Those of you who have ever been into my office will know that I have a collection of toy animals. I haven’t had any new addition for some years now, so I was very pleased to be given a new creature for my birthday a few weeks ago. For those of you who can’t see, or who don’t know, this is a toy dodo and it was given to me by a retired English teacher who used to work at this school. The dodo is perhaps the most famous example of a creature that is now extinct – or more precisely one that became extinct because of human beings. It lived in Mauritius and one was last seen alive in 1662, the rest having been hunted by Dutch sailors, their domestic pets and by other species introduced by the sailors.
So why give me a toy dodo? I know I am retiring next week, but I hope that doesn’t mean that I face imminent extinction. No, the point is that both I and the person who gave it to me are genuinely concerned that some of the things which we have valued most in our lives, the things that were such an important part of our childhood and education, are not nearly as healthy as they were and as they should be. Perhaps even threatened with extinction.
Things like reading, showing respect for the English language – or studying a subject for its own sake rather than as a qualification for getting a job. Things like concentrating on a book or a piece of music without being distracted.
And in my final assembly I am going to be very ambitious. I want everyone here to do their bit to fight against this threat of extinction – even if it simply means reading one or two more books this summer than usual.
People of my generation have seen a lot of change. I was born at a time before most people even had televisions, let alone computers and mobile phones. So first of all I want to tell you about some of the changes I have seen and then try to explain what I have learned from them.
I was born in 1954, the year in which rationing finally came to an end following World War 2 and in which Winston Churchill was coming to the end of his final term as Prime Minister. The 1960s and 1970s were when I was educated, starting infants school in 1959 and leaving university in 1977.
The 1960s saw the rise of television. At the beginning of the decade most people did not own a TV and by the end most people did. Coronation Street was first aired in 1960 and the first live trans-Atlantic television broadcast was made possible by Telstar, the satellite launched in 1962. BBC2 went on air in 1964 and was the first channel to have colour (1967). I remember vividly the first episode of Dr Who in 1963, on the day after President John Kennedy was assassinated. It was also the decade of man in space. I was 7 when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth and 15 when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.
I did my O Levels, the forerunner of GCSEs in 1970. The 1970s are not exactly the most fashionable decade, defined by clothes with outrageous floral patterns in vibrant colours and flared trousers for men and women together with platform shoes. If you were to visit the 70s in a time machine, you would probably not want to stay very long. There were no home computers, no mobile phones, no digital technology of any kind. Most cinemas showed just one film at a time and if you missed it, you would probably have had to wait five years before it appeared on TV. And there were only 3 TV channels. If you were dragged back to the 60s and 70s, you would probably be very bored, because there was much less instant entertainment, nearly everywhere shut on a Sunday and, without texting, Facebook and email, people had far fewer opportunities to contact each other.
If you could go back to my old school in the 60s and 70s, you would find it a very different place from this school in 2014. Some things you would expect to be different: for example, blackboards and chalk rather than iPads and interactive white boards. But there is also another key difference and one that you might find quite surprising. School exams – O Levels and A levels – were simply not taken as seriously as exams are today. The world was less complex and competitive; teachers were generally much more relaxed about exams, their attitude being that if you were good at a subject you would do well in the exam. And so we read lots of books in English, not just the set texts. My school did not even bother with mock exams. And, as if to emphasise that exams were not the be-all and end-all of the educational process, grades were not included on O level certificates. We were told what they were, but the official piece of paper just had a list of subjects passed.
This same attitude was shown towards A Levels. Again I remember being told by my teachers not to waste too much time on work for the exams. And things were much the same when I went to university to study English. The important thing was the reading – with Tutors providing just two hours of teaching per week, many lecturers refusing to lecture on anything to do with exams – and most of the time spent reading – usually several thousand pages every week.
All this is very different today, of course – with exams being considered very important indeed, results determining the future not only of students but also of schools and teachers. We also live in a world of many more opportunities, with so many more school activities to be pursued. There are people here who not only work hard at their school subjects but who are talented musicians and sportsmen, who are members of the CCF, take part in DofE, and have some sort of lunchtime club every day of the week. This is wonderful and is a particular strength of a school like this, one that aims to develop a student’s full range of talents to the full. Amidst all this excitement and activity it is, however, becoming more difficult to find the peace and quiet for reading and thinking. On Wednesday the Headmaster spoke in the Prize winners’ Assembly of the need for time to switch off, to think, to reflect, to read and to listen. There was a lot of quiet time when I was growing up but now we have to make a special effort to find time to explore beyond the exam syllabuses, to understand the limits of our knowledge and to engage with minds greater than our own.
There are other things which take up much of our time too. The development of digital technology is one of the chief wonders of our age and it has enabled us to do things which, when I was a schoolboy, would have been thought the stuff of science fiction. Apart from all the undoubted benefits, we are now living in a world where it is not unusual for children to retreat into their room on returning from school to spend hours transfixed in front of a computer. It’s a world where it is utterly unremarkable to observe people talking and texting into mobiles as they walk along a street or eat in restaurants. We live in a world of concern for a global social networking profile, and a world of instant thoughts and views.
As a student and as a teacher I have seen much change. When I started, the world of the student had two main locations: the library and the student’s own room – full of books, a comfortable chair and silence, as free from distractions as possible to enable maximum concentration. We now live in a world that offers so much instant communication and instant fun that we may be losing our ability to concentrate for prolonged periods. Reading has become a relatively endangered activity – not yet faced with extinction but whose long-term survival we need to be concerned about, especially as public libraries close and most independent book shops have lost the battle to Amazon.
I have been exceptionally lucky to teach for so many years a succession of talented pupils at such a good school. I have been lucky to spend so much of my life immersed in the work of writers, artists and composers of genius and have seen how the lives of so many of my students have been enriched as a result of being introduced to them. However, as an English teacher, as organiser of the Arts Society and as someone who has written hundreds of classical concert reviews for the Nottingham Post, I have seen how far fewer people find time for reading now and how audiences for more serious forms of music and drama are becoming smaller, are growing older and are not being replaced by younger people. In short, I have seen how rapidly our national attention is being diverted towards forms of instant entertainment rather than things which take time and effort.
The arts in general and reading great books in particular open your mind to alternative ways of thinking and feeling. The people who have publicly burnt books in the past have tried to destroy ideas different from their own. Reading does the opposite. It encourages doubt, it distrusts certainty, it punctures arrogance. Reading makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary. Reading is vast, like the sea, but you can dip into it anywhere and be refreshed.
So this is my final thought in my final assembly: start the fight back now. This coming holiday create that space with no distractions, read more books, listen to some great music and think some great thoughts. And make sure these activities do not suffer the same fate as the dodo.