The Vanity (or Narcissism*) of small differences

This is one of the great phrases that, once uncovered rolls around the mind and gathers stuff. As it’s half-term, dear reader, you’ll forgive me that indiscretion of listening to Radio 4 during the daytime. And sometime Monday morning, as I was driving up to Norfolk to see my Dad and Sue, the airwaves started talking about taste, the middle class and the irrevocable rise of ‘beige’ for those who need decisions made for them. Those confident with money (i.e. old money) know they can mix and match colours, ornament, tapestry and clobber, old and new. Those with new money and lacking confidence are perfectly happy to purchase the show home, lock stock and barrel, including the shower hat on the bathroom peg. Whilst one section of society can tell the difference between a good tattoo and a bad ‘un, another section damns all with ‘marks and piercings’ as ‘tramps and gypsies’.  As goes the saying, it’s the small differences between humans that mark them out as being of the same or different tribe.

Why vanity then? If the differences between the haves’ and have nots’ that mark them out are so small, why not reach above that and agree that there is ‘nowt so strange as folk’ and then get on with it. A small marker that might tell us that ‘it’s the miniscule that make the difference’ appeared during our visit to the Museum of London Docklands with Year 9 last week. Three or four times a year, the museum welcomes schools to study days on Slavery, which break up into three related sessions. One is a study session on floor three of the Museum, looking at the artifacts and evidence and complicit nature of the City of London (and elsewhere) in the use of slaves as GB PLC grew to rule its empire across the globe. The second is a drama workshop in which students work together with a facilitator to explore their own feelings about resistance, difference and freedom/imprisonment. The third is a dramatic presentation of three scenes in the life of two Victorians, one a slave, the other fighting politically to see an end to the practice, interlinked by a series of discussions and dramatic reconstruction of life in slavery.

And it was whilst we were being warmed up in Theatre so to speak, that the museum’s teacher highlighted the fact that our boys had their shirts tucked in, their ties done up and trousers up on their hips. And she challenged them about their willingness to wear uniform in the manner for which it was intended (uniformly), rather than in a variety of different ways to single themselves out as individuals. Slaves too, she opined, had their identities stolen from them in like manner, reduced to being named after the days of the week, and for the very obvious reason of subjugating them to the yoke of servitude to their master.

Well it won’t surprise you that the boys (my group was all boys, the girls mixed up elsewhere) took no offence at this, because actually at the very minuscule level, each boy’s uniform and appearance had been adjusted and personalised – it’s just that the teacher could not recognise that fact, so badges, belts, hair, etc all marked the individual out, but within the ‘clan’ that is Claires Court.

What did surprise our teacher too was just how biddable the children more generally were, how open to learning and engagement.  When asked to form into groups, it did not matter to the individual which group they were placed in, trusting of course that whoever they were with would make a decent fist of the challenges given to be faced. Boundaries between individuals and groups appeared both low and yet solid; they were happy to play master or servant and hold to that trade. If that meant damning their friend to a life of eternal hell,. then so be it. In short, they behaved perfectly normally as the museum would hope and plan for.  So very different from other groups that they had seen this academic year (or so they said), where so much more time is wasted as groups work out who they are happy to work with and who they simply won’t.  “I must be with my friend or no-one” being a regular cause celebre.  You can see the developing write-up of this visit to Docklands here –  and here’s the album of photos

It was Sigmund Freud who coined the title of this piece,  after the work of the British psychologist, Ernest Crawley, who noted that each individual was separated from others by a “taboo of personal isolation, this “narcissism of minor differences”‘, which  term describes the constant feuds and ridiculing of each other’ that divided society. And therein lies the rub for those of us in Education.  For whatever the tinkering we do between schools, curricula, setting and so forth, the real differences are made in the classroom, where the petty jealousies that separate learners all to often get in the way of progress.

Well that’s what I thought anyway, as I drove across the endless flatlands of East Anglia towards the folds of the Glaven valley, looking forward to meeting up again with my father and enjoying a pub lunch in a setting as far removed from the beige of John-Lewis-Land as I could muster.  And in North Norfolk, there is indeed a lot of independent hosteler choice, and sadly still a lot of beige!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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