Sir Anthony Seldon described schools as being representatives of a 19th Century factory like mentality. It might not be quite as sensationalist as that but there is certainly enough fabric there to make a tapestry. None more seen over the past year, where the pandemic caught schools out and, much like meeting up with friends again, they needed to find creative ways to educate.

Let’s take it back for a minute. All the way back and look at this from a story-telling perspective. Why? Imagination. Schools are there to inspire and so what better way to parallel this and making the point than through the lens of fiction.

Let’s clear something up from the start. There is no such thing as an original story. We have the Ancient Greeks to thank for that.

There is though something very Ancient Greek about our world right now, an age of Rhetoric and a time when politics and stories were essentially symbiotic. Sound familiar. A good story, or even ‘fake news’ as we have learnt to call it, has the ability to influence tens of thousands.

Here is my point – stories are unique to the individual and the meaning they choose to find in them. It is how they are communicated that ultimately determines their shelf-life. To captivate and entertain a listener, a good story needs to be one that the listener, not only the author can relate to.

And a good story (like a good education), will stand the test of time though.

There is too much intellectual snobbery attached to Classical studies nowadays. The inimitable classicist Edith Hall once said, ‘classics should be available to all’ and I agree. Their themes of greed, ambition, hunger, fear, love, loathing are the same now as 2,000+ years ago. Even putting that aside, there is just a pure joy in the telling of these stories, and that is why they continue to - and should - endure. Our modern need to analyse every aspect of these stories often blurs that point and isolates classical studies from a wider readership. Much like Shakespeare, we are made to study his plays in school, and we should, but in over-analysing his works, there is a danger we forget just how good his plays were simply as stories. As an actor and a “classicist”, I found this particularly stark, as in performance, I found more meaning in the stories than in studying them. It brought the narrative back to the original point that these stories were written to entertain and we should re-interpret them to help them endure.

Now, I have never been one for popular opinion.

It tends to get in the way of rational debate, ‘if one thinks it then it must be true’.

However, there is a growing thought now that I absolutely adhere to and believe it needs to develop faster, in its own pandemic like way. Schools need to adapt to the future.

When the first lockdown fell, schools were suddenly forced into a new world. How to make it work? And in a lot of cases, without judgement, it didn’t hence why the drop-out rate from the first term at university was reasonably high - students were simply unprepared as their learning had stopped. The age-old concept of think outside the box has a tendency to trip too many people up. It carries too many variables. Think outside the box… think inside the box and control the outcome. If nothing is ever completely unique, simply look to reinvent. You don’t have to tell the original story in order to re-tell the original story. The Greeks themselves often re-packaged and re-sold myths and stories with different endings. Why? To suit the purpose and agenda of the playwright, just as we do now. To be original, a story does not need to be wholly original, it just needs to have an original angle.

It led me to question, ‘What is so Ancient about Greek Mythology?’ Now that’s a good question for the ‘fake news’ era. Arguably nothing. In some ways, you could ask ‘What is so Original about Greek Mythology’ as they repackaged original stories themselves. You could argue that they were just the first to write them down though that is another question entirely. It is true to say that these stories are not immediately accessible as they were written for a different audience, in a different time, for a different purpose. And yet when you recognize the formula inherent in each of these stories, you can see why they continue to stand the test of time and why the Classics still sell. Seth Godin, the renowned Marketing and PR Guru, once said “People… buy relations, stories and magic.” Ancient Greek mythology affects our everyday lives, whether you realise it or not.

Now, this is not an original, ground shifting question at face value. There are those who have debated this point before. They elaborated on the ideas of others. Therefore to keep it relevant, I need to re-interpret this original point, and in turn, re-invention becomes my point. There is a wonderful book by French writer Robert Queneau called Exercises in Style, in which he explores 99 ways to deliver the same story, simply by changing everything from pitch to tone to intonation to experimenting with dialect, with the meaning of the story changing each time. To me, this is mythology and the Chinese whisper of it. The constant reinterpretation – not regurgitation – of an original story, thought or opinion, that keeps it enduring.

As humans, we have been telling stories for as long as there has been an audience. Take cave paintings for example, they were an early form of telling stories. ‘Aboriginal dreamtime’ was similar, long before records began, these myths were used as an early creationist story. The ancient Greeks created myths and told stories to not only understand the world around them but to also give themselves a justification in it and then spread their culture to their expanding world. Civilisations throughout history have done the same thing (e.g. Spanish conquistadors taking the Catholic region to the countries they (bloodily) conquered). Myths after all characterise/define/explain humanity in the way the myth-teller wants them to. There is no one definition of humanity. Is the same arguably not true today?

Realise it or not, our society and our ‘culture’ is still being shaped by them. In today’s world, the Marvel and DC universes dominate the cinematic landscape; yet the heroes are not original, they were built around Classical Mythology (Batman is Achilles; Superman is Apollo; even Ant-Man can trace his origins – tenuously, hilariously – to Zeus who once transformed himself into an Ant to visit earth and have sex with pretty women); Medea has became an icon representing the portrayal of women in the modern feminist movement; the film 300 gave rise to a worldwide fitness craze. There must be a good reason why The Odyssey has the second highest readership in Western Literature, after The Bible.

Because mythology, both thematically and through imagination, sells. At its very core, that is it. It sells.

Shakespeare knew it, himself owing much to the Ancient Greek Theatre – think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet – both based on Greek mythology. Commercially brands such as Nike (Greek Goddess of Victory), Hermes (Messenger of the Gods), Amazon (warriors famed for their strength, speed and efficiency) – all from Greek mythology because of the significance of their stories. We could sell the myths alone in the 21st Century – as Hollywood does – on sex, violence, body image and grit. Though this is an injustice to the majesty of the themes, which are the real sales pitch.

Hardly deserving therefore of the label of a ‘dead subject’. Ancient stories remain strikingly relevant to 21st century issues and themes. It seems bizarre that people would relate to these stories two millennia later however, people still have genuine reactions to the ancient stories, consciously or otherwise. People look for the messages they want to find in the stories we have today. New experiences in people’s lives help people find new meanings in the same stories.

The same was true for the Ancient Greeks. They knew the stories before watching the plays, theatre was ultimately just reinterpretations of the same myths. Hitchcock once said, ‘one of the things people most readily confuse is the difference between surprise and suspense.’ Surprise is that which is unexpected; suspense is that which is known but is the process by which it is revealed. Add to the structure we just mentioned and layer it with a framework the reader relates to and you have the enduring power of ancient mythology.

In the mid-20th Century, Joseph Campbell wrote a now very popular book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he discusses the journey of the hero. He noticed that in every mythical story the archetypal hero follows a similar path throughout. That story has been replicated throughout history and continues to be, George Lucas has admitted its influence in Star Wars, from the moment the droids visited Luke, through to his destruction of the Death Star. The point being, it is the structure that you replicate in your story, that is important to sell it to the modern audience.

There is no correct way to tell a myth or a story. The story of Oedipus for example differs in the re-telling of the myth between The Odyssey (where he continues as King of Thebes despite his actions) and Oedipus Rex (where he kills himself). The facts are the same, the end product is different.

So… to return full circle. Schools, like stories, are there to inspire. If you understand that in order to be original, you don’t have to be original, you just have to approach it with energy and imagination, you can update anything for any audience. It is about understanding your audience first. And a good school should be doing that for every school year.

Tailored not Uniform.

19th Century factories? Whatever you want to call them, not everyone is yet in 21st Century mode.

To reinvent is to survive; more than that to reinvent is a responsibility for successive generations of students.


This article was written by James Barton, Director, Recruitment, MPW London

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