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New Zealand Secondary School Boards' Biennial Conference

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 25 August 1959
Viscount Cobham, GCMG, TD

We Set our Course by the Stars

It is always a pleasure to attend a meeting of school boards so long as one isn't the chairman. As was once said of Arthur Balfour, one can view events with the detachment of a choirboy at a funeral service. The trouble is, however, that, as one whose avenue of life is lined with school-bills for as far as the eye can see, I have a vital interest in the whole process of education.

You may properly retort that as a mere shareholder my duty is to sit back, trust that the company is well-managed, and await the dividend with patience. But a parent is not quite an ordinary shareholder, for, unlike most public companies, a school needs the active participation of those who provide not only the capital but also the raw material, and who furthermore have themselves to continue the manufacturing process for roughly half the year.

Yesterday I received a letter from the Headmaster of Bromsgrove - a school of whose board I had the honour to be chairman. We are building a new Junior School there, and the first part of his letter was about architects and builders and cubic feet. Then he went on: "But, as you might well say, 'Don't for heaven's sake delude yourself into thinking that buildings make a school,' and I certainly hope that I shall never be accused of that."

Indeed, he goes on, "I believe that the human situation continues to deteriorate. I was almost glad that you weren't sitting on your accustomed throne to hear my pessimistic appeal at Commem. for the spiritual values in education to reassert themselves. It sounded very like a sermon for my point was simply this:

"We all agree that the British character is our one remaining asset - in the last analysis , the only asset that counts. Deny our children the basis of that character by allowing the Bible to be a closed book in our homes, church simply a school exercise, and prayers a Sunday game, and we shall succeed, with all our modern techniques in producing a character, all right, but it won't and can't be the character that has established law, justice, civilisation and decency not only in western Europe, but also in many other corners of the earth. I'm sick to death of those folk who divorce education from the home and limit the process to a continuous sandwich-course eaten at intervals between the ages of 7 and 18."

Yes, I agree with that. And I am in good company. G. M. Young wrote recently: "We are apt to forget how formidable an attack on human dignity and personal values, the ground of all Western philosophy and religion, the new Darwinian conception of geology and biology made. When once you have mastered the thesis that inconceivable ages have gone to make the race, and that, after inconceivable ages to come, the whole conscious episode may have been nothing more than a brief incandescence on a cooling cinder, what solid ground of conduct is left to you?"

I am unrepentantly of the opinion that stressing ethical concepts should form a basic part of education. Without it, we will turn out, as the Duke of Wellington dryly remarked more than 100 years ago, "so many clever devils." For the past 50 years man has advanced in a single direction - that of knowledge; but man as an intellectual being has infinite space in which to expand.

Capacity for observation and judgment has its limits; we still have to grope forward, step by step, disregarding the distant scene, and impelled by faith in God rather than certainty about our destination.

May I return to my analogy of industry? When one raises capital and builds a factory, one usually knows what that factory is going to produce. From the very moment the ground is prepared and levelled, every effort is devoted to that end.

Are we quite sure that we know what we are trying to produce in our schools? As a parent I am quite sure what I would like. I want my children to acquire not knowledge but character - a character poised and eager for the performance of any duty that may lie ahead - and not merely to become automata trained for some specific profession.

"It is vital for the welfare of our nation," wrote the Lord Bishop of Durham, "that we should jealously guard education as a preparation for life, a discipline not for the conflicts of industrial warfare but for the service of British citizens, for the service of citizens of the Kingdom of God. Our methods of education, our subjects, our teachers must be judged by their fitness to secure this end. We believe, and not vainly, that victories far greater than Waterloo can be won in our classrooms, and in our playing-fields - victories which shall hasten the advent of righteousness and peace and joy."

I beg that you will acquit me of being pessimistic about our young generation. On the contrary, I think that they are far too fine a lot to be set at the mercy of this or that theory of education. As G. K. Chesterton wisely wrote: "Theories grow stale, but things continue to be fresh." I am pleading not for new discovery of new method of education but for the rediscovery of the old ones that have stood the test of time.

Knowledge and learning are all very well in helping to stave off poverty, but other tools are needed to ward off the devil.

To sum up: Let us face this thing clearly and boldly. Work divorced from the service of God, whether political, cultural or industrial, may produce a prosperous nation: it will never produce a great one.

The only thing on earth that is new is the Christian religion; I mean new in the sense that it has never been practised, except by a handful of saints and martyrs both named and nameless, who by their lives and deaths have proved its validity to the Nth degree. Science has given us many new and wonderful aids to navigation, and yet we still set our course by the stars; and it is worth remembering that we can still steer by a star long after it is dead, for its light still reaches us.

May I then humbly ask you to take notice of this point during your deliberations, always remembering the remark of Robert E. Wilson that "culture in its highest sense is moral as well as intellectual and aesthetic."

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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