Leonard Cohen once sang, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." I once spent a very long time in colloquy with a friend who is an important member of the business world discussing this part literal, part metaphorical lyric. Literally, light gets in through cracks. Metaphorically, it is the cracks or flaws that make people or corporations adapt and grow. In Cohen’s opinion – and in ours – everyone and everything needs a bit of light to improve, and ultimately succeed, in a very competitive world.
I had forgotten about this conversation till Wednesday, December 3, when Sarah Haynes, an 18-year-old graduate and outgoing school captain at Sydney’s Ravenswood School for Girls, made a controversial valedictorian speech to peers, teachers and families at Sydney’s town hall. (For those not Sydney obsessed, Ravenswood is an exclusive private girls school in the city’s leafy north, where fees run in excess of AUD28,000.)
Within 24 hours, just about every significant media outlet in the UK, America and Asia had it splattered across their channels. Obviously it went viral, too. In her bold speech, Haynes criticized aspects of her elite school, saying it was “not perfect” and had at times “let down” her family. She accused school administrators of fostering a culture in which failure was unacceptable, of constantly trying to censor her planned speaking engagements. She claimed that she had deliberately written two versions of her speech, not to get back at the school but just so she could, for once, honestly share with everyone that “nothing is perfect and that nothing should ever be expected to be perfect.”
Her composed address struck a chord with me and with my business world friend as well, who called me a day later to ask my thoughts as a graduate of a leading private girls school in Sydney. Was Ms. Haynes’ honest take on things just a personal vendetta to unfairly tarnish the school in a tawdry exploitation of the power of social media, or were her polemic words an attempt to speak truth to power, and perhaps echo what we all feel about schools and their (endless) pursuit of perfection these days?
Letting the light in is indeed a challenge that all schools face in a modern education environment. When confronted with the need to compete, management is often unable to assess objectively. Are its messengers, the teaching staff, truly happy? Do they come to work each morning with a smile on their faces, ready to pass on pearls of wisdom to students? Are they practicing what they preach in their educational philosophies, or are they, in the words of Haynes, “being run more and more like businesses where everything becomes financially motivated, where more value is placed on those who provide good publicity or financial benefits.”
As we start 2016, it’s perhaps time for schools, both here in China and around the world, to see the light and embrace the cracks. Given that it’s clearly preferable to address issues like these directly and resolve them before they become the subject of an ongoing court case, that's not much to ask…