Back Pain, Beer, the Bumble Bee, and the Inner Life

  • 2020-21
Back Pain, Beer, the Bumble Bee, and the Inner Life

Alongside English Literature and History, I studied Economics and Politics as a student in the Sixth Form at school.

I enjoyed reading about Henry Ford’s flair for creativity and innovation. He said of his automobile business, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’

And I enjoyed reading about marketing – about, for instance, why a book published in the U.K. with the title ‘How to Relieve Back Pain’ was released more successfully in the U.S. with the title ‘Conquering Back Pain’.

The British novelist Kingsley Amis once spent months working on a slogan to advertise a brand of beer. Eventually he came up with the brilliant but completely unusable tagline, ‘It gets you really drunk’. Amis’s slogan was a joke, of course, but one of the reasons it doesn’t work is that it fails to obey the marketing mantra, ‘Sell the sizzle, not the steak.’ 

I learnt that, through emotional manipulation, a little stagecraft or seeming magic, advertisers can get you to buy almost anything.

In a 1959 episode of the Twilight Zone, a street salesman attempts to distract Mr Death from taking a girl’s soul. To do this, he has to dazzle Mr Death with a fine array of fabrics and the ‘sales pitch of a lifetime’. He describes polyester as ‘the most exciting invention since atomic energy.’ Seduced by the sales talk, even Mr Death says he’ll buy the whole lot.

Of the books I read for Economics, my favourite was The Affluent Society by JK Galbraith. Galbraith understood the modern consumer economy, and the need to buy and sell. He became a key economic adviser to President J.F. Kennedy.

Galbraith tried to explain the idea of ‘credit’ in a way that people might understand. Credit as a word has its roots in ‘belief’ (a credo), and a religious sense of faith.

Galbraith searched for a metaphor for the leap of faith necessary to believe in an economy based on credit, an economy founded on trust, and on the promise of future payment.

He chose the bumblebee (bombo in Italian) as his motif.

Such is the weight of the bumblebee, Galbraith argued, and so small are its wings that according to the normal rules of aerodynamics, it should not be able to fly.

And yet it does fly. How? And why?

It flies because, Galbraith explained, no one has told it that it cannot fly.

The Biology may be wrong but psychologically the narrative remains a powerful one: the bumble bee has faith in its own ability to fly, and so it does.

I sometimes think education and student progress is a little bit like that.

In order to fly, students need to have faith in themselves, a confidence in their own ability to achieve things. This can be accomplished with the help of inspiring teachers, but it also requires mental strength, and sense of conviction based on an inner self-belief.

Only educated people can have an inner life,’ said the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Or at least, the better the education, then the richer the inner life is likely to be.

By inner life, I don’t mean spirituality – or at least not just spirituality. I prefer the word inwardness. The cultivation of inwardness – the ability to reflect, analyse, imagine – is key to any sustained achievement.

But what does an inner life look like, and how can we develop it? 

An inner life involves understanding yourself so that you can better understand others.  

An inner life means having the capacity to transform boredom into imaginative pursuits and innovative solutions; the ability to look at things from different angles.

We can develop students' inner lives in many ways. By creating a culture in which learning is seen as liberating, where intelligence is regarded as a generous expression of the human spirit.   

The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once spoke of ‘the art of the possible’. But perhaps in this context the words of Max Weber are the ones we should turn to: ‘people would not have attained the possible unless they had reached out, time and again, for the impossible’.

During these difficult times, students must continue to believe and have faith in themselves.

Like the bumblebee they must go on reaching for the impossible. Our students, with their energy and talents allow me to credit a future in which they will spread their wings and fly.  

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

  • Education
  • Inner Life