There can be no more powerful evocation of pre-war Shanghai than J.G Ballard’s autobiographical masterpiece, Empire under the Sun. Claustrophobic, chaotic and exotic, the city emerges from the pages with such clarity than one can almost sense the endless crowds on the Bund pressing in upon one’s body. Ballard’s beguiling prose reference the intoxicating smell of spices and the effluence of the polluted Huangpu River, thus providing a compelling, almost visceral, portrayal of this city of extreme contrasts. Wealthy Westerners lived a gilded and secluded existence within the International Concessions. Carefully manicured gardens and stunning villas provided a quintessentially English backdrop, especially agreeable to those whose natural habitat was to be found in the Home Counties. The stunning buildings on the Bund paid homage to the architectural splendor of the waterfront in Liverpool and the grandiloquent Art Deco buildings of downtown New York.
Ballard recalls travelling down the Bund in his chauffeur driven car and peering out of the windows as the hustle and bustle of city life played out on the streets. Floating in the river were the bodies of the impoverished. Routinely, they were launched off funeral piers by destitute relatives who could not afford the dignity of a conventional burial. Covered in flowers, the bodies provided a reminder that this was a fractured city based in no small part upon economic exploitation and stark inequality. The brutal Japanese invasion swept this surreal, almost illusionary, way of life away.
“Every night in Shanghai those Chinese too poor to pay for the burial of their relatives would launch the bodies from the funeral piers at Nantao, decking the coffins with paper flowers. Carried away on the tide, they came back on the next, returning to the waterfront of Shanghai with all the other debris abandoned by the city. Meadows of paper flowers drifted on running tide and clumped in miniature floating gardens around the old men and women, the young mothers and small children, whose swollen bodies seemed to have been fed during the night by the patient Yangtze.”
― J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun
Generations of Rossallians have travelled to School here in Lancashire from the Far East. Many others left this corner of Lancashire to forge their careers in the Colonial Service or for companies such as Royal Dutch Shell or the China Shipping Merchant Company.
Last week, I spent an afternoon in Shanghai before heading inland to Shaanxi Province to attend a series of meetings. The vastness of Shanghai deserves more than an afternoon visit but I did at least have the opportunity to stroll down East Nanjing Road and absorb the extraordinary vibrancy of this rapidly evolving city. Yet what is now the main shopping street has a deeply troubled history. In 1937, a Japanese plane, allegedly seeking to lighten its load, dropped a bomb on two of the street’s grandest department stores, resulting in the deaths of 612 people.
There is no question that China has developed rapidly over the course of recent decades but I like to think that Rossall’s deep cultural links with this part of the world have endured. I am very proud that Rossall enjoys such an enviable reputation in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Rossall is also a force to be reckoned with in emerging ‘second tier’ cities and there are many Old Rossallians dotted across this vast country.
The Israeli physical anthropologist Yuval Noah Hariri has emerged as something of a prophet of our time. His recent book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century contains plenty that we should reflect upon. His chapter on education argues that, ‘Schools focus too much on providing pupils with a set of predetermined skills such as solving differential equations, writing computer code in C++, identifying chemicals in a test tube or conversing in Chinese’.
My recent trip to China caused me to reflect upon Hariri’s words. The educational focus on artificial intelligence and the technological wizardry on display in Shanghai suggests a rather frightening pace of change. All schools will need to adapt to the demands of this digital/technological revolution. Soon robots will be able to code more efficiently than humans. How long before a Google app allows us to converse in flawless Cantonese or Urdu?
In the twenty-first century, we are flooded with information. The democratisation of knowledge means that the answer to many of our questions is literally at our fingertips. In medieval times, the Church was seen as the great custodian of knowledge. Gradually, ordinary people gained access to information through the provision of public libraries, newspapers, radio and television. Finally, in this century, the internet has super-charged this process. Consequently, a system of education which concentrates on cramming young people full of information and then testing them repeatedly upon their ability to retain said information is clearly outdated. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ makes this point superbly well.
Hariri suggests that schools should focus upon teaching the four ‘Cs’
- Critical Thinking
- Change (I would contend this should sit alongside Hariri’s four!)
We do not need to be twenty-first century Luddites and imagine that every technological advance will result in millions of people losing their jobs. History tells us that the job market is remarkably successful at evolving to provide new opportunities and previously unthought of forms of employment. However, longer life spans and an accelerated level of change will provide their own challenges. By middle-age, we become remarkably resistant to change – we tend to seek certainty and stability. By this stage, we have constructed a sense of our own identity and a clear sense of our personal and professional worth. Perhaps schools need to focus more attention upon teaching children how to successfully embrace change, especially given that so many adults struggle to embrace change effectively.
At Rossall, we believe that Children need to develop adaptive skills. An ability to be resilient and resourceful when presented with changed circumstances will always prove invaluable. It is right that Schools like Rossall are focusing increasingly upon ensuring that young people develop those ‘soft skills’ which will be increasingly valued in the workplace of the twenty-first century.
Visiting China made me realise that the pace of change in our world is perhaps even more profound than I had really appreciated. It served to highlight the fact that we have a profound responsibility to ensure that young people leave us with the ability to be flexible in their thinking. Ultimately, we need to provide answers to the questions being posed by thinkers such as Ken Robinson and Yuval Noah Harari. By the 2040s, it is quite possible that the process of educating children will look extraordinarily different. We should be cautious of innovations that are tokenistic but we do need to be responsive to the evolving nature of society. Has there ever been a more exciting time to be alive?
We end this first half term of the academic year on an absolute high. The achievements of our pupils are too numerous to mention but I am incredibly proud of the strong sense of purpose within the School. We should delight in the fact that our boys and girls treat each other with kindness and compassion. Similarly, it appears that the vast majority of our pupils are intent upon fulfilling their potential academically and enjoying all the co-curricular opportunities that the School has to offer. I hope that all Rossallians and their families have the opportunity to recharge their batteries before Autumn and the Christmas season is upon us.