mens sana in corpore sano

As a teacher, I never took any exercise – at least, not in the formal sense. I had a brisk 13-minute walk to work and back, I taught on my feet for most of the day and my classroom was on the first floor; as I am a naturally forgetful person, this led to a lot of racing up and down. According to my FitBit device, I was doing plenty of exercise – not always the golden target of 10,000 steps every day but hey, that arbitrary round figure was made up by the guy who invented the pedometer, so I’ve never taken it too seriously. On some days I did way more – 15,000 steps was not unusual if I met a friend in town after work.

According to my buzzing wrist-nag, I was really very active while I was a teacher. I completely smashed the daily targets of stair-flights and standing hours, as well as the minimum healthy amount of brisk aerobic challenge every day; I’ve always walked fast and never seen the point of dawdling either on the way to work or on the way home. All of this meant that for most of my life, exercise has been laid on as a part of my career and a part of my lifestyle; I simply didn’t need to think about it.

Now my lifestyle has changed I suddenly face the inescapable fact that I simply must start working some exercise into my daily routine as a discrete, deliberate activity – it no longer comes as a perk of the job. I’ve always done a fair amount of sitting on my butt during the summer holidays, so in my mind it was the start of September when this needed to happen, to mimic the return to active living that my job has always gifted me. But what should I do?

Well, there is a branch of Pure Gym just at the end of our road (as evidenced by the number of cars that drive down it in their pursuit of burning fossil fuel on their way to burning their own calories) but the very notion of joining a gym is anathema to me. I’ve probably seen too many episodes of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, but the horror of joining the hoardes of glassy-eyed, lycra-clad gym-goers and hooking myself up to a machine genuinely brings me out in hives. So, my solution is simple. I shall go out for a brisk walk – something between a yomp and a half-hearted jog – first thing in the morning. I may progress onto something approaching a gentle extended jog but I need to take that very cautiously – I tried running before, went way too quickly and my spine (which is in scoliosis) told me in no uncertain terms that I was a total idiot for doing so: without going into details, I’ve never experienced pain like it, before or since. Still, from all the reading I have done, there is no reason why a person with scoliosis cannot go jogging; we just need to take it very gently. Lesson learnt on that score!

Some days I make plans to go walking with a local friend, in which case I can combine exercise with a chat – always a good idea; recently, I have also been checking out some local retirement villages as a possible location for my parents to move to, and getting to those has been quite a hike at times. Sometimes I have business in town (fun things like dental work) and said town is a very decent 20-minute walk. On such days, when the regular irritation of being a non-driver means that walking is my only realistic option to get myself about, I may skip my morning blast; but on any other day, I have agreed with myself, the yomp is non-negotiable. Even – as it was this morning – in the rain.

Now this is the strange thing – I have always maintained that committing to exercise is a chore, something you have to do rather than something you want to do. It was with this mindset that I started the process. Yet, within a very short time and without any effort on my part, my mindset has changed. Exercise now feels like an indulgent act of self-care, something I feel genuinely privileged to have the time for. I have chosen a route that runs down the canal, which means viewing a stretch of water and some wildlife, which definitely improves the experience beyond that of pounding the pavement. I am honestly astonished how much I am enjoying it, how much it feels like an act of self-indulgence rather than a necessity. All of this, I am quite certain, is because I have time.

There is no end to the number of self-help books and the pages of online advice telling people to “make time for themselves” but the reality when you’re working full time – especially in a job such as teaching – is that time is at a premium. When I was a teacher, the very notion of finding time to commit to some exercise felt impossible (and indeed – given the very active nature of my job – unnecessary). Yet I am amazed how my mindset has changed since the start of my new career and how quickly something which felt like a tedious necessity has become a real joy. This morning – would you believe it – the rain increased that joy. For someone like me, who always walked to work, the rain has been nothing but a huge inconvenience in the past; but in my scruffy exercise attire rather than my work clothes, hair plastered down by the wet and make-up free, it felt genuinely joyful – a natural, wondrous experience and one to be treasured. This is the difference that time gives you. I had the time to go out in the rain for 45 minutes, because I had the time to come home, take a shower, change, fix my hair and do my make-up. When you’re stuck in the school building and under pressure to look at least vaguely presentable between 7.30am and 5.00pm there just never seem to be enough hours in the day to make that kind of mud-splashed frolicking a viable option.

Now I have the time, I feel like a child again.

Happy New Year

tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis

For those of us whose lives are tied up with education, the academic year can be a far more powerful marker of the changing times than the winter solstice.

I have always found the gateway to January a strange thing to celebrate, yet the pressure you’re under to party like it’s 1999 on December 31st is relentless. Fast-forward 24 hours and suddenly everyone is on a detox, which is even more depressing: count me out on that one – as if January weren’t miserable enough! January is – without a doubt – the most intolerable month of the year. Long. Cold. Dark. Simply awful. One of my oldest friends has a birthday in the first week of January and she tells me it’s agony. Quite literally, nobody wants to know; everyone battens down the hatches and goes into hibernation when it comes to socialising. It’s a month to be endured, not enjoyed.

September 1st is the New Year for me – always has been. As someone who has never left education, my year has been shaped by the academic calendar for as long as I can remember. I left school for university, stayed there far longer than is decent and then went into a PGCE followed by full-time teaching. I have quite literally never seen the world when it has not been shaped by academic term times and academic holidays. So as the days start to shorten at the end of August, quite strikingly in that final week, it’s as if the world is preparing itself: ah yes, I think, time to sharpen the pencils and prepare the rucksack. Season of lists and hello brutalness: it’s back to the chalkface again.

This year, of course, feels somewhat different for me, and today is particularly symbolic. Today the local school I used to work at opens its doors to staff and welcomes them back for two INSET days prior to students returning on Monday: many schools across the country are following a similar pattern. For the first time in 21 years I will not be there. So what will I be doing? I have a couple of clients in the morning, one child who – like most – is not yet back in school plus a regular adult client. After that – and just because I can – I’ll be going into London to meet an old friend for lunch. Cheers!

I won’t miss the hard plastic chairs and the “vision” for the next five years. I won’t miss the results analysis. I won’t miss the overwhelming feeling that my time could be better spent preparing my classroom and writing my seating plans. I will miss the people, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging. I knew it would be this way: the price we pay for opting out of any system, for jumping off the hamster wheel, is a slight sense of wistfulness as we watch the other hamsters do their scampering. It’s still worth it.

For many teachers, the start of September is marred by anxiety dreams. Many teachers love their job, but this does not make them immune to feelings of apprehension when it’s time to go back to school. Six weeks is a long time away from a job which relies so much on performance and – like any performer – teachers are often plagued with self-doubt prior to their return to the stage. My most common recurring dream is being in front of a class which will simply not listen; I stand impotently at the front, wringing my hands, snapping at the children who either talk over me or laugh. There have been times when I have woken myself up shouting. Strangely enough (or perhaps it’s not so strange) I have still had a couple of these anxiety dreams this year; my subconscious has clearly not absorbed the fact that I will not be returning to the chalkface and is still convinced that I will find myself in front of a class next week; given that I still occasionally have an anxiety dream about completing my PhD – something which I did in 1999 – I’m not holding my breath for when these dreams will stop.

Teaching is a wonderful job in a thousand ways and while the end of the summer holiday was always a bit of a drag (as my husband puts it: fundamentally, work sucks) I did still look forward to the start of the new year in September. There was something wonderful about the fresh start and the preparation for the return of old students and the welcoming of the new. Each year I strived to do a better job than the last and each year – in incremental ways – I believe I managed it.

This year for me brings greater excitement though, as I step into my new guise as professional Latin tutor and start shaping my business for the academic year. The summer is a tricky time for tutors, with many families choosing to take the whole holiday away from the books; despite this, I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of work that has come my way, with several new clients booking in for summer booster sessions and others wishing to make a head-start on their studies for the new academic year. I have an encouraging number of new clients booked in from next week and my weekend slots are already close to full for the year – something I could not have imagined happening so quickly.

So to mark the beginning of the academic year I shall be raising a glass to my colleagues and thinking of the scores of friends I have stepping back up to the chalkface once again. Like me, many of them truly love it, but also like me, many of them have found the last couple of years the toughest since the start of their career. I hope things get better for them. I hope the press and the government cut them some slack for once. I hope OfSted don’t come calling until they’ve at least got into the swing of things once more. I hope they’re able and allowed to turn the heating on when they need it. I hope the students know how lucky they are.

Roman brutality

How much is too much for Year 7?

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have various issues with the new(ish) Latin reading course entitled Suburani. I’m not a fan of the way it approaches the grammar and the clients I have had from schools who have adopted it have all come to me in a state of bewilderment – they have little to no understanding of what they have been learning and their grasp of morphology is woeful.

One aspect of the course that I have found worthwhile – and what is attracting schools to it – is its portrayal of Roman suburban life. There is no idealism and no “whitewashing” here, no triumphalist focus on the easy lives of the wealthy Roman elite. Life is harsh and often desperate; the insulae offer filthy and dangerous accommodation to vulnerable families, a racket run by corrupt landlords on the take, men who are themselves frequently in debt to a wider system of corruption; some appear to be battling with a gambling addiction. There are beggars on the street. Most powerfully of all, we see the reality of how wonders of the ancient world such as the public baths were built and maintained: by slaves under the ground, soot-covered and scorched from the heat of the furnace, contaminated by their time spent in close contact with the sewerage system. Bravo, I thought.

And yet …

During my preparations for working with one client I found myself taking a closer look at chapter 6. The final story in this chapter is a continuation of one called fuga (“flight” or “the escape”), in which two slaves unfortunate enough to be working the fires underneath the baths make a desperate bolt for freedom, slipping out through the sewerage system by night. They are spotted and chased by dogs, which the guards send after them. One of them (named Gallio) is caught immediately and questioned; the other is caught a few days later. Below is a screenshot from the online version of the text book, followed by my suggested translation:

Screenshot from Suburani, fuga, pars secunda, at the end of chapter 6

The guards torture the slave for two hours. At the third hour, the guards take a branding iron out of the furnace. They bring the branding iron towards Gallio and mark his head. The pain is unbearable. There are three letters on his head.

For three days and three nights, Thellus runs. On the fourth day the slave sleeps in a field. At the first hour, two farmers see him. The farmers capture Thellus and take him to the guards. The guards smile. Thellus is terrified.”

Suburani, fuga, pars secunda, pg. 98

I have never been one to romanticise the ancient world, indeed many students have found my endless attempts to remind them of its disappointing realities somewhat irksome. It is not acceptable – I believe – to let them stare in wide-eyed wonder at Roman feats of engineering, without taking a moment to remind them exactly who did the back-breaking, life threatening, life-shortening work which made these structures a reality. I think it’s hugely important and I have done this throughout my career.

The fate of Gallio and Thellus is entirely authentic. Slaves of this type were of little monetary value and – another thing I like to point out to students – monetary value was a reasonable barometer of how a slave would be treated in the ancient world. Slaves used for unskilled manual labour were worth the equivalent of a few pence and were bought and sold in bulk. Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap. That’s the grim reality, I’m afraid. The recapturing and surrendering of Thellus by farmers also illustrates yet another thing that I like to emphasise: slavery was not an illicit trade exploited by an extremely wealthy minority who considered themselves above the law; it was the establishment, an integral part of the machinery of daily life, accepted and sustained by everyone, questioned by no one. Some of the most brilliant minds that sprung up in the ancient world, when they turned their philosophical skills to the question of slavery, overwhelmingly spent their time arguing in favour of it: some people are born to be slaves, said Aristotle, the father of the scientific method. In the ancient world, if you found a slave, you caught him, you handed him in and you pocketed the reward should there be one. Everybody – and I mean everybody – was complicit. The branding on the face? Standard punishment for runaways, so that everyone could watch out for them in the future. Barbaric? You bet. Never let anyone tell you that the Romans were civilised. Have I told children all of this in the past? Yes, I have.

Yet the story of Gallio and Thellus worried me, due to the very fact that empathy is so deliberately and so successfully invoked. I was shocked by it, even though I knew that this kind of thing happened to slaves with horrifying frequency. Would I want a child of mine to read and understand this story at the age of 11? I’m honestly not sure that I would. The stories in Suburani invite very young children to empathise with characters which are then subjected to lengthy torture. There is a fine line in teaching between asking students to acknowledge brutality and expecting them to process it on an emotional level. In our eagerness to break through the natural cynicism of modern youth, we should not forget that we are dealing with children; children who are indeed subjected to a 24-hour rolling backdrop of horror across the globe, thanks to modern systems of mass communication. It seems undeniable that we are facing a crisis of mental-health issues in teenagers, and I’m not sure that we should be quite so gung-ho when it comes to provoking their emotions in this way.

There will be many Classics teachers out there who disagree with me and I am keen to hear from those using Suburani in the classroom. Perhaps I will change my mind. But as things stand I am disquieted by its content and concerned that some children will be disturbed and distressed by this no-holds-barred approach. I believe that the truth can and should be told about the ancient world without what I see as a genuine risk of harm. Trauma is such an over-used word in modern education that I hesitate to suggest it, but I feel it’s appropriate here. Let’s not forget that our children are entitled to just a little bit of innocence before the world truly reveals itself in all its barbarity; we certainly shouldn’t underestimate their ability to grasp it, and I for one am not entirely sure I want them feeling the full weight of its horror at the age of 11.

On waiting

Most of the time I am glad not to have grown up in the 21st century. Not that I would have wished to have been born any earlier than I was, given my status as a woman – life was pretty shoddy for us girls prior to the 1970s. But when it comes to a 21st century arrival on this planet, I’m not so sure. So many things which I make extensive use of as an adult pose a threat to younger members of society – one poorly-worded social media message can land them in all sorts of trouble, one inappropriate image even more so. Yet if there is one thing which does makes me envious of those who are growing up in the new millenium, it’s how little time they have to spend waiting.

Waiting is torture when you’re young. The older you are, the easier it gets, not least because time seems to speed up with every passing year. Hurtling into middle age can feel like a white-knuckle ride. How did I get here so quickly? Just moments ago I was drumming my fingers, awaiting my A level results, teetering on the brink of adulthood, anticipating all that there was to come.

Whilst I attended school in the 1980s, the school at which I found myself was so old-fashioned, it may as well have been the 1880s. We wore cloaks. Parts of the school had no central heating. We stood up when an adult entered the room. We went to chapel. We wrote in fountain pen – no biros allowed. We were – prepare yourselves please, as this is a controversial issue in education – silent in the corridors. Thankfully, I was a day girl, but the majority of students in the school were boarders and the school revolved around that fact. The school day ran from 8am to 7pm and included time for “prep”. We also attended on Saturday mornings.

When it came to exam results, the fact that the school was designed around its boarders, many of whom came from far afield, meant that there was no Results Day; no students attended the school to collect their grades, the reasoning for this presumably being that many of them lived too far from it to make this practicable. So while the rest of the country received their exam results on the Thursday, we all had to wait 24 hours while staff at the school stuffed a whole load of pre-addressed envelopes and delivered our results to us via the postal service. We received them on the Friday.

The more I think about it, the more it seems frankly extraordinary to imagine myself being willing and able to wait an extra 24 hours to receive those exam results. One class-mate who lived a stone’s throw from the school ended up marching in there and demanding to see her results. I don’t know how keen they were to oblige, but they did eventually hand them over; it probably helped that she got straight As, something largely unheard of in the school at the time. But the rest of us waited patiently, as did our parents. No complaints. No whingeing. If you’d met the headmistress, you’d understand why.

This is the old library at the school in 1945. It looked exactly the same in 1985.
Same goes for the clothes we were permitted to wear in the 6th form. Seriously. If this
photo were in colour, I could have taken it myself.

It is hard to comprehend how different things are for students now, who receive confirmation from their chosen university at the same time as the results go live. It was only as I pondered this that I rememered how I found out about my degree result in the 1990s. Nothing was sent to me by post, but I had a vague feeling that maybe the results should have been finalised. In the end, tired of waiting, my father drove into the university to take a look at the noticeboard. And there it was. He then drove to the supermarket in which I was working to tell me the verdict.

But before I become too envious of today’s youth, I should remind myself how every year the mainstream media tear them to pieces and feast upon the fragments of their dignity when it comes to results time. Every year it gets worse and since 2020 it has been on a whole new level. Students have been told that they are told they are failures, that they are slackers, that they didn’t do “real exams”, that their grades are hideously inflated, that they won’t be recognised by employers – all lies. On the other hand our youngsters are fed a diet of hysteria, told that this year it will be “tougher than ever”, that universities “won’t have enough places”, that the world is in crisis and they will never be able to buy a house and, hey, we’ll probably all be dead within 50 years due to global warming anyway. You name it, our kids have had to put up with it. I think if I were a parent of an 18-year-old right now I would have taken them to a remote desert island with no WiFi, no television, no nothing until the whole thing was over.

Whatever results our Year 13s are finding themselves presented with this year, I am sure that they will face it with dignity. This year group have had it incredibly tough, missing out on the opportunity to sit their GCSEs, missing out on a significant amount of Year 11 and much of Year 12. On top of this insescapable reality, to have to deal with the sheer nonsense pumped out by news outlets that should frankly know better, seems intolerable to me. Yet they will deal with it and they will move on. So now I’m back to being envious. Off to university, off to start an apprenticeship, off to start life. How absolutely wonderful. Good luck to them. Their time is now and they deserve it.

Long, lazy summers?

Is a child’s progress affected by the long summer break? Research seems to suggest that it is. Classroom teachers often report that some students struggle in their first few weeks back at school in the autumn. The phenomenon of summer learning loss means that young people lose academic skills and knowledge as a result of the long break.

Photo by Drew Perales, published on Unsplash

One obvious question is to consider why on earth it is that we have such a long summer holiday in the first place. A popular myth is that school children were let out of school over the summer so that they could help with the work in the fields. There seems to be no basis to this widely-held belief (I believed it myself for years).

The UK school system was in fact developed over the course of the 19th century, by which time English farms were rapidly becoming mechanised. Children being required to help with the harvest would only have been relevant to a vanishingly small percentage of the population and besides, anyone who knows anything about farming will tell you that a holiday ending at the start of September is not going to be of much use for bringing in the harvest, the bulk of which tends to happen in early autumn. Whatever the origin of the traditional six weeks off at the height of summer might be, it certainly wasn’t for agrarian purposes.

The educational tradition of a long summer break allowing for travel dates back to the concept of the Grand Tour, which in the 18th century was an important rite of passage for young men graduating from Oxford or Cambridge. The Grand Tour involved visiting classical sites, viewing great works of art and architecture, developing their language skills and cultural knowledge and collecting souvenirs; the whole process was seen as an extension of a young man’s cultural education and an essential part of their initiation into society. While the Grand Tour may seem like something from another era, its principles are still with us – what we do as tourists (visiting museums, buying souvenirs, practising our language skills and trying to absorb local culture) is strongly influenced by the aims of the 18th century; the enduring popularity of Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice as essential destinations for all perhaps betray the fact that we’re not as far from that mindset as we think we are. Given that the educational reform acts of the 19th century were driven in parliament by enlightened educational idealists, it seems plausible that they were (perhaps unwittingly) influenced by the notion that extended time for leisure and travel must be built into the academic timetable. Quite how they thought the working poor were going to access its benefits is anybody’s guess, but maybe they were able to see into the future and predict the advent of cheap flights in the 20th century.

But, I digress. The long summer holiday is here to stay and while there have been numerous calls over the years for the system to be adjusted, nobody has yet come up with a viable suggestion for how to make it happen. So here we are, with all students facing six to eight weeks out of school and the potential learning loss which comes with it.

Let’s look at what the research says about summer learning loss, which has been superbly summarised in a recent blog post by Innerdrive. They point out that according to a recent meta-analysis of 13 studies, which looked at over 50,000 students, children experience an average summer learning loss of around one month. But learning loss over the long summer holiday is neither inevitable nor insurmountable – not all students suffer from it. Therefore by taking some proactive steps and preventative planning, not only can summer learning loss can be minimised but the long stretch away from the classroom can be an opportunity for catch-up.

So what can families do to support their children during the long break? Without a doubt, the most powerful thing they can do is to read to and/or with their child. Children benefit in multiple ways from being read to. Adults reading aloud to children exposes them to material that may currently be beyond their reading age but to which they are able to respond; this helps to increase their vocabulary as well as their general exposure to literature and the wider world.

Many families like to make the most of the holiday to do more educational trips and visits; museums and galleries are much more child-friendly these days and most of them offer interactive workshops free of charge. While such experiences may not appear to support your child’s curriculum directly, you’d be amazed what a difference they make to a child’s general view of the world and their place within it.

There has been a notable increase in demand for summer catch-up sessions this year, and I wonder whether more and more families are taking action to counteract the various ways in which their children have suffered learning loss over the last two to three years. This summer I have several clients who have specifically sought out a tutor for intensive work during the summer holiday and this can certainly be a powerful way to make up for lost time. Parents can help with studies too by supporting their child when it comes to the rote learning; a tutor can do the complex work, demystifying a subject and identifying misconceptions, but the process of memorisation requires frequent repetition: unless you want to pay your tutor to meet with your child every day (or even several times a day!) this is where you come in. Ask your tutor to give you a copy of what your child should be learning and spring frequent quizzing upon them: there really is no substitute for regular, short bursts of retrieval.

Whatever decisions you make for your child during the long summer break, remember that learning in itself is a valuable and enriching process. Too many people remain convinced that children require a “complete break” from learning, as if learning in itself is a strain. The reality is that children are hard-wired to learn; asking them to continue to do a little bit of academic work is not going to ruin their life (although some teenagers may of course claim otherwise …).

Man’s inhumanity to man

A humanist perspective on the crucifixion story.

Historical, revelatory or legendary, the crucifixion of Christ represents the story of many. Whatever your personal faith or none, the modern scholarly view on whether the man named Jesus existed ranges from ‘probably’ to ‘possibly’, and the story of Christ in the gospel narrative reflects a wider human story: that of thousands upon thousands of nameless and forgotten individuals who were crucified at the hands of the Roman state.

Anyone who assumes that crucifixion was an unusual or extraordinary event in Roman times should consider the case of the rebels led by Spartacus. This low-born Thracian gladiator-slave led a revolt so successful that it caused considerable embarrassment to the ruling Senate. When Crassus finally crushed the rebellion in 71 BCE, he ordered the crucifixion of an estimated 6,000 slave-rebels along the Appian Way, the main road leading out from the city of Rome; he also brought back the ruthless practice of decimation to punish and terrorise the cohort of soldiers that he deemed to have failed him the most in his earlier attempts to quash the rebellion.

Crucifixion was public and humiliating – deliberately so – and its use in the case of the slave-rebels illustrates several important points about this notorious and brutal method of execution. Its aim was to demean the victim and intimidate the observer – this was what happened to you when you challenged the Roman rule of law. Crucifixion was a servile supplicium – reserved for slaves and foreigners, non-Roman citizens, deserting soldiers, pirates and insurgents. Wealthy Roman men were often removed from society due to political machinations or the whim of current authority, but never was crucifixion used as the method to dispense with them.

In its broadest definition, crucifixion meant that the victim was impaled and/or tied to some form of frame, cross, stake or tree and left to hang for anything from several hours to several days. Causes of death included exhaustion and shock brought on by extreme pain and exsanguination (sometimes in part from a scourging prior to the crucifixion), heart failure and/or pulmonary collapse from the immense pressure put upon the victim’s heart and lungs; the victim’s demise could be hastened dramatically by increasing the intensity of this pressure, hence the common practice of breaking the legs to precipitate collapse. It was a sadistic and grotesque formula for murder, exploited in extremis by the Romans.

It is not clear whether the emperor Constantine outlawed crucifixion in the 4th Century CE, as is claimed by Christian triumphalist writers, but certainly it had been outlawed in the Roman empire by the mid 5th century. However, the Classical world is not the only context in which this abhorrent method of slaughter has been practised. Japanese haritsuke started with the execution of 26 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597 and recurred intermittently up until the last century. Islam has also subsumed the practice, with verse 5:33 of the Qur’an calling for the crucifixion of those who wage war against Allah or the Prophet Muhammad. Crucifixion is still practised in some Islamic countries and there have been recently-documented cases in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Yemen; it is most commonly used to make a degrading and threatening showpiece of the victim’s body rather than as a method of execution, but this is not exclusively the case.

The Easter story means nothing to a humanist from a spiritual perspective; we do not believe that Christ was the son of God, nor do we believe that he died for our sins and was resurrected. Yet each year the human side of the Easter story can serve as a sober reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. In a modern context, we can and should take action by giving support to the work of organisations such as Amnesty International, who campaign tirelessly and effectively against the use of torture and capital punishment right across the globe.

But as a Classicist, I cannot help but see the story of Christ within its ancient milieu and recall the incalculable number of wasted human lives that resonate through its narrative. In the name of ‘Roman civilisation’, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were tortured and crucified, forgotten souls with no afforded legacy of reverence or pious gratitude to preserve them in the conscious minds of the living.

At this time of year, I choose to remember them.

This piece was first published in Humanist Life in 2016.

Herd Mentality

At primary school, I rarely played with other children. For me, playtime usually meant a walk around the edges of the playground, observing others and thinking to myself.

There were lots of reasons why I found it difficult to connect with my childhood peers, none of them particularly interesting or unusual, but I do sometimes wonder whether my early experiences have defined my temperament; I’ve never been much of a joiner and find many people frankly depressing.

Large scale groups make me feel particularly uncomfortable and I hate the idea of “losing myself” in a crowd. A crowd takes on a mind-set and a force of its own, one that’s both independent from and beyond the control of the individuals it contains. It gave us looting and destruction during what started as a protest about the tragic and violent death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham; it gave us the devastating online lynching of Justine Sacco for a misguided and poorly-worded tweet; it gave us the Salem witch trials.

Herd mentality – in all its forms, both ancient and modern – is probably the thing that frightens me most in the world.

That is not to say that my failure to merge cohesively with a group has not caused me some anguish over the years – it can be a lonely existence. A few years back, it meant separation from a group of writers with many values that I share due to my innate inability to agree with them on everything – or at least, to pretend that I do. More recently, it has meant the editor of the magazine blocking me for defending people’s right to ask questions. Apparently, I am “no longer an ally”.

As a lifelong supporter of social justice, the new wave of “social justice warriors” and their denunciation of healthy debate has come as a horrifying shock to me. Until recently, I believed that the fight for equality would herald a new age of empathy, diversity and understanding. Instead, many of my previously liberal allies have been taken over by the cult of victim-hood and a collective fear of rejection. Like the teenagers in my classroom, they constantly check in with each other to affirm whether or not what they think is acceptable – and who can blame them? The consequences of dissent are excommunication from the tribe.

Experience has certainly taught me that being part of a group is not in my nature, and broadly speaking I am proud of the fact that I won’t play ball for the sake of staying on the team. It may not be my most attractive quality, but it’s the one that will drive me to raise the alarm whilst everyone else stays silent; it makes me the kid who will shout that the emperor’s got no clothes on.

In the past, I found myself briefly drawn to a range of people, many of whom describe themselves as “libertarians” – only to find once again that there’s a hymn sheet of horrors I’m expected to sing from. According to most of the Americans that I have met online, to be accepted as a “libertarian” then I have to be in favour of guns. Lots of guns. I have to agree that the act of carrying a gun is a liberating experience (I mean – what?) and certainly that the act of carrying one is none of the government’s business. Every time I try to propose a different line of thinking (held by most sane individuals on this side of the Atlantic), I am simply told that I’m “not a libertarian”. So there we are.

Another “libertarian” approach that I struggle to respect is the puerile desire to offend, bolstered by the dubious claim that this is somehow a noble and worthwhile antidote to the equally tedious culture of taking offence. Certainly, I relish challenge and debate, and I also believe that free speech is more important than the inevitable risk of causing offence to some. As Salman Rushdie said following the horrifying attacks on the staff at Charlie Hebdo in 2015, “I … defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.” But in an article on what he has termed “cultural libertarianism,” Breitbart author Allum Bokhari argues that “deliberate offensiveness plays an important role in the fight against cultural authoritarianism, … showing that with a little cleverness, it’s possible to express controversial opinions and not just survive but become a cult hero.”

This surely sums up the unambitious and self-seeking aims of those who make it their business to offend – preening contrarians whose sole function is to cause shock and awe, their online communications a heady mix of clickbait, worthless insults and self-aggrandisement. Depressingly, I have observed this behaviour on #edutwitter as much as anywhere else; I thought better of the teaching profession, but once again I am proved mistaken. There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone’s personal liberty is furthered by such infantile sneering; yet swarms of self-proclaimed “liberals” rejoice in this toxic effluence with excited applause, like an encouraging mother will celebrate her toddler’s first shit in the potty.

Maybe I am still that little girl on the edges of the playground, the one with the problem joining in – but as I stand at the periphery, I see the herd mentality all around me. At its best, it gives us a sense of solidarity as we strive for the greater good or find our feet in the world. At its worst, it gives us mindless thuggery, the kind of collective violence exemplified and explored in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. On a mundane level, however, it gives us neither of these; it simply endorses mediocrity and prevents us from thinking.

This is an updated version of a piece I wrote for Quillette magazine in 2016.