As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Books and Cleverness (June 2018)

This is the last time I’m going to get to speak to you from up here this academic year and so I’m going to look forward to the vacation. How will you spend it? Well, of course you know my answer to that – you’ll read, rest and revise in equal measure, and very wise you’ll be too. The Dean, by the way, when he was talking to the Senate about Plantagenet kings, revealed that he believes that, acting on this advice, you’ll rest between midnight and 8am each day and spend the rest of your days reading and revising. Given that, he therefore has enormous sympathy for you all and believes me to be a dreadful tyrant. I see no reason to disabuse him, but I’d like to clarify, just between us, that my advice applies to working hours, 9-5, during the holidays. If you do something enriching for eight hours a day on a third of your holidays – like reading, and something purposeful on a third of the days – like revising, and spend a third in what Belle and Sebastian describe as reading papers, river walkways, and staying up all night then you won’t have wasted your summer (the song, should you want to look it up, is called A Summer Wasting, wasted because they spent all seven weeks resting).

But, you may ask, what is the goal of this regime? When we choose our enrichment, our purpose, our joy, what are we aiming for? Is this just a question of ticking off hours in some great book of merit. Well, of course it isn’t – the goal is for you to become more clever. You will be heading, in a few years time, into a dreadfully competitive workplace and you will need a Unique Selling Point, a USP – something that sets you apart from the competition and I propose that you have as your thing being clever. Not many people are, you see, and it’s a quality that many employers find desirable – it’s also a quality that each one of you has the potential to develop. Potential, I say. You are not already as clever as you can be – cleverness is not an innate quality but a skill that can – and should – be developed.

Cleverness is the ability to make connections, to solve problems, to not just know a lot, although that’s part of it, but to be able to use what you know: to pick out the perfect word, to find the beautiful solution, to see to the heart of an issue and to offer the perfect response. You develop it by learning, by reading and revising, and then by attempting it, trying your best with everything that you try, using your brain, as far as you can, to be brilliant – because you are brilliant and you can be more so.

I had sketched out an entire assembly on cleverness in my head: something that would take in poetry, and science, and art, and, detouring briefly through some incredibly clever Maths, curve back to literature and the need for more cleverness in politics. As I went, I’d fill in the gaps with humour because wit and wisdom go together, and not merely alliteratively: it is the epitome of cleverness to say something that raises a smile as it says something profound and it is this that you should be aiming for in conversations with your friends – it is this that so much that passes for “banter” misses out: when you joke, find the phrase, recall the reference, that makes people laugh without putting anyone down. That’s clever.

However, I’m not giving that assembly because I came across a book I want to share with you, a book that is clever, and wise, that makes you smile and makes you think, a book that is properly clever, that is something for you to aim for and that contains advice for you to live by. This is the book – Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – but before we get onto that there are two pieces of clever from the fabric of the Abbey I’d like to share.

The first is the new grave – the burial that took place between our last Abbey assembly and this one: Stephen Hawking. He was clever – and in the address at his memorial service there were two examples of how his cleverness shone through his disability. The first was straightforwardly his ability to do Physics once he’d lost the ability to write – how can you work your way through equations when you can’t write them down? Well, Professor Hawking’s response was to imagine the equations as three dimensional shapes according to some rules and to visualise the manipulation of the equations as transformations of the shape. This meant he could not just do Physics but that he could see relationships that nobody else could (because they appeared clearly only in this enforced visualisation).

The second was his sense of humour when he lost his voice. Writing his speech at two words a minute he could hardly be quickly spoken and so he had to use the speed of his mind to choose his words perfectly. And, speaking of choosing words perfectly I offer you another few lines from the most recent denizen of Poet’s corner – from Philip Larkin and, because it’s the poem of his I know best, from Churchgoing. He stands in the old church and says “And though I’ve no idea what this accoutred, frowsty barn is worth, it pleases me to stand in silence here”. What a beautifully dismissive description of a church – we stand in an accoutred (that means highly decorated), frowsty (which means stuffy and dark), barn, but what a barn – what a place to sit and think and listen.

Let’s listen to Jadesola reading from Dear Ijeawele

“When a couple of years ago a friend of mine from childhood asked me to tell her how to raise her baby girl a feminist, my first thought was that I did not know.”

This book is subtitled a feminist manifesto in fifteen suggestions and is the result of the author deciding to try – her friend said she’d try to follow the suggestions, the first of which was this:

“Be a full person. Your child will benefit from that. Never apologise for working. You love what you do, and loving what you do is a great gift to give your child.”

There are two guiding principles behind these pieces of advice – the first is to remember that you matter equally – all of you – not “if only”, not “as long as” but equally. Full stop. And mattering equally means that you should use your skills to make a difference in the world – what you could have done but didn’t because of intolerance or prejudice matters. You matter.

“Teach her that the idea of gender roles is absolute nonsense. Do not ever tell her that she should or should not do something because she is a girl. ‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything, ever.”

Nor, of course, is “because you are a boy”. The challenges we face are different but pigeon-holing people based on characteristics hurts us all. You’d have thought that in 2018 we might have got over this but apparently this news hasn’t reached JD Sports (which I know about because my daughter did some research the other weekend: she thought it was shopping but you and I know better – it’s always learning). They sell trainers – some for fashion, some for sport and some in men’s sizes and some in women’s. They have forty different sports trainers for men and, for women? Two. Because “girls don’t do sports”. Pah.

“Beware the danger of Feminism Lite. It is the idea that men are naturally superior but should be expected to ‘treat women well’. No. No. No. There must be more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman’s well-being.”

I often hear this kind of argument defending religious sexism and I’m with Dr Adichie – No No No. This suggestion also points out why the idea that in 2018 we might be over this is a foolish one. Men are, on average, physically stronger than women are, on average and so it is women who are most likely to suffer when society slips into barbarism. When men are jerks women get hurt – the other way round not so much. Men, don’t be jerks. Women, don’t tolerate men who are jerks. All of you make wise decisions when choosing partners – there are good ones out there, don’t settle for one that’s second rate.

“Teach Chizalum to read. Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself, and help her in whatever she wants to become – a chef, a scientist, a singer, all benefit from the skills that reading brings. I do not mean school books. I mean books that have nothing to do with school, autobiographies, and novels and histories.”

Chizalum is the baby. Nuff said. Read books. Carry on.

“Teach her to reject likeability. Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people. We teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys to be the same.”

The trouble with trying to please everyone is that some of the people you will want to please will be jerks. Sometimes you have to do the right thing rather than the nice thing. This doesn’t mean being a jerk, this isn’t a carte blanche for speaking your mind when what is in there is small and offensive and cruel. It means that courage, and truth, and goodness are more important than being liked.

“In teaching her about oppression, be careful not to turn the oppressed into saints. Saintliness is not a prerequisite for dignity. People who are unkind and dishonest are still human, and still deserve dignity. Women are as human as men are. Female goodness is as normal as female evil.”

Equality means equal rights to be a jerk. It also means, unfortunate though this may feel, equal rights for jerks. I feel uncomfortable with victim statements in court where we’re told what a wonderful angel has just been killed – would it matter less if they were ugly and lazy and unkind? Once you say yes to that question you’ve lost something, lost some humanity – everyone is equal and everyone has an equal ability to choose to be a jerk – or not. We’ve skipped some of the suggestions and a lot of the detail – I recommend the book to you as part of your summer reading: if you take my advice you’ll do a lot of it – 160 hours of reading is a lot of books. We’ll finish with the last words to Ijeawele.

“I hope Chizalum will be full of opinions, and that her opinions will come from an informed, humane and broad-minded place. May she be healthy and happy. May her life be whatever she wants it to be.”