A Village and A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
Whilst this could be a quote lifted right off the headlines of the Daily Maverick or The Times or Washington Post or the running banner for Sky News this October, these are in fact the words penned by Charles Dickens as he set about to tell A Tale of Two Cities, a story hailed for centuries as a serious and powerful work of art.
Dickens paints a picture of life in London, England and Paris, France. He weaves a discourse of duality through the roles and settings, as countries, cities and leading characters in his tale are experiencing very similar and very different situations simultaneously, to the point that they are like one, with all the complexity that human existence is.
The portrayals and lessons in the fable are timeless and centre around resurrection, hope and the threat of revolution. The experiences are both political and personal. The theme is about ‘us and them’. The lives of all people depend upon the hope of renewal. Without hope, he demonstrates, the heart falls sick and people lose what makes them human, becoming violent and cruel, redeemed only by selfless acts.
Dickens’ social ideas in this novel are straightforward and frighteningly paralleled in politics around the world today. He believed that the French Revolution at the time was inevitable because the aristocracy drove the poor to revolt as a consequence of gross exploitation. Oppression on a large scale, he argued in his work, results in anarchy, and anarchy produces a police state, with all the demise that brings. If Dickens were alive today, he might be startled at the state of world affairs, decades and decades on.
In implementing the principles of the Mediated Learning Experience in our school, we speak to the concept of ‘bridging’ with the children, connecting concepts and events near and far. So it is with the similarities between Dickens’ tale and our lives today: threat of revolution, resurrection, renewal and selfless acts.
Bridging the message in A Tale of Two Cities to South Africa now, we are all devastatingly aware that its foreboding is close to the bone. Talk at every turn is about decay, corruption, crime, exploitation and injustice, historically and in the present continuous tense.
People are hungry, fearful and losing hope after years of having the latter deferred over and over again. South Africans sit poised on the brink of, if not already immersed in, a dark time in the country’s history and the media are bathing in the panic that brings. The rich continue to get richer at the callous expense of the poor. The people of this country are plundered relentlessly without fear of consequence or accountability. What was the condition of a despicable regime remains a deep rot wherein corrupt entities prosper off the demise of others.
We’ve had our revolution but we have let go of our renewal; and that’s the travesty.
Revolution, or threat of the same, is raging all over the globe; it’s brewing here. And we feel it. And if we don’t, we see it in other countries across the world and we wonder. The situation in Paris in the mid-1800’s parallels ours in 2022. We have reason to be terrified.
Yet, if it is that history repeats itself, there is hope of renewal, and it sits with each one of us. Now is the time for us to act selflessly, and even sacrificially, with determination as individuals and coordinated in communities.
Schools are exactly the right places to start. They sit in the community for the community. Bridging the story closer to schools is not too difficult either. Schools in South Africa are suffering what some call an armageddon.
On a macro level, governance and resourcing of public schools is dire. The children of our country are provided for in terms of taxes collected and budgets committed, to the extent that our provision exceeds leading developed countries. Yet, on the ground, there is but sporadic delivery where parents get heavily involved. In truth, the children in South Africa are exploited and ‘plundered’. The absence of care and provision for effective teaching and learning in safe places sets a youth up for revolution. Communities cannot leave the care of their children to the government if there is no hope for renewal. They must act now and act selflessly.
Independent schools strive to protect the children with quality education that offers them a future. These schools and their communities hold back the tide of an external and politicised agenda that seeks to disrupt their efforts, and they do that fairly well. Threats to independence include affordability, a crisis of leadership and a shortage of teachers, aspects of which are ‘own goals’. School principals and educators are buckling under unrealistic pressure from parents and, recently, corporate shareholders.
The thing is, looking into a future with fear leaves parents impetuous and easily triggered. Anger comes quickly. Demands and expectations are excessive as they engineer an image of hope. All sight of appropriate raising of children gets lost in the fray. Schools run the risk of being unsafe for staff, emotionally and physically. Heads move from school to school and there are but a few rising in the ranks bold enough to take such a role on. Talk is destructive and bullying is rife. ‘Them and us’ takes its grip. It is a matter of time before schools can’t be manned by the very people who parents need in their child’s life, independent or not.
Here is where the village will interrupt the narrative of the cities.
And then there are villages, or safe harbours, where someone’s name is safe in the mouth of others. There is a shared hope and strong, trusting relationships that hold high standards for everyone, together. Responsibility for raising children is mutual and grounded. Adults pull together to protect their children from the anxiety in their surroundings. In a village, there is no denial of realities or absence of concern, but there is a shared value around the protection of innocence until the age when a child can act responsibly to bring change and engage the selfless acts required. In such a village, parents aren’t ‘them’ and schools aren’t either. Together, it’s “us”.
Renewal is possible. Hope is not lost, We can find a brighter future together. Lets resurrect #speakSAup, act selflessly and do our part to turn the tide.