The actress was speaking at Dhaka Lit Fest about finding a new way to educate young people at the school she's involved in, where screens are banned until the age of 16
Tilda Swinton: 'Universities are sick of taking 18-year-olds who are totally neurotic'
“I want to make a radical suggestion,” said Tilda Swinton on stage at Dhaka Lit Fest last week. “Could we have the lights up, so I can see everybody?” The Academy Award-winning actress had just been asked why she so enjoys this three-day gathering in Bangladesh’s bustling capital city. As the theatre filled with light, Swinton gestured to the audience. “Thank you,” she said, “because that’s the answer.”
It was a lovely moment – met, inevitably, with wild cheers – that seemed to capture what this event, celebrating its seventh year, is all about. Yes, it attracts plenty of big names – alongside Swinton, there were talks by authors Philip Hensher, Adam Johnson and James Meek, as well as Indian actress Nandita Das – but it is the way in which the audience interacts with these big names that is so striking. Almost without exception, every session was followed by question after question after question. If the time was up, the speakers simply carried on the conversation outside.
Tens of thousands of people poured in over the three days between November 8 and 10 and the whole place – six venues, dozens of book stalls, nearly 100 sessions – buzzed with the energy of ideas, opinions and disagreements. There was none of the stuffiness that so often blights literary festivals elsewhere. Or to put it another way: I can’t imagine someone at Hay Festival in rural England addressing Swinton as “Lady Tilly”.
“No festival can really exist or have any spirit at all without its audience,” said Swinton. “Something I don’t think is repeated enough is how much those of us lucky enough to be on stage get out of being here, of being with you and talking with you.”
On her school in Scotland: No screens
Asking for the lights to be turned up wasn’t Swinton’s only radical suggestion, either. She was in Dhaka to discuss why she thinks it is time to re-assess our education system. The Doctor Strange star is connected to a school in Scotland, Drumduan School, where pupils don’t sit for exams, don’t read textbooks and rarely study in a conventional classroom.
Instead, they learn by doing things. Swinton recalled how one year-long project involved pupils making a Canadian canoe from a tree trunk. “All their science lessons are within this one class,” she said. “And at the end of the year they take the risk and sail it across the sea – together.”
This method of teaching is based loosely on Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s theories about education. Steiner proposed that the first seven years of a child’s life should be about the development of the will; the second, the development of feeling; and the third, the development of the intellect. Children should, he argued, progress through their formative years in a more creative and holistic way.
Swinton’s twins, both of whom attended Drumduan School, didn’t learn to read until they were nearly seven years old. “My father, who could probably read Latin when he was three, was completely horrified,” said Swinton. “It was a feat of real bravery to present these wild children to him. They started to learn in October, when they were six-and-a-half, and by March the following year, they were reading completely.”
Asked whether this schooling was recognised by universities and colleges, Swinton said that all 15 of the 16 pupils from Drumduan School who applied this year had been accepted. “I would suggest that universities are sick of getting 18-year-olds who are totally neurotic, totally over-stressed and addicted to all sorts of anti-depressants,” she said.
The biggest cheer of the afternoon arrived, though, when Swinton explained that none of the pupils are allowed to use any kind of screen, including a mobile phone, until the age of 16. “If we’re not careful, particularly in the West, very soon young people will not be able to write by hand,” said Swinton. “Pupils do their homework on a computer and email it to their teachers. As any psychologist and neurologist will tell you, handwriting is an incredibly important part of the development of the psyche.
“Technology is a mega distraction too early, it can disrupt a child’s natural rhythm and natural curiosity. It’s just a question of delaying it. My children are as interested in Instagram as anybody, it’s just they know that they can live without it. That’s the great difference.”
It’s one thing, of course, to roll these ideas out on a small scale in a beautiful part of Scotland – quite another in Dhaka, where many children are working for much of the day and may only be able to get to school for a couple of hours. To her credit, Swinton acknowledged this but added that she believes it can be “scaled up and down and sideways into all sorts of environments”.
“Let’s go back to finding a way to embolden children to remain enlightened and up for learning,” she said. “This model is not to do with technology or anything that can’t be scaled up incredibly easily and economically. Imagine a society that is built out of this sort of education.”
It was a mighty, rallying cry, which brought the lights back down on this year’s Dhaka Lit Fest.