From the Head

The Enlightenment of Stowe

This is an important moment for Stowe as we look back with pride over 100 years of progressive and enlightened thinking. Stowe has always been sustained by the strength of its proposition: an education which is rooted in the belief that each pupil has unique qualities and latent talents. Stowe celebrates the excitement of learning and embraces intellectual discovery, creativity, science, sport, nature, service and leadership. Every single Stoic has the potential for excellence – the jewel within, waiting to be unearthed and burnished to dazzle the world.

Historically, Stowe was the seat of the Grenville cousinhood, political descendants of 17th century Parliamentarians led by John Hampden and John Pym who “began a noble opposition to an arbitrary court” by defending their version of liberty against King Charles I. Later, 18th century Whigs, led by Viscount Cobham and his nephew and heir, Richard Grenville-Temple, favoured a teleological interpretation of British history which began with Alfred the Great (“the founder of the English constitution”) and culminated in the ascendancy of the Protestant constitutional monarch, George I, in 1714.

Whigs revered parliamentary freedom and opposed absolutism. Reason, scientific experiment and logical deduction were the enemy of superstition and ignorance: the pantheon of Whig heroes in Stowe’s Temple of British Worthies includes Francis Bacon for “rejecting vain speculation”, John Locke for understanding “the Nature End and Bounds of Civil Government” and Isaac Newton “whom the God of Nature made to comprehend his Works”. In some ways, the Mansion and landscape gardens, adorned with thirty-two follies and temples d’amour, can be viewed as an essay in Whig principles, a manifesto of Enlightenment philosophy. A philosophy which was to be at the heart of a Stoic education two centuries later.

No visitor to Stowe can fail to marvel at its setting. Pupils are immersed in its grandeur and live within its beauty, qualities that seep into their psyche through a kind of osmosis. At its zenith, the Grenville-Temple family employed the leading architects and gardeners of the 18th century to rebuild the Mansion and create a park that represented an idealised vision of nature. However, the darkness deepened as the family’s wealth and influence declined and one generation vanished into another and all of Stowe’s glories appeared to be in the past.

The arrival of the School in 1923 was a time of rebirth and renewal: Stowe awakened from its melancholy slumber and the procession of Grenville-Temple forebears vanished like highland sheep in misty heather or ghosts at cock-crow. Faded glory was replaced by the rising sap of youth, budding intellects and the exhilaration of discovery and learning. The founding Headmaster, JF Roxburgh, immediately sensed how the history and grandeur of Stowe could become an important part of the new school’s identity. The education that Stoics were to receive would be distinctive and would rest upon three principles: the School would modernise, liberalise and humanise traditional and narrow-minded boarding school practices; Stowe would be an inclusive community in which the rights of the individual would be respected to enable Stoics to be their best, do their best and feel their best. Finally, every pupil leaving Stowe would know, recognise and understand beauty for the rest of their lives. This vision of a modern, humane and forward-looking independent school is as relevant today as it was in 1923.

Roxburgh showed a courtesy and consideration for the individual pupil, which was unusual in schoolmasters before the First World War. Resplendent in trilby, spats and bow tie, Roxburgh welcomed the first ninety-nine boys on 11 May 1923. To ease identification, boys and masters wore tickets on their lapels bearing their names and Houses. Stowe resembled a glorified prep school: there were ten masters and five senior boys (four from Roxburgh’s previous school, Lancing). One member of staff wrote, “I doubt if any public school has ever contained a form of less promising mental equipment than the first Third Form at Stowe.” Yet by Speech Day, 1930, the school roll had reached 500, demand for places far exceeded supply, there were sixty Old Stoics at Cambridge, fifteen at Oxford and Roxburgh had dispelled the popular belief that “any boy could get into Stowe”.

Without ignorance there can be no learning and education provides the key to unlock the door of freedom. Roxburgh’s genius was to understand intuitively how Stowe’s present, and future, could form a continuous dialogue with its past. The conversion from Grenville-Temple family home to educational establishment enabled Roxburgh to tap into the optimistic ideology of the Enlightenment, which became synonymous with the identity, culture and ethos of the School. The concept of character education is not a novelty – if we look at schooling from ancient times until very recently, cultivation of character has always been given pride of place. Aristotle said that the aim of education is not just to know what virtue is, but to become good. The Greeks had a word for character literacy – phronesis – building positive relationships, developing sound judgement, learning from mistakes and understanding practical cause and effect.

Pupils at Stowe are not called Stoweans (or even Stoweaways), but Stoics, because Roxburgh wanted them to emulate the Greek School of Philosophy, holding that all things are governed by unvarying natural laws, and that the wise person is led by reason to live virtuously, accepting calmly whatever happens. The stones of Stowe vibrate like a harp string and Roxburgh took advantage of the serendipitous assonance between his educational ideas, the Ancient World and the Enlightenment. The old Whig toast of “civil and religious liberty all over the world” finds its echo in Roxburgh’s desire to give Stoics freedom in their daily lives. He wanted pupils to thrive and advocated kindness, consideration, sympathy and love. “Liberty itself is the best teacher… if we learn from our liberty, it will be a blessing to us; if not, it will be a curse.” Space was in abundance and Roxburgh encouraged the early cohorts of Stoics to treat the architecture and lakes, temples and groves, grottos and vistas, as a vast outdoor classroom presided over by a benign pantheistic schoolmaster entirely attuned to the universal pulse and rhythms of nature. Roxburgh would have agreed with Cicero, “if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

Roxburgh was one of the first educators to treat pupils as individuals, bringing out each unique quality and conferring equal status to the aesthete and the athlete. Prefects’ dinners were civilised and civilising occasions: “he gave me my first glass of port and my last Egyptian cigarette”, a Prefect later recalled. Roxburgh understood that learning was learnable. The best schoolmasters light intellectual fires by acting as facilitators, mentors and coaches: what really matters is not what a teacher can do for a pupil, but what pupils can do for themselves: Roxburgh adopted a Socratic approach to education – encouraging pupils to interrogate structural, existential and material truths.

It was not what a teacher taught that really mattered, but whether he inspired pupils to take charge of their own learning, getting them to think clearly and to appreciate all that is great and good: “the centre of every boy’s education is (or ought to be) the work he does on a subject that appeals to him.” Roxburgh understandably had a strong interest in aesthetics (he was a keen and skilful photographer) and famously announced that “Every boy who goes out from Stowe will know beauty when he sees it all the rest of his life.” He had an intellectually generous cast of mind and championed new disciplines; for example, he wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph in 1931 promoting the teaching of Economics in the Sixth Form. Today, Economics is one of the top three most popular A-Level subjects at Stowe. He also recognised that some produced their best work in the Art Department and in more practical subjects. Characteristically, he donated a £5,000 cheque given to him by Old Stoics on his retirement in 1949 to the School to build carpentry and metal workshops. It is fitting, therefore, that in the School’s Centenary year, we are building a new Design Technology and Engineering Centre for Stoics over the next 100 years.

To Roxburgh, youth represented unfurling potentiality – not the full rose. Re-creating Siro’s Garden School at Naples where Virgil was educated, Roxburgh emphasised the cultivation of the mind and an appreciation of natural beauty above all else. Roxburgh would not tolerate adolescent boorishness, bad manners or lack of punctuality – but he was the opposite of a martinet. School rules were based on common sense. Roxburgh expected self-regulation and self-restraint and preferred gentle persuasion and exposition to hectoring admonition and collective punishments. As a new school, Stowe was refreshingly free of the made-up conventions and rituals which characterised more ancient establishments. The infusing principle was philia, the highest form of brotherly love, which was also the foundation of Roxburgh’s Christian faith: “St John uttered that final and crowning statement of the Christian faith – God is Love.”

However, just as Stowe was reaching full maturity, taking its place in the pantheon of great public schools, the Second World War broke out on 1 September 1939. Nearly two thousand Old Stoics served in the Armed Forces, one in seven lost their lives. Old Stoics were represented in every major battle of the conflict and their brave deeds rank highly in despatches.

The losses broke Roxburgh who would read out the casualty lists in Chapel with tears streaming down his face, grieving for the lost boys whom he had cared for and loved. He wrote in The Stoic, “…Darkness has come down the road before us – the road which was once illuminated with so clear and cheerful a light… We worked in a world that seemed progressive and secure; we planned for a future that was to be full of new achievement and was already full of hope. We dreamed of the service that we could render to an England steadily advancing towards justice and happiness. Our dreams are dead…”.

In recent years we have sought to recapture the effervescence of the early Roxburgh era, to re-connect with the spirit of the Enlightenment and support one of the largest and most complex historical restoration and conservation projects ever undertaken. Stowe presents a uniquely complex challenge as the conservation imperatives of restoring the ducal palace and gardens to their 18th century splendour are balanced against the dynamic and ever-changing demands of running a successful 21st century co-educational boarding school, which now educates over 900 pupils.

The aims of the School are simply stated: to infuse the School with a culture that promotes excellence in all respects, to welcome and celebrate diversity and inclusion, to maintain and promote the accessibility of a Stowe education and thereby retain our position in an increasingly competitive educational marketplace. Continued excellence comes down to the following five elements and their interrelation: the clarity of the vision and strategy, the overall quality of the pupil experience, the rigour of teaching and learning, the standard of pupil accommodation and facilities and the depth and breadth of the co-curricular provision. Most schools are preoccupied with the “how” of education – delivering the curriculum, compliance with inspection criteria, measuring success by exam metrics. But schools should have a higher ambition and purpose by asking what is the point of education? It is important not to succumb to the idea that schools are part of an impersonal, ineluctable educational behemoth, incapable of mastering their own destiny.

We continue to encourage mavericks and free-thinkers to imbibe the genius loci.

Stowe still celebrates the excitement of learning and does not produce stereotypes or mould pupils into conventional all-rounders – we continue to encourage mavericks and free-thinkers to imbibe the genius loci. The spirit of Roxburgh and the Enlightenment continue to permeate the place and its people. The Digital Age has not rendered human agency obsolete: 21st century Stoics are still unique individuals with abilities and talents waiting to be discovered. They are encouraged to grow in their own way and celebrate the differences between them. All Stoics are encouraged to develop their academic and intellectual interests through critical enquiry. There are no barriers to participation in any aspect of school life – sport, drama, music, outdoor education, service and leadership – and pupils are encouraged to voice their opinions on whole-school issues through various councils, giving feedback without fear of repercussions.

The School has a moral and ethical framework underpinned by the Protestant principles of the Church of England, while being fully tolerant of other faiths. Stoics are encouraged to develop their personalities and identities by exploring different ideas and beliefs, countering the spiritual anorexia which besets the modern world. We believe that there are absolute and immutable values, with clear distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, fake news and facts: the end does not justify the means, truth is not flexible and other people are not disposable objects. We promote success but recognise that winning is not always the most important thing, the duty of the individual lies beyond the self. Stowe is sustained by a rule of conduct based on equality of opportunity, respect for individual freedoms and inclusion.

Nurturing the emotional, physical and mental well-being of each pupil is of paramount importance and there is a myriad of opportunities to develop new skills. We have become so accustomed to the narrow range of metrics used to define success that broadening the focus to take account of a child’s happiness seems as radical as Roxburgh’s emphasis on personal freedom. Schools should be more than exam factories that are subject to a stifling regime of assessments and accountability. Pupils should acquire not just academic and intellectual reasoning skills, but a whole range of competencies such as analytical thinking, active learning, complex problem solving, teamwork, creative thinking and the ability to reflect on their experiences.

The Change Maker vision and strategy is at the heart of everything we do. We are opportunity-led and believe that schools must equip pupils to flourish and thrive. Roxburgh understood that pupils could fulfil and even exceed their potential by giving them choice in how and what they learn. The focus is on personal improvement. The ultimate aim is to create contented, well-rounded young adults who will contribute to society by being agents of positive change.

Schools should be places of wonder where pupils develop a whole range of competencies such as teamwork, creative thinking, empathy and resilience. However, the future of employment will be radically different from the past and tomorrow’s school leavers and graduates will require a range of skills, not just scores: they are likely to have an average of 17 jobs in five different fields of employment and will need a portfolio of skills which include digital literacy, fluency in languages, critical thinking, creativity and entrepreneurial energy. We need to prepare young people not just for their first job, but for their last job so that they remain economically productive for the whole of their lives. To be successful in later life, Stoics will need to draw on the ‘Four Cs’: communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration.

The shade of JF would recognise his School as fundamentally unchanged and Stoics are still encouraged to breathe the spirit of the English Enlightenment, take part in the “the great conversation of mankind”, relish the beauty that surrounds them and appreciate the School’s continuing commitment to bringing out the unique qualities and talents in each and every one of them. Thomas Edison wrote that “the greatest invention in the world is the mind of a child”. The Change Maker strategy gives us a strong vision and collective purpose which prepares children for the future. We are just a fleeting presence at Stowe, like the autumn mist which hangs over the Eleven Acre Lake before the sun burns through the haze. When we are gone, we will be judged by our legacy – Stowe and Stoics. The emblem of Change 100 is the heraldic martlet: Shakespeare’s temple-haunting bird, always on the wing, an allegory of our quest for knowledge, learning, adventure and self-improvement. We change ourselves, then we change others and together we can change the world.

Dr Anthony Wallersteiner, Head