A Dance to the Music of Time

Last Friday, a milestone was reached in the Blavatnik School’s development, as its first MPP cohort reached the end of the teaching-year with a final Policy module.

As the students – myself among them – disperse to the four corners of the globe to undertake our Summer placements in government, companies, research institutes and NGOs throughout the world, it is perhaps time to reflect on the cohort’s future.

Poussin’s seventeenth-century painting  – ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (pictured) – is a work I know well, as it hangs in my local art gallery, The Wallace Collection, London.  I’ve stood before the painting on a number of occasions, including this morning.  The painting is heavy with allusion, from the four central dancers representing successive stages in life from poverty, through labour, to riches and pleasure.  Time’s winged chariot flies through the sky, holding a circle of life, while the central ring of dancers is flanked by youth and age.

The picture also gives its name to Anthony Powell’s twelve-novel masterpiece, set in mid-twentieth century Britain, where a group of characters weave in and out of the narrator’s life en route to old-age.   It is one of the masterpieces of English literature and as the novel’s cycle develops, its portrayal of the peaks, troughs and periods of contentment on the journey of life, make it an epic yet poignant read.

But perhaps we’ve had enough symbolism for one blog…

The cohort after a year spent in intensive and highly stimulating study, will come together once more for graduation, and then our future awaits.  One or two members (ahem) will begin the next phase of their career; others will return to the organisations for which they worked before Oxford; a few will continue their studies at Oxford or elsewhere; and the rest will be starting work with new employers (or even beginning a career).

What are the chances that a member of the first cohort will become a future national leader – in politics, public institutions, and the private or charity sectors?

With hard work and a fair wind behind them, we should expect the Blavatnik’s initial MPP cohorts begin to reach senior positions in the next ten to twenty years, and after that everything become a little more subject to vagaries of fortune…

While both Poussin’s and Powell’s respective works allude to the fact that much can happen in life to throw the best laid plans off-course, I suggest that there is a realistic likelihood of some of the Blavatnik’s graduates making a serious difference in our world.  This isn’t hubris or ego.  In my class of students I saw a tremendous combination of energy, intelligence and ambition to make the world a better place – it made me feel very humble at times.  Many of them have already made a contribution to their societies.

Whatever the dance to the music of time holds for my fellow students, I think that the MPP has helped us to think of public service not as a job, but as a vocation and appreciate that it is an honour to serve our communities.  After our year together, the cohort goes into the world with a broader awareness of public policy challenges and an educated perspective on what it takes to have ‘A world better led, a world better served, a world better governed.’

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