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Without Vision We Die

An Ofsted inspector spent a January day at the Small School doing what inspectors presumably always do. In tow he had a civil servant from the Darlington office of the DfES on a ‘see how the other half lives’ exercise. The inspector, a contemporary version of Mr. Jaggers as he appears in David Lean’s film version of Great Expectations, sat in on assembly. By way of introducing him I related an incident concerning Jean Vanier.

I expect that for most Resurgence readers ‘Communauté de L’Arche’ calls to mind the one founded by the great Gandhi disciple, Lanzo del Vasto, situated in the deep south of France. But there is another L’Arche, that of Jean Vanier,the son of a former Governor General of Canada. The community he founded in 1964 for the mentally handicapped and helpers is now a worldwide network of such houses.

Well, the incident in question was a call to Jean Vanier from a sociology student. She and other students wanted to make an appointment to visit the community to find out about the sexual problems of the mentally handicapped. That would be marvellous, replied Jean, because we are very interested in the sexual problems of sociology students.

Unfortunately, like Mr. Jaggers, our inspector ignored the hint and gave nothing away, save the fact that he lived in Somerset and shared a dislike of large schools that try to serve a scattered rural population. So we never met the whole person, only the professional persona. And that reminded me of an essential difference between teaching in a large institution and at the Small School, for in the latter there is nowhere to hide. The teacher who is not prepared to be known as they are will either be ineffective or not last long.

Which is not to say that those whose warts are on display find it easy. But Jean Vanier draws our attention to those among the mentally and physically handicapped who shame us by their openness, by their trust and by their affection. And he reinforces my point:

It is important for people in authority to reveal themselves as they are and share their difficulties and weaknesses. If they hide these, people may see them as an unattainable model. They have to be seen as fallible and human, but at the same time trusting and trying to grow. (‘Community and Growth’ 1979)

There are other wise things that Jean Vanier says that are pertinent to my present situation. One is of the need for leaders to let go at the appropriate time. I have been part of organisations where the leaders hung on for too long. Canon L. John Collins’ inability to distance himself from Christian Action when he resigned as chairman led to its slow demise. Canon Norman Motley, the founder of the Othona Community, nearly committed infanticide. The Rev.George MacLeod was shattered when the community he established on the isle of Iona dispensed with his leadership. But they did and thrived.

So I have always tried to let go of organisations that I’ve set up and/or led. It was therefore with some reluctance that I allowed myself to be sucked back into the Small School. Now that I’m here I hold the fort while others plan the future. It is their future, not mine. I see them reinventing the wheel and worry that they are ignorant or dismissive of tradition.

These traditions remind us that a community didn’t just happen, but was born at a specific moment, that it has perhaps been through some hard times and that what we are living today is the fruit of the work of those who came before us…

We are links in the chain between the past and the future. That future must be part of a wider vision:

…each of our actions is preparing the humanity of tomorrow; it is a tiny contribution to the construction of the huge and glorious final humanity. (‘Community and Growth’ 1979)

I am saddened to discover an absence of vision, which I believe goes with a general lack of understanding of the spiritual nature of the school. If there is no sense that the school is making a small contribution to something much greater than itself then the school becomes an end in itself. A dead end! My hope is that a teacher or teachers will come forward who, understanding the spiritual foundation, will be willing and able to plug into the past and re-vision the project. Will also be willing to take risks, for without risk there is only sterility and a slow death.

Let me not be misunderstood. By ‘spirituality’ I don’t mean joss sticks and techniques for divining the future. I mean a willingness to be led by the Spirit and a commitment to the Beatitudes or the Eightfold Path or a similar Way. A person thus committed won’t be put off by the low salary, won’t want to get rid of ‘difficult’ pupils, will be open and able to touch the hearts of others.

This description of Wisdom might also be that of the teacher:

For in her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy,
unique, manifold, subtle,
active, incisive, unpolluted,
lucid, invulnerable, loving the good, keen,
irresistible, beneficent, humane,
steadfast, sure, free from anxiety,
all-powerful, overseeing all,
and penetrating through all spirits
that are intelligent and pure and most subtle.

(Wisdom 7, 22-23.)

Where do we find such a person? If what we are doing is right then such a person will come. Satish and I believe that. However, we have to acknowledge that it is not a faith that is widely shared.

February 2002

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