As I sat down to write this, news crews were gathering on Magdalen Bridge in the hope of comment on the College Graduate Common Room’s decision to remove a print of the Queen from its recreational space. The photograph was put up in 2013, and is now being stored until the next time the students decide they wish it to be put up again.
“College Cancels Queen” blares one headline, in the kind of parodic coverage which media studies teachers must find a gift. What is going on here?
To live in Oxford is to be surrounded by the past. As an historian and a head, I am glad that we care so much about what statues we look at and who graces our walls. Our city also feels like a frontline backwater where present politics is played out in interesting ways. I am proud that so many Magdalen parents and former pupils have been pivotal in getting vaccines into arms here and around the world, and I never fail to be floored by the level of interest in what goes on behind Waugh’s “low door in the wall” to the world of Oxford.
“I ask my pupils ‘what do we view as normal now which will be regarded as unacceptable or even illegal in a hundred years’ time?'”
All this has been making me think about images in schools, and who gets to put what where, and why.
The school I first taught in featured many images of Queen Elizabeth. The Queen in question was Queen Elizabeth I, and a splendid portrait of her reigned over the dining hall in apparent perpetuity. The reason being that she founded the place — though of course there are some who look at, for example, the colonisation of Virginia and question what message we are sending by honouring monarchs who presided over a colonial past in this way.
I teach political thought to the Lower Sixth, and one of the questions I ask my pupils is “what do we view as normal now which will be regarded as unacceptable or even illegal in a hundred years’ time?” It’s a way into the idea that every society and even every generation decides these things.
“At a dinner at my old college recently, female undergraduates remarked that it was high time the periwigged men on the walls should be taken down.”
In recent years I have found myself talking more and more about intergenerational conflict and the challenges it poses. At a dinner at my old college recently, the female undergraduates I was sitting with remarked that it was high time the periwigged men on the walls around us should be taken down. When I was their age, the same men had been hanging there. I’d rather enjoyed their presence then, and I was glad to see them now.
The fact that I was dining in college when I would never have been able to do so during their lifetimes was a reminder that change happens. As a student, I assumed that more portraits would be added over time, rather than that whole swathes would be taken away. There was, after all, ample room for everyone.
To work in Oxford is to witness a front line of the culture wars. My perception is that schools are better equipped to navigate this than universities are, though the challenges are growing. We are in a new age of activism; we educate our pupils to be critical, creative thinkers, and on one level they are taking us at our word. On another level, social media lends itself to snap judgements, trolling, doxing and pile-ons – the opposite of all that we are aiming to facilitate in their minds.
“We educate our pupils to be critical, creative thinkers, and on one level they are taking us at our word.”
What can school leaders do? Just as we have felt the need to “re-induct” pupils post-lockdown into school life and routines, so we should consider explaining to pupils the values and assumptions which have made our schools what they are.
I no longer assume that pupils accept that they should hear from speakers with whose stance they disagree; instead we are going to take some time to explain why a speaker series ought not and indeed cannot include speakers with whom everyone agrees at all times.
“Schools have compulsory subjects, but they do not have compulsory icons. It’s worth our taking the time to explain to our pupils why that’s so important.”
I also believe that some statues of men with feet of clay who managed some good works might still serve an educative purpose. Not over-eulogizing them — or indeed anyone — might help. Ultimately, we may decide that we need to take some images down and replace them with others. Like the Magdalen MCR, we can always archive them and elect whether to put them back up or not. Schools have compulsory subjects, but they do not have compulsory icons. It’s worth our taking the time to explain to our pupils why that’s so important.