. We know our true north. Our strength is the genuine traditions on which we stand. It must be possible to be relevant and engaged without jettisoning values that stand the test of time. Indeed, it is in being tested that these traditional values endure.
So, no! We have not ‘gone woke’. We know who we are; we know what matters; and we have chosen to engage. We have chosen to engage because it is right for all communities, especially those that educate for the future, to pursue respect, understanding and truth.
Put a label on that if you want. But it’s not a ‘woke takeover’.