I read a great book over the holidays by Yuval Noah Harari entitled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It provided compelling food for thought. It’s divided into five parts: The Technological Challenge, the Political Challenge, Despair and Hope, Truth and Resilience, and describes itself as an exploration of what it means to be human in an age of ‘bewilderment’. There’s no doubting the veracity of the question posited on the back cover: ‘We created myths to unite our species; we tamed nature to give us power and we are now redesigning life to fulfil our wildest dreams, but do we know ourselves anymore?’
In 1733, Alexander Pope also extolled man’s virtues in his seminal poem ‘Ode to Man’:
Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere…
But in describing Man as ‘the glory, jest and riddle of the world’ he likewise questioned where such power and mastery would take us.
If we go back even further in time, we hear Sophocles positing a similarly vexed contention in Fifth Century AD in the Chorus of ‘Antigone’: ‘Many things are formidable and yet nothing is quite so formidable as man… He is prepared for everything; against nothing does he want for protection. Even against once perplexing ailments he has developed an escape.’
But whilst man may have ‘taught himself’ to handle every need through civilization, he is vulnerable to a mystery that continues to elude him to this day – himself.
And so it is for the current generation of young people about whom it’s been said, aren’t just ‘lost at sea’, but were ‘born at sea’. They are without the metaphorical markers, buoys and constellations that may once have provided them with the orientation necessary to chart a steady course through tumultuous waters. A true and holistic education at such a time must therefore prioritise the attributes of thinking and self-reflection, the nurturing of relationships, and a focus on self-management. The requisite dose of courage and resilience is the primary means of establishing an internal compass, capable of navigating an increasingly complex century.
Perhaps we would do well to spend less time scanning a horizon that shifts and glimmers in the sun like mercury, and take heed of the poem’s pronouncement to:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Here’s to a new term and yet another school year as together, we strive to prepare our young people to take their place in a world that’s bewildering, but no less beautiful than it ever was.
Head of Senior School