An Interview with Colin Hannaford: A Prophet without Honor in His Own Land

Sep 26, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Colin, after attending a reunion of your old school, you created a Facebook page to which there has been a remarkable response. What prompted you to do this?

All my friends were telling me I was getting nowhere in trying to persuade our education ministers that whilst children in authoritarian societies learn well from being told what to think, children in more open societies do not. They learn best by being encouraged to talk, about their ideas, their feelings, even about the direction of their societies. This, of course, is what an ‘open society’ means. I was exhausting myself and should just give up. Then in the summer I attended my old school’s final reunion of staff and pupils. I had never been to any of these before. I was surrounded by old pupils, some now in their 40s, who greeted me with so much pleasure that I was astonished. Of course, when children have no-one with whom to compare their teachers whilst they are being taught, they are not likely to regard anyone as particularly special. Thirty years later they have more experience. They had used Facebook to organize their reunion and urged me to join. I decided to make one last effort. It looks like this:-

The Class of 2011

Colin Hannaford

Okay, folks: time to get serious. I want to recruit you all into the most dangerous game on Earth. Just a few years before I became a teacher a man for whom I had great respect told me that I might be a new messiah. I retorted that I was not such a fool. Lately I have realised that a messiah is simply anyone who is honest and asks awkward questions. This is a dangerous business. Such people used to be called iconoclasts: smashers of idols. Idols encourage division, hatred and violence. Many messiahs in many countries are currently being beaten, tortured, and murdered. As a mathematics teacher I decided that my first duty was to help my pupils to preserve their honesty and be unafraid to ask questions. Now I wish I had been more forthright. Today the world needs not one individual but an entire generation of messiahs. It took me some years to learn this. There are currently 750 million Facebook users. If just one percent begins to tell their children to reject dishonesty and to ask awkward questions, we can make a start on a cleaner, fairer, kinder world. Perhaps someone could produce some T-shirts with the slogan: ‘Why aren’t you?’ Provoking the question: ‘”Why am I not what?” Answer: “A messiah!” Get a copyright on that and sell them. It’s up to us!

2) How have your old pupils responded?

Here are the first responses: ( surnames have been removed-)

Penny wrote: “Love it Mr. H”

Gabriella wrote:

“If just one percent begins to tell their children to reject dishonesty and to ask awkward questions, we can make a start on a cleaner, fairer, kinder world.” I like this phrase. I’ve always lived my life this way, especially asking awkward questions :), but the majority of people never answer and fear civil confrontation and acceptance of diversity. It’s like Don Quixote fighting the windmills.”

Tania wrote:

“I love the idea! It’s up to us to live in honesty, even if it’s just that one percent for now! Great text, Mr. Hannaford!”

Giulia wrote:

“I love your writing, used to love your lessons full of passion for honest learning, you are touching a very difficult subject here in Italy where many of us are not happy with the so called honesty of our government, I try to teach my kids honesty and always encourage discussion and question posing, but I ask myself if this is enough?”

Giulia also commented on your photo: “I love it!”

Lucy wrote:

“Thank you for sharing this with us, Colin! Amazing writing, as usual :) I recall things you’ve taught me every day with my son – and try to teach him as you did I! And I will share this with as many people as possible! xx”

Karen wrote:

“Goodness me I remember your teaching soo well.On 1 particular occasion you jumped around the class pretending to be a molecule heating up!!! I respect your writing and I agree that honesty is probably the most important thing we can teach our children today, thank you so much.”

Peter wrote:

“Thanks Colin. At 9.30am on 07/07/05, just as a series of bombs were going off on the London Underground, I was sitting on a train pulling into Paddington station, looking at a guy dozing opposite me, and wondering, ‘if this man was the messiah, would I recognise him? How would I recognise one when I next come across her?” On that day the bombers probably thought they were messiahs (or some such word), and some of the victims may have been too. Why aren’t we?”

Natalie wrote:

“I do agree with this idea! You’d think it would not be so hard to ask questions and expose the truth. Sadly this ability is often crushed from early childhood on. Asking awkward questions of your parents is one of the most difficult challenges. For example a simple truth like “pain hurts” very often goes unheard in a culture where you are told “it’s for your own good”; in the end you no longer know what you truly feel. … We can all start by really listening and hearing our children, and addressing their questions (this includes babies’ crying) thereby encouraging them to ask. Schools also often seem to discourage thought in children. … I’m looking forward to reading your articles in EducationNews!  All the best for now!”

Anna Bryant wrote:

“I love both of these articles. They are insightful and have some promising ideas. I can understand why a lot of people would have a problem with these ideas as I think implementing the changes that are so badly needed would be a huge task. There are so many things to say about the subject you have chosen to address and talk so passionately about. I am glad someone is fighting for an ever failing educational system. You were my favourite teacher because you listened and encouraged us to use our own voices and talk about what we truly felt. Our moral lessons were the only classes Lucy and I looked forward to. I remember thinking once it was the only time the whole class actually got involved everybody listened everybody got to say there piece! Sometimes we argued but surely a good discussion cannot pass without a hitch! You were always alive and passionate about what you discussed with us. Thank you Mr Hannaford you taught me more that you know :) x”

Veronica wrote:

“Dear Colin, You are definitely a New Messiah, when it comes to teaching maths to children all over the world through Logic. Not being the most logical of people, I admire you!! Love Veronica xxx”

Rob wrote:

“My two older girls love maths and I spend time with them doing it. Much of it has to be credited to you and your methods. I love maths and think my 2.05 year old will too. Big respect Colin. Robert Osbourn.”

Erica wrote:

“I think honesty is only a word that can be used where you remain true to yourself and your own personal beliefs, providing they do not encroach on others’. We teach our sons to work hard, to the extent of their ability, learn from mistakes as well as success, be kind, thoughtful, etc…. I think we have all turned out just fine and our children will do too.  In this way, we spread the word little by little.”

  1. You mention a man who told you that you were a messiah. Who was he; why did you listen to him, then reject his advice?

Cecil Harmsworth King was born to a wealthy Protestant family in Dublin. He was classically educated, highly intelligent, hardworking, and scrupulously honest. He was, in other words, unusual.

Cecil Harmsworth King

By the early 1960s, he had created the biggest publishing empire in the world. He was a director of the Bank of England and of Reuters. By 1967 his most important newspaper, the Daily Mirror, was selling over five million copies per day. Cecil could meet anyone he wished to meet: and often did. He remarked that the young man with whom he had had ‘a full and frank discussion’ in the United States, was ‘more impressive than I expected, still inexperienced but still learning’. This was President John F. Kennedy.

When I first met him, in 1973, he told me that he had always thought of himself as a newspaperman, adding: “When a newspaperman isn’t certain, he does nothing.”

To this I replied: “When a soldier isn’t sure, he does something.”

In 1968, King decided that the British government was dangerously incompetent. He wrote an article for the front page of his Daily Mirror under the headline ‘Enough is enough’ and signed it.

It was an unprecedented challenge to the First Estate, the government, by a leading representative of the Press, the Fourth Estate. Within twenty-four hours his other directors, seriously frightened by his audacity, forced him to resign.

He then attempted, with, I think, true Irish spirit, to form an alternative ‘emergency government’. This was to be composed of the most noble, courageous and best minds in the country that he invited to his beautiful old house overlooking the Thames beside Hampton Court Palace.

The noblest, most courageous and best minds in the country listened to him for an hour; then they all fled, muttering to one another about treason: which is exactly what it would have been.

Despite his caution as a newspaperman, Cecil was prepared to play for the highest stakes.

He next selected me to be his ace-in-the-hole, his joker, his trump card.

Or, perhaps to be God’s

At the time I knew virtually nothing of his earlier adventures. I had worries of my own. Then some comments in a book of his persuaded me that he might be able to help me understand a remarkable experience that I had in the Army two years before.

I managed to send him a description, and was at once invited to that beautiful old house, where he sat in this old wing chair and asked me to describe it more fully. He had a curious habit of stroking the wing of his chair, as you see him doing here.1

His wife was Dame Ruth Railton. (Dame, as you know, is a minor British honorific. It’s not the same as the dames that Sinatra used to sing about. Dame Ruth had founded Britain’s Youth Orchestra.) Cecil told me that she had found him a wreck and had brought him back to life.

They both thought I must be the new messiah.

On a second meeting he told me: “All my resources are at your disposal.” They were still considerable.

4.Why didn’t you accept?

Because it would have been absurd: because it would have been, literally, playing a part; playing with the hopes, emotions, most of all with the credulity, of very many very unhappy people. There were half a dozen fake gurus swanning about the world at the time, all pretending to know the Ultimate Truth, and offering to share it with gullible fools for cash. Cecil and Dame Ruth seemed to believe that I only needed to announce that my experience had given me some irresistible spiritual power to be able to restore Britain’s confidence and pride. I would be England’s Saint George on the hoof.

I thought this absurd. I told Cecil: “Don’t take me for a fool.”

His reply was equally short: “If we thought you a fool, you would not be here.”

He continued to write to me after I left the Army the following year and was in Scotland. His letters always ended with the same advice: ‘Pray for more guidance, and act.’

5. Apparently you didn’t do this either. Why not?

When I finally got to Cambridge University, in 1975, I was able to consult some really eminent theologians, I found that they also believed that my experience was what Cecil had called “a direct apprehension of God.” But it was soon clear that it was entirely beyond their scale of reference.

It was as if they were accustomed to dealing with the faint echoes of some great super-nova far out in space. I had been there, in contact. I had survived. They were respectful and protective, but they were no help. I was still on my own.

My own conclusion was that there must be some specifically human behaviour that can be explained as a consequence, not of the direct apprehension of God, which is clearly very rare, but indirectly and universally. High-energy particles from immensely distant super-novae whiz through our minds continually. They are real. By triggering quantum changes in our brains, they may be the reason that we can think. Why not a similar behavioural response to the reality that is the presence of God?

6. And do you think you have found that response?

Yes. I think it explains a whole spectrum of human traits. Many we share with other animals. Altruism and friendship, for example, are closely allied. They are in the middle of the range. These traits are not specific. The specifically human are at the extremes. They are the capacity for limitless cruelty, and the capacity for limitless love. Both are reflections of God’s power. The intellectual basis of extreme cruelty is certainty. The intellectual basis of love, necessarily, is the opposite. It is doubt.

7. Despite your rejection of Cecil King’s generosity of 40 years ago, you caused a stir recently – even here in the United States – by placing an advert in a British satirical magazine called Private Eye in which you declared that you are a messiah. You also created a series of YouTubes called ‘Messianic Mathematics’. Why did you change your mind?

Cruelty is an extreme form of the exercise of power. Education is also an exercise of power. It typifies the power of adults to direct the way that their young behave, think, and feel. All higher animals have this power. Typically, the education of young humans can be extremely cruel. It can produce young people capable of the most horrific crimes to serve their leaders’ ambitions or their own. They may persuade themselves that this no more than exercising God’s power on Earth.

Without the opposite influence – that is: of love – education can accomplish little. Love makes possible the generosity of adults towards the young, allowing them to doubt their own certainties, to see that their children usually have more emotional, intellectual, and spiritual potential, to provide enough freedom so that these potentials may develop.

The three ‘Messianic Mathematics’ videos I created are really very bad. The Private Eye advert – surely now a collectors’ item – was intended to provoke, but it was also intended to amuse. I was about to make the fourth video when I discovered that Chicken Little was right. The sky can fall down.

8. Wasn’t that what you had expected?

It was not. Every one of my dearest friends was furious. I had no right! I was insane! Did I want to be identified with Jones and Koresh [and a few hundred others]? I did I not realise what damage I would do. Damage, to what? To my reputation! What reputation?

Even more astonishing was how excited atheists became. One member of the James Randi Forum, the JRF, America’s most determinedly rational association, was happy to inform his fellow sceptics that I was clearly “one or two nails short of a crucifixion”. Ugh!

But this roar of indignation and accusation had the curious effect of release. I found myself thinking: how can they ALL be so annoyed?

Do they know how they would recognize a messiah in the first place?

Probably not.

Would anyone?

Probably not.

I have spent fifty years resolutely denying that I am a messiah.

But would I know if I am?

Probably not.

Should I have listened to Cecil in his beautiful home beside the Thames?

Probably not. But perhaps he had a point.

How would anyone recognize whether he is a messiah?

And why, by the way, are women never considered.

Finally I remembered that an undoubted messiah had explained how to do this:

‘By their works.’


But how could this test apply even to children!

In my earlier report from Greece for EducationNews I have already told how I was stumbling down a steep concrete path one morning, already sweating profusely, when the answer came to me in mid-stride. The children must be as honest as possible, and ask questions.

9. Let me change the subject. Has being a soldier helped you as a teacher?

If it’s me, you can’t change the subject. I am all of a piece. Yes, I suppose it has helped: especially at this juncture.

Although I was a soldier for 15 years – I joined at 17, left at 32 – I was fortunate never to be in combat: never to be shot at; never to shoot or to kill. But soldiers are taught to expect that in an ambush the heaviest fire will come from both sides. The enemy expects that you will then fall back. If you do fall back there will now be a stop party behind you. They will wipe you out.

The only survivable option is to go forward as hard and as fast as you can.

Being now, metaphorically, under fire from both sides, and with the James Randi gang ready to supply more nails for my crucifixion behind me, my only option was to go forward.

Even more certainly, this is the world’s only option. We are at the point of proving that our species is just not intelligent enough to survive.

And this means that those old Jewish rabbis were right to say stop expecting some miraculous individual sent from God to set the world right. Only a new generation can save us.

Now I knew how that generation could know itself.

10. In your Greek report you made much of the Prophet Jeremiah’s failure to prevent Israel from being destroyed. You must be familiar with the line: ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is interred with their bones’. How does it relate to you and to Jeremiah. What do you expect to leave behind?

That line is from Mark Anthony’s speech over Julius Caesar’s body in Shakespeare’s play of that name. The mob wants Caesar’s corpse to tear it to bits. Mark Anthony wants them to remember the good things that Caesar has done that will survive his death! His speech (actually Will Shakespeare’s speech) is supposed to give them pause in which to think.

I suppose the most impressive of modern Jeremiahs are Professors Noam Chomsky in the US, and Martin Rees, a recent President of the British Royal Society. Both men have attempted to persuade governments to end their endless childish squabbling over political trivia – Iraq and Afghanistan for instance – to concentrate on improving our species’ chances of survival.

Another consequence of the sky falling down was to help me realise why they can never succeed. It is for the very same reason that I had exhausted myself.

It is simple. No system can be shamed, frightened, or bullied into admitting its faults and to reform itself. This may work with individuals. It cannot work with systems.

In Mark Anthony’s case the system was the aristocratic cabal who believed that Julius Caesar must be killed. In Jeremiah’s case it was the Israelites’ belief that God would never allow them to be defeated and enslaved. In my case it has been the inability of authorities to admit that educational failure is not due to a failure of material, but of method

Systems are self-referring, self-sustaining organisations. Their first response to any criticism, however justified, brilliant, or sustained, will always be to strengthen their convictions that they must be right. They are simply not capable of self-examination, shame, embarrassment, or humility. They must always be justified. They are never at fault.

Only children can get underneath this defence: millions of children, asking repeatedly: “Why is that?”

Of course children cannot prepare to do this alone. Mothers can prepare them. As they are growing up their mothers can tell them: “You are my little chickydoo, my little precious, my little messiah!” Later they must tell their children what this means.

11. Oxford is home to many famous philosophers. Could they help?

I wish I could just say yes.

In 1996, Oxford University’s Philosophical Society first recognized the value of my ideas by presenting me with that year’s Chadwick essay prize. It is named after its founder.

This year, on the Greek island of Spetses, I discovered that the big old school that the English write John Fowles used as the setting for his strange book The Magus is currently being used as a conference centre. It is now owned by the education ministry in Athens.

I proposed a series of conferences funded by the European Union to inform teachers of the historical connection between democracy and learning argument through mathematics.

The local organisers were enthusiastic. Returning to Oxford, I asked the Philosophical Society if it would support it: possibly with an inaugural conference here in Oxford.

A senior Society member replied: “I am not sure of the extent to which the Society could be helpful to a project that aims to explain how mathematics teaching could help democracy.”

My 1996 essay contains precisely this explanation.

Of course this response is sad: unimaginative; irresponsible. But, in general, modern philosophers obviously feel safer in pursuit of the inconsequential or unreal. The last thing they want is ideas that may change societies. Lenin and Hitler still frighten them all.

12.  Most Americans are familiar with the story of Chicken Little running about warning everyone that the sky was about to fall after an acorn fell on his head. Don’t you sometimes think, in the quiet of the night, that you may be another Chicken Little?

Of course I do. But it was an acorn that fell on Chicken Little’s head: not $trillions of debt.

13. What have I neglected to ask?

How about: ‘What kind of questions do you imagine being usefully asked?’

Here are some:

At home: “How do we know what we think is true, is true?”

At school: “How much specific time is allowed in every lesson for pupils to question their teacher?” And if the answer is that there is no specific time: “Why not?”

Finally, don’t forget the T-shirts (a valuable franchise is on offer here): “Aren’t you?)

1 Licensed from the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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