From the time I started school, (above!) I've loved learning - and later teaching. So it has seemed a bit strange that for the first time this year, September has come and gone without any preparations for the beginning of an academic year! I don’t miss the work! But I do miss the people! I miss the joy of meeting new students who were so often full of stimulating questions about the future, about who to believe, what to live for, who to be. Adults with many practical matters on their minds - often seem less interested in approaching those ‘big questions’ with any sort of personal transparency.
In the UK, it’s been a summer full of some very dramatic moments raising big questions. Within days of each other, we had the succession of a new king and the election of a new Prime Minister in the UK. War continues to escalate in Ukraine - Putin’s threats keep coming. And the cost of living crisis bites. So as life settles back into some sort of ‘new term’ routine in many homes this autumn, it’s not only in the educational world where people are asking questions about where the world is going and what kind of future the UK and its people are living into.
Do we want to continue to be a monarchy after the death of the Queen? Do we care only about the ‘growth, growth, growth’ promised by the new government? Have we really thought about what it would cost us to create the ‘fairer greener Britain’ promised by Labour Party Leader, Keir Starmer, in his conference speech?
The questions are both fascinating and worrying at the same time. Worrying particularly when you also ask who is leading and curating this national conversation so that it is more than a mere re-arrangement of prejudices? Which media are participating helpfully/constructively in those discussions? How much notice are we, as a society, going to take of the fake news and snide comments on social media? Are we going to allow them to dominate our conversation?
Comment is cheap. Good investigative journalism is expensive in terms of personnel, time, money. It sometimes comes at great personal cost – just ask the family of Jamal Khashoggi who fell foul of the Saudi authorities. Or the British investigative journalist, Carole Cadwalladr who makes no secret of the personal cost of finding out the truth about how power is wielded corruptly by the subjects of her investigative exposés. Asking difficult questions can come at high personal cost – but simply following the crowd can be costly too.
There can be a fair amount of personal cost to asking another difficult question, ‘What am I living for?’ It’s the subject of this year’s Autumn Lecture series at the church of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square. Academics, artists, dramatists, human rights and social justice campaigners, journalists, psychotherapists are all included among the contributors.
The series began this week with the priests Lucy Winkett and Sam Wells, neighbouring clerics at St Martin’s, and St James’ Piccadilly, both answering the question, ‘What am I living for?’ rather predictably for clerics(!) with the same single word, ‘God’.
But what they said was far from predictable. They both avoided theological abstraction in favour of powerfully autobiographical accounts. I cannot do justice to what they said. But Lucy Winkett offered the following two questions from the American monk and mystic, Thomas Merton:
“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for,
Ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for?”
Alongside questions about the constitutional future of the monarchy and government policies, Thomas Merton’s questions will keep me going for a while as I begin my ‘new autumn term’. I'm not sure I can answer any of them, but that is half the fun!