At the chalkface: Cruel to be kind?

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Yes, I sometimes wish I could have done the hard stuff better with my sometimes impossible 8th years – like, say, that Tom Hardy in Peaky Blinders or Roy Keane in just about anything. A little fear goes a long way. But we’re surely better than this?

I read the sentence again. Rubbish, isn’t it? With its dog whistle subtext of “I’m well ‘ard, me!” An unhappy mix of the nasty and the incoherent. 

But the Good Doctor is a formidable intellect. So let’s respect his rhetoric and give it a good going over.

The opening, subordinate clause, in the mode conditional, creates a note of humble uncertainty and hard won chalkface wisdom. A saloon bar cliché, it softens us up for the walloping certitudes of its main clause, where two semantically treacherous abstractions are clumsily tethered by an ugly phrasal verb, which “gets in the way of” all clarity. Does it mean “stops”, “blocks” or “prevents”? Who knows? Onwards.

“Kindness” – a famously resonant concept, which can suggest things like kinship, compassion, generosity, empathy, tenderness, humanity. Shakespeare’s whole work explores its deep complexities. Without kindness, it suggests, we’re all doomed. Dr Fox doesn’t. He suggests that kindness is a sort of malign weakness. 

It isn’t. Onwards.

“Goodness” – another vertiginous, semantic force field, it suggests things like virtue, decency, innocence, integrity. Dr Fox shrinks it to mean something like Exam Success.

It doesn’t.

The whole sentence is obfuscating. Zero Tolerance Good. Being Nice Bad. It’s a celebration of unkindness. It’s all the go. Why? Why is this stuff given so much credence? Politicians use it. Heads use it Sir Michael Wilshaw uses it with his “I am Clint Eastwood” routine. Kindness is for losers. You don’t flatter the lonely and weak. You ask them if they feel lucky...

Yes, I sometimes wish I could have done the hard stuff better with my sometimes impossible 8th years – like, say, that Tom Hardy in Peaky Blinders or Roy Keane in just about anything. A little fear goes a long way. But we’re surely better than this?

Cancelling kindness is cowardice. It teaches mere obedience – dangerous stuff and the opposite of education. Good teaching must surely be braver and based on kindness. Random acts of the stuff. Too many children are brutalised by an unkind world and a curriculum, which teaches them to feel their failure.

I’ll never forget 10th year Dennis Plum, who once told me through his tears that “this is the first time I’ve been told I was good at something”. Sentimental. Not half. “Never smile before Christmas” goes the unsentimental wisdom. Well, start now. Season’s greetings to you all!

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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