The Thistle - An E-Newsletter of Scotch College, Perth, Western Australia

The Herd and Dealing with Adversity

What are Schools?

Schools are places where norms of behaviour are transmitted; places where young humans learn how to interact with others, where they learn what is important to them, and what is important to others. We learn by being in proximity to each other. It is always fascinating to me when human beings wait at a set of traffic lights and then they all set off when the lights change and nobody ever crashes into anyone else; they hardly ever even touch each other. There is an accepted level of how close we can get to each other, and an understanding of how to avoid actual collisions whilst still being very close to others.

Schools are places of relation. It is good to be reminded of how deeply fundamental this is to schools and to humans. The best classrooms I have seen have been places where relationships thrive – where there is a special dynamic between the teacher and his or her students, and where students are encouraged to be themselves in respectful if sometimes playful ways. In contrast, the worst classrooms are those where there is no connection; where time has not been spent on building the rapport which is necessary to sustain real learning. In effect, the classroom becomes a barren wasteland for the transmission of disconnected knowledge.

Sometimes at school, it is possible to observe people get too close and in doing so, they get in each others' way, particularly if they are pursuing similar goals, and this can cause conflict. However, it also enables the development of conflict resolution skills.  Of course, in the current climate, physical proximity can lead to transmission of viruses. Taking sensible precautions will minimize the risk – which is what we should be doing in an effort to balance the need for life to go on and the desire for complete protection.

In the long term, it is far more dangerous to the common good if we are too distant from others. For too long now, we have pretended that digital proximity is a reasonable or satisfactory substitute for actual physical proximity to other people. And we are starting to see the impacts of this: people are spooked far more easily because information (and often misinformation) is transmitted far more quickly and widely; people are less willing to seek out sources of information which challenge their points of view; people do not understand other people as well because they have not practised reading other people's faces, face to face; and people react more quickly and aggressively because they have not practised controlling their emotions in front of actual people.

You may have seen some of the amazing footage that exists of thousands of birds swirling and turning in response to apparently invisible stimuli. Or large burls of fish, swimming tightly in formation, so close to each other and flashing and glinting one way then the other. Something prompts the herd or flock or swarm or school to move – and it is usually a threat, or the perception of threat.

Herds and hives are generally safe places. But they can also be dangerous when the herd is heading in the wrong direction. Being able to think clearly, particularly at times of heightened anxiety or panic, is important not only for self-preservation but also for the benefit of the herd.

With our young people, we must normalise challenges and risk, and even help them to understand that death is a part of life. Of course, that does not mean encouraging our boys to be fool-hardy or reckless. Quite the opposite: it means encouraging them to calmly assess and understand each situation and the potential outcomes, it means helping them to appreciate that there are limits to what we can do to influence the outcome, and it means training them to be aware of the effect that fear has on an individual or a group.

There is a famous story about a wise king who sent his wisest advisors out across his kingdom in the search for knowledge. When they came back, he asked them to distil everything they had seen and learned into its simplest form. They came up with one short phrase which can be applied to everything in life: This too shall pass. The worst and the best of it, this too shall pass. The pain and confusion, the ecstasy and relief, everything passes. The great challenge is to deal with each and appreciate each for what it is. The wisest people take something from every experience and use it to become a better person. Hopefully we can use our skills of mindfulness and gratitude as antidotes for fear. Another antidote is perspective, based on our own prior experience as well as the collective experience of the herd. Life goes on. This too shall pass – but only if we refuse to be swept along by hysteria.


You may find it useful to watch this short 6-minute video relating to how to talk to kids about the current situation:

And as a nice counter-balance, you could have a look at this earlier edition, which takes a wider view of life: