Empathy and Humanity

It was a grim irony that, as schools around the world including Wellington College marked ‘Empathy Week’ after half-term, the unwelcome spectre of war returned to the borders of Europe with the distressing and shocking invasion of Ukraine. Our school is, of course, the national memorial to the man who brought peace to the continent in 1815 as the coalition of European forces under the Iron Duke’s command put an end to nearly two decades of imperialist expansion driven by the ambitions of a nationalist leader to swell his empire by bringing others under the yoke of tyranny.

Many of the details have, of course, changed but events of the past few days provide a salutary reminder that the broad palette of world history does, sadly, repeat itself. Despite the experiences of the 20th century and the predictions of some, most notably the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 essay ‘The End of History’, that the rise and dominance of liberal democracy was inexorable, we are far from such a simplistic conclusion to ‘history’. In chapel on Sunday, we prayed for peace and for the peacemakers, and I have no doubt that these prayers have been repeated throughout the families of Wellingtonians over the past few days.

In yesterday’s Assembly, I encouraged all Wellingtonians to do three things. First, to continue living and treating others with the College values at heart, with a deep sense of compassion for each other, with an understanding and respect for our shared humanity, and with an appreciation that there is so much more that binds us all together than sets us apart. Second, to reach out to those existing support structures and to share with trusted adults any concerns that they might have about the crisis in Eastern Europe. To quote an HM in their recent correspondence to the House community, underneath any and all national identities which co-exist at Wellington – and we have pupils from nearly 40 countries around the globe – is the fact that the College is a community for young people to feel safe, understood, valued and confident to inquire. To this end, my third exhortation was to commit to understanding better the context and issues surrounding this multi-faceted and complex piece of geo-political history which is playing out before our very eyes in real time.

To do this, we are adopting a multi-disciplinary approach and Mr Evans, our Deputy Head Academic, explained in assembly that the History, Politics, Economics and Geography Departments will be working together in the coming days to create a series of events, including a Question Time style session, where Wellingtonians can come together to learn more and understand better what is unfolding on the eastern borders of Europe and why. Last night, in our Fireside Talk, Lord Strathclyde addressed the issue of Ukraine and answered numerous questions from the floor. Mr Evans also spoke movingly about his own experiences visiting and travelling around Ukraine, and the power of both Ukrainian and Russian culture, art and literature on him. He wisely reminded us that leaders are not always representative of those they lead, and that it is wrong to reduce complex situations to binary, sweeping narratives, tempting though such interpretations are, particularly in the echo-chamber of misinformation which characterises so many of our social media and news platforms.

We have many goals for our pupils during their time at the College, but never has it been more important that a Wellington education enables our young people to develop a deep sense of empathy towards those around them, both within our local communities and the wider world, so they are able to venture into adulthood looking outwards at all times, with a global mindset, and able to connect with, lead and serve people from a wide variety of different backgrounds, cultures and nationalities.

To this end, we are proud to have been the first school in the UK to have partnered with New York-based company Shared Studios in last week’s Empathy Week, an initiative whereby Wellingtonians connected with other young people around the world via a series of digital portals designed to foster relationships and conversation between communities who would otherwise never interact. There were sessions with partners in Mali, Rwanda, Palestine, Mexico, Iraq and Uganda, some of which left participants – both pupils and staff – deeply affected by the conversations in which they had taken part. You can read more about the initiative here and we are already exploring ways in which we can build on the connections and friendships forged in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Against the backdrop of emerging conflict in Eastern Europe, this experience was wonderful to behold as Wellingtonians engaged with young people from all over the world, discussing both serious global issues such as education, climate, beliefs and belonging, human rights and social justice, but also the minutiae of everyday life as a teenager – Netflix shows, favourite football teams, exam apprehension, university plans and upcoming parties. It was a timely reminder that, through the fog and confusion of current events, the light of joy and hope, kindled through simple human connections, can continue to guide our young.

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