Teddy Roosevelt must have dreamed of being able to attend school. Born into an affluent New Yorker family in 1851, he developed such serious asthma that he could not attend school per se, so was home educated during his school years. He regarded himself as a duffer at Maths, passable at Geography, and showed particular enthusiasm for history, biology and the foreign languages of French and German. There’s no doubt he developed an admirable independence and resilience, working on his fitness to overcome his breathing weakness, he became a competent boxer, and on entering Harvard for his first general degree he also took up rowing and threw himself completely into societies and publishing. Clearly one of the greatest US presidents ever, the quote I have chosen to lead with is a ‘sampler’ of probably the best presidential speech ever, Citizenship in a Republic, subtitled ‘The Man in the Arena’. Those in government today would do well to read the whole speech, cover to cover, as it covers some eternal verities that seem to have been misplaced in very recent years by the self-serving nature of the governments of UK, USA and France, the latter in which the speech was originally delivered, to an audience of European intellectuals the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1910.
The best ‘snip’ of the speech remains entitled ‘The Man in the Arena‘, much quoted many times by subsequent presidents, including Nixon and Mandela, and we are left to wonder what Teddy would have thought of its use as a Tatoo slogan (Miley Cyrus & Liam Hemsworth), or indeed as a Binary Bit code pattern on the parachute of the @perseverance lander, as it came down softly to land on the planet Mars last Thursday, 18 February 2021. Set as a tease for its followers on the internet, NASAs scientists highlighted that the irregular patterns of red and white carried a coded message. Within 6 hours it had been cracked, carrying the message ‘Dare Mighty Things’ and the coordinates of their Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
What I admire most about this highly successful mission to date of NASA is that it has largely been carried out by their team from their home. Now let’s be frank, all space missions are conducted remotely, from the original launch of Sputnik to the present day, there’s no Star Trek story of human’s travelling the galaxy yet. The people back home have a huge part to play still. What I am referring to is that those people have been based on laptops in their kitchens, very much as my school has been for the last 6 weeks once more, and yet the programme of travel, landing and now exploration has carried on seamlessly and with few hitches.
On 8 March 2021, England looks forward to its school communities returning to their buildings for in-class learning, and for those schools with the full deployment of technology at home, it’s fair to say we have been able to deliver our teaching, monitor learning and give feedback almost as well and so we return to school not just to worry about that core enterprise, but to expand the young peoples’ horizons through that physical presence back in the arenas of learning they know so well. Screen learning cannot capture the full excitement of laboratory practicals, of drama and PE practice, of working with tools and artifacts that challenge dexterity and through their deployment build skills and portfolios. It is time for our schools to ‘Dare Mighty Things’; we are of course in the middle of a pandemic, Covid-19, but R is well down, local community presence is dropping to the levels of last summer, and it is indeed time for childhood activities together to resume.
I ran Monday’s assembly in school at Senior Boys under the heading of ‘Breaking the Code’, as the NASA and OXFORD stories are very similar. Professor Sarah Gilbert and her team at the Jenner institute did not need the virus itself to prepare the vaccine for Covid 19 last January 2020, only its genome sequence from their fellow Chinese virologists, another great example of code-cracking. UK Science is rightly proud that now it has provided circa 50% of all C-19 genomic sequences, and we are set to provide a huge volume of vaccine and infrastructure support across the world. It’s interesting to read just how many UK universities and allied biotech companies are involved, with Imperial, Cambridge, UCL and Southampton additional to the Oxford Astrazeneca team, with a summary of some of that activity here. It is becoming quite clear to us here in the UK that our willingness to innovate and pioneer solutions is backed up by a very strong knowledge and skill-base, itself built on the extensive higher education research base built over decades here. From far galaxy work down to the atomic level, the reality that we have these (and all bases in between) covered, in part because this island nation’s people ”Dare Mighty Things’!