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GEOFF BARTON: Learning lessons from days gone by

A Personal View
A Personal View

A quick update for anyone who – like the Blue Peter tortoise – has recently been liberated from hibernating in a cardboard box. If you are looking about you through large blinking eyes, here’s what you may have missed.

Last weekend included Valentine’s Day. A not-entirely-romantic film was released. Tuesday was Pancake Day, more formally known as Shrove Tuesday. Yesterday was Chocolate Mint Day. Today is Love Your Pet Day. And tomorrow – no, I’m not making these up – is International Mother Tongue and Sticky Bun Day.

So many days and so much to celebrate.

There seems to be something hardwired into the human psyche that makes us want to link our journey through life with seasonal landmarks. It was only a day after New Year that someone tweeted the first image of a supermarket shelf depressingly heaving with Easter eggs.

You can bet we won’t get to September before Hallowe’en paraphernalia starts festooning certain shop windows. The first signs of the Christmas season will almost inevitably have surfaced by October.

It’s as if, even in these fast-changing times of technology and social media, we like to anchor ourselves to rhythms and rituals that slow us down, to remind ourselves that there are seasons that recur each year.

Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy wrote about a young woman called Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Early in the story, she is the victim of an act that will blight her life forever. In an especially haunting moment, Tess reflects that once a year it isn’t just our birthdays that we pass.

‘There was yet another date, of greater importance to her than those; that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there.‘

Knowingly we pass our birthday; unknowingly we pass our death day. Perhaps conscious that life is ultimately fragile, we measure our days in seasons and rituals.

Some of these are the deep-rooted events of the Christian year – the saints days and holy days – while others are the daft frippery of marketeers.

Thus, since Christmas, we’ve had Nutella Day, Drinking Straw Day and Houseplant Appreciation Day. More significantly we’ve had Epiphany, Candlemas and Ash Wednesday. And here we are at the start of the season of Lent.

The older we get, the more I suspect we sense the seasons, and the more we cling to the traditions and rhythms that shape and anchor us.

That’s why if I were Secretary of State for Education (don’t worry: I never will be), I would restore the study of History to the status it has in most other countries. In England, students can choose to drop the subject aged 14. Elsewhere they study it to 16 or beyond.

I think we should too. That’s because, as the great political philosopher Edmund Burke taught us, ‘those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it’. We need to know our past to understand our present.

After all, we live in a part of the world that is steeped in history. East Anglia bore the brunt of the Viking invasions. Our placenames, architecture, and landscape bear witness also to ancient rule of the Anglo Saxons (think of Exning or Gissing) and, from 1066, the French (think of Walsham le Willows or Thorpe Morieux). Ours was a county built on the wealth of wool, a place vulnerable also to invasion.

Just as we owe it to young people to educate them for a world driven by technological change, to be able to compete with their counterparts in China, India and Brazil, so we need to teach them about their local roots.

So while I might not be celebrating this Sunday’s ‘Cook a Sweet Potato Day’, I will continue to raise a glass to our rich history and its traditions.

It is what has made us who we are today.

-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds