Has this ever happened to you?
Yesterday someone walked out of one of my talks in protest. I am quite used to people disagreeing with me, even heckling me, but for someone to go puce with rage and storm out in the middle was a new experience. As he left he called out, 'I disagree with you'. I said, 'Do at least stay and hear what I have to say' to which he replied, 'No, and I expect others will follow me'. Thankfully no one did.
In a funny sort of way I have decided his lone protest was a compliment rather than an insult. The very fact that I, so even-handed and uncontroversial, could possibly enrage someone is quite heartening. I have spent my life avoiding conflict and a career where I was paid fees to pour oil on troubled waters and here I am, in my dotage, rocking the boat to such an extent that two people (a husband and wife) could tolerate it no longer and stomped off. Mind you, there is room for improvement, 70 people chose to stay and hear me out!
You might wonder what I could possibly have said that triggered such a fierce reaction. Clearly not learning styles - alas no one has ever felt sufficiently strongly about those to walk out. Even people who think that learning styles are a figment of my imagination and /or that I invented them just to make money and/or that the Honey & Mumford questionnaire isn't valid and/or that knowing about learning styles doesn't change anything have at least had the decency to express their reservations, engage in a dialogue and agree to differ. Clearly, I shall have to work out how to spice up learning styles (though after living with them for more than 40 years this could be a challenge too far).
The topic that tipped someone over the edge was my little charity, Prisoners' Education Trust (PET). A longstanding friend - an enlightened solicitor - invited me to speak at a fund raising event in Guildford. Very generously he has chosen PET as one of the charities to support during his year of presidency.
So, there we were in the club house at Guildford Golf Club and, after a convivial lunch with no sign of trouble, it was time for me to do my 10-minute spiel about the work of PET. My friend made a gracious introduction, with two quotations from the bible about the importance of caring for prisoners, and then it was over to me. I briefly explained that PET was a small charity that, amongst other things, provided eligible prisoners with opportunities to undertake distance learning courses while they were banged up. I gave four reasons, ranging from the philosophical to the practical, why we believed that doing this was worthwhile:
1 Because education has the power to enrich lives and raise self-esteem.
2 Because studying is a purposeful activity (prisons are short of purposeful activities).
3 Because there is no educational provision for prisoners who have already reached level two (5 GCSE's). For understandable reasons, the Government's priority is to raise basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. No one disputes there is a need for this, but it does mean that better educated prisoners have nothing.
4 Because there is evidence to suggest that prisoners who want to turn their lives round and chose to do distance learning re-offend less. Re-offending rates are totally unacceptable - on average 60 per cent are back inside two years after release and each prisoner costs the tax payer an estimated £40,000 per year (more that the fees at Eton). Of course, education is only one factor in a complex mix that helps to reduce the likelihood of re-offending. Many other factors such as having a home to go to, a stable family, and a job are strongly associated with reductions in re-offending. But having some educational qualifications, with the confidence they bring, is also a major contributor.
All this seems pretty self-evident to me but I have been involved with PET for 10 years and have perhaps become complacent. The man who walked out presumably thinks that prisoners are in jail purely to be punished ('lock 'em up and throw away the key'). Prisons exist to do three things; punish wrong doers, protect the public by temporarily removing criminals and holding them in a safe place, rehabilitate criminals so that they are less likely to re-offend when, eventually, they are released. Prisons are pretty good at the first two but hopeless at the third. That is where PET comes in, with many other small charities, determined to help prisoners become successful, law abiding citizens.
Is that so very controversial?