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The case for The Impermanent Record

Updated: May 17, 2021

When I was growing up and saw American television programmes where the characters were at school this was always very exciting. The first thing that was noticeable was that very rarely did a student wear a uniform. That seemed like the coolest, most desirable change that any classmate and myself could ever hope to have. Why did we have to all dress the same- with a fake-half tie where the collar was an elastic-band – when all these yanks could perfectly well get an education in any old outfit?? In a way it felt that we were doomed to fail as a society – everyone knew that Americans were smarter and richer and more attractive than us and I bet it was because they didn’t have to be strait-jacketed from no age to conform and lookalike! Yes that’s what was holding us back! On more than one occasion, and indeed at more than one of the four schools I attended, debates and essays were assigned on the subject of pro- and anti- school uniforms such was the wider passionate interest in the topic! And as much as this was a concept we could all understand, and have an opinion on, our minds were blown by a phrase that seemed to pierce the heart of any non-conformist US student – the risk that whenever they crossed a line it would be noted on their ‘permanent record’. The words seemed to stop even the most hardened bully from pummelling a dweeb for their lunch-money in their tracks. Never mind the sweet little guy or girl passing notes in the back of the classroom. Yes no matter what the crime, even if the perpetrator was clothed in the toughest of double denim armoury, they’d think twice when told that the matter at hand was now going to be committed to writing for eternity. I recall the panicked fretting of characters lamenting that they wouldn’t get in to Harvard because they’d been caught going to the restroom without a hall pass! The permanent record seemed like an actual “Doomsday Book” – not a record of assets but of liabilities. I was so psychologically terrified by it and that I might even fall victim to it myself that even though we didn’t even have such a concept at the educational establishments that I attended – I sure as heck wasn’t going to risk getting mine filled with tales of minor misdemeanours. However, like any story meant to corral children into the behaviour that adults would prefer they exhibited, it was all a bit of a myth. If it existed at all to the extent I had convinced myself it did, it was destroyed when the school no longer needed it as a ‘Sword of Damocles’ to maintain order and decorum. It was anything but eternal. Long before data protection regulations ensured that personal information was not held longer than was required schools were just pragmatic – you’re gone so you’re not our problem! And that is how it should be. The impermanent record served it’s purpose, it got the young person to a stage in their life where they hadn’t gone off the rails as much as they might otherwise have done and now they are better equipped to handle the moral dilemmas of adulthood on their own, with a greater understanding of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. The slate was ‘wiped clean at eighteen’, and all had a chance to start again. Any mistakes made were absolved and would be laughed about at the twenty-year school reunion for the insignificance of what any adolescent blemish actually is. When I went to mine, I noticed that some of the most successful people in the room where those that had seemed the most wayward two decades earlier. I doubt in the modern age that our young people now face that they would have been allowed to gain a foothold in their careers without someone reminding them and indeed others of the time they were caught smoking behind the bike sheds. Forgive and forget and move forward – that is what has sustained human development before now and should continue to be how it is.

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