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Speech

Catholic Primary Principals' Association

Issue date: 
Friday, 7 August 1998
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

When I was a boy, I spent many school holidays with my grandmother in Palmerston North. She liked to be driven into the Square and sit in the car watching the people go by. "Oh my", she would say, "look at all the people. What changes in our lives." She had seen the advent of the aeroplane and the motor car, and had listened to the first radio broadcast to Palmerston North, but she could never have foreseen the changes that there were going to be.

One of the changes is that I am here today, brought up a Methodist and now an Anglican by marriage and contentment, opening a conference of the principals of Catholic Schools on the theme of Catholic Values. My mother's mother was an Anglican, although she loyally supported her staunchly Methodist husband, and so she, I think, might have understood that it was probably alright for me to come here. My father's father most certainly would not have understood. He was a fiery Methodist preacher, of the Primitive variety, and I still have somewhere a quite disgraceful polemic he published about what he, and many others like him, saw as the evils of Catholicism.

I suppose that in those days, and later, the feelings might have been mutual. My primary school was here in Wellington at Hataitai and on the hill above us was the Mt Carmel Convent school, now demolished. We boys used to throw stones at each other, but the Catholics had the advantage of gravity, for which they could praise God, but perhaps more appropriately give thanks to the sisters who had had the foresight to build on the highest ground in the neighbourhood.

What extraordinary changes there have been since those days at the beginning of the Second World War: changes in every aspect of human life and activity, and most profoundly perhaps, changes in attitudes and in generally held values and beliefs. Yet there is truth in the aphorism, "le plus a change, le plus c'est la mme chose". Some might translate that into the words of the singer: "life gets tedious, don't it". But I rather think the opposite is the case. The 'mme chose', the sameness beneath the change, produces its own exciting opportunities. For is it not true that however dramatic change may appear to be, there is always and will always be a substratum of core values: certain values and virtues that are fundamental to human society, that are the basic building blocks of any civilised community; fundamental and basic because they are of the essence of our humanity and essential to our interdependence as members of our society. And while these do not change, their relevance in, and their application to, changing societal circumstances and attitudes needs constant explanation, and illustration, and instruction, and this is far from a tedious thing. On the contrary, there is here a supremely stimulating challenge.

I emphasise instruction, for surely it is a prime responsibility of the educators of our young to inculcate at the very least the values, the virtues of good citizenship. Certainly that has always been seen to be the case. I cannot think of any society, apart from some modern day western societies, where this was not a self-evident truth. Values are not innate; they must be taught, by both precept and example.

Yet there are those among us who think they know better than that. There are those who deny that there are any absolutes, who insist that morality is a matter of individual choice, a choice based on personal experience and personal perception and personal taste, and that therefore there is no place in our schools for any attempt to impose the moral values of the teacher or of anyone else. This is pernicious philosophy, and its consequences are to be seen all about us. I am sure that you in the Catholic primary schools are not spared them in your classrooms, and that you too have to deal with the results of social deprivation, of neglect, of drug and alcohol abuse, of physical and sexual abuse. Fortunately this philosophy of moral relativism is more and more being seen to be pernicious. The Values Education Summit held in Wellington earlier this year showed the extent to which the relativist view is rejected. At that conference, I referred to the example of a state primary school just north of Wellington which has embarked on a full year's syllabus of values education. With strong support from teachers, parents and trustees, they have prepared a splendid series of lessons, each week concentrating on a specific value, illustrating it with stories drawn from a diversity of cultures, practising it in their daily activities. They identified 38 values, ranging from courtesy and loyalty to cleanliness and forgiveness. I hope more schools will follow their lead.

Values such as these are not of course exclusively Christian, or even Judeo-Christian values. They are the values of all the major world religions, and by and large the values of most of the great civilisations. Jews, Christians, people of other religions and cultures, will want to add others, derived from their own perception of the nature of reality, of the ultimate purpose of human life, from their own experience of the Divine. Of course it is when we begin to add to the core values that we can cease to tread common ground. And so the expression "Christian values" is at times used dismissively, if not contemptuously, while the idea of "Catholic values" may bring to mind some particular aspects on which devout Christians can conscientiously differ. But the differences do not matter. Our perceived Christian values, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, whatever, we know, give an extra dimension, a clearer perception, and so it is just as important for us to teach them as it is to teach the more general core values.

Fortunately, our education system allows that. Back in the early 1970s, I was very much involved in the negotiations with Government that led to the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act of 1975. I confess that I had some misgivings about the legislation, but they have largely been shown to have been unjustified. Certainly the Act was the salvation of Catholic education. It has enabled your schools and other Christian schools to grow in strength, and at the same time to maintain the religious component of the education that is their special character.

That religious component will properly and necessarily focus on the school as a worshipping as well as a learning community, taking its place in the Church universal, a community in which the faith is taught and practised, hopefully in a way that catches the imagination and that inspires, lifelong. It will also be very much devoted to the inculcation of strong moral principles, both individual and social; to the guiding principles which all Christians hold dear and which are summed up as succinctly as anywhere in the twin commandments to love God with your whole being, and to love your neighbour as yourself. Those in a nutshell are the core values of any Christian school.

The other week I attended part of a most interesting Symposium organised by the Council of Christians and Jews. It is a body formed in England at the end of World War Two, out of the experience of the Holocaust, with the purpose of fostering tolerance and understanding between these two great religions. It is supported by all the major Christian churches. The Symposium's theme was whether it is possible to identify a set of core values to which all New Zealanders might subscribe.

Rather than try to talk about specifically Catholic values, which I am not qualified to do, and in any case it would surely be preaching to the converted, I would like to say a little about some of the topics that were discussed at the Symposium and put them in their Christian context.

One of the speakers, a well known secondary school principal, spoke about excellence: it seems to me that that is a topic of special importance to principals of Christian schools, because it finds a particularly Christian perspective, or support, in the parable of the talents.

There are of course very good practical reasons for striving for excellence. For soon will be gone almost altogether the days when the unschooled, the unskilled, can hope to find their own way through life. In this increasingly technological and information-driven age, there will be few places in the employment market for the poorly educated, the untrained. And as a nation we will survive in the increasingly competitive world environment only by developing and exploiting skills that others do not have.

There is surely cause for concern at some of the information we have been given in recent months. I expect you all know about the recent OECD study that found that nearly half the workforce in NZ cannot read well enough to work effectively in a modern economy. We came 24th out of 41 in an international science and maths study. Of particular concern is that 70% of Maori New Zealanders and a slightly greater percentage of Pacific Island New Zealanders, are said to be functioning "below the level of competence in literacy required to effectively meet the demands of everyday life". And, of course, there was the recent revelation of the abysmal ignorance among school children about the basic geography of this, their own country. Some of you may also have seen a recent TV item in which people interviewed on the street seemed to know little and to care less about our own history.

How has this come about? There is no single answer, of course. You can't just blame the education system. Home environment is a significant contributor. But is it because we have become reluctant to allow children to learn through teaching, partly at least preferring instead to let them find out for themselves? Is it in part because we place over much faith in technology? The argument seems to be that it is no longer necessary to learn facts; rather, what is important is to know where to look for the facts. There is of course respectable authority for that view. Someone - and I have to confess that I recorded the comment without noting the author - someone quite significant said: "Man is the only animal who can store knowledge outside his body. The brain has two functions. It is a place for original thought, and it is a reference library. Use it to tell you where to look, and then you'll have for yourself all the brains there have ever been".

That's very true of course, but only within limits, and like most propositions it can be carried too far. The average citizen doesn't carry dictionaries and encyclopaedias about with them. And anyway, a wide general knowledge is surely a prerequisite of responsible citizenship, and as well the soundest foundation for more specialist knowledge. Besides, is not the mastering of facts (and in 'facts' I include the ideas of others whose ideas are worth knowing about) an admirable training ground for the mind?

I sometimes wonder whether there has been a tendency to abandon the hard subjects, in favour of those in which a pass is more easily secured, and as a result a certain rigour has gone out of education.

If I am right, is this a result of a view that the important thing to achieve in education is self esteem, that all pupils should feel good about themselves, and that failure is destructive of that feeling? Yet can self esteem really be gained without being earned? Is failure sometimes not a bad thing? Do we not all have to learn - and sometimes the hard way - that success comes from hard work and good performance?

Of course, constant failure is a recipe for trouble. Demanding excellence does not mean that we expect all children to be intellectual giants. There is no need for constant failure. The parable of the talents means simply that we all need to discover what is the particular God-given ability that we have, and that it is our obligation to find it and use it and develop it as completely as possible. That obligation can be set at a social level, as our obligation to society, but it can also be put at a personal religious level, as our obligation to God who gave us the talent, to use it to the full for the benefit of our fellows and for His greater glory.

Another value talked about at the Symposium was responsibility. The other day there arrived on my desk a document entitled "A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities." It is the product of a group of very eminent people, of many nationalities and religious backgrounds, and its purpose is to have the United Nations adopt a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities to go hand in hand with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mankind, it says, has struggled for freedom and rights; it is now time to foster responsibility and human obligations.

In this country, we have not had to struggle for freedom and rights. We have taken our freedom for granted, but we have made a huge issue of individual rights, even trivialising them to the extent of asserting a "right", for instance, of an under age boy to be tattooed without parental consent. In our fixation with rights, we have rather overlooked the truth that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand.

Responsibility as a core value in New Zealand today, would affect behaviour at several levels: personal, business, community, national and international. It would affect our day to day conduct, it would affect spousal and parental conduct, business relationships, landlord/tenant relationships, employer-employee relations, race relations, Treaty issues, attitudes to the environment, to the payment of tax and to the distribution of wealth, to our whole approach to the provision of welfare and health and education, and all our social services. It is also a value firmly rooted in the Gospels: we need go no further than the parable of the good Samaritan.

This balancing of rights and responsibilities is highlighted when we recognise the truth of our interdependence. It remains as true as when it was written that "no man is an island entire of itself. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind". What this means of course, is that what I do inevitably affects others. It is therefore my responsibility to ensure that the effects of my actions - or inactions - are positive, not negative. New Zealanders once recognised this fairly clearly, but the Me Generation has changed that. We must work very hard to overcome that mindset, the every-man-for-himself attitude that leaves so many outside the gate of advantage, while inside, the privileged partake of an ever increasing share of the good things of life.

You don't need me to tell you that Christian values, Catholic values, adopted and practised wholeheartedly, will make a difference. They already do. Although our society faces many problems and many challenges, my experience is that there is a vast number of wonderful people out there, people whose lives of self sacrifice and service are making a difference. And there are many fine young people too, with vision and commitment, determined that they will make their contribution. Your schools have helped produce them. We should all be grateful to you for that.

Two things seem to dominate our lives at the moment: the wane of the All Blacks and the coming of the millennium. I say nothing about the former. As to the latter, I leave you with this thought from Carl Sagan, the author and astrophysicist: "Whether we will acquire the understanding and wisdom necessary to come to grips with the scientific revelations of the 20th century will be the most profound challenge of the 21st".

And another, from someone else whose identity I failed to record: "When I was in the 6th grade and our family had just moved up to the housing projects, 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, these 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.'"

I know that runs counter to some of what I have been saying. But never mind, I hope you have a most fruitful conference.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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