Take back control?

Year 13 students are finishing their A Level mocks today. It marks the culmination of months of effort, with the last few weeks, in particular, characterised by a quiet determination in the Common Room, as students have worked to get themselves into the best possible position to perform well. They are to be congratulated on their focus, which will no doubt bear fruit in the summer exams.

Over the half term break, I was thinking about the degree to which our students ­– supported by teachers and working hard themselves – aim to control the outcome of their exams, to what extent this is feasible and why that matters. My thoughts were prompted by reading a book by the sociologist Hartmut Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World. I wanted to share a couple of those thoughts with you, as they have helped me to revisit some of the guidance we might offer our Sixth Form students.

In his book, Rosa argues that modernity is characterised by a desire for control and mastery: “Everything that appears to us must be known, mastered, conquered, made useful […] Lurking behind this idea is a creeping reorganisation of our relationship to the world that stretches far back […] but in the twenty-first century has become newly radicalized […]”​. We try to eliminate risk, increase productivity, extend our reach, expand our skills and powers, in what Rosa describes as an “aggressive relationship to the world”. At the same time, however, he notes that the more we do so, the more we find our control slipping away: the “controllable world mysteriously seems to elude us or to close itself off from us, becoming mute and unreadable […] ultimately constitutively uncontrollable”. As a very everyday example, we might think of the way in which the ‘marked as read’ feature of WhatsApp gives us greater knowledge, but might also increase anxiety and highlight our lack of control while the read message remains unanswered…

For Rosa, the reality is that our world is fundamentally uncontrollable and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (he cites as an example from his childhood the joy of unexpected snowfall). When it comes to exams, however, it is more than reasonable to try to control the outcome as best you can through excellent preparation and consistent effort. But, given the uncontrollability of the world – a bad night’s sleep, a question that throws you – I would want to highlight the importance of making key decisions dependent on one’s values and meaningful intentions, more so than on particular outcomes. When thinking about life after school, for example, perhaps we might do well to ask questions such as, how do I see myself contributing to the world around me in the future? how do I want to spend my time? what matters to me? what kind of a person do I want to be? If we have answers to those questions, we may be better able to respond with purpose to any situation, whatever unexpected things life might throw our way. You might say it’s a way of taking back control.

Mr Viesel
Director of Sixth Form