The right of thinking freely and acting independently, of using our minds without excessive awe of authority, and shaping our lives without unquestioning obedience to custom, is now a finally accepted principle in some sense or other with every school of thought that has the smallest chance of commanding the future. Under what circumstances does the exercise and vindication of the right, thus conceded in theory, become a positive duty in practice? If the majority are bound to tolerate dissent from the ruling opinions and beliefs, under what conditions and within what limitations is the dissentient imperatively bound to avail himself of this toleration? How far, and in what way, ought respect either for immediate practical convenience, or for current prejudices, to weigh against respect for truth? For how much is it well that the individual should allow the feelings and convictions of the many to count, when he comes to shape, to express, and to act upon his own feelings and convictions? Are we only to be permitted to defend general principles, on condition that we draw no practical inferences from them? Is every other idea to yield precedence and empire to existing circumstances, and is the immediate and universal workableness of a policy to be the main test of its intrinsic fitness?

On Compromise, John Morley

Whenever two or more competing ideas are in circulation there will always be those who call for compromise. To do a bit of both. To exercise a bit of give and take. The dictionary is instructive on this: The noun is defined innocuously enough: an agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions. But the verb’s more damning definition is: the expedient acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few months now, ever since I expressed my view that compromise is the refuge of the unprincipled in this post. As aphorisms go it’s nicely pithy, but does it contain any truth? Well, that maybe depends on why we set out to compromise. If it’s to appease others than we have a problem. As Margaret Thatcher said, “If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.” She was famous for refusing to compromise: “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning.” I do realise I maybe on shaky ground with some readers by setting Old Maggie up as someone to emulate; inflexibility is clearly not a positive virtue. But she’s got a point; if we’re only interested in appeasing others, we will be buffeted by the winds of change and may will founder on the rock of opinion.

Now, I’m not saying we should never compromise. Clearly this would lead to a pointlessly uncomfortable existence. Robert Louis Stephenson rightly pointed out that, “Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer.” It’s a practical and realistic approach to many of life’s niggling little irritants. But would we compromise on our principles? On what we hold most dear? Speaking for myself, I’m prepared to compromise on anything except that which matters. This doesn’t have to be aggressive. Gandhi, known for passive resistance was nothing if not a man of principle, and he had pretty clear views on this:  “All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.”  In typically uncompromising form, highly principled Principal, John Tomsett, mentioned my axiom in passing in his opening speech at the recent #NTENRED conference in York and said, “I don’t think I can become less principled but I do believe in a bit more compromise.” And so do we all. As long as we can retain those pesky principles. My principles are my fundamentals. If I’m prepared to compromise on what I believe most passionately to be true what would I be other than a coward?

By these lights, compromise is a refuge, a hiding place for those without strongly held guiding principles. And that’s fine. I don’t say that if you lack these principles you are somehow lesser; there are many areas of my life where I have no strongly held opinion. I am therefore happy to compromise. But who among us compromises on what really matters? And where does that lead us? Ruskin believed, “You may either win your peace or buy it: win it, by resistance to evil; buy it, by compromise with evil.” Strong stuff and throwing around such words as evil in terms of education debate is unlikely to win over hearts and minds. And that’s an important point: How far should we moderate our views? In his extraordinary 1886 essay On Compromise, John Morley set out to explore these very issues:

According to the current assumptions of the writer and the preacher, the one commanding law is that men should cling to truth and right, if the very heavens fall. In principle this is universally accepted. To the partisans of authority and tradition it is as much a commonplace as to the partisans of the most absolute and unflinching rationalism. Yet in practice all schools alike are forced to admit the necessity of a measure of accommodation in the very interests of truth itself. Fanatic is a name of such ill repute, exactly because one who deserves to be called by it injures good causes by refusing timely and harmless concession; by irritating prejudices that a wiser way of urging his own opinion might have turned aside; by making no allowances, respecting no motives, and recognising none of those qualifying principles, which are nothing less than necessary to make his own principle true and fitting in a given society. The interesting question in connection with compromise obviously turns upon the placing of the boundary that divides wise suspense in forming opinions, wise reserve in expressing them, and wise tardiness in trying to realise them, from unavowed disingenuousness and self-illusion, from voluntary dissimulation, and from indolence and pusillanimity. These are the three departments or provinces of compromise. Our subject is a question of boundaries. And this question, being mainly one of time and circumstance, may be most satisfactorily discussed in relation to the time and the circumstances which we know best, or at least whose deficiencies and requirements are most pressingly visible to us.

And the “time and circumstance” I know best is education. Here are three principles on which I suggest we should not compromise:

  • Children’s behaviour in lessons should never get in the way of the teacher teaching or other pupils learning; our expectation should be that they are respectful, hard-working and cooperative.
  • Teachers should be supported by their school to enable them to teach to the best of their ability; extraneous demands should be stripped away to allow an expectation of professional excellence through reflection and development.
  • There ought never be an assumption that children from a particular social class be taught differently to others. Powerful knowledge is the right of every student.

One thing I’m more than happy to compromise on is how to teach. I have some view about what I think works best and I have some evidence I think supports these views. But I’d never attempt to compel anyone else into following my advice – I may well be wrong. And the likelihood that I’m wrong increases when applied to other personalities and contexts. Contrary to what you may think, I’m not quite that arrogant.

Anyway, let’s allow WB Yeats the last word:

You know what the Englishman’s idea of compromise is? He says, “Some people say there is a God. Some people say there is no God. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two statements.”

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