A Quadrichotomy of Values (September 2017)

This morning I will be talking about values. I shall be using as my lenses a piece of popular culture, some government guidance and a poem that I consider particularly resonant. As we talk generally I’d like you to be thinking about your personal values and our shared values as a school.

I’ll start this morning with Harry Potter – a body of work with which I’m assuming you have at least a passing degree of familiarity - my household is currently obsessed with it. My younger daughter is in Year 6 and thus eagerly anticipating her Hogwarts letter. I, meanwhile, listening to Stephen Fry’s dulcet tones washing over me throughout the summer, have been musing on Hogwarts and the values it espouses. One twitter wag decried the values of any school where students are sorted on entry into brave, clever, evil and miscellaneous which is a funny but, I think, unfair interpretation of the Hogwarts house system. I think that truer to the books is a model in which the sorting hat identifies your primary motivation from Ambition, Courage, Intellect and Loyalty and places you in a house accordingly. Truer or not, this is what I intend to take as my starting point this morning. This quadrichotomy is an interesting way of thinking about personality types and the Harry Potter books can be thought of as an extended thought-experiment in the consequences of using it to shape young minds.

My first observation is that Ambition doesn’t seem to come out of the exercise very well – it’s difficult to find any defenders of House Slytherin even amongst those who embrace a drive for greatness. This should be a concern to us all – is not Ambition the central plank of our ethos? Is this a school full of Slytherins? I have two responses to that accusation: no, and no. On the one hand Legacy is, for us, of equal importance with Ambition and the followers of Salazar rarely considered the importance of leaving the world a better place than they found it. Let that, by the way, be a warning to us all – J K Rowling has painted a very clear picture of what we will become if we embrace the first of the Harris Westminster words but neglect the last: make sure that your ambitions benefit those around you rather than coming at their expense. On the other I would say that we share the values of all four houses: Ambition makes it onto our red wall but they are all woven into our ethos. I have, in the past, spoken about Westminster School’s stone balancing act – Loyal Dissent – and how being quite firmly on each other’s side enables us to argue and challenge and perhaps it’s worth quoting Toby Ziegler, my favourite character from my favourite drama – he’s the director of communications in the West Wing and he says

“You’re my guys. We’re a team. We win together, we lose together. We celebrate and mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories sweeter because we did them together. You’re my guys and I’m yours and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”

Sometimes quoting allows you to say exactly what you mean but couldn’t carry off in your own voice. You’re my guys and loyalty is important. Also in assemblies past I have quoted C.S. Lewis’s observation that Courage is not just a virtue but the essence of all virtues at their sticking point. Ambition (or loyalty or scholarship) that gives up when things get hard is no virtue at all – no, we should all, also be Gryffindors. And finally, I hope that none of you would say that we hold intellect, learning or scholarship lightly at Harris Westminster. Rowena Ravenclaw would have been all over Harris Westminster were she still alive, and not fictional.

My second thought on the subject of the Hogwarts house values is that nobody is driven by a single one. Almost every character has at least a second strand to their character. Take, for instance, the three central students. It is well-known that Harry was almost a Slytherin and it would be foolish to think that Hermione, the brightest witch of her generation, wasn’t at least considered for Ravenclaw. Meanwhile in the last book we find that Ron’s destiny was shaped by his loyalty – when Dumbledore left him his dilluminator he knew both that Ron’s courage would fail and also that his loyalty to his friends would bring him back. It’s worth noting at this point that the most cowardly of all characters, Wormtail, was placed in Gryffindor. There’s a depth to the sorting that is not immediately apparent. I speculate that Peter Pettigrew’s life was shaped by his desire to be brave and that his failure to share this virtue with his friends ate away at his heart and drove him to be the abject creature he became. Nobody, even minor fictional characters, holds only one value and it’s clear that none of us can consider our values to be ours alone.

These thoughts returned to my mind last week when I attended a meeting of local headteachers and heard a senior police officer talk about the Contest strategy. The name might be unfamiliar to you but I think you will be aware of the strategy, at least in general terms. It has four strands: Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare and it is the Government’s approach to the threats of international terrorism. It’s actually quite clever or remarkably simple, depending how you look at it – they plan to catch terrorists, to stop people becoming terrorists, to protect us from acts of terrorism and to be ready to deal with them when they happen. It’s difficult to argue with any of that. I have responsibilities under the prevent strategy – as do all your teachers – we are, broadly, expected to do what we can to convince you that blowing people up is neither good manners nor an effective way of making a better world. I hope we’re doing ok at that but if you’re not sure and would like to talk to me about whether, maybe, it might be better to spend your time building bombs than doing maths homework please knock on my door and we’ll try to thrash it out.

One of my other responsibilities is to teach you British values – these, like the Hogwarts values, come in a set of four (I tend to prefer things in threes, but sometimes, like the amplifier in Spinal Tap, you need one more). The four are Democracy, The Rule of Law, Individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs. Like the Hogwarts values, saying these are British is not to say that no other nation shares them – that would be arrogant nonsense of the first order. It is, however, to recognise that not everybody does. There are people and countries who would say that government of the people, by the people for the people is undesirable, that laws should be bent to the needs of great men or women, that the individual’s rights should be subsumed to the collective or that those who disagree on matters theological should be persecuted. I have to confess that there are times when I think that the only remedy for the country is to put me in charge and give me a free hand to sort things out, cut through some of the red-tape, throw some perps into the pit of despair, that kind of thing but then I reflect that this has never worked in the past, the myth of the benign dictator is a prevalent one but the problem is that the world is too complex for a single person to sort it out, even me, and that an excess of power would corrupt any who wielded it, even, I fear, me.

We live within a structure that is grossly imperfect – we would all agree on that, but I don’t think we’d agree on which bits of it were wrong and even if we, in the church this morning, agreed, we, the people who live in this country, wouldn’t – it may actually be a terrible system, but it’s better than all the others and what keeps it that way are those fundamental British values.

I return to the values of Harris Westminster and that poem I promised you. It’s a poem I’ve quoted several times in Assembly, it’s by Rudyard Kipling, it’s made of four stanzas all of which are worth reading, and it exists in an extended hypothetical – If. If, goes the last stanza,

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it

And I’m not going to quote the last line – perfection is not to be found, even in poetry. My unforgiving minute is up, my musings on shared values are at an end and the time has come to return to potions in the basement, astronomy in the tower or even Mathematics on the first floor.