“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”
I have always been drawn to this familiar verse. I first knew it as the opening words to the classic 1975 album Warrior on the Edge of Time by Hawkwind (a magnificent space-rock outfit I heartily commend to you all). I later discovered, however, that these words had been borrowed from a poem called A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and were well-known beyond the scope of the prog-rock aficionado.
I mention them now as I believe they constitute an early example of the “motivational quote” now so ubiquitous in British schools. Today the walls of classrooms, corridors and school halls across the land positively heave with images of sunsets and waterfalls with naff truisms – usually attributed, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, to Einstein, Mandela or the Dalai Lama – daubed over the top in Comic Sans MS.
I have no objection to fine thoughts simply expressed. In the field of cinema I have sobbed my way through Beaches and felt my heart soar at the twee sentimentality of Les Choristes and The Blind Side. Steve Martin’s soliloquy to Daryl Hannah in Roxanne makes me go weak at the knees. (“I love you. I have breathed you in and now I am suffocating…”) Yet these examples seem almost highbrow in contrast to the little pellets from the pop psychology Pez dispenser strewn round our schools.
“If you fail, don’t worry – it just means First Attempt In Learning!”
“Let your smile change the world. But don’t let the world change your smile J”
“If Plan A didn’t work, there are twenty-five more letters!!”
(Exclamation marks are a common feature.) When did these sayings grow so ubiquitous?
I understand the desire to sum up a code of ethics in a pithy turn of phrase. Schools have had mottos for centuries – “Manners Makyth Man”; “Ad astra per aspera”; “Sapere aude” – but today’s soundbites reveal nothing of an institution’s character. They merely represent philosophy stripped of all depth and nuance, reduced to trite aphorisms hitherto confined only to greetings cards and garden centre coasters.
Language of the confidence trickster
“Imagine. Believe. Achieve.”
This injunction could just as easily refer to Nike trainers as academic excellence. There is too much of the salesman or the confidence-trickster here.
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars…”
I am reminded of Magnus Pym’s conman father in A Perfect Spy, shamelessly hoodwinking his audience at an election hustings. “Ideals are like the stars; we cannot reach them, but oh how we profit from their presence!”
I cannot believe that I alone am irked by these trite nonsenses (nor, I suspect, are the children particularly inspired by them). Given the mounting evidence for the benefits to concentration provided by less “busy” walls, I would suggest that we teachers would do well to consider more carefully the efficacy of what we choose to display. As for the reliability of one’s sources – remember Isaac Newton’s famous words: “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”
(Addendum: this is not, of course, the end of the article. “End” just means Effort Never Dies.)
Ed Clarke is head of classics at Highfield School and author of ‘Variatio: A Scholarship Latin Course’