Nord Anglia Education
Nord Anglia
06 June, 2024

The Truth

The Truth - The Truth
Message from the Head of Secondary
At the recent Year 13 Graduation event, I mused on the theme of truth, inspired as I was by the very hard academic work that any Year 13 student must go through to graduate successfully and achieve a place at the university of their choice.   It seems to me that academic work is entirely about truth and our perpetual search for it, although I know many would disagree.  Students in particular generally want a different answer when they ask the question ‘why am I learning this?’.  Students want to know all about the lesson content’s practical application, whether they’ll need this ‘fact’ for an exam, or whether what they are learning will help them get a job.   When I reply ‘we are learning this, because we want to discover the truth about the world we live in….’ I suppose I’m sometimes met with understandable bemusement.  Truth is a strange concept, a tricky one.  ‘Learn this, because it will be on your end of term exam…!’ is a much simpler answer.  But it’s the wrong one.  Teachers shouldn’t be teaching so that students can pass exams, we should be teaching to encourage discovery.  And what do we want young people to discover?  Truth.

Claudius Galen was a first century Roman doctor, one of the finest of the ancient world.  He left behind a wealth of medical knowledge which helped many people, but some of his ideas on anatomy were wrong because, by and large, he was unable to experiment on and dissect human bodies.  Occasionally, he would ‘steal’ bodies after a public hanging so that he could ‘poke around’ inside them to find out about the inside of the body.   But in the first century that sort of behaviour was considered very strange indeed, so he largely contented himself with dissecting animals.  Inevitably, some of his assumptions about the human body were wrong – we are similar to some animals but not identical.  Galen’s ideas were long lasting – but they weren’t quite the truth.

By the 1600s, medical dissection of human bodies was a little more acceptable and an English physician named William Harvey spent time considering the movement of blood.  Galen had written that blood was created in the liver and moved through the heart, from one side to the other.  Everyone believed that to be true because Galen was a genius who knew all there was to know about the body.  Harvey saw a different truth, a new truth.  He noticed that blood circulated, that new blood wasn’t being created by the liver and that far from going through the heart, the heart was in fact acting like a pump, pumping the blood around the body via arteries.  William Harvey engaged in academic study and was able to expose a widely believed falsehood.  He was able to reveal a truth.  It took some time for many people to believe that Galen could have been wrong.  Well over 100 years later, some doctors were still basing their treatments on Galen’s work, sceptical of ‘new ideas’ and of the notion that ‘blood moves…’.  But the truth won out eventually.  It always does.

Revealing truth is what teachers do.  Giving students the skills to reveal truth for themselves is what teachers do.  The world is a complex place, but there are truths to be discovered, to be understood, which help us weave our way through it.  For young people, the act of discovering truth should be filled with joy and beauty.  Teachers sometimes refer to ‘lightbulb moments’ when a student suddenly understands the ‘thing’ that they are learning – that moment is usually accompanied with a cry of ‘ah, I get it now…!’.  That moment is a moment of truth.

And the truth is important too, because it is the only thing that can properly protect us from charlatans and liars.  A truth, reached through rigorous academic study, accepted subject disciplines, pursued by passionate experts, and accepted across a wide range of communities is a powerful bulwark against those who would divide us and sow discontent.  Lies are much easier than truth, often more appealing too.  Augustine of Hippo, writing in the 4th century said ‘the truth is like a lion, you don’t have to defend it.  Let it loose, it will defend itself.’’  In these digital times it seems increasingly – sadly - that Augustine may have been wrong, that in fact we are all having to work harder to defend the truth against Snapchat and Twitter nonsense.  It seems to me that parents and teachers have an even greater responsibility than ever to reveal not only the truth to young people, but also to talk about how those truths came about.  According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the amount of time young people spend on the internet has increased in every nation since 2018, with 15-year-olds reporting an average of 29 hours per week online.  Since zero academic scrutiny is required to create a webpage or a Snapchat post, the feeling that we may have moved ourselves a little further from ‘truth’ is perhaps inevitable.  Our responsibility, therefore, towards encouraging young people to think critically about the information they receive, must inevitably be far greater than it has ever been.  Can a school be considered ‘successful’ if a student leaves that school with fantastic GCSE results but believing everything they read on Instagram…?

Knowing the difference between a fact and an opinion may well be one of the most important pieces of knowledge a student has to have as they progress into the big wide world.  Feeling confident enough to challenge those who present opinion as fact is vital, too.  The civic societies that our children will take their parts in, in years to come, will thrive if they are built upon respect for knowledge, informed debate and a passionate desire to seek the truth.  The search for knowledge and truth has never been more vital.

Chris Lowe

Head of Secondary