Fragmentation and Identity: Institutions in a Time of Lockdown

A few months ago I started writing a piece about institutions and liberalism, from the context of working in a historic boarding school. How does valuing institutions fit within my liberal philosophy, given their potential incompatibility with concern with the individual? Do I, in fact, value them, or just tolerate them as a necessary evil? It was taking a bit of time, not least because I have an instinct to reject institutions in and of themselves, yet also must acknowledge that I am myself thoroughly institutionalized, and was trying to work out what it is that might be different about the particular institutions of which I am a part, most particularly the Church of England and the school at which I teach. I thought I’d given myself a bit more time and come back to it over the Easter holidays…

Since then, of course, the world has changed unrecognizably. Like all other schools in the UK, except where staff are doing wonderful work to care for the children of key workers, our doors have closed. The boarding houses became their hollow ghostly holiday-selves prematurely. The classroom has moved from physical to virtual space, and for a week before we broke up for the holidays – itself a strange whimpering end to the term, where little seemed to alter from one day to the next – we saw our pupils only as distant camera images at best, as thumbnails with disembodied voices at worst. For all that the technology available to us is an immeasurable blessing, within a few days we went from full classrooms to empty, and the everyday personal contact with pupils and colleagues that we had taken for granted was transformed into pixelated distant encounters. Just as families mourn the absence of relatives with whom they do not live, and lovers and friends feel the tremendous loss in being unable to see and hold one another, so too, albeit in a different way, I write this from a point of grief for the community that has – however necessarily – been torn apart.

However, if anything, this strange and depressing scenario has sharpened my understanding of how institutions do remain valuable in my worldview, even as the two with which I have such close yet problematic relationships (the Church and this school) fragment and reimagine themselves in ways they could never have predicted. Fundamentally, I’ve realized, it comes down to the communities that they engender, and my conviction that strong institutions with clear values create valuable communities, bonded by shared concerns and beliefs. This is not to say that the communities created by institutions cannot be toxic, nor to argue that communities created by institutions are in and of themselves better than those created in other ways, but simply that good institutions can be excellent ways to create community.

So, what is happening to these institutions under lockdown? Given that, in these two instances, the identity of the institutions is bound up, at least in their day-to-day functioning, with bricks and mortar, one of the existential challenges has been posed quite simply by what matters once physical space is removed from the equation. At times, I have been guilty of downplaying the physical space aspect of the current situation. For example, while I don’t doubt that the response to the closure of church buildings even to clergy has brought out some shameful clericalism, poor pastoral awareness, and shoddy theology, it is too easy also to dismiss the value of sacred space defined by the walls of a church or the power of the tradition of many of our religious buildings. There is also the sense of belonging that buildings create: it is vital as a teacher at a boarding school to remember that boys have been wrenched prematurely from the place that is not only their learning environment but also their term-time home, and, in too many cases, they have not been able to return to their actual homes because of restrictions on travel. Even now, I wander through common rooms to see names signed up for trips that never happened, posters for concerts that were cancelled, the evidence of normality ruptured and a home broken.

But neither the Church nor the school are the buildings. Both are the people, bound together by a shared purpose (respectively the worship of God and the education of children), and defined by their beliefs as to how this should be done (their theology on the one hand, their educational philosophy on the other). And so, while the Corona virus lockdown challenges all of these, the strength of the institutions lies in their ability to stay true to all of these things while reimagining them for new circumstances. And rather than limiting us, these changed circumstances can actually challenge us to be more true to the real purpose of our institutions, and to continue both to serve their communities and to live out our part as members of those communities being true witnesses to our institutional values.

As a member of a Church community, and a Eucharistic one in particular, I have been grateful for my parish priest’s decision to continue Sunday Mass from his study, streamed over Facebook. Although the physical exclusion from church buildings and from the sacraments is deeply painful, to form part of a virtual congregation, knowing that the priest receives communion on behalf of all of us, is a profound comfort. However, more even than this, it is the shared fellowship over email, What’sApp, Zoom, Facebook, both within my own congregation and far beyond, that has reminded me that the Church is the people, whose Christ-like love for one another has been authentic and overwhelming. I spend so much of my time railing against the worst aspects of the Church that to be confronted with the response of a grieving community to the rupturing of the norms of that institution’s nature – and to find it fundamentally to be caring, loving, and striving for the Kingdom – has been a humbling experience. A reimagining of Church away from the building, away from travelling to a Sunday service, towards the maintaining of faithful worship from the individual though not in isolation, but rather in constant awareness of the prayer offered across the institution and the community, has been at once challenging and nourishing.

As a teacher at a school with a liberal teaching philosophy that centres on the development of every individual as a person, not only academically but across all aspects of their character, we have been challenged to think about how to retain that across the internet. This has included centralizing live teaching in our practice, maintaining pastoral support, working out how – even if the cricket season is looking unlikely for now – we might offer as much as possible of our co-curricular and community service programmes remotely. Each day, we are now encouraged to ask ourselves the question: how can we continue to know one another and grow together as people when we are physically apart? These things are core to this school, core to the purpose of this institution, and they are what bind us together as a community: we are all being challenged to creativity in maintaining them, while also becoming, I think, more reflective teachers in the process. The frustrations of this institution and the many characteristics that I find hard to tolerate have paled beside the essence of its values, played out in a time of crisis, which focus us first and foremost on simple care for our pupils.

It is, I suppose, unsurprising that I consider the teaching of Classics to be integral to the identity of this institution, not least because part of our educational philosophy is also to accept a wide range of academic abilities, and we make sure that Latin is not offered exclusively as an option for the most able. The benefits of a classical education, as I have written about in the past, should not be restricted to an academic elite. However, translating this to the more challenging environment of online teaching is pushing me as a teacher to think about how to use the best of the available technology to continue to make it a subject that everyone can access, without getting lost within a busy video call or struggling at home with a challenging exercise. As much of a challenge as this is, it is also a huge opportunity. Good teaching requires us constantly to challenge our pedagogy and the methods by which we achieve our educational aims, and the situation offers real impetus to do this. On one simple level, I have been tweeting daily from the department with a Classical activity to be done under lockdown, and the requirement to think broadly and creatively about what might interest our pupils across the widest possible range of areas has been a real opportunity to reconsider what we mean by Classics for all.

These are challenging times, and I am fully aware that my ability to approach the current challenges with optimism and a sense of opportunity rest in part on a privileged situation: I do not have children to home school or vulnerable family to care for; I still have a salary coming in; my mental health remains fairly resilient. However, that does not mean they are easy for me, either. I really have drawn comfort from institutions of which I have been all too dismissive in the past. They offer values and structure, community and purpose, and when this is all over, I hope I will take them less for granted.

Classics in Tory Britain: Reflections on Privilege

Cultivating a greater consciousness of our own privilege is, I hope, something that is becoming more of a priority for all of us, along with how we do that in a way that is positive and constructive, without either amplifying that privilege or reducing it to an unhelpful source of guilt or shame. In my own case, my privilege lies in my being middle-class and white, with a high level of education. My responsibility for awareness of my privilege feels, to me, to be heightened by my job as a teacher, not least because I teach in an independent school filled with young people whose privilege is largely similar to my own. When I reflect on my own privilege, I am reflecting by extension on theirs, and I feel obligated, as their teacher, to assist them in own journey towards reflectiveness.

I began this post before the General Election, particularly as part of the thoughts provoked by running a mock election for the pupils at school. However, as the results of the real election emerged, it was hard to finish writing: it was just too difficult to be reflective in any positive way from beneath the deep sense of despair that the outcome provoked in me. It was easier to maintain an objective perspective when not faced with the reality of leaving the EU and five more years of government by the current manifestation of the Conservative party. Like many people I am sure, I have been left questioning my own place in the system in a far more hard-hitting way than ever before.

An independent school is, by definition, going to be a bastion of a certain sort of privilege that comes with money and access to a good education. Classics specifically, when Boris Johnson is the most famous Classicist in the country, is being confronted by a new challenge. I, for my part, am faced with a new lens on the problem of teaching a group of pupils who are associated through their school with an objectionable wealthy elite (the reality is of course more nuanced and varied, but the point remains). This rings especially true when teaching them the very subject that is perhaps linked most conspicuously with that character in the consciousness of much of society, and especially among the liberal left of whom I consider myself a part.

A further facet to the picture emerges when I reflect on the fact that this is a Christian community, with a strong sense of its Roman Catholic identity. Although not a Roman Catholic myself, as a practising Christian I believe in an obligation to vote with the concerns of the most vulnerable in society at the heart of my thinking, for it is there that Christ focused his own ministry. In the current the climate, the distance between this interpretation of Christian teaching and the interpretation held by many in the school community feels particularly wide and stark.

However, after a school mock election in which, although the result was more varied than perhaps I had feared, pupils and staff voted for the Conservatives by a landslide majority, it now feels hard to believe that teaching in such an environment does anything more than collude in the creation of a further generation of Boris Johnsons. Many of the pupils I teach, even the most thoughtful of them, believe that their education situates them above state-educated peers, cannot discuss poverty without alluding to a blame narrative, or are simply unable to understand the distance between their own life situations and those of the most vulnerable in society. This is rarely born of malice or intent, in my experience: they are merely a product of their environment.

As a teacher, I cannot be explicitly political in the classroom (though – rightly or wrongly – I was always honest when asked for personal views in the run up to the election). However, I hold it as a general rule that all teaching, at least for a Classicist, is in some way political. After all, I choose the modules I teach; I dictate the direction of the narrative within the scope of the curriculum; I make decisions to reject textbooks that white-wash the realities of slavery, gloss over the subsequent impact of the Roman imperial story on colonial attitudes, or write women out of the story. I can lead the conversation in my classroom through the questions I ask, and challenge the views that I consider to be unacceptable. I can encourage a global outlook when we approach the ancient world; can explore the Aeneid as the story of a refugee one day, a colonizer the next; can initiate discussions over contemporary manifestations of Classics in the rhetoric of parliament, or Silicon Valley, or the Red Pill community. However, I am one teacher, teaching small numbers, and even fewer who actually care: how much, if any, of this really permeates the dominant narratives in our pupils’ lives?

Of course, in a boarding school in particular, a teacher’s involvement is greater than in the classroom. Implicitly political conversations occur in my Assistant Housemaster role: topics lately have ranged from whether Trump is a racist to whether videos that objectify women are appropriate viewing. Running the Public Speaking Society provides the opportunity to question speakers on the talks they give, challenging whether a single mother holding down multiple jobs should be blamed for struggling to provide her children with nutritious meals, or whether women should be allowed equal roles in the military. Most rewarding, perhaps, has been the shift in attitudes towards the homeless since the school started supporting homeless charities over the past couple of years, and the opportunities I have had to address the school on their Christian duty to those on the margins. It is, without doubt, possible to pull out glimmers of hope where one feels that, if nothing else, it has been possible to provoke reassessment of prevailing attitudes.

The question I am asking now, however, is will it ever make any difference? The very fact that individual cases can be listed in this way reflects how few instances there are to draw upon. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that no teacher really impacts very much on a pupil. When one feels like a minority voice, the impact is presumed to be even less. However often I use the hashtag #Latinforall, the truth persists that this is an elite education for the very few, within an environment where their privilege suffers little challenge day to day.

There is no doubt that whether I can ever be a real force for good in this role, or – in the Christian terms in which I view it – am living a life that in any way contributes to a making a world that reflects the Kingdom, is a question that now keeps me awake at night. Supportive colleagues and friends remind me repeatedly that if I were not here, we would have one fewer voice to challenge our pupils to think about their beliefs. They are, after all, only children, and maybe one day something they learned in my classroom will resonate differently with them and my belief in the possibility of a just and equal society will start to become theirs. However, in this dark December, it is hard to believe it.

Classics, fragments, and voices

It is over six years since I left the academy, entering other worlds of education, and adopting the liminality and limitations of the independent scholar whose day-to-day life had moved away from the world of Classics proper, as I saw it, while retaining it as my touchstone.  I never resigned my identity as a Classicist, never stopped teaching Latin and Greek, but I largely ceased to engage with research, with the occasional foray back for a conference or article.  I certainly resigned any sense that I was or could be a voice in Classics.  I admit that I equated ‘teacher’ with ‘failed academic’ in how I posited my identity; I never felt that the role of teacher lacked inherent value or was in any way demeaning, but to be a teacher was to not be a scholar.  Where I did engage with the scholarly community, I therefore saw little value to my own contributions, even on the publication of my book; I lacked any confidence in what I wrote or said, perhaps a classic case of imposter syndrome, enhanced by my lack of status, as I perceived it, as one who listed no university affiliation on my conference name badge.  Hindsight suggests that subconscious awareness of my own youth and gender, and the impact of these in my interactions within a largely older and male environment, only increased my sense of inadequacy and inclination towards silence.

Something has changed, and there is an irony, given this past perception, that this change arises from the context of working in a school, the very environment that I identified previously as an indication of my irrelevance to academic Classics.  I consider there to be two reasons for this, the one general, the other particular.  First of all, as Head of Classics in a school, I have had to reconsider what the purpose of Classics is: when I was a doctoral student and then as a lecturer, I mixed all the time with people to whom I did not need to justify my interest in researching or teaching Latin poetry, and was too junior to have to concern myself with the wider place or future of my discipline within the university; as a teacher, I encounter the opposite, an almost perpetual need to provide reasons to children and their parents for my subject being taught or studied, and, indeed, to the school’s leadership for the existence of an expensive department to be sustained for the benefit of a minority of the student body.  This is the general.  For the specific, I turn to an incident in which my voice, as an expert in my subject and as an experienced teacher of it, was closed down, in a situation that I consider to be both dangerous and damaging to pupils, society, and Classics as a discipline. 

When I am asked what the point is of the Classics Department, I have, historically, cited the value in Latin learning.  Apart from the well-rehearsed claims over Latin’s value for other languages, for literacy, and as a tool for the historian or theologian, I explain how the pattern-recognition we teach is good for the brain.  Latin, I tell my pupils, makes you clever.  To the SLT I make different claims in support of my department:  having a Classics department makes us stand out from other schools, I say; it shows that we still value subjects that have inherent intellectual value, rather than just the vocational; it puts us in the same category as those old and elite institutions that have always had Classics at the core of their curriculum, rather than making us sound like just another minor public school.  None of this is untrue, I suggest, but I would argue that it is not the reason why Classics matters. 

This is where the particular comes in.  Recently I introduced a Greek class for the first time to a poem of Sappho, in English translation, as a response, on the one hand, to International Women’s Day, and, on the other, to the suggestions from pupils at Streatham and Clapham High School that to include Sappho in the classroom was to help reduce the omnipresence of the ‘stale pale male’ on the school curriculum.  I was shocked that the pupils responded unanimously with a profound inability to approach the text other than through a homophobic and misogynistic lens, but more so when it was suggested subsequently that I invited such a response by teaching a homoerotic poem by a female writer with reference to its female and homoerotic context. 

I am teaching Classics at a time when classical references have been making an appearance in many uncomfortable contexts.  They litter the narrative of the public-school-educated male voices in politics, perhaps particularly those which dominate the Leave campaign, in which they are employed as a means to convey the dominance of an educated elite but also to hark back, at least implicitly, to the imperialist British identity within which classical education first rose to importance among that elite.  They are also being appropriated by far-right movements, most obviously in America, with a misplaced sense of the ancient world as one that underpins a narrative of white male supremacy.  Classics in the public eye, for all the work of many educators and groups to promote an honest version of Classics that is available to all, is at risk of becoming the misunderstood and misplaced property of a particular group.

It is in light of this awareness that the questions of ‘why Classics’ coalesce, within the particular context of my experience of teaching Sappho.  Sappho, as a fragmentary author, offers a microcosm of the joy and the challenge of Classics.  When we study Classics we are dealing with a distant past which speaks to us only through glimpses, just as our study of Sappho is filtered through the paucity of extant material and the snatches of her world that the fragments of her poetry offer.  While we have a rich tradition of scholarship and reception of Classics, really to return to the texts themselves exposes us to as many gaps as it does firm evidence, not least when we focus (as we do in particular in the school curriculum) on a narrow canon of literature in which the voices of the marginalized groups of ancient society rarely, if ever, feature.  In such circumstances, it is easy enough to use the Classics as a way to affirm our own prejudices, extracting from the sources a narrative that speaks to what we wish to find, just as Hollywood can turn the Iliad into a discourse on white heterosexual virility; at the same time, when Classics is revealed to challenge our prejudices, it can simultaneously (if we choose) be dismissed as other, distant and irrelevant.  Thus, we knit together the fragmentary with our own narrative, but are selective in how we allow Classics to inform us in return.

The pupils I teach are only children.  The narrative they bring to the text is still one they have only partly formed themselves; the rest is the narrative of their parents, their peers, their teachers, their home cultures, and their social media accounts.  However, this makes me believe my role as a teacher of Classics is even more important than I had perhaps realized.  To study Classics right is two-fold:  first, I intend that my pupils will learn to read what material we do have within a historically-informed context, in a manner that is methodologically sound, and with an awareness of the prejudices and presumptions that race, class, sexuality, education, gender, and religion are bringing to their reading; second, I hope that they will learn, if not to strip away those prejudices, at least to engage critically with the reflection in the mirror that Classics provides us, not imposing their narrative uncritically on to the fragments in front of them, but looking at themselves within what is reflected back at them.  It is in this way that I hope I may go a small way to preventing Classics from being something that can be adopted and manipulated to perpetuate a particular agenda, but a discipline that makes us challenge our opinions and assumptions, both within the classroom and beyond it.

It is in light of this assessment that I find myself reconsidering my own voice.  Not only does the importance of Classics teaching take on a new significance for me, I also find myself challenged not to let my voice be closed down, nor to close it down myself.  It matters that the voice of the younger bisexual female is not considered of less importance than the older heterosexual male, and especially that her expert credentials not be dismissed, as much as it matters that Sappho be taught as a female writer of homoerotic texts within the framework of her cultural context.  However, to be a credible voice, one must not choose to cease to be a voice.  I may never re-enter the academy, but there are important things to be said if we are not to betray Classics to the ownership of one particular elite, and from now on I choose to say them.