Fiddling While Rome Burns

Political tribalism is, in many ways the antithesis of what education allegedly stands for. I hold by my perhaps-naive ideal that the purpose of my daily work is to develop in people the independence of mind to make their own decisions, rather than remain prisoner to those foisted on them by received wisdoms and historical precedent. I also equate that with a growing  breadth of vision, and a widening of horizons that hopefully lead to the realisation that one’s own interest is more than a simple matter of self-serving.

It is also evident to me that the resultant perspective is more likely to cross partisan boundaries than respect them. Thus, my own general perspective is progressive, even while I embrace a generally small-c conservative conception of what constitutes a good society. The values of fairness, compassion, the rule of law and a positive-default respect for one’s fellow citizens are not the exclusive property of any one political group, and they belong as much to the future as the past.

This belief in community extends to offering a real welcome to those who seek refuge or genuine self-improvement within our shores, and to working co-operatively within the family of European nations, from many of whom we can actually learn a lot. When it comes to Europe, it is this spirit of consensual co-operation that our petty, confrontational nation just does not ‘get’.

It involves supporting those who struggle within our society – for whatever reason – accepting that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor – and probably morally and intellectually indefensible while we persist with not making the same distinctions when it comes to the rich.

I cast my vote unwillingly, being deeply unimpressed with almost all of the choices in front of me – and as expected it made no difference at all; I am one of the millions disenfranchised by our current system. In the end, mine was a vote of principle, a call for more regard for our environment because if we get this wrong, the rest of human affairs amounts to little more than fiddling while Rome burns.

Yet conversely again, I believe that the best way to advance liberal societal views is through the use of long-established educational techniques. The surest way we have found to give people independence of mind is to equip them with rigorous critical skills and deep knowledge about the world within which they live.  In this way, they will be most able to draw their own conclusions – and, I hope, achieve the perspectives that understand why parochialism and narrow, material self-interest are not ultimately the best model for our species.

And with the same logic, I conclude that our education system – in its broadest sense meaning any and every way in which the young are inducted into the world – is failing as never before. Neither the progressive philosophy of magical self-discovery nor the narrowly economised approach of recent decades has made much headway against the ongoing descent of our nation into a factionalised, dysfunctional set of self-interested tribes, much as it was in primitive times.

The growth of rampant self-interest and the depth of approval for the winner-takes-all culture is, in my view just another sign of this nation’s retreat from compassionate, civilised values. It is also a sign of a society failing to cope with a changing world, and retreating yet further into illusory ‘certainties’. The dogma of yesterday’s election winners must carry the blame for having done more than most to further that – or at least for  failing to counter it.

In my view, teachers and academics should do their utmost to embody higher, more considered values, as part of their wider role within society – though this need not mean having no opinion. But if recent personal and online experiences are anything to go by, even this (theoretically) most altruistic of professions is now increasingly infiltrated by people who are really only in it for their own gain. The deteriorating conditions of employment of many, the increasing hegemony of a few all-powerful people, the disdain with which they treat their juniors – and the unprincipled machinations of those who aspire to join them – must be a concern for any who believe in a fair and principled society, most of all in a profession whose purpose is supposedly to provide positive role models.

I don’t see this improving in the next five years; as Clegg said, this is a victory for fear and regressive thinking. As such it represents a defeat for educated values.

If so, then I’m afraid I think our profession too, stands accused of adopting Nero’s approach to the growing conflagration.


13 thoughts on “Fiddling While Rome Burns

  1. Agreeing with this. I’ve also just read your About page for the first time and second that the blogosphere opening up dialogue in a way that hasn’t been possible before is very exciting. One question, if you’d help me: Thanks for referencing Nero, I’ve quickly googled him and fire only to find references to his fire protection strategies. I’m presuming this is not what you mean. What’s the story there? Would you share?

    • Hello Leah, re Nero:

      fiddle while Rome burns definition

      To do something trivial and irresponsible in the midst of an emergency; legend has it that while a fire destroyed the city of Rome, the emperor Nero played his violin, thus revealing his total lack of concern for his people and his empire.

      …not that violins had been invented in Nero’s time – it’s generally thought to have been a lyre.;-)

      best wishes,

    • The clue is in the title of the piece to a degree 🙂 There are differing accounts of “The Great fire of Rome”. One version is that Nero himself caused it, so as to blame it on the Christians, and he played his lyre while the city burned. The phrase ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ is now taken to imply keeping yourself busy with inconsequential activities whilst the most important thing you should be addressing is happening around you.

      • Haha! Why didn’t I google the title 😀 Thanks muchly you two. I like a good story. I’ve heard that the Roman empire was so strong for so long because of their full tolerance of different religions/beliefs. I heard they’d just add gods and rituals of new communities to their own ‘collection’ as they became part of the empire… and it was only when some people decided to push and say ‘your beliefs are wrong’ or ‘our beliefs are the only right ones’ that things began to fall. I wonder if variation in belief, for a thinking species, is as important as variation in genetics for any living species?

      • Leah – I love the way you find different learning perspectives in everything you look at – great comment 🙂

  2. To be fair I think the unscrupulous attitude has been going on for a long time. In fact the most unscrupulous people I have known in education are the ones who align themselves most with the ‘progressive’ fold. It’s vague enough for them to do what they like to others and justify it whereas the more traditional schools I have worked in spell out expectations so it’s clearer what is happening to you. That won’t be everyone’s experience I grant you but I’d like to know about it if it is.

    • Yes, I think you’re probably right – I certainly recall my parents in fits of fury at the behaviour of some of their colleagues in schools back in the 1970s. I think you’re probably also right about their alignment – although it may also be true that the traditionalists have a monopoly on the hardened cynics 🙂

      What has changed, I think, is the climate in which they operate, which has made it easier for them to get their way, and may even be encouraging them to do so.

      The hypocrisy of the situation – especially while they simultaneously bleat that “it’s all for the children” – gets intolerable sometimes. In my (not so) humble opinion, if you lack principles you have no business being in education.

      • I agree!!! I think that traditionalists may have skepticism rather than cynicism on their side. It’s because they tend to look for the rational rather than be moved by pure emotional arguments. Having said that it is not to say I am not moved but just not quite so easily!!! On the other hand, the narrative one tells one self is important. I just think a lot of ‘softer’ teachers are a bit passive/aggressive and so don’t say anything but then do some pretty unscrupulous things because they feel the teacher has overstepped the mark. Their own inability to set a clear mark in the first place goes without saying. On the other hand, whenever I have seen policies from progressives which do outline expectations – funnily enough there is more on the teachers than the pupils!! I once worked at a school with 4 pages of guidance about exactly how you should stand, the expression on your face, the exact tone one should adopt. It was a nightmare. Talk about controlling!!

      • Hmm….rationalism versus emotion…? I am certainly a sceptic (even more so since teaching Critical Thinking) and I hope my thinking is indeed reasonably rational. But my belief in traditional methods is still at least partly founded on ‘faith’ (and experience). It can’t be any other way. And my moral objections, while hopefully well thought-out and reasonable, are still experienced as much as moral indignation as anything else…

        I would rather define the traditional approach as one that encourages people to accept and then temper their emotions, and then engage in disinterested consideration of alternatives. The whole point of academia is that it is supposed to be dispassionate, but I’m not sure that any of us can (or should) completely put our feelings to one side.

        I would also beware defining discipline in this respect – I knew some pretty soft teachers who used traditional methods in my time – and I myself am more of a horse-whisperer than lion tamer: sheer matter of personality at work.

        I prefer to use reason and rhetoric with pupils to keep them on side rather than overt power; most of the time it works… My view is that the resort to force is what happens when more reasoned approaches have broken down. Is this anti-traditional?

  3. I very much shared your political experience this time round. My own principles very closely mirror what you described and also ended up transcending boundaries in a way which seemed futile in practice.

    I love the focus on ‘independence of mind’. I still can’t help also thinking we also need to educate people to be ‘usefully socialised’ – such that we can all productively co-exist in society – but I think your definition of the intellectual purpose of education is immensely powerful.

    • Thanks Chris. I think one of the problems of almost any dogma is that it needs to edit reality to fit its priorities and perceptions. For my money, the point of genuine (academic) learned thinking is to avoid having to do this. We need to accept the world as we find it – warts and all – and then figure out the best response. As with my comment above, there is no point in pretending that emotion doesn’t come into teaching, or knowledge in general, The trick is knowing how to handle that.

      You could say that socialisation is somewhat similar – the process of getting people to accept and respond to the fact that the world is shared with others and can never be entirely the way one would want it. It seems to me that a by-product of increasingly wealthy, technologically advanced societies is people becoming increasingly self-obsessed, thereby finding the act of social compromise increasingly difficult.

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