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125th Anniversary Celebrations for The Dunedin College of Education

Issue date: 
Saturday, 20 January 2001
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

As our nation grows older, so do our institutions, and more and more are we celebrating the longevity of many of them. Schools and Universities are hitting the hundred mark, sometimes plus another quarter century, or even more. On a wider front, at the end of last year it was the sesquicentenary of Canterbury, and well before that, in March 1998, it was Otago's, celebrated in great style, befitting this strong and vibrant community. And today it's another 125th birthday, and one that exemplifies the solid foundations on which this city of Dunedin was built. Dunedin has so often led the way educationally, artistically, commercially, and this birthday marks another of its firsts, the establishment of New Zealand's first teachers' training college. And so it's an occasion not just for celebration, but also to honour those people who, no sooner had the University of Otago been established, realised that what had to come next, and quickly, was a College to train the teachers of the colony's children.

This is an occasion, too, to honour the generations of teachers who have taught here and who have trained here, and who have helped build that colony into the nation we know today. They did not of course do that by constructing buildings or bridges or ports or hospitals, but by expanding minds, sharpening intellects, developing skills and — the best of them — inspiring the children in their care.

But it's a rather vain thing simply to look back on the past without looking forward as well, to what the future might hold, to the way in which we can perhaps shape that future. Dunedin's early settlers understood the crucial importance of a good education, and they did all they could to ensure that it was available to as many as possible. It's an ideal that has never been fully realised, and sadly we are still far from realising it. But it's an ideal to continue to strive for.

One of the most rewarding and stimulating things I do is visit schools, and I am almost always hugely impressed by the dedication of the staff and the quality of the best of the students. And yet we know that we are failing to educate a large proportion of our young people to a standard that will enable them to hold their own in this technological age and this knowledge economy. The fact that we are no worse than some other Western nations is scant comfort when we realise how much dependent this isolated land of ours is on excellence in skills and application.

Too many of us give at the most lip service to the importance of education and of the teaching profession. We really need to work for a cultural change, by which excellence in educational achievement is seen to be as praiseworthy as, dare I say more praiseworthy than, excellence in sport.

I am only too well aware that education is one of those topics on which pretty well everyone has an opinion, and this must be the bane of teachers' lives. So I don't propose to advance any pet theories of my own, and certainly I don't want to pre-empt the Minister. But in the context of an occasion when we look back and we look forward, I do want if I may to dwell briefly on what I am sure you will all agree are some fundamentals; in essence to emphasise the importance of good teaching.

This College's future will, of course, be greatly influenced by its past; through the traditions that have arisen here, and that have been passed on by what modern management theorists would term "the culture" of the place. Management theorists have also rather dressed up another once-common feature of practically all organisations, which was that they used to have mottos.

For a time, though, mottos seemed to go out of fashion. But they have started to come back, except that they're often called something else now, and their purpose has been divided into two parts, so that they have become rather complicated, and liable to frequent change: the first part is the organisation's 'Vision', and the second is its 'Mission Statement'.

Mottos have the very great advantage that you can easily remember them. My old primary school, at Hataitai in Wellington, had, and still has, one that I have seen in some other schools: "Kia kaha, kia toa" — be strong, be brave. Wellington College, where I went next, had, and still has, one in Latin: "Lumen accipe et imperti — take the light and pass it on; very appropriate for a school that strove for academic excellence. I am glad that the Dunedin College of Education, too, has retained a motto. It may have a Mission Statement, perhaps it is obliged to have one, but I am sure no one could recite it. Yet I expect, I hope, most of you could tell me the motto, Maxima Debetur Pueris Reverentia.

I doubt that there could be a better motto for a place where teachers are trained:— The Child is owed, or deserves, the greatest respect. It's interesting that 'Reverentia', from which English derived the word 'revere', you translate as 'respect', because the derivation of 'respect' is the Latin prefix re-, back, and specere, to look. Which could be thought to mean to look behind you, as if over your shoulder. But the more appropriate meaning is to look back at someone who is, in turn, looking at you; to look them in the eye; in other words, to see them — who they are; what they might need; and, with children, who they might become.

Which is something else entirely from simply 'revering' someone, and much more appropriate in every way for a college of education.

I came across a quote from America some years ago, which makes the point rather well. "When I was in the 6th grade," this person wrote, "and our family had just moved house, we went to Mrs Shelton's class, and she was writing these long words on the board. We kept saying 'This is the 6th grade. Not the 8th.' And she turned round and said, 'I know what grade this is, I work here. These are no longer "big words", they are "polysyllabic terms", and over here's a dictionary and a Roget's Thesaurus, and right down the hall is a library, and there's something called the Dewey system. I will never teach down to you. One of you little brats might run for governor or president one day, and I don't want to be found guilty.'"

Obviously Mrs Shelton had been a teacher for many years and had long since lost all vestiges of any dewy-eyed idealism she may once have had; but clearly she saw and respected her children's ability to learn, to become; and one gets the impression that she succeeded. She knew that teaching is a vocation best followed by both encouraging her students, and guiding them — accomplishing the first by having high expectations of her children's capacity for learning, and the second by not assuming that they would somehow and mysteriously 'discover' all useful knowledge to be already within themselves. And back then there would no doubt have been, just as there now, assertions that teaching should concentrate on the one, encouragement, or the other, guidance. While the truth of the matter surely is that teaching is a calling that demands both — inspiration and perspiration, so to speak — which is why, indeed, teaching is a vocation and not just a job.

It is not an industrial process. Students are not products. Nor can they be, except in a very limited sense, embodiments of human capital. Is not the object of education rather to help them discover how much they can understand if they set their hearts to it, how much they can achieve if they set their minds to it, how much they can bring to their lives if they approach it in the right spirit?

Yet at the very same time that they are hopefully learning those things, young people must also come to play a useful part in the world of work, through knowing what they're talking about, or knowing what they're writing about, or being able to accomplish the practical.

That balanced view of what education is, and what education is for, is still sometimes lost sight of, particularly when educational ultra-liberals and ultra-conservatives make claim and sterile counter-claim. True education surely inspires the eventual emergence of rounded persons, never hopeless dreamers or mere functionaries. And making sure that this is what they become is how teachers may best respect the child.

Shortly, we are to hear something of the 125-year history of the College, during which we will learn about just some of all that the College has achieved in that time. And so that this record of achievement may be told, and that celebrations may begin, it is now my privilege and pleasure to declare the 125th Anniversary Celebration of the Dunedin College of Education, officially underway. And in doing that, may I congratulate all of you on what you have achieved, and wish you ever greater achievement in the years ahead.

Kia ora, kia ora tatou.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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