As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Cultural Revival (September 2021)

I’m going to start today with an aptly titled poem:

Again it is September by Jessie Redmon Fauset

Again it is September!
It seems so strange that I who made no vows
Should sit here desolate this golden weather
And wistfully remember –

A sigh of deepest yearning,
A glowing look and words that knew no bounds,
A swift response, an instant glad surrender
To kisses wild and burning!

Ay me!
Again it is September!
It seems so strange that I who kept those vows
Should sit here lone, and spent, and mutely praying
That I may not remember.

A stark warning of the dangers of romantic entanglement, but I shan’t dwell on that, but shall instead tell you a little about Fauset and then take inspiration from the idea that it is again September that that this is a time for reflection and remembrance and suggest that it is also a time for resolution and ambition.

Jessie Redmon Fauset was born in New Jersey in 1882. She was one of a large family (she had six siblings, three half-siblings and three step-siblings) and was the daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal minister. She went to school and university, excelling in both, and trained as a teacher (as I expect the most excellent amongst you will want to do). She was also a writer and, as we have seen, a poet, and got a job as the editor of a literary magazine in New York. In this role she supported the career of many other writers and poets including Langston Hughes and was, with them, at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

You may not have heard of the Harlem Renaissance, having missed out on the 1920s through no fault of your own, but it was an intellectual and cultural revival of music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theatre and politics. It was a flowering of scholarship centred on the north end of the island of Manhattan in New York and led to the development of the stride jazz piano style used by, amongst others Fats Waller (if you want to have a listen I recommend his Handful of Keys, and if you want a challenge then I look forward to hearing that piece attempted on the school piano). There is lots for us to follow up here – the Harlem Renaissance is rich in cultural allusion, but today I want to think about cultural revival and the flowering of scholarship.

One of the things I love most about Harris Westminster is also one of my greatest aspirations for the school. We say that we are a community of scholars and I cannot imagine anything more delightful for a school to be. I want to talk to you about this ideal this morning because I think it’s been a difficult eighteen months for us in this regard – I don’t think that we are the best that we can be. I don’t think that we’re the best community we can be, and I don’t think that we’re the best scholars we can be either. This is not your fault – I don’t think it’s my fault either – the pandemic has been tough and still being here ready to learn, ready to aspire, is, I think, a success. We are, however, in need of a cultural revival.

Ay me! Again it is September, the month of ambition, the month of making commitments that can later be remembered and used to motivate us when times get hard. And let me stop here to let us all be inspired and motivated by what has recently been said about the school in the papers. The Spectator had a story about Harris Westminster and talked about our community of scholars, about the intellectual fulfilment that Simrin – one of last year’s vice presidents – had enjoyed, and about the strange privilege of success: the reward for working hard to get into Harris Westminster is that you have the opportunity to work even harder. They also published a list of schools ordered by how many students went to Oxbridge – now I think this rather undervalues all we do here, that Harris Westminster is so much more than getting into one of those two universities, but still, it’s nice to see us eighth on the list – behind Westminster and Eton, but ahead of St Paul’s Boys, ahead of Brighton College, ahead of Highgate.

Enough of that – back to business. What is this community of scholars? What do we want from school except to turn up each day, learn some things, pass exams at the end of the year and then go on to repeat the whole process at Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial or Bristol? Can I just pause for a moment and shudder at what a boring and soulless vision of a school that would be? A community is much more than a building that a group of individuals spend time in together, and scholarship is much more than passing exams.

In our community we win together, we lose together. We are a team, we look out for each other, we help each other. This can be tough: Oscar Wilde said “Oh why was I born with such contemporaries," regretting the competition, and it can feel difficult to celebrate each other’s successes – but if you don’t, who will celebrate yours? Being a community means taking joy in each other, relishing the ways in which we are different; it means being kind to each other, not blandly nice, accepting whatever goes, but looking out for each other’s best interests and never taking advantage. It means finding ways to disagree peacefully – by which I don’t mean agreeing to disagree, nor silencing those views you oppose; but disagreeing vehemently, intelligently, carefully: listening, thinking, arguing, persuading. If someone stops arguing with you then you haven’t won, you’ve lost as much as they have: winning is having a community to argue with, winning is being someone that people want to talk to, someone whose ideas are interesting and beautiful even if they’re not always right. The goal of discourse is not to convert others to your views but to hear the valuable and valid parts of theirs. We might disagree a lot here – I’d be disappointed if we didn’t – but we’re never enemies.

This disagreement is the part of scholarship that we call critical thinking. We test each other’s arguments, ask “how do you know that”, “how certainly can anyone know that”? The twin skill to critical thinking is scrupulous thinking – being honest about how much you do know, and how: realising the limitations of what you’ve learned so far and seeking to push them. And so we learn new things, our knowledge becomes more extensive as we find out about poets, and movements, and piano techniques that we might not have before – there is no limit to the breadth of knowledge available to us and there should be no limit to the things we might find interesting. And as we become interested we should seek exact knowledge, to know, for example, that Fauset’s novel Plum Bun explores the experiences of a pale-skinned African American woman passing as white – and that Fauset was a strong believer that African American novelists should write authentically rather than try to write something that would fit the white readership’s preconceptions (she is definitely worth exploring further). Scholarship is scrupulous and critical thinking, extensive and exact knowledge. A community of scholars is challenging and honest, eclectic and particular.

And back to September: a time of resolution and commitment, a moment to shift out of the timelessness of summer and into a new year. Back to this September, the beginning of your Year 13, looking forward to eight months of the privilege of hard work, of piling up your knowledge, of sharpening your wits, of refining your cleverness and then two more of revision and exams, of showing off what you know for a willing audience. And back to this morning, back to 9.20 on September 6th 2021. A time to commit to the ambition; a time to promise yourself that you’ll put your heart and soul into this enterprise, a time to promise those around you that you’ll be there for them because you know that they’ll be there for you too.

I’m going to finish by reading you the whole of that poem again partly because it’s beautiful and partly because I can’t find a way of wittily and cleverly misquoting it: it’s a poem of lost love rather than beginning a scholastic enterprise but I like to imagine that whilst writing about the former, Jessie Redmon Fauset would have enthusiastically joined us in the latter, showing off her own cleverness and supporting that of others, coming from a background of disadvantage through the trials of academic study to make her way in an unfair world and somehow make it better, more beautiful, fairer.

Again it is September by Jessie Redmon Fauset.

Again it is September!
It seems so strange that I who made no vows
Should sit here desolate this golden weather
And wistfully remember –

A sigh of deepest yearning,
A glowing look and words that knew no bounds,
A swift response, an instant glad surrender
To kisses wild and burning!

Ay me!
Again it is September!
It seems so strange that I who kept those vows
Should sit here lone, and spent, and mutely praying
That I may not remember.