Challenging the shift to gated communities of the mind
Would you spot a large, potentially life-threatening animal standing in front of a shop window as you walked along the high street? If this sounds like a foolish question, think again. Researchers have found (and I owe this insight to Kenneth Tharp, our excellent guest speaker on Awards Evening) that the majority of people who walk down the street talking into their mobile phones fail to notice an actor in a gorilla suit standing in plain sight as they pass by and have estimated that the walker’s perception of the outside world in such a situation is reduced by 90%.
Should we be concerned by this? It might be argued on the other side of the coin that, while reducing our appreciation of the world around us, we are actually giving our proper attention to the world the mobile is beckoning us into – a world which may well be more congenial than the one we find ourselves in physically. Perhaps the sound of a friendly voice, the sight of a welcoming face or simply the influx of information from Google or Outlook does more to help us to negotiate the next stage of the day than the sights and sounds of the street. Surely, too, the likelihood of encountering a real killer primate in the high street may be safely discounted (though the chance of meeting a life-threatening large mammal in the shape of a mugger may not, of course).
Reflecting on the turbulent events in the news recently, including of course the outcome of the US presidential election, I have been struck by the evidence of increasing fragmentation in the societies we know well in the West. The power of Mr Trump’s campaign sprang, in large part, from the force of his unreasoned attacks on his political opponents in what he characterised as a complacent political elite. His self-professed virtues as a politician were his identity as an outsider, with no attachment to what he presented as outdated liberal views, and his very unwillingness to engage in conventional debate. These traits have incensed his liberal critics.
On the other hand, Melanie Philips, in a deliberately provocative article in ‘The Times’ in the immediate aftermath of Mr Trump’s shock victory, argued that the opponents of the Republican president-elect, by vocally despairing of a democracy which allows such a candidate to gain power by placing voting power in the hands of the uneducated and unfit, were showing themselves to be as bigoted and illiberal as the man they were criticising.
A liberal democracy, such as that of the USA or Britain, depends for its health and strength on two things which are currently being undermined:
- an absolute belief in the importance of one-person-one-vote, even if this means allowing people with unpalatable views an equal say in the electoral process with people with whom one happens to agree, and even if this means losing to them in an election.
- an equally absolute belief in the power of reasoned argument and debate to overcome false, flawed and wicked ideas with reason and truth.
If, as citizens and voters, we arrange our lives in such a way that we only ever encounter people who are like us and agree with us, people whom we are happy to like and be liked by on social media, whose shopping and leisure tastes and interests resemble our own, we will quickly lose our appreciation of the value of genuine diversity. Moreover, the application of algorithms to our searches and preferences online quickly reinforces the synapses of our tight social networks. Pretty soon, we will find ourselves inhabiting a self-referencing echo chamber and calling it the world. From here it is a short step to losing our faith in the power of reasoned argument – and, with it, our attachment to democracy itself.
T S Eliot remarked that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’ and it is often true that the real world – what Ken Robinson has described as ‘the world that exists whether or not you exist’ – with its crises and conflicts, its brutality and banality can often seem too ugly to engage with. Yet, by filtering out the real world – whether literally by staring at our mobiles (ear plugs in) as we walk down the street or metaphorically by limiting ourselves to associating only with people who don’t challenge us – we risk losing 90% of the grandeur and excitement to be found in the world too. We may prefer not to engage with that stranger standing on the street corner but, in acting on that instinct, we lose the chance to hear and appreciate the busker’s voice and we are deaf to the lyrics of her poetic protest song.
‘Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing either your temper or your self-confidence.’ As Robert Frost’s aphorism reminds us, our purpose in school is to challenge the creation of what I call the gated communities of the mind. The events of 2016 have shown that our mission is more important and urgent than ever before.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress, Northampton High School GDST