Alethiometers for All?

Philip Pullman has written some terrific ideas into his “his Dark Materials” trilogy: dust, daemons, armoured bears. Today I was reminded of the Truth-reader, the Alethiometer, the Golden Compass which Lyra the protagonist uses to discern what is happening in various situations.

I was reminded of the compass image by this article on Tristram Hunt’s mission to give teachers an ennobled sense of their profession. The “moral compass,” it would seem, is to be at the heart of Tristram Hunt’s vision of what teachers do: they hand it on.  In the ceremony ( if that’s what’s envisaged: see my posts on liturgy and graduation), newly professed teachers would be given a compass as a symbol that the role of a teacher is “to provide a sense of moral purpose and virtue to young people”.

“There is a teacher’s oath about continuing to learn and to pass on the love of learning.

“I’m very attracted by this notion of having almost a Hippocratic oath about the meaning and purpose of teaching,” he said.

“It’s bolstering the moment of qualification and the meaning of qualification – what it means to become a teacher.

“That seems to be an important idea that we want to explore.

“It can’t just be a gimmick – it has to be part of a commitment to professional development and career pathways.”

The commitment to year-on-year improvement is not to be sneezed at, especially if a new Labour government sees this as a commitment to support teachers’ access to high quality postgraduate study and really effective CPD. I worry that this vision of Hunt’s is a bit of conjuring to move the duty to teachers and away from hard-pressed school budgets.

I also worry quite what a “moral compass” is.  A real compass points to a True North. It smacks of an absolute moral right-or-wrong set of beliefs so that ,when we think about “truth” and “morality”,  teachers are being asked to reproduce a catechism of moral choices, rather than to encourage young people to enquire and challenge, to find standards and values to follow. An Alethiometer is much more of a meditation tool, a mechanised (and non-religious) I Ching that challenged Lyra to think, to reflect.  Pullman is too clever a writer to make this a simple set of instructions in machine form.  ‘”It tells you the truth,'” the Master of Jordan College tells her. ‘”As for how to read it, you’ll have to learn by yourself.”‘

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