An Addition to the Three Rs

Time was when the building-blocks of education were the three ‘R’s — reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. They still are, but I think the time has come to supplement them with the three ‘H’s — a sense of history, a sense of humour and a modicum of humility.

You cannot have failed to notice how many people take their idea of history from the visual media. The presentation of Thomas Cromwell as hero in the televised version of Wolf Hall may strain the credulity of some, but Mark Rylance acts so well and is so convincing that I’m sure many will have concluded that Cromwell was basically a nice man, fond of his wife and children, and cruelly ill-used by villains like Thomas More. What about the systematic re-writing of history to be found in Jihadist videos? Or the thousand and one other portrayals of historical events and processes subtly coloured to argue a case or to interpret a past world through the lens of the present (think Downton Abbey, for example)? History is not an exact science, but it requires tough thinking and careful assessment of evidence. It is also multi-disciplinary. I’m sure it would help us not merely to read but also to decide what is worth reading in the first place (apologies to Trevelyan). I therefore suggest it should be the first addition to the three ‘R’s.

My second would be humour. You have only to look at Social Media or the pages of an online newspaper to see how many people have become so literal-minded that they fail to register that not everything is said or done with the same level of seriousness. Just as a sense of history gives a feel for period and the development of ideas, so a sense of humour is a great help in interpreting the words and actions of others. I’m not sure one can teach humour, but I think it would be worth a try.

Finally, I come to humility. It is no accident that today we read the twelfth step of humility in the Rule of St Benedict and find that humility — true humility — should be our constant disposition. I think sometimes we can exaggerate our own ability to solve problems or cure ills. If we did indeed have the solution to the world’s problems, the world would be beating a path to our door, but as it manifestly isn’t, perhaps we could pause and ask ourselves do we know all the facts, have we considered all the implications of such and such a course and, perhaps most important of all, are we in a position to judge?

Regular readers will know I have written this with a smile, but also with a grain of seriousness. How we approach the world, how we interpret the words and actions of others, how we manage to convey ideas of our own, matters. Get it right and there is peace and plenty. Get it wrong and there is war and division. Education plays a key-role in determining outcomes. As technology changes the shape of traditional education for ever, it is certainly something I’d urge thinking and praying about.


4 thoughts on “An Addition to the Three Rs”

  1. A (proper) sense of history ,would be very useful to politicians and generals at times. If only we could learn the lessons of history, we might not make quite the same mistakes again. Similar ones, perhaps, but hopefully not the same ones time and time again.

    However, I also agree wholeheartedly about the need for a sense of humour as well as humility. One doesn’t see much of humility shown in politics these days and a willingness to accept blame for what has gone wrong and working together across party lines to put things right. I don’t think they believe in ‘peace before nightfall’!

  2. I find it really strange that history can be re-written, but than the history that I was taught at a Catholic school naturally had its own perspective on historical events, including the reformation and the persecution of Catholics at the time.

    I’m not defending the Protestant view of the same history, just that we need to stand back from those views which influenced the teaching of history to us in a particular context and try to separate the propaganda from the truth of what actually happened.

    I do find it sad that history isn’t taught more widely in our schools, with a concentration on modern, and not on what is regarded by some as ancient history. But the historical background shaped the nation that we are and became and today shapes the nation of the future. Surely attention to our past gives us a much more strategic view of our modern history to place it in a much more neutral, rather than a biased place?

    I have a sense of humour, and having spent a weekend doing theology on my lay ministry course, where the serious stuff was injected with a good leaven of humour meant that we learned while we laughed together. I thought that academic learning would be a slog and a bit lonely – not a bit of it. Sure there is the revision and research and essay writing, but there are lots of tutors and others to help and my supervisor is excellent and really supportive.

    Humility. is a quality which we all need. Stephen Cherry in Barefoot Disciple really enlightened me on the nature of passionate humility, which he has now expanded on slightly. for lent 2012. Which I’m happy to plan to use on an ongoing basis.

  3. A teacher friend recently asked me if I’d be happy to do a Skype chat with some of her pupils. All exceptionally talented, and likely to get very good grades in their maths GCSEs – but all convinced that “university isn’t for the likes of them” and with few career aspirations beyond that they might become hair dressers or beauticians.

    (Not that these aren’t rewarding and challenging career paths to following: hairdressing and beautifying and making people feel good about themselves is a skill in itself!) What is sad is the thought of children who never have conceived that they might be teachers, doctors, engineers, artists, astronauts, politicians, accountants programmers, clergy, secretaries, marketeers, etcetc.

    At the same time, I object a bit to schools encouraging pupils to believe they can do anything: Unfortunately there aren’t enough jobs going for everyone who wants to be musicians, film directors, journalists, archaeologists et al so some pragmatism is required. However, over optimism still strikes me as better than being 15 and believing you can’t do ANYTHING.

    So maybe what we really need is a curriculum that balances humility with aspiration…

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