Why isn’t this taught in schools?

This was the cry of Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain yesterday. In a discussion on the worthy quest by Martin Lewis to improve the teaching of financial literacy in schools (a move for which I am broadly in support), the well-paid presenter explained that one of her own children was surprised, shocked and no doubt disappointed by the news that they would have to pay tax on their own earnings. Reid was incredulous. Yet instead of reflecting on her own parenting and wondering how she had managed to raise someone with such a poor grasp of how the world works, she wailed “why isn’t this taught in schools?!” The entire panel agreed with her, with nobody raising the fact that basic financial literacy is, in fact, currently taught in schools.

To quote a nauseating political turn of phrase, let me be clear: I support the teaching of financial literacy in schools and I agree with Martin Lewis that it could do with some improvement. I support it because there are a small handful of vulnerable children who will not experience any discussion at home when it comes to financial matters. They may have parents who struggle to understand such things for themselves, who lack the skills and the vocabulary to enlighten their own children in complex matters. All of that said, I cling to the fact that all parents have a responsibility to teach their children about the world and how they fit into it and to the fact that the overwhelming majority of parents are perfectly capable of doing so. It is parents who have a duty to give children a sense that money doesn’t grow on trees and has to be earned, as well as the basic principle that most of the things they see around them have to be paid for and that this money comes from all of us. These are the kinds of things that must be discussed constantly in order for a child to grasp them, not ticked off on a curriculum list.

When we’re talking about a parent as privileged as Reid (you can look up the latest best guess on her salary), I am pretty unimpressed by the apparent fact that she does not consider it her responsibility to discuss such matters with her own children. To give her the benefit of the doubt, some people find talking about money with their own children difficult. Some want to cushion their children against the harsh reality that things have to be bought and paid for. I’ll be honest and say that I have never understood this. I consider myself hugely fortunate to have had parents who laid their cards on the table. Who told me what we could and could not afford. Who pointed to schoolmates with more luxurious lifestyles and punctured the image by deliberating where that money might have come from, what sacrifices may have been made in order to get hold of it. I was told that I was lucky to have a father who came home in the evenings and at weekends, who turned down more lucrative opportunities because he had different values and preferred to be at home with his family. By the same turn, my parents got lucky that I happened to observe one or two things that supported their rhetoric. Perhaps the most poignant moment was during a pool party at the house of a particularly wealthy classmate. They had an amazing house and an incredible lifestyle, one which could easily have impressed a child of my age. But the birthday girl’s mother spent the entire proceedings lying on a sun-lounger while we were supervised by the au pair, which I found really weird. (I was too young to work out that the mother was drunk, but realised this in later years). What I did understand at the time was that the child’s father made a brief appearance at around 4.00pm and she burst into tears: he was wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase and was leaving his daughter on her birthday to go to work. I remember thinking there and then, “if this is what buys you a private pool, you can keep it.”

Of course, the debate about where the responsibility lies for financial literacy forms part of a wider discussion on what schools are and should be used for and to what extent we are now asking them to take on things which really should not be their responsibility. I have written before on Labour’s mind-boggling suggestion that schools should take on teaching children how to brush their teeth, and barely a day goes by when there isn’t a story of a child sent in to primary school incapable of buttoning up their own coat, doing up their own shoelaces or even the basics of toilet training. Schools are now the receptacle for every failure in social care and – let us not be afraid to say it – every failure in parenting. It simply is not sustainable.

When I mentioned Reid’s comment on Twitter I received a lot of replies, with plenty of people telling me whether they did or did not recall receiving any teaching about financial literacy when they were in school. As always, everyone thinks their own recollections of school reflect the reality then and now, and everyone labours under the illusion that their own recollections are 100% accurate. If I believed every tutee who claimed they’d “never been taught” something I’d be declaring a state of emergency in Latin teaching across some of the most prestigious schools in the country. The reality? Well, they have been taught it, they just didn’t take it in at the time and it’s my job to fix that. The teaching of financial literacy in schools does take place and Reid’s children will in all likelihood have been given some basic teaching on taxes. Could the teaching of financial literacy improved? Certainly. As Lewis pointed out in the discussion on GMB, it is a topic currently divided between Maths and Citizenship in state secondary schools, so it might be a good idea to have someone with overall responsibility for coordinating the curriculum on finances across the whole school. Great idea. I’m all in favour. However, there will still be kids who simply don’t take it on board and I come back again and again to the reality that nothing is so powerful as the messaging a child receives at home.

So, Susanna: if you truly wanted your children to understand about paying taxes, then maybe you should have talked to them about such things on a regular basis to prepare them for the world they will be inhabiting. Your children have grown up in a household with a fair bit more money than the average person, so I hope very much that this was discussed. I hope you told them when times were tight, or explained to them how lucky they were that this was never the case, since mummy does a job that is considered worthy of a salary that most people in equally worthy professions could only dream about. I hope you talked to them about how much prices have gone up in the last couple of years. Do they know why most supermarkets now have a donation point for local food banks? Do they know the answer to the classic question that MPs are so frequently challenged with: do they know the price of a pint of milk these days? Do you? You see, your children’s teachers were not responsible for explaining the basics of how the world works. That job, I’m afraid, was yours.

Photo by micheile henderson on Unsplash

Like nobody’s watching

Glorious sunshine is finally upon us and the temperature is going up, so it must be exam time. Some of my most distinct memories from both my A levels and my degree finals are of my hand sliding down my pen and sticking to the exam paper as I wrote line after line in a heatwave. Some things never change.

Bizarrely, I have mainly positive memories of written exams. You might think that this is easy to say for someone who has been reasonably successful educationally, but I should make it clear that I did not have the easiest of rides in all subjects. Mathematics in particular was a real struggle for me and – classified at school as academically strong – it took me some time and a lot of failure to convince the school that I should be placed in the bottom set. This was the only way I would be allowed to sit the Foundation paper and it paid off – I got the Grade C that I needed for the door to further education to remain open for me. But it was a struggle. Not every subject came easily to me and I was not always someone who excelled.

Despite my chequered history across the full gamut of academic subjects, I learnt to enjoy written exams. Some of my students look at me in genuine disbelief when I say this, but it’s true. The thing is, written exams are distinctly different from a performance, something else which I had felt (and put myself) under enormous pressure to do. While concerts and musical examinations made me quite literally sick with fear and my overwhelming memory of those experiences is unremittingly negative, my response to written exams felt quite different. For me, a written exam was an intensely private experience. No one is watching. It’s just you and the paper. As you write, nobody knows how well or badly it’s going. You could be writing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” a thousand times over, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and nobody would know. On the other hand, you could be producing sheer genius. Who can tell?

The anonymity of written examinations freed me up to perform and I am aware that this is a preference that has affected many aspects of my life: I am not keen on public performance and the older I get the harder it has become. This might seem to some extraordinary for a classroom teacher to say, but there are many teacher introverts and you’d be surprised how forgiving a classroom of teenagers can be, not least because they are usually far more worried about their own insecurities to pick yours apart. Standing at the front of a classroom feels completely different from standing in front of any other kind of audience, particularly one that is there explicitly to criticise. OfSted was not much fun for precisely this reason, although I believe I handled the process better than most. The reality is that I had no choice. Every job has its downsides.

As I maintain my (so far) regular and increasingly habitual twice-weekly visits to the gym, I am struck by the members who are there to perform to others. Most notable is the girl who films herself on her mobile phone. Dressed in tightly-clad lycra, she records her performance of deadlifts and uploads them to social media. It seems a desperately sad way to live, even if she’s making money as an influencer: for me, the pay-off of being judged 24 hours a day would not be worth the money and certainly the reports we already have from ex-influencers are testament to the detrimental effect that this kind of lifestyle has on their mental health. Being under intense scrutiny is remarkably stressful; making one’s income depend upon this must be doubly so.

Having just finished Jonathan Haidt’s Anxious Generation, I have been thinking a lot about Gen Z and the fact that they have grown up under scrutiny. No generation before has experienced the combination of our modern obsession with constant adult supervision to “keep children safe” combined with a quite horrifying lack of gate-keeping online that has opened the door on their lives to the world. Even prior to Haidt’s research I had found myself pondering that the generation which has grown up with the world in their pocket seems to feel the weight of that world more than any other generation has done so, despite the fact that their world is in fact a safer and healthier place than it has ever been for previous generations. Something has gone horribly wrong that this generation feels so bad. The world should be their oyster.

None of us wants to be the one to say it’s the smart phones, as none of us wants to be the pearl-clutching old fuddy-duddy that blames the colour TV or the latest computer game for all the ills in the world. But I don’t think it extreme to say that having the eyes of one’s peers and indeed the eyes of the entire world upon one 24-hours a day is not good for the soul and that equipping children with a device that makes this inevitable was an emphatically, catastrophically bad idea. Children (and indeed adults) need time out, time unsupervised, time unjudged to make mistakes and to mess up, without the whole process being recorded and played back on a loop until the day they die. I don’t know a single member of my generation that isn’t thankful they did not grow up with this and that we did not have our thoughts, ideas, fashion choices and beliefs held to account and digitally recorded to haunt us forever.

If I could gift the next generation with one thing it would be the right to dance like nobody’s watching. I fear we may have robbed them of this privilege we all took for granted a long time ago.

Photo by Adrian Diaz-Sieckel on Unsplash

Making a habit of it

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Will Durrant, American historian, paraphrasing Aristotle

On the internet, where dodgy misattributions abound, this quotation is invariably ascribed to Aristotle himself. In fact, it is taken from historian and prolific author Will Durrant’s early 20th century work, The Story of Philosophy. In chapter 2 he examines Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and summarises his interpretation as above.

Despite undoubtedly being a genius, Aristotle was a master of the practical over and above the theoretical, which is perhaps the reason why his ideas have endured so successfully. He was one of the few thinkers of his time to acknowledge that philosophy is a luxury: that certain physiological and indeed psychological needs must be met before one can dedicate one’s time to it. He argued that there was never a simple way to define anything, that even the most fundamental moral definitions can vary with circumstances. He also argued, as Durrant summarised so pithily, that living well comes to a large extent through the repeated automation of good habits, and that being theoretically good was not much use in isolation without action.

This week, I finished James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a spectacularly popular book I have been in the queue for at my local library for several months. Conscious of the even longer queue that came after me (it is next available in December!) I finished the book within a couple of days. This was not a difficult task. I can see why there has been so much fuss about it and why for some it has been genuinely revelatory. As a reasonably well-organised and self-motivated person, I would not go so far as to say that I found the book life-changing, but I certainly found it helpful and agreed whole-heartedly with his refreshingly pragmatic approach. To take just one example, he makes the point that people who appear to be good at resisting temptation (a characteristic that many of my friends claim I possess) are in fact merely better at avoiding it – ingraining the habit, for example, that you do not buy certain foodstuffs is always more successful than buying them and telling yourself that you will consume them in moderation: the latter is simply too difficult to achieve.

Above all else, Clear’s point is that successful people (and you can define “success” in whatever way you choose) develop good habits while others do not. This might seem obvious, but it is precisely his unerring focus on habits that is so radical. While other self-help manuals exhort people to find their motivation and attempt to inspire us to make dramatic changes in our lives, Clear focuses on advising us to develop better habits incrementally: to take advantage of our brain’s ability to assimilate and automate regular and repeated behaviours. For example, I have said to myself: “I will go to the gym at x time on a Monday and a Thursday every week.” How do I make sure that this happens? Well, Clear advises going when I can, whatever the circumstances. If I miss a session due to illness or emergency, it becomes even more important to ensure that I make it the next time. If I can only go for 10 minutes, I should go for 10 minutes. This is because the habit of going is what’s most important. To quote another oft-used saying, perfectionism is the enemy of progress: if I let my abstract desire to achieve the perfect full work-out every time I go to the gym dominate over the priority of simply going habitually, I put my long-term gains at risk. It is easy to use the fact that on any one particular day I simply don’t have time for the perfect workout as an excuse not to go at all. Instead, I should focus on developing the habit of attending come what may, even if my peformance is sub-optimal: the enduring habit is the path to life-long fitness.

One of the things Clear expresses beautifully is the limited power of motivation, something I have written about less skilfully here. I am a firm believer that motivation is difficult to come by and has limited value when it comes to the reality of the daily grind – for example, the regular gym visits necessary to attain fitness or the repeated vocabulary learning required to sit a Latin exam. Humans need to experience some practical gains before they can achieve any kind of motivation and even then motivation can fail. Clear mentions a discussion he had with a coach who trains successful weight-lifters. The coach attributed the difference between those who make it and those who don’t not to some bottomless pit of inspiration or self-motivation but quite simply to their tolerance for boredom: their capacity to stick with the programme of repeated lifts, day after day, without quitting. Fundamentally, that’s all that makes the difference.

One of my tutees, with less than a fortnight to go before their exam, suddenly interrupted our session to ask me about “the best way to learn vocabulary.” Now, I’m not saying there aren’t ways that are better than others, indeed I have written extensively about it and shared a practical guide to exactly that with him and his family months ago. But I know this particular student very well and he’s the sort that is always looking for a silver bullet. He’s the sort that wants a quick fix. The reality is this: there isn’t one. You. Just. Have. To. Do. It. A few words a day, every day, day in day out, over and again, until you’ve learnt them. This is what he has never been willing to hear and he wasn’t particularly thrilled when I said it again.

On my way to my first ever solo gym visit (yes, I made it!) I was stopped by a guy who was getting out of his car and wanted directions to the station. Rising above the urge to moan about London commuters who use our road as a free car park, I beamed at him and said I was going in that direction and would show him the way. “I’m heading there,” I said, pointing to the glowering gymnasium squatting next to Jewsons. “Although I’m not particularly thrilled about it.” What he said next precisely summed up Clear’s case in Atomic Habits. “I haven’t been to the gym for months,” he admitted. I told him that it was my first time going alone having lost my work-out buddy and that I wasn’t looking forward to it for that reason. “Ah!” he shouted, confidently, as we parted ways. “You just need to find your motivation!

Coming from a man who had literally just admitted that he had failed to attend his own gym for months, I found this fascinating. He was probably looking at me and thinking that with my attitude I would never keep going. I lacked the motivation to be a proper gym-goer. As for himself, I suspect in his own mind he was just having a blip. Okay, a blip that had lasted for several months, but a blip nonetheless. He was motivated to go, he simply hadn’t had the time, recently. Work had been manic. But do you see the problem? I think I do. In all honesty, I do not feel motivated to go to the gym. I don’t want to go. But I’m going. That’s the point. It’s the same thing that got me through my PhD, which I hated every minute of; while others claimed to love their research and yet gradually fell by the wayside and quit, I dragged myself up every day, wrote a few paragraphs, cried a lot, and eventually finished it. The practical grind beats the theoretical, the habit beats the concept. Sometimes, the hamster on the wheel is the ultimate winner.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Hell on earth

I have entered into the jaws of hell, grasped the horns of Beelzebub, set foot upon the murky plains of Orcus and gazed upon the yawning chasms of Tartarus. Yes. I have joined a local gym.

It will be difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend the true extent of the horrors that crouch within the bowels of this threatening locale. We’re not talking luxury establishment here, we’re talking the most affordable end of the market: so affordable, in fact, that one finds oneself pondering exactly how it turns a profit for its owners. Are the fittest of the lycra-clad males somehow disappeared, kidnapped and butchered as unwitting organ-donors for the Diamond Membership gym-goers at David Lloyd? The cheap-tastic gym I’ve become a member of operates 24 hours a day: who knows what goes on in the early hours of the morning.

Simply entering the premises, which sits nestled next to Jewsons Industrial Supplies, is a challenge: one is provided with a PIN number and a QR code, which only veteran members seem able to operate with confidence. “Stick it under the wotsit” says a voice behind me, as I fiddle anxiously with my phone, my friend already through security and staring at me through the fishbowl doors. After a few more seconds of stress, I successfully scan myself into a sealed glass pod, inside which I wait for what seems like an interminable pause, trying to quell the rising panic that I might never be released from the upright glass coffin. After a few seconds, I am spewed out into hell.

WE ARE AN ALL-INCLUSIVE SPACE screams a metre-high wall-notice above a Huel dispensing machine, while the throbbing of intolerable, interminable and unidentifiable music confirms that this all-inclusive space is emphatically not for people like me. The hell-hole itself possesses all the worst qualities of a modern airport, combined with the most depressing establishments to be found in Vegas, Nevada; high ceilings, swirling carpet and synthetic air circulating around a room that never sleeps, no matter what the time of day. Glassy-eyed acolytes move around the equipment like drones around their queen, hovering and quivering with anticipation. Let the horrors commence.

First stop, legs. My ever-patient friend introduces me to a machine designed to supercede the need for squats. I assume the position, which appears to be the one favoured by brutalist midwives back in the 1950s – legs akimbo, knees bent and bottom up. “Put them on the pallet!” says my friend, as my feet flail erratically like the limbs of an upturned cockroach. “Push the pallet away from you as hard as you can.” I oblige, and the pallet fails to move, so my friend adjusts the machine to what must surely be its lowest possible setting, enabling me to gain some kind of purchase upon it. I strain my muscles. Nearby, an ashen-faced male in his 40s stares blankly ahead as he rows back and forth on the spot, AirPods bright white against his ears. Behind him, two younger men laboriously climb a pair of miniature revolving escalators in Sisyphean endeavour. This cannot be happening: I’m having a moment of existential dread and we’re only 5 minutes in.

More leg action with a new machine means using my front thigh muscles to raise a bar from ground level to knee-height. This is quite okay, but I veto the third and final leg-based apparatus, which requires one to lie face-down, spreadeagled over an A-frame reminiscent of the spanking horses favoured in boys’ boarding schools during the 18th century. There has to be a line somewhere, I decide.

The machines themselves are terrifying contraptions with indecipherable instructions, all sprung weights and glistening, wipe-clean leatherette. I survey them dubiously, pondering the fact that my friend had informed me of that morning, that the gym possesses a pool with no water in it. “Why?” I had asked her. “Well, the premises used to be owned by a more expensive brand, but the business model of this one doesn’t run to the cost of a swimming pool,” she said. So the empty chasm remains, presumably waiting for the surely inevitable moment when the gym-goers become overwhelmed by the need to throw themselves headfirst into the abyss.

Finished with the leg-machines, we investigate those designed to challenge the shoulders and arms. Most extraordinary is one designed to support users in attempting full-body pull-ups, a device so complex that I find myself whooshed uncontrollably into the air at the end of the set, dangling from its handles like a spider from a curtain. “There is a more elegant way to dismount,” says my friend, benevolently. “Put your feet on the footholds when you’re in the raised position, and climb down from there.” Of course.

Most of you are probably wondering why on earth I am putting myself through this hideous ordeal. Well, you may recall (I wrote about it here) that around 5 months ago I embarked upon a programme of resistance training with the friend who is guiding me through this chamber of horrors and, reader, I stuck with it. Against all predictions, with the exception of a couple of weeks away and one bout of illness, my friend and I have met twice a week every week since November and she has taken my embarassingly pathetic attempts and turned them into a really quite respectable performance of squats, lunges, push-ups and weight-lifting. My body-shape has changed considerably and I can do things I could not do 5 months ago. I have even tried my hand at dead-lifting and am currently managing 42 kilos (not bad for someone who weighs 47).

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. My friend has finished with a period of gardening leave and is about to embark upon a new, high-powered role doing clever things I don’t understand with sums of money I cannot comprehend for a company I’ve never heard of. As a result, she will regretably no longer have the time to supervise my own personal improvement path, so I am forced to find another outlet for my endeavours. Hence, with her unwavering support, I have set sail across the waters of Hades, with little to no idea as to whether I will honestly have the willpower to see it through in the longterm. We’ll see. My parents are appalled and have openly told me that I won’t stick with it. They may well be right. Yet a stubborn voice of self-knowledge in my head says that I’m more likely to work out if I have somewhere to go and do it; convincing myself that I shall do so in the comfort of my own home has not proved successful so far. My home is too – well – comfortable. So, the hell-hole it is.

Maybe I’ll be like Persephone, and manage to visit hell for at least half the year. Half the year is better than nothing.

Photo by Peter Leong on Unsplash

A picture is worth a thousand words

One of the most disquieting things about the world in which we find ourselves is that our eyes and ears can be deceived. In my younger years, I never would have believed this possible. I was raised on movies such as Clash of the Titans and One Million Years BC, so the idea that special effects would ever become genuinely convincing seemed ludicrous to me. Yet fast forward a few years to the advent of CGI and I was witnessing films such as Jurassic Park, so I guess I should have seen the next stage coming.

The advent of AI is genuinely unsettling. We already inhabit a world in which it is possible to make anyone say anything. Take an image of someone famous, take their voice, feed it into the right kind of software managed by someone with decent skills and bingo – you’ve got Sadiq Khan saying “I control the Met police and they will do as the London Mayor orders” and suggesting that the Armistice Day memorial service be moved in order to make way for a pro-Palestininan march to take place. Even Sadiq Khan himself agreed that it sounded exactly like him. It kind of was him. Only he never said it. So this is where we are.

One of the earliest cases of mass hysteria over a fake photograph took place in the early 1900s, when nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother – both newly arrived in the UK from South Africa – were staying with Frances’s aunt Polly and cousin Elsie, in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire. Elsie and Frances played together in the valley at the bottom of the garden, and said that they went there to see the fairies. To prove it, Elsie borrowed her father’s camera and dark room and produced a series of photographs of the two of them … well … playing with fairies. While Elsie’s father immediately dismissed the photographs as a fake and a prank on the part of the girls, Elsie’s mother was convinced by them. The pictures came to the attention of writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who used them to illustrate an article on fairies he had been commissioned to write for the Christmas 1920 edition of The Strand Magazine. As a spiritualist, like many thinking men of his time, Doyle was convinced by the photographs, and interpreted them as clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena. He was not alone.

One of five photographs taken by Elsie Wright (1901–1988) and Frances Griffiths (1907–1986)

This week’s horrendouly doctored photograph of the Princess of Wales and her three children was an extraordinary example of incompetence on the part of the Royal family’s comms team. Into a world which is already somewhat alive with gossip about the welfare and whereabouts of the princess, they released a photograph so badly edited that it was immediately withdrawn by major news outlets such as Reuters and the Associated Press. Reporting in the mainstream media has remained broadly philosophical and seems to accept claims by the palace that Kate herself had simply been messing about with Photoshop, that the photograph is a poorly-executed mash-up of several frames. Those of us that hang around on the internet, however, will know that the incident has sent the world into meltdown, with theories as to the whereabouts and welfare of the princess going wild. Many people believe that the botched photograph is a complete fake that proves Kate is currently either unwilling or unable to be photographed for real. Some have even convinced themselves that she is dead.

In a world where trust in authorities is becoming more and more eroded, I wonder whether the advent of AI will make us more and more afraid. I am a little afraid myself. Photographs used to be damning evidence and fake versions of them so obvious that they held no sway in a court of law or in the court of (reasoned) public opinion. These days, not only can convincing photographs be easily faked, but this fact opens up what is perhaps an even more frightening prospect: that anyone will be able to get away with anything, simply by claiming that the evidence as to their guilt is faked. Caught me with my hands in the till? It’s a fake. Caught me on camera with the secretary, darling? It’s a fake. Caught me attacking that person? It’s a fake. I find myself wondering how any of us will ever be sure of anything in the future.

Julius Caesar and the longest Leap Year in history

When it came to taking charge of chaotic situations, Julius Caesar did not mess about. The stories surrounding his courage on the battlefield, his talent for strategic thinking and his downright tenacity are countless, but did you know that tackling the hopelessly disorganised Roman calendar and introducing the concept of the Leap Year was also among Caesar’s claims to fame?

Picture the scene. You’re a farmer in the 1st century BC and – according to the calendar, which circled around the ritual of state religion – you ought to be doling out ripe vegetables ready for the festivals of plenty. Yet to you and any of your slave-labourers, for whom the passage of the seasons are essential, it is clear that those harvests are months away from fruition. How did this end up happening? Well, the Roman calendar had become so out of sync with astronomical reality that annual festivals were starting to bear little resemblance to what was going on in the real world. Something had to be done.

Julius Caesar wanted to fix the mess but this was no mean feat: to shift the entire Roman empire and all its provinces onto a calendar that was properly aligned with both the rotation of Earth on its axis (one day) and its orbit of the Sun (a year). Caesar’s solution created not only the longest year in history, adding months to the calendar during that year, it also anchored the calendar to the seasons and brought us the leap year. It was a phenomenal task. We are in 46BC, otherwise known as “the year of confusion”.

Centuries prior to Caesar’s intervention, the early Roman calendar was drawn up according to the cycles of the Moon and the agricultural year. The origins of the calendar being focused on agriculture gave rise to the phenomenon of a calendar with only 10 months in it, starting in spring, with the tenth and final month of the year roughly equivalent to what we now know as December. Six of the months had 30 days, and four had 31 days, giving a total of 304 days. So what about the rest? Well, this is where it gets really weird. For the two “months” of the year when there was no work being done in the fields, those days were simply not counted. The Sun continued to rise and set but – according to the early Roman calendar, no “days” officially passed. As far back as 731BC people realised that this was a little unhinged, and King Numa, the second King of Rome tried to improve the situation by introducing two extra months to cover that dead winter period. He added 51 days to the calendar, creating what we now call January and February, and this extension brought the calendar year up to 355 days.

If you think that 355 days seems like an odd number, you’d be right. The number took its starting point from the lunar year (12 lunar months), which is 354 days long. However, due to Roman superstitions about even numbers being unlucky, an additional day was added to make a nice non-threatening 355. At the same time, and for the same reason, the months of the year were arranged in such a way that they all had odd numbers of days, except for February, which had 28. February, as a result, was considered to be unlucky and became a time during which the dead were honoured as well as a time of ritual purification.

This all looks like good progress, but it was a situation that still left the Romans around 11 days out from the Solar year and even with all the improvements made, it remained inevitable that the calendar would gradually become more and more out of sync with the seasons, which are controlled by the Earth’s position in relation to the sun. By the 2nd century BC things had got so bad that a near-total eclipse of the Sun was observed in Rome in what we would now consider to be mid-March, but it was recorded as having taken place on 11th July.

Increasingly unable to escape the problem, the College of Pontiffs in Rome resorted to inserting an additional month called Mercedonius on an ad-hoc basis to try to realign the calendar. This did not go well, since public officials tended to pop the month in whenever it suited them best politically, without sufficient focus on the goal of re-aligning the calendar with the seasons. According to Suetonius, if anything it made the situation worse: “the negligence of the Pontiffs had disordered the calendar for so long through their privilege of adding months or days at pleasure, that the harvest festivals did not come in summer nor those of the vintage in the autumn”.

During 46BC – Caesar’s year of confusion – there was already an extra Mercedonius month planned for that year. But Caesar’s Egyptian astronomical advisor Sosigenes, warned that Mercedonius wasn’t going to be enough this time and that things were getting drastic. On the astronomer’s advice, Caesar therefore added another two extra months to the year, one of 33 days and one of 34, to bring the calendar in line with the Sun. These additions created the longest year in history: 15 months, lasting 445 days. Caesar’s drastic intervention brought the calendar back in line with the seasons, meaning that the practice of the ad hoc extra month of Mercedonius could be abandoned.

Of course, getting the calendar to line up with the Sun is one thing; keeping it that way is quite another. As an astronomer, Sosigenes was well aware of the problem. The issue arises from the inconvenient fact that there aren’t a nice round number of days (i.e. Earth rotations) per year (i.e. Earth orbits of the Sun). The number of Earth rotations on each of its trips around the Sun is – I am reliably infomed – roughly 365.2421897. Hence the problem and hence the need for a leap year. The Earth fits in almost an extra quarter-turn every time it does a full orbit of the Sun. Sosigenes therefore calculated that adding an extra day every four years – in February – would help to fix the mismatch. It doesn’t completely solve the problem forever, but it was a jolly good stop-gap.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

First, do no harm

primum non nocere: first, do no harm.

A central tenet of the Hippocratic oath

As Tom Bennet OBE wrote on the platform formerly known as Twitter this week, “Even qualified practitioners are bound to ‘do no harm’. But the desire to support children leads many schools to well-meant but potentially damaging mental health ‘interventions’.”

This week I have listened to a quite horrifying piece of investigative journalism by the Financial Times into Goenka mindfulness retreats, at which attendees are encouraged to practise an extreme kind of meditation known as Vipassana. People on the retreat are not allowed to speak and strongly discouraged from leaving for 10 days. They are awakened at 4.00am, deprived of food and taught to meditate for multiple hours per day. Anyone who struggles with the process or becomes confused or distressed is encouraged to keep meditating. For those of you with even the most basic grasp of mental health and wellbeing, it will not come as a massive shock to discover that some people are affected very negatively by this process. I recommend you listen to the podcast but please be aware that it does not shy away from some very difficult material: there are people who have lost their loved ones to this process.

Human beings are social animals. We have evolved to live in groups and we know that extreme social isolation and withdrawal has a very negative effect on mental health and wellbeing in an extremely short time. The dangerous impact of solitary confinement is well-documented and has caused neuroscientists to campaign against its prolonged use in the penal system. Even good old-fashioned and ever-familiar loneliness has been proved to have a significant impact on a person’s health and longevity, never mind their psychological well-being. It should not surprise us in the least to discover that a process which demands people shut themselves off from each other and concentrate entirely and exclusively on the what’s inside their own head carries the risk of a psychotic break.

As part of my studies during my degree in Classics I did a course on the rise of Christianity in the Roman world. I recall reading an account of the life of St Antony by the Bishop Athanasius and being particularly struck by a passage that reports upon his demeanour when leaving a fortress in which he had shut himself for 20 years in order to commune with God and battle his demons. It reads as follows:

“Antony, as from a shrine, came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the spirit of God. Then for the first time he was seen outside the fort by those who came to see him. And they, when they saw him, wondered at the sight, for he had the same habit of body as before … but his soul was free from blemish, for it was neither contracted as if by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor possessed by laughter or dejection. For he was not troubled when he beheld the crowd, nor overjoyed at being saluted by so many.”

While I do not wish to mock or offend anyone’s deeply-held beliefs, it seems pretty clear to me that this is a description of someone who has completely detached from other human beings and is suffering from the psychological effects of that process. While the religiously-minded among you may see this as an account of someone in touch with the holy spirit, I see it as an account of someone who is suffering from a psychotic break. Antony is described as being unmoved by and disconnected from the people around him, in possession of a strange kind of detachment. Given that he had spent 20 years in isolation while – in his mind – battling between good and evil, this is not greatly surprising.

During my final few years in mainstream education there was a big push on “mindfulness” for all students. This was what Tom Bennet was referring to in the Tweet I quoted at the start of this blog and I share his concerns about this growing trend. The mental health of young people is a painful and emotive issue and has been brought into sharp relief once again with calls from a grieving mother asking for mindfulness to be rolled out across all state schools (although it is already being promoted and practised in many). As Daniel Bundred wrote on the same platform as Tom a few months ago, “Schools probably shouldn’t do mindfulness, because most teachers are fundamentally unqualified to lead mindfulness, and entirely unequipped to deal with the potential outcomes of it.” As he puts it, “Mindfulness strikes me as being very similar to guided meditation in approach and potentially outcome; how many teachers could handle a student experiencing ego-death in their classroom? Ego-death is a potential outcome of successful meditation, it’s not desirable in tutor time.” Daniel here is referencing exactly the kind of experiences that the young people who underwent a psychotic break at the Goenka retreats have experienced. This is of course the worst-case scenario and while not widespread it is crucially important consider if we are to stick to the concept of “do no harm”; the advocates of the Goenka retreat point to the many people who say that meditation has helped them, as if the handful of attributable deaths are therefore irrelevant. It is essential to remember that teachers (like the volunteers at the Goenka retreats) are not mental health experts; fiddling about with something as potentially profound and intimate as mindfulness or meditation is profundly dangerous and goes way beyond the remit of educators.

Beyond the enormous risk of potential harm to a student who may have experienced past trauma or may simply not be an appropriate candidate for mindfulness for a variety of reasons, there is an increasing amount of evidence indicating that mindfulness in schools does no good for anybody. A recent study revealed no tangible positive outcomes, which places the profund risk of harm to some in an even more alarming context. Why are we doing something with risks attached to it when there are no estimable benefits anyway? Beyond this, why are we demanding that teachers expend their time and energy on something unnproven and valueless?

Tom Bennet is right. As he puts it: “The best way to support children’s mental health in a school environment? Provide a culture that is safe, calm and dignified. With purposeful activities.” In our desperation to support the most vulnerable of children, we must never forget the simple power of providing routine, stability and boundaries for those whose personal and emotional lives may well (for all we know) be dominated by chaos, trauma and distress. The more we acknowledge that some children face the most horrifying of circumstances, the more essential the security of our education system becomes. School and the reassurance that its stability provides is a lifeline for many of our children. This is what we should be providing for them.

Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

False judgements

Emotions got a bad rap from ancient philosophers. Most agreed that the ideal state was a kind of calmness that the Hellenistic philosophers (most famously the Epicureans and the Stoics) called ataraxia. There was even talk of apatheia – a detachment from the chaos of feelings and overwhelm. This is perhaps unsurprising if you understand the birth of western philosophy; if you’re trying to formulate, define and distil the key to the perfect life and the perfect society (which is what the early founders of western philosophy were trying to do) then it probably doesn’t include your citizens experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions. Once you’ve admitted that emotions are a bit of a distraction and often cause issues both on a personal level and for society, it’s not much of an overreach to find yourself arguing for a state of detachment.

The term “stoic” these days is synonymous with having a “stiff upper lip” but this is based on a crucial misunderstanding of the Stoic position. The Stoics did not advocate for iron-clad self-control or suppressing your feelings. Rather, they believed that all emotions were what they called “false judgements”, which meant that they were based on a misunderstanding: if you’re feeling them, you’re still getting it wrong. In the ideal philosophical life that they strove for, a person would have such a great understanding of himself, the world and his place within it that he would not suffer at the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: he would simply nod and know the right thing to do. One example given is that a Stoic would run into a burning building in order to attempt to save a child because that is the right thing to do; they also argued, however, that a true Stoic would feel no distress when his mission failed. Weird, isn’t it? Interesting, though.

One of the frustrating things about this period of philosophy is that much of the writings that we have are general “sayings”, snippets or purported quotations which appear in the works of later authors, usually writing in Latin rather than in Greek, and reporting on what a particular thinker or school of thinkers believed. The reality of this of course is that they may be wrong. For example, there is a famous quotation attributed to Epicurus that states “the wise man is happy on the rack”. Quite how this works within a school of philosophy that was dedicated to the avoidance of pain is puzzling. If the quotation is correct, our best guess is that the Epicureans certainly spent a lot of their time considering the correct attitude towards unavoidable pain, for this was one of the biggest challenges to their philosophical position; presumably the “wise man” – someone at the pinnacle of philosophical endeavour – would know how to cope with pain in extremis.

Most people see Epicureanism and Stoicism as polar opposites and they were indeed rival schools of philosophy at the time. As so often, however, there was more that united them than divided them. Both schools were arguing and aiming for the perfect life and the state of detachment that philosophers before them had explored; both schools were concerned with how to manage our responses to pain and distress. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the Stoics believed in proactive, conscious and deliberate involvement in society and its structures, whereas the Epicureans were a bit more lethargic about the whole idea – getting involved with politics is painful and distressing, so is it really rational to bother?

One philosopher, writing before the Stoics and the Epicureans, was unusual in his take on emotions. Aristotle argued that emotions were appropriate and necessary: the trick was understanding when and how you should be feeling them and what to do with them. He spoke of “righteous anger” and argued that a good philosopher would indeed feel such a thing. It is difficult to explain how truly radical this position was, when the way the philosophical movement was drifting was towards ataraxia and apatheia. Aristotle also smashed through the Socratic idea that philosophical ideals such as “courage” and “justice” could be defined in one way and that if one could not do so then one lacked an understanding of them. Aristotle argued that there were multiple forms of “courage” and “justice” and that nobody could define them in one simple way nor apply their principles in individual cases without discussion, debate and compromise. What a genius he was.

Why the hell am I writing about this? Well, I spoke to a friend yesterday who has taken a decision about which she feels guilty. I cannot divulge the details of this decision as I do not want to betray her confidence. Suffice to say that it was a professional decision, the right decision and one which the people affected will hopefully benefit from in the long-run. There is no doubt – in my mind and even in hers – that the decision was right and good. Yet she still feels what she describes as “guilty” about it.

This reminded me yet again of The Greeks and the Irrational by ER Dodds, a book written in the 1950s, which I mentioned in another blog a few weeks ago. One of the chapters in the book argues that the Athenian world was a “shame culture” and that later ancient societies – the Hellenistic world and the Roman worlds – began the shift towards a “guilt culture”. I have thought about this on and off all of my life. The very thought that the nature of one’s emotions can be dictated by the society in which one grows up is fascinating to me. Dodds argues (rightly, I think) that modern society is more person-centric and hence feelings such as guilt can be internalised; in Athens, one’s personal standing and engagement with society was more relevant (a symptom perhaps of living in a small and emergent city-state) and therefore a sense of shame before others was more powerful than any kind of internalised guilt.

As I listened to my friend who left me some WhatsApp voice messages (I love them – it’s like receiving a personalised podcast!) I found myself wondering whether the Stoics had it right. Sometimes emotions truly are false judgements. My friend has no reason to feel guilty about her actions and she should strive to release herself from the false state of mind in which this feeling distresses her. According to the Stoic ideal she has prevailed in her actions but has not yet achieved the ideal state of detachment. So how should she achieve this goal? Well, I guess it depends on your approach to these things. A Stoic would advocate for rigorous rational analysis and say that this will eventually lead to release from one’s feelings. This is not, in fact, a million miles away from cognitive behavioural therapy, the therapy model supported by psychiatrists and many psychologists, who would say that she needs to question why she feels guilty and challenge her reasons for doing so. A psychologist with leanings towards the psychodynamic model would argue that she needs to explore where her feelings might stem from – does the situation remind her of experiences in her past, during which she has been made to feel or to carry guilt that perhaps should not have been hers? (Pretty sure the Stoics wouldn’t have been up for that one).

Whatever the answer in this particular circumstance, personally I find myself returning to the Stoics time and again. They were a fascinating turning point in philosophical history and paved the way – I believe – towards modern psychiatry. After all, what is the difference between sanity and insanity if not the difference between the rational and the irrational, the true and the untrue, the controlled and the uncontrolled? I will leave you with the Stoic image of how the individual should relate to society – not because I advocate for it, necessarily, but because it’s a classic and a model I have never stopped thinking about since I first learned about it in the 1990s. The Stoics believed that individuals could not control fate but they also argued that individuals had free will. So an individual person is like a dog tied to the back of a wagon. Whatever the dog’s actions, the wagon will go on its way. So how does the dog have free will? Well, he can resist the wagon and be dragged along, impeding the wagon’s progress and damaging himself along the way. Alternatively, he can trot along like a good dog and help the wagon to proceed smoothly.

This incredible photo is by Jaseel T on Unsplash.
It was taken in the Museum of the Future in Dubai