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Humility – gratitude for opportunities

Published on 03/06/19

There is no doubt that an independent school education develops an inner confidence in its pupils. Perhaps this reflects the benefit of having studied in smaller classes. Perhaps it reflects the fact that pupils have met an entry criterion to gain their place in the school, or perhaps it reflects the time and resource an independent school is able to devote to those rich areas of education; the co-curricular opportunities. Few would criticise the nurturing of an inner confidence; a can-do attitude. What critics have said about some independent schools is, however, that the inner confidence can become an arrogance.

Humility is certainly not the principle of taking the back seat, of leaving others to take the lead. It is, however, the appreciation that we all have a role to play in life’s successes and it is the act of contributing without expecting an automatic recognition that truly marks humility.

In the week that marks the 75th anniversary of the D-day landings, it is worth remembering the fact that 156,000 allied troops were transported to France through this operation. An event that clearly changed the shape of World War 2. Many readers, like me, will remember relatives who we knew had been involved in either World War 1 or 2 - and yet who spoke little of it - thanking God for the fact that they had fought and survived when so many did not. Shocked by the tragedies far more than boastful of their successes; the power of humility, and of course sadness, displayed in their attitude to war.

Do I think it wrong to encourage an inner confidence in my pupils, to channel their energies into wide-ranging opportunities, to have a go at different things? Quite to the contrary. It is the mark of a truly good independent school to enable such opportunities. However, it is also our responsibility to nurture a humility and a deep understanding that others may not have had the same opportunities, even though having had them could have been transformative. A recognition too that in benefiting from such opportunity, we owe a reciprocal commitment to society.

It may sometimes feel enjoyable to be boastful, a mark perhaps of achievement worth celebrating. But it is a greater privilege still to be able to be thankful for our opportunities without the need to celebrate our achievements over and above those of others, or indeed as a contrast to others’ misfortunes. Indeed, the real privilege is to genuinely be able to seek to extend those opportunities to others. That is certainly relevant to our charitable status, but it is pertinent to our duty as educators.