Tom Bennett

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A school trip to the Land of Philosophy and Umbrellas: A dear Green place and Auld Reekie in rain and shine.

‘Where’s Nando’s?’
I’ve taken a break from skewering educational research of wonky and illegitimate provenance, or badly reviewing portrayals of teachers in the movies; instead I spent a week on a Philosophy tour of Scotland with a band of stalwart sixth formers-seventeen, I’d like to add, which surely qualifies me for some kind of Olympic medal for Buddha-like calm. I was planning on writing about Jamie’s Dream Kitchen part deux this weekend, because they weren’t showing it in the forecourt of Nando’s in the sodding rain.
We started off in Edinburgh, which is, as anyone who’s been will testify, a fabulous place to visit. Not only is it the Heart Disease Capital of the entire world- yes, we’re very proud; Burkino Faso was catching up last year, but we deep-fried a few cigarettes and saw them off- but it’s also a splendidly compact and accessible little picture box of a city. Like Paris, much of Edinburgh’s best china is focused on one area:  it’s possible to walk in a concentric circle starting at at the Scott Monument and spend a good 48 hours seeing nothing but scenes from the 1960 Disney film Greyfriars Bobby lit by faint, but crystal-clear sunshine, and inhale nothing but hops. It’s an agreeable city, and when the Sun shines, it polishes its teeth, and sparkles.
There was, to be fair, a good deal of hoofing, and even the sturdiest of my student fellowship found their resolve put through a rainy mangle. Fortunately I managed to convince them that it was an enormous game of Wii hiking, although they kind of smelled a rat when we got to the top of Arthur’s Seat (a hill or a mountain depending on how tough you want to sound, that rears up in the centre of Auld Reekie and turns it into an rather grand, tartan and granite doughnut) and there were no plug sockets. There was, however, a jewellery box view of orange marbles and fairy castles twinkling all around us in the crepuscular haze as evening turned to night.
It’s hard not to love a city that lays its best cutlery our for you so easily- from the Victorian folly of Calton Hill to the grid of New Town, the endless, subsiding graveyards and their cold, twisted ironwork, Edinburgh doesn’t have to try hard to impress; it doesn’t need to, and the viewer merely acknowledges the beauty, the archaeology of architecture, the convergence of centuries of commerce, law and civic pride with a nod of their head.
And I know that’s true, because even the kids thought it. You know a city is charming indeed when it charms the citizens of the next century, who have already accessed every Forbidden City and Shangri-La from their bedrooms.
The Twelfth Doctor.
But there was a point, indeed there was, besides an agreeable tour of Athens’ damp and blasted counterpart- and incidentally, I’m not sure how many modern Athenians would refer to their crumbling, crowded city as the ‘Edinburgh of the South’, but there you go. We were there to meet and listen to the inimitable Alasdair Richmond. The word ‘inimitable’ is often used to introduce alcoholics and delinquents at award ceremonies, but I use the word carefully. From the rim of his fedora to the paisley-patterned waist coat, he conjures the image of a gentleman conjurer, or a member of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. His discourse confidently and endlessly hyperlinks to other ideas, cultural and philosophical. His delivery is possibly the best I’ve ever heard in any University speaker- precise, witty, and laden with examples that both illustrate and entertain- the former is an essential predicate; the latter is not, but transforms a worthy expansion into a thing that stays with you. And it’s funnier too, I might add. His lectures on Hume’s take on causation, freewill, miracles and induction were a breath of fresh air to me, as I teach Philosophy alone, and refer constantly to myself for reflection and feedback. Fortunately I routinely grade myself kindly, so I don’t hurt my own feelings.
He was kind enough to look after us for two days, which gave me ample wraparound time to drag seventeen pupils up and down monuments and cobbled promenades. Deep-fried Mars Bars were encountered. No more need be said about Scotland’s peculiar talent for unusual methods of suicide. 
High summer, Glasgow.
Then, on to Glasgow. Glasgow is a much harder sell, almost inevitably after Edinburgh, but made harder by the fact that we had chosen one of the 364 days of the year that the season varies between Arctic gales and relentless, dispassionate rain, with alternating bouts of each in quick succession, just to make really sure that you want to be there. It is, I must say, sometimes a bit of a test of character. Philosophy to the rescue! (And you don’t hear that very often). 
The less dashingly draped but equally intellectually dashing Dr Ben Colburn of Glasgow University’s Philosophy department. I met Ben when I was at Cambridge last year on a School Teacher Fellowship, and he kindly lent me his time and expertise with a paper I was writing. Lecturing, it seems, is like being in the diplomatic service- you can end up anywhere. I was glad he’d ended up here, and that he’d also kindly given up some of his time to look after a crew of Cockney Philosophers, many of whom were by this point convinced that Scotland was actually a submerged continent, a bit like Atlantis, or Lovecraft’s’ R’lyeh. Ben Colburn’s enthusiasm was infectious, and by cleverly putting the students into groups, he managed to squeeze the last of their focus and energy out of them, which is no mean feat when they’ve been pounding pavements and monuments like they were compulsive A-board salesmen. We had to debate on a variety of thinkers’ solutions to the question, ‘Do we have an obligation to obey the law?’ Locke won, by popular vote, and if only all moral debates were settled so.
Yet another Doctor.
On second thought, that’s a terrible idea. 
I tried to suggest a further solution to the problem, which I self-effacingly christened ‘Bennett’s theory of obligation’, but there were more holes than solution to it.
There was also another aim to the visit- Kat and Emily, two of the finest students in this dimension or any other, were keen on Glasgow as a place to study, and to be fair I didn’t do anything to discourage them as studying there was one of the best experiences of my life. We met the dedicated and charming Fiona Black who gave up her time to take us round a personalised tour of the campus in what must be one of the most labour-intensive open days I can imagine, giving the lie (if one was needed), to the claim that Russell Group Universities don’t do enough to encourage social mobility and applications from talented students of any background. She was a fantastic host; we may have two future Glaswegian acolytes on our hands, but time will tell. I suspect that anyone who claimed Glasgow didn’t do enough to reach out to good candidates simply hadn’t bothered to ask for it. Reaching out involves, I believe two participants, both reaching. And until Vince Cable expects Universities to actually break into peoples’ houses and press-gang brainy kids into MAs, Fiona’s efforts were an example of the best kind of access provision.
Fiona and the Brains Trust.
I love these trips- I love taking students out of their comfort zones and showing them cities and worlds that they may never otherwise see. They may like them. They may not. At least they’ve been informed, and their frame of reference has expanded by exactly six days. Case in point: at the start of the trip, I bought a bag of Wasabi peas, and passed them around. None had tried them before. Some of them accepted, some of them decided they didn’t want to try. Some tried and hated; some tried and liked. 
I’m not sure if we have an obligation to obey the law at all times. I’m not sure if inductive inferences are reasonable grounds to support an argument. But from time to time, I know that I’m partial to a Wasabi pea. 
Finally, some tips for trips:
1. Arrange all meeting points at least half an hour in advance of when the latest possible point of no return would be.
2. Then subtract another half an hour.
3. That’s about it.
This blog brought to you by Scotland- home of weather.

Auschwitz: Life, death and the Anti-Life


I took two students to Auschwitz this week. So much has been written about it that it feels like there are no more words to write. And what would be the point? In fact, what’s the point of going there at all? Historians tell us that one and a half million people passed through the gates, loaded into cattle trucks, worked like animals, treated like animals, and eventually slaughtered like animals. One and a half million. This is an impossible number to grasp; like encountering a wall that stretches left and right forever, only to be told that it’s not a straight line, but a vast circle, immeasurable and incomprehensible. There’s no purchase on such a statistic; it refutes all attempts to reduce it to anything that can fit in one’s imagination.

The Holocaust deniers take what might even be an understandable view: such a figure is impossible, they say. No, it was only half a million, or a hundred thousand, or none. The very scale of the Holocaust cloaked it in the invisibility of disbelief during the war; the Allies and even the Jewish nation at large couldn’t conceive of its possibility.

Does the figure even matter? On one level, no. Two million dead in the Killing Fields of Cambodia; twenty million starved under Stalin and Mao; hundreds of thousands in Darfur, Yugoslavia, Rwanda. The mind’s eye blurs them into a tragic mass, all capability to discern and distinguish individuals crushed by time and distance, by the space between the one of ‘I’ and the overwhelming multiplicity of ‘the many’.

But we are not doomed by this inability; there are ways to at least begin to understand. I cannot even contemplate a distance over, say, a mile, not vividly. The distance between here and Glasgow is 400 miles or so; impossible to conceive when I close my eyes. But I can get there, by travelling as everyone else does; one mile at a time. So it is with Auschwitz. The only way that we, singular, finite units can understand is by understanding each story, one at a time. To even try to do so is to fall into the seemingly endless chasm of Auschwitz. To not do so is to deny the very thing that animates and unites us; our humanity.

One story; In 1941 Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan Friar who was captured and sent to Auschwitz One, the first camp, converted from Army Barracks into a work prison. In punishment for a prisoner escaping, the Camp Deputy- Commander lined up the prisoners and selected ten to be taken away and starved to death as a warning. Kolbe stepped forward to take the place of one of the men instead- a man he didn’t know. They were kept naked without food for twenty days in an underground cell no bigger than a garden shed; Kolbe lasted so long that, impatient, the Commander ordered his death, by injection of carbolic acid.

That’s one story, and admittedly an inspiring one. There were six and half million stories in the Holocaust, and every one of them is important because every life is important. Kolbe’s story is exceptional because it describes how the purest of motives and deeds can perhaps only blossom in the darkest of soils; the brighter the light, the deeper the shadow behind it. Visiting the cramped, exposed cattle sheds where human beings huddled together with each other three to a bed, some dead, some alive, some dying, most rotting with dysentery, typhus and excrement, the miserable, insufficient sanitation, seeing the chambers where Mengele experimented on Gypsy twins, the starvation rooms, the ash pits where cremated remains were buried…it piles horror upon horror until you feel buried under its weight. No wonder numbness is a common reaction.

And how did we react? As I walked around with Emily and Dami, two fantastic students, we fell silent very quickly, as did everyone. The place cows you into sincerity and sobriety as you start to absorb each grotesque diorama. Iconic images like the Arbeit Macht Frei sign above the entrance are emblematic of every horror film imaginable; worse, as any artistic representation of horror can only feebly mirror the monstrous life here. Again, it is magnified into an infinite regress by the numbers involved. Such films seek to shock and disturb with their careful attention to our fear of pain, but Auschwitz presents us with something worse: a testimony to real torture and pain, endured not by a cast of a few dozen, but of millions; not over a comfortable hour and a half, but over years.

For me, curiously the exhibit within the museum that touched me the most was the collection of spectacles, thousands of them, stripped from their owners in the Sauna as they entered, and recycled by the Nazis. They sat in an enormous ball of steel, chaotic and bent, behind glass. Every single pair of legs embraced a human head, and the brain within; their memories, their personalities, their ambitions and their life. Each life as incomparably precious to its owner as my own. I felt my own glasses sit heavily across the bridge of my nose and tried to imagine them as part of that enormous heap in front of me, myself as vanished and eradicated as they were.

For others it was the room full of human hair, bleached grey by time; for some it was the thousands of artificial limbs, or the enormous room full of suitcases, each one written with the name of its owner, some of them bearing return addresses. The refugees had brought everything they thought they would need, and to see the collection of useless, pathetic artefacts was pitiful in the extreme. They thought they were going to be relocated; instead they were buried. Someone had even brought a set of measuring scales. Can you imagine? A set of cooking scales. In Auschwitz.

On and on and on it went. Finally, as the Sun set, we gathered around the memorial in Birkenau, Auschwitz II, where the train tracks ended. By now we had the camp to ourselves. Rabbi Barry Marcus led our group in a service. He provided us with something that I think the visit needed; a clear voice of outrage. It is fine, up to a point, to be reflective, and introspective, and measured in one’s response to the place, but allowing it to be seen as darkly as we wish, we risk reducing the Holocaust to something almost comfortable and ignorable.

He spoke eloquently and beautifully about the necessity of seeing Auschwitz for what it was: the celebration of death; an assault on what it means to be human. As he blew the Shofar Horn and its lonely note sounded in that dark camp where so very recently, Judaism was being rounded up and reduced to lampshades, fertiliser and soap, I realised how vital it was to keep that fact clear in our minds. In a secular age where the old ethical foundations have been unsettled and often toppled by the moral earthquakes of the twentieth century- of which Auschwitz was an essential agent- moral relativism and non-cognitivism are often attractive intellectual and emotional responses to a world that seems to display no inherent justice or provide any karmic reassurances that the good will be rewarded and evil punished.

And I can see that, I really can. But Auschwitz reminded me that, despite the obvious presence of an ethical compass, pointing to True North, this one thing remains: if this is not evil, then nothing is, and nothing matters, and nothing has value. Let Auschwitz stand as a bloody foundation stone to a moral pyramid, if something has to. Let every principle and creed evolve from this axiom: Auschwitz is the anti-life.

School trips are rightly aimed at enriching the experience of the students who participated. A place like Auschwitz becomes what you bring to it: on the surface of things, all there is to see are rows and rows of decimated sheds, rubble, pre-war barracks and abandoned avenues. Take away the history and there is nothing to see; the blood has soaked deep into the soil by now, and the adage that ‘here, nothing lives’ is a patent nonsense. Auschwitz teems with life; nature in its infinite variety breeds here with abandon and fecundity; sparrows swarm and even a faun dashed across our paths early in the evening, as a haunting counterpoint to the palpable presence of barbarity and death that we had steeped ourselves in. Dami and Emily had the sensitivity and maturity of spirit to bring to this trip what was required, as seemingly did the many dozens of students with us: humanity.

The Rabbis finished his service in what was now night, by singing a low, slow Jewish prayer. It reminded me of sand, and sadness, and thousands of years of Diaspora, alienation and sorrow. Kitty Hart-Moxon, the Survivor who had spoken to us the week previously summed it up. She said, ‘Everyone sees Auschwitz as a place where people died. But for some of us, it was also a place where you lived.’ As we walked back to the coach along the rail tracks in the dark, placing our candles along the sleepers and leaving them as sad punctuation marks in Auschwitz’s traumatised soil, I thought of everyone that couldn’t leave. Every life here mattered. Every life still does. The death of one person is a tragedy to us all; if it isn’t, then my life is also without value, because it is made of the same matter.

Whatever happens to us when we die, wherever we go or not, we must treasure our humanity, and that of others; not because we fear death, but because we value life. Herr Einstein tells us that the nature of time is somehow simultaneous; that all pasts, presents and futures are wrapped together into a state of endless, perpetual presence. From this secular, emprirical perspective, no one who has ever passed is ever truly lost: lost to us perhaps, but enduring, existent in a way we can barely fathom. I find that comforting. The victims of death remain, somehow, even if it defies our perception.

May they remain forever in the company of the ones they love.