Why is thinking and acting responsibly, beyond the realm of self-interest, vital to our future?

Our College theme for 2018 ‘I am responsible for……’ is a cloze procedure activity, which I hope will encourage all members of our community to consider their many and varied responsibilities.

My strong belief has always been that, in my role as principal, I am responsible for …….creating an environment that will encourage the discovery of character, spirit and identity whilst engaging in the pursuit of wisdom.   I remain of the view that the true purpose of education is to make us perfectly human as revealed in our College Vision, ‘An education for life.’

In the introduction to The Road to Character, the author, David Brooks, opens his introduction by sharing that he has been thinking about the differences between what he refers to as the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues.

He shares that résumé virtues are the skills and successes that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.

He explains that the eulogy virtues are deeper. They are the virtues talked about at funerals and reflect whether we have been kind, brave, honest and prepared to look beyond oneself and consider the needs of others

Whilst I believe eulogy virtues are more important than résumé virtues, it is proving to be increasingly more challenging to promote these in a society that is seeking a firmer metric as to what constitutes a great school.  Once it was about turning out well-rounded, kind, polite and happy people, but as Anthony Seldon, the former Master of Wellington College, England, wrote, “Exams have become a mania, a frenzy, an obsession. The tendency has become to validate a school, a child or a teacher only on their examination grades with the effect that children appear to be less content and teenagers more psychologically unsettled by being schooled on a ‘factory model’ leading mechanical, regimented, stressful lives, where there is no time to celebrate and enjoy.”

The examination validation arms race continues to accelerate and it appears that we are about to enter another round of curriculum reform with the Andrews Government announcing a review of the VCE.  It will be interesting to understand the benefits of testing the literacy and numeracy levels of students on the eve of their departure from school education and to learn of the support structures and programs that will be made available to support them beyond school.  Our young people are already among the most externally examined in the world and, in study after study, are recording increasing levels of anxiety and depression and the pressures are well documented: recreational drug use, exam anxiety, peer comparison, early sexualisation, information overload, loss of contact with nature, and the ubiquitous screen — phone, computer and TV – extending into sleepless nights.

Whilst I recognise the need to focus on the intellectual development of students, I remain unreservedly committed to their holistic development, which includes a focus on the development of their emotional intelligence and what are often patronisingly termed ‘soft” skills’,” which are skills of creativity, teamwork, empathy, grit, resilience and honesty. The development of these skills and traits are necessary if we are to resolve the key issues challenging the world, but we must also ensure that our youth understand the forces that will impact on the environment and on them individually and collectively.

Many of these challenges have been well documented and yet remain largely ignored. In 1995 Václav Hamel wrote in his seminal paper ‘Radical Renewal of Human Responsbility,’ that we are now members of a single global civilisation defined by technological innovation through which integrated models of social, political and economic behaviour are conveyed.  Hamel believed that many of the great problems we face, have their origin in the fact that this global civilization, though in evidence everywhere, is no more than a thin veneer over the sum total of human awareness.  Hamel’s call is to replace that veneer with a deeper sense of responsibility “..for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality.”

Stephen Leahy reinforced the need for greater depth in humankind’s responses in his 2011 paper: ‘Data Shows All of Earth’s Systems in Rapid Decline’.  Stating “.. protecting bits of nature here and there will not prevent humanity from losing our life support system. Even if areas dedicated to conserving plants, animals, and other species that provide Earth’s life support system increased tenfold, it would not be enough without dealing with the big issues of the 21st century: population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use.’

Nick Wigham’s article ‘The mass extinction event going unnoticed as the planet’s biodiversity dwindles’ is one of a multitude that seek to further emphasise the dangers of a superficial – ‘veneer’ – awareness by revealing that the world has lost nearly 60 per cent of its animal populations since 1970 and that the latest research reflected this trend to be getting worse.

Distilling these many real and significant imperatives and connecting them in a meaningful interdisciplinary curriculum is a key responsibility of all educationalists, globally if we are to ensure that learning is relevant to societal need.

The OECD invites our young people to contemplate three key challenges for our rapidly changing world that require global debate:

  1. Environmental – the depletion of natural resources which requires urgent action
  2. Economic – creation of new economic, social and institutional models that pursue better lives for all. Questions of how science will support development and enrich lives without crossing the barriers of what it means to be human.
  3. Social – understanding of how global population growth, migration, urbanisation and increasing social and cultural diversity are reshaping countries and communities. How inequalities in living standards and life chances are widening, while conflict, instability and inertia, often intertwined with populist politics, are eroding trust and confidence in government itself, with an escalation in threats of war and terrorism

The dilemma for schools is how best they might navigate the commercial imperative to chase firm marketable metrics in contrast to chasing outcomes that focus on developing skills and human qualities that benefit society more broadly.  Schools also face the challenge of how best to develop leadership skills and a capacity to influence others in an increasingly complex global environment.

Bob Johansson in his book, ‘Leaders Make The Future’ offers some useful guidance when discussing the leadership qualities in conjunction with the opportunities and threats that will exist in a future world characterised by VUCA – an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.  Johansson reinforces that education should not merely provide a library, but a set of values, instincts and thinking habits that will support them in the many and varied challenging contexts in which they might find themselves so that they can identify new opportunities for human advancement.

We need to develop in them the tools and the motivation to think outside of the realm of self-interest is vital if individual people, communities and nations are to embrace their responsibility to act for the good of all humankind.

It is for this reason that we develop programs, experiences and associations that encourage global citizenry by exploring and developing learning through service as a pathway to creating responsible and accountable global citizens. Key experiential programs include Global & Leonardian Scholarships, Lennie’s Van, the Big Experience and our responsibility for the capital and operational costs of running our schools in Bangladesh among many others.  We are continuing to develop our curriculum to ensure that the focus is not only on content, but on developing curiosity, imagination, resilience and self-regulation.  We seek to ensure our young learners respect and appreciate the ideas, perspectives and values of others; motivated by care and compassion about the well-being of the Global community and the planet.

Václav Hamel  concluded his 1995 paper by stating that: “I have been given to understand how small this world is and how it torments itself with countless things it need not torment itself with if people could find within themselves a little more courage, a little more hope, a little more responsibility and a little more understanding and love.”

I am captured by the reality that after more than two thousand years since the teachings of Socrates, we continue to articulate similar qualities as those declared by him as constituting the four pillars of character: Courage, Wisdom, Temperance and Justice.

I hope that many of you will respond to the invitation to consider all that you may be responsible for and how an early adoption of these might influence your eulogy – many years from now!

Article first published in St Leonard’s College Network magazine, May 2018.