Celebrating Difference

The theme for Assemblies at Wellington this term is ‘Celebrating Difference’.  This morning, Dr Lexton and Guy Zilberman (L6 R) spoke powerfully about Holocaust Memorial Day, followed by an excerpt from this week’s Junior Play – I am David – which charts the journey and experiences of a young boy who escapes from a concentration camp and makes his way to Denmark. It promises to be an outstanding production so please do get tickets if you haven’t done so already. And, while I am on the subject of supporting Wellington Arts, the annual musical – Sweeney Todd – is coming up in a few weeks’ time. This always proves to be one of the real highlights of the Wellington College calendar and I do hope that you will join us. Tickets can be booked here :https://www.wellingtoncollege.org.uk/news-events/events/forthcoming-events/

We are trying to celebrate difference in as many different ways as possible this term. Last week, two members of our pupil-led International Committee addressed the school community about Chinese New Year, and we have future Assemblies planned to cover the topics of race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and mental health. Afua Hirsch, author of BRIT(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, also spoke to a packed Great School in last Monday’s Master’s Lecture. In a world which has never been more diverse or well-connected, but where public discourse has become so polarised and entrenched, both in the flesh and on-line, it is proving to be both instructive and inspirational to explore these themes at such an important time in our nation’s history. Whatever one’s views on Brexit and the recently announced commemorative 50p coin, one cannot argue with the sentiment of the inscription, “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”.

In my opening assembly of the year, I also explored the topic of cognitive diversity with the College community. Having been inspired by Dominic Cummings’ call for ‘wild cards’ and ‘weirdos’ to join the ranks of the British Civil Service over the Christmas holidays, I recounted an essay by Matthew Syed based on his recent book, Rebel Ideas, which discussed how important it is for us to understand that great minds do not always think alike and how productive a group of divergent thinkers can be when put together in a team. Look no further than Commander Denniston’s team at Bletchley Park, Syed argues, for the creative power of cognitive diversity; along with Alan Turing were Leonard Foster, a scholar of the Renaissance, Norman Brooke Jopson, a professor of comparative philology, and AH Campbell, a legal philosopher. Perhaps a team of Alan Turings would not have got the job done?

I also recalled my own Sixth Form Politics teacher, Mr Dan Hearn. Mr Hearn was remarkable in every way: he was paralysed from the neck down, having broken his neck playing rugby against the All Blacks in his 20s, and he therefore delivered all his lessons from a wheelchair; he also insisted that, as students of British politics, we read three different newspapers – The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian – on a daily basis. This was the time, of course, when a daily newspaper cost 30p! Why did Mr Hearn do this? Because most people, he explained, only read the newspaper which reflects the political views they already hold. And what’s the point in reading political journalism espousing insights and perspectives with which you know you are going to agree? How are your own views and perspectives going to be challenged and developed if you never expose yourself to contrary views?

It might have been 1993, but it was clear what Mr Hearn was telling us – don’t live in an echo chamber where you shut yourself off from the thinking of those with whom you disagree. He wanted to expose us to different perspectives which he knew would open our minds to different ways of understanding and making sense of the world. As I said in Assembly, I want Wellington College to be a place where we celebrate the fact that we are allowed to think differently about issues and topics, and (more importantly) that we can respectfully engage in debate and discussion around those issues and topics without fear of prejudice, persecution or being cancelled.

That is why we continue to invite speakers to College who represent a whole variety of views, and why tutors so often ask their tutees what lectures and societies they have been attending. I am determined that Wellington should be a school where learning takes place both inside and outside the classroom, a process which Sir Anthony Seldon, 13th Master, took so very seriously – and, on that note, we are delighted to welcome Sir Anthony back this evening as part of our Fireside Talk series.




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