What if we all rode on a beam of light?
"Idealism plus reality equals cynicism", declares a piece of graffiti currently to be seen in New Cross, a tough area of south London. Many a teacher will read it with a wry smile of agreement. David Halpin, a professor at London University's Institute of Education, aims to find a way through such cynicism - and the death of hope it often masks. His approach is beguilingly fresh, not only for its courage and optimism, but in his use of a perhaps unexpected text - Sir Thomas More's Utopia. The writings and experiences of More, Halpin argues, illuminate the tensions many teachers feel in their jobs today. One of the most powerful figures in the 16th-century landscape, More - clearly one of Halpin's heroes - was beheaded because he refused to bend to the will of Henry VIII.
This degree of sacrifice is, fortunately, not demanded of today's educators. But Halpin draws on Utopia, the work through which More satirised and criticised the society of his time by inventing an imaginary country, in considering how hope might be put back into the working lives of demoralised teachers. As the self-help books argue, an apparently hopeless situation can be changed, and we can gain a sense of control, by altering our perceptions of what is going on.
But how? Utopianism, Halpin suggests, can "act in the present to remind us of what could be achieved if we thought differently about the context of reform". He quotes the teenage Albert Einstein as asking himself: "What would the world look like if I rode on a beam of light?" From this extraordinary thought came the theory of relativity.
Halpin suggests that the idea of Utopia can offer a way of freeing the mind from the constraints and disappointments of the here and now. Why not consider such questions as: "What would teaching be like if learning was seen entirely from the pupil's point of view rather than largely the teacher's?"; or, "What would schooling entail if it downgraded targets and focused almost entirely on devising and seeking ways to achieve particular educational aims?" Such questions, he argues, represent "a set of reminders of what the educational project is essentially about".
Halpin points out that in his professional life, More was forced to try to reconcile enormous political pressures with a set of personal values in opposition to much of what he was being asked to do. "Utopia, on this understanding, becomes More's literary way of dealing with the terrible tension he felt in his ecclesiastical and public life." Similarly, many of today's teachers are struggling to come to terms with educational reforms that "do not always articulate sensitively with their belief systems about the purposes of education and their professional role". Like More, the crises of professional identity these tensions can precipitate are often dealt with through "a strategic mix of acquiescence and compromise".
Many of the insights in this book - as Halpin would agree - are not unique.
What is new is his attempt to reinvigorate the profession by drawing on the writings of individuals in earlier times who were wrestling with similar problems - and their brave and creative ways of responding to their dilemmas.
Halpin ends with what he calls "three positive signposts" to a better future. The first piece of advice is to take the experience of hopelessness seriously, and not dismiss teachers' complaints as simple whingeing.
Dissatisfaction arises from what he calls "a submerged vision" of what education, ideally, ought to be like. Without this vision, there is no possibility of constructive change. The second positive signpost is a call to take the moral virtues of teaching seriously. As Halpin points out, people in the most dire circumstances throughout history have been able to sustain themselves by actively reasserting - or at least clinging to - their personal vision of what counts as a worthwhile life, however much present circumstances might seem to contradict it.
And the third is to take optimistic illusions seriously. What Halpin calls "vocabularies of hope" can contribute to a more optimistic and active frame of mind. He is not suggesting that individuals develop an unrealistic fantasy life, but that they make an effort at least to dream of a better alternative, as a first step towards improving the present.
Idealism can make an accommodation with reality that results in something a lot more courageous and creative than cynicism. In this truthful and inspiring book, David Halpin shows us how this might be achieved.
Caroline St John-Brooks