Augustine and education

According to Alain de Botton the two great contributions of Augustine were:

1. His framing of the phrase ‘original sin’ to describe what happened in the Garden of Eden, and
2. His description of two great cities – the City of God and the City of Men.

The former is important, according to de Botton, because it recognises and allows for failure. We all need to know that we can and do fail. The latter is important because it recognises human limitations. We are not in Heaven but on a fraught earth.

de Botton is an atheist who holds great stead in the Christian doctrine of human sinfulness because it enables people to tell the truth about themselves. I don’t know how he justifies these contrasting positions except that he sees the collecting of wisdom as of value.

At our Speech Day at PLC Sydney our captain spoke of the pressures on young women to be perfect, and encouraged girls to be brave. It was an inspiring speech. The notion of accepting failure was her own choice of subject.

I am reading two books on Augustine at present and Blaise Pascal’s Pensees.
In our desire to assist our children to go well we can easily stymie them. Augustine and Pascal had a great knack for telling the truth about themselves. Augustine is a very confessional writer – noting his own failings candidly. Pascal draws attention to the tough things in his life – in all of our lives. It is freeing to read them.

Those of us who have spent quite a lot of time in schools know that not only do students sometimes lie, but their parents can even lie for them. We should not be surprised because it is easy for any of us all to: exaggerate our strengths, seek to protect those we love by altering stories, or organise understandings according to our view of things. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

One of the primary self-disciplines in life is to learn to tell the truth. Yes. Tell it in love rather than in a manner that exaggerates one’s own feeling of influence or power; and tell it gently – but tell it all the same. And it is so freeing.

This program isn’t working as well as I would have hoped…
I can see I was wrong here…
I actually think this worked…
Wow! this looks like it is going great…

In Simon Conway Morris’ (Professor of Paleobiology at Cambridge) book, The Runes of Evolution, he provides evidence that evolution is not random, and he postulates that there are mathematical frameworks, patterns, inevitabilites behind the universe. Perhaps this deep desire for truth-telling has the same source as Conway Morris’s postulates. Perhaps the same something that, to quote Frost, doesn’t love a wall.

We educate young persons, not just young utilities. We educate souls. And they need an underlying grace and honesty to develop a good sense of self.

Approaching Easter

In schools we need to be aware of the big ideas that underpin all that we do. At our intellectual core is a discussion about the relationship between knowledge and belief.

It is wonderful that the word ‘hope’ exists – that it is extant. The fact that it is extant itself is, I believe, significant. ‘Hope’ suggests that there is a link between our lived experiences and meaning and purpose in our lives. As educators, we wish to build purpose in students. We often have it quite strongly in ourselves.

As Easter approaches I note a few words about Nihilism: the notion that all academic work leads inevitably towards an absolute loss of meaning and hope.

I write it because I suspect that Nihilism plays a bigger part in our society that is presented popularly. In my office I speak with parents who have lost some hope after a messy divorce, or who have just received bad news from the doctor or who are impacted by suicide or a personal tragedy. You no doubt have contact with people in similar circumstances. There are temptations to despair. Nihilistic thoughts run through our culture. Intellectual frameworks that state that we are ultimately nothing support this despair.

There was a call this weak from a Queensland Rationalist that schools should focus only on ‘the rational’, being his definition of what is rational. Religion should be removed from education.

I note that the rationality of Nihilism is quite strong: if we are simply an evolved species with no Transcendent Being or Entity, no God, no ‘Other’ behind and beyond the Universe, then there is no reason to expect that anything we do is necessarily in line with what we might call the truth about the Universe. Just as we would not expect a blind worm or a fly with an arthropod eye to be able to form a theory of the Universe that is accurate (their senses and cognivity have not evolved to a degree whereby they could be considered to have formed a view of the Universe that corresponds to its complexities), we cannot also validly argue that our senses have reached the point where we can validly perceive all that is, to describe the truth. It is a conceit to think that our evolution of senses is complete. We have no externally reliable means of knowing the extent to which our senses detect all that is. Like the blind worm, we might not be able to sense important data. Further, because there are feasibly improved creatures in the future that could have evolved senses that identify things that we can’t currently identify, we can’t reasonably declare ourselves to have reached the evolutionary state where there are not more senses to develop. A physicalist evolutionary framework assumes we could develop further senses. This leads some philosophers (e.g., Vardy) to write about having views of truth that are coherent rather than correspondent: he thinks we can only work out a theory that coheres with elements of reality, not one that corresponds with reality.

Aristotle divided thinking into ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’ and, despite the work of Barthes and Derrida, the popular frameworks of our western civilisations still rest on these categorical distinctives. The thought described in the paragraph above indicates everything may in fact be belief – that we can’t rely on empiricism to determine knowledge. Knowledge, by this reading, is a tentative thing. Why? Because we can’t guarantee that we have the capacities required to enact the empiricism accurately. Kuhn has outlined his theory of paradigms based on this. We develop a paradigm about how to establish the truth until we realise that our current theory is inadequate (thus we have moved from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein and beyond).

Dawkins’ picture of religious belief is that belief in God is a means of filling in the gaps. Knowledge is ever increasing and ultimately we will fill in the spaces and no longer need religion. Yet Dawkins could be critiqued as not taking into account adequately the problem of knowledge. There is no way to externally measure what is not known because we don’t have the capacity to ascertain the things that we can’t perceive. Yet what we don’t know could be critical: we now count Einstein’s contributions as critical whereas characters in the Newtonian world weren’t even aware of them. Knowledge might indeed be tiny slithers and the gaps could be enormous.

It is at this point that the Progress Myth becomes very important to those who call themselves Rationalists. If we accept that our knowledge is partial, but have complete faith in empiricism as the superior methodology for uncovering knowledge, we will believe in progress. According to this view, knowledge grows like a pyramid of stones. Each new validated theory trumps that which is prior. It seems reasonable that Einstein trumps Newton who trumps Aristotle.

In taking this route we assume that our theoretical frameworks themselves are valid. Yet it would appear that our lines of thought aren’t as clear as we might have hoped. Einstein still leaves us with unanswered questions, and to answer them we might divert from some of his theories one day. We often return to theories that were once discarded and reexamine them. Anselm was once held in esteem, then dismissed. Yet there are academics who are again exploring his philosophy. Similarly Kierkegaard and Hegel and …

For example, Benjamin Libet once argued that science has disproven free will. Yet, in line with Wittgenstein’s claim that ‘in science there are conceptual methods and philosophical confusion’, Mele argues in his book ‘Free’ that the experiments which claim to refute free will don’t do so at all.

The problem with the popular conception of progress is that it assumes that debates get settled, that knowledge is formed unequivocally such that it becomes the bedrock for further knowledge.

And those who wish to import that knowledge into schools in the category of uncontested fact are actually anti-education. The contested nature of ‘knowledge’ and its connection to ‘belief’ becomes a very important aspect of education. Students need to engage with this uncertainty and recognise the role that faith plays in developing understanding.

STEM, for example, is a very important aspect of education. As the principal of a school that had students finish first last year out of all NSW schools (public, selective, independent, Catholic) in student research awards in Biology, Physics and Chemistry; a school that employs specialist science and technology teachers in our Junior School and a Mathematician-in-Residence in our senior school; a school that had a student come first in Chemistry in the NSW Higher School Certificate in 2014, I wish to note also the importance of theology and philosophy and the arts to ‘knowledge’ in science. Reliance on science alone to determine truth is reliant on ‘a science of the fragments’. Our experience of such a science would be of a constant shifting in trends (to refer to a recent news article: at one time our ‘knowledge’ is that we use paracetamol to reduce fever in children; at another point it is that we don’t). Empiricism is an important ‘subset epistemology’ in knowledge formation: it doesn’t provide a bulwark of established knowledge but a series of apparent collations of knowledge in different disciplines – often contradictory of one another.

This is fine by me. And saying this doesn’t, in my view, diminish the importance of the scientific method. It just means that it should not be elevated to be the only way to establish knowledge.

The father of Analytical Philosophy, Wittgenstein, changed his position over the course of his life. Whereas early on he said: ‘About that which we do not know we should be silent’ (thus supporting only an empirical framework and perhaps warning against religious knowledge), in the second part of his life he moved more and more into consideration of the role of language in creating meaning and he began to reconsider religious ideas.

In life we can’t sit back and wait to gather all knowledge before we make a decision about what is. ‘No net is large enough to catch the world’ said Judith Wright. We live with a deep interaction between the personal and the so-called objective. We live between the transcendent and the immanent.

It was Augustine who flipped Aristotelian ideas. Aristotle supported the notion that we should believe things based on our knowledge: Gradual accrual before commitment. Augustine said: ‘I believe that I might understand.’ It was an Augustine who developed the role of faith in knowledge formation. Many centuries later Soren Kierkegaard based his theology/philosophy on this idea that an individual’s understanding of the Universe is grounded in faith. Faith is indispensable to knowledge. More recently Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief and knowledge can come together around the idea of ‘warrant’.

Final ‘knowledge’ about all things is not possible. Doubt is an indispensable tool but alone it leads to despair. Faith is actually impossible to avoid and is essential to the development of the person as someone who considers the role of integrity and love and hope in life. We should not be afraid of the consideration of theological questions. And we should not be so conceited as to think that we can dismiss them.

Interestingly Plantinga argues that one can believe a finding about physics because the evidence and what we understand about ourselves as investigators warrants it. And one can have religious faith because the evidence and what we understand about ourselves as investigators warrants it.

Some readers will feel nervous about these two sentences being included in one paragraph with the same grammatical structure – as if they are two sentences carrying equal epistemological weight. Basing knowledge on scientific process appears to give a greater chance of security than does faith. Or are they both necessary? We have faith that we as humans are sufficiently ‘formed’ (have adequate senses) to be able to reach some sort of conclusion about knowledge – and we have faith that our assumptions in undertaking the investigation are valid. In short, we each have presuppositions that often rely on religious views of the significance of the human being and their purposes in being.

What is this to do with Easter? Easter could be viewed as a claim that in science there are conceptual methods but theological confusion. I teach a Theology and Philosophy class that covers the history of Western thought (and some Eastern) to middle years high school students. We cover Athens (e.g., Thales and Parmenides and Plato and Aristotle) and Jerusalem (e.g., Moses and David and Jesus). We cover Augustine and Kant and Hegel and Kierkegaard.In the course we don’t exclude someone because, in our conceit, we believe we have ‘progressed’ beyond his or her theory. We believe that Faith and Science have actually interacted through history. We don’t fall for the propaganda generated by one side or the other that indicates that to be religious is to be bigoted and dogmatic, or to be irreligious is to be immoral. Christianity, for example, has always held that our knowledge is partial. It was St Paul who said ‘we see but through a glass darkly’.

None of us stands on the top of the Tower of Babel and sees the world aright from the point of view of all languages combined. None of us have ever seen God, says the apostle John (1:18). Yet it is also valid that the Gospels hold a claim, because of their basis in a belief in a sovereign God, that one day ‘we shall see face to face’. This claim is worthy of consideration in an education. Why should it not be?

Easter is a claim that the human being is of eternal value: our persons, our hopes, our inclinations, our thinking, our relations, and our search for knowledge. Just like the view the vast majority of us form about the babes in our arms when we have children. Isaac Newton based his inquiries into Mathematics on the foundation that he was searching after knowledge that rested ultimately in God.

The Christian hope at Easter underpins learning – it is a basis for believing that knowledge is possible. And it is also, I add as a coda, a statement that there are more lasting things than surety about matter and anti-matter: ‘and now these three things remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.’ 1 Corinthians 13:13

Upon finishing ‘The Secret Chord’

‘Faith seeking understanding’?; ‘Cynicism seeking justification’? Something else altogether?

When part way through Brooks’ book I wondered what its purpose was. Why retell a biblical story? I knew and applauded that she would find the feminine voices in the narrative. I hoped that she would at least in some small way be seeking to explore her faith in an honest and public manner. I could thus reflect upon my own. The gift she would give me would be that her private confession could be my private consolation. I could think perhaps ‘with’ her, perhaps ‘against’ her, but the subject matter would be shared.

Having completed the book I wish to really applaud her. To condemn a theocracy is a common pastime – but not often to seek to understand it. Yet I think she earnestly does seek this. She sees the manipulations and graft, she relates the connections with physical beauty, the quest for both personal and political power, and the duplicity of the characters. Yet, significantly, Brooks does not trivialize or reject theology. She honours it. She respects it.

I can only think of Augustine’s words that she has faith that seeks understanding. In my view this is such a redemptive and positive approach.

On the BBC recently the news reader relayed a story about Filipinos seeking to touch a Christian cross that was being paraded through one of the cities in The Philippines. Hundreds were leaping to touch it. His final comment and sneer indicated clearly his contempt for their practice.

My Christian faith is not the kind that seeks to touch amulets or icons. A discussion between different people about how their faith works I would find interesting. I disrespect some in the media who push an agenda of religious cynicism as a habit: any chance to have a dig. I yearn for proper explorations, for texts that are respectful and thorough.

Brooks’ book is the complete opposite of the media commentator. It would be possible to read it as a critique of theocracy, and yet I don’t believe it is this at all. It is an exploration of her faith, even an explanation as to why Solomon’s wisdom trumps David’s brawn.

Finally, I am very interested in her theology. God (The Name), as a character in the book, does arguably act with an overall purpose – to end violence and to bring in wisdom – but so often acts by not acting. Whilst God’s voice is very powerful at key points, there is also a theology of quietness in the book. I enjoyed this.

She has given me much to ponder.

I thank her.

Whilst reading ‘The Secret Chord’

When I think about why I am enjoying Geraldine Brooks’ ‘The Secret Chord’ I sense that it is because it is an honest attempt to understand a story that is powerful in Jewish and Christian traditions. Much o it resonates with me.

I have decided to write this response whilst only a third of the way through the book. Reading is a responsive activity: I find that I am both alert to a text’s narrative and ideas at the same time as I am evaluating it, synthesizing it into my understanding of reality or leaving it aside. And even the things I ‘leave aside’ impact me. Thus, the process of responding whilst I read is critical in the formation of how the book affects me. I find it to be an iterative process.

‘The Secret Chord’ appears to try to capture both the visceral and the exalted nature of David and his People – and to ask the reader to consider the violence, the hubris and the humility of this community. I enjoy it also because of the respect for elements of faith: the inability of the believer to utter God’s name, the notion of fidelity to God and People, and the credibility she gives early in the book to ‘Natan’ as a prophet. The narrative of Goliath and David carries both the notions that God is so exalted as to be beyond the power of humans, as well as that humans are fragile and flawed. And it appears an act of honesty to see in print the troubling aspects of the story: for example, the brutal suppression of weaker village populations, and the self-deceit of David when it involves lust for power over women. Is God’s will done when violence or lust are in attendance?

It is interesting for me to ask myself as a Christian which are the aspects of the story that I don’t want to confront. I enjoy the challenge she gives me. It is good for my soul. It is a re-editing of scripture – something that is not required. And yet, the revisions have a point. I abhor, for example, the idea that God would in any form sanction brutal killing, especially of ‘innocents’- and Brooks seems to share what I understand to be the Christian (and Jewish – perhaps for her it is in some unstated form universal) value of human life. Both the notion that every human is made in God’s image, and the opposing idea that humans reference a god as their own powerful totem to justify their actions, appear in the text. She seems to foster faith and doubt simultaneously. This is central to my understanding of the book’s power.

I hear also the feminine voices being amplified in a manner that is not obvious in the Chronicles. These are voices I think many of us long to here.

There is a line in another book I read this Summer, John Ortberg’s book ‘Soul Keeping’, that has had me thinking deeply. He writes about the way that he has found it regretfully easy over the course of his marriage to hurt his wife: “My face and the tone of my voice could create the effect on her that I ‘wanted’ without ever being totally open about the deeper recesses of my mind and will.” He writes that his actions could be therefore feasible as acts against her but still ‘deniable’.

I think Ortberg works hard in his book to be honest about himself. And this particular sentence highlights how he has the capacity to deceive himself with his acts of hurt. I think he makes a powerful point – I want to present myself as noble but sometimes I am acting quite ignobly as I pretend to be righteous.

As in private, so in public. Even in he writing of great literature one can use guile – and perhaps not even be aware of it. Brooks’ David, indeed the biblical David, deceives himself. Ortberg notes that even in marriage we can conceal ourselves from the ones we love the most. Are writers immune? Is the editing process a fire that burns away pretense?

Brooks appears to be pursuing an honest approach to the synthesis of her faith and her politics. Her writing is reflective and non-polemical. Why do I then remain suspicious when I read ‘The Secret Chord’? Does she have a dogma that guides the text? Is it not so much an exploration as a beautiful apology?

So I look for signs of doubt – places where she challenges all of her readers. In this case the secular as well as the religious.

I can see many places where she might unsettle the religious reader.

Good.

The book in this way does my faith a great service.

I am yet to find in the text an exploration of ideas that might make her secular readership uncomfortable. Where does she make uncomfortable the person who regards themselves as an ‘enlightened’ reader?

It is likewise powerful in the same style of story-casting that she can provide a homoerotic theme between David and Jonathan. I don’t know if the etymology of the Hebrew variation of ‘love’ in the Old Testament verse ‘Jonathon loved David’ gives enough surety that it means friendship, not ‘amour’. I note though that this is a theme that has been undertaken by others. It is a good example of an area that I would have liked her to challenge not only the religious reader but other presuppositions. It easy for her to play to a strong current theme in literature. The story of Jonathan and David is one of a limited number of well-attested tales in history that could also be read as a close and abiding friendship between brutal men. This also deserves exploration – perhaps she will pick up on the theme of friendship between brutal men later in the book.

At present it appears that she is following a predictable plot – that aspects of David’s life are best understood not because of his faith, but because of his love for Jonathon.

If I am allowed to ask anything of a leading author it would be this. I accept the challenging questions you ask of me. Can you write a book also in which you challenge not only your religious but also your secular self? Can you disrupt not only the presuppositions of religious thinkers but the readers who wish to reimagine faith stories only as having material or social causes? If you can you will convince me that your story is a genuine inquiry and not just a beautifully crafted carrier of the themes of your age.

I hope to comment again when I have finished reading the whole book.

Is she a prophet like Natan?

Augustine and Education

In the second volume of Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy without any gaps the author describes Augustine as the first philosopher to write reflectively on his own faults in a habitual manner. Augustine even published a record of his weaker points and arguments (see chapter 47).

I wonder when I read a comment like Adamson’s if narratives such as David’s repentance after Nathan’s remonstration with him about his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uzziah, or Paul’s comment in Romans about his own failings, don’t count as valid examples of a similar attitude. I expect the answer is that Augustine is the first to represent this humility as a consistent aspect of his extensive formal arguments. The other examples come from narratives or are asides in epistles.

The actual point that I wish to make is that Augustine’s humble approach is critical in any education that calls itself Christian.

Perhaps we in the church deserve the criticism we receive regarding the approach we have sometimes taken to the relationship between knowledge and faith. Whether it be the crusader zeal of the Middle Ages, or Victorian jingoism, or some of the language used sometimes in our churches to make faith sound like knowledge; we do have a history that moves sometimes too easily from ‘claim’ to ‘certainty’ to ‘blame’.

Even though he can and does argue polemically, Augustine’s approach to knowledge carries with it a humility. He is well read in the Christian, Pagan and Hellenic texts extant in his era; he openly wonders about theological questions; and he admits error or changes of heart. He doesn’t step back from seeking to present a positive theology – he is not Pseudo-Dionysus – but he also recognises his capacity for errant thinking.

Schools are about the creation of learners. I am so very pleased to be able to read Augustine.

The tone of a College can carry with it a conceit or a humility. Augustine created the tone in his works by personal example and direct honesty. He is a great example for all of us aspiring to lead well.

Werther and well-being

How do we address mental health in our teenagers?

The American organisation ‘First Things’ has eloquently expressed concern that young people in relatively affluent cultures have been over-protected and ‘coddled’ over the past two decades, leading to too many of the more able in their early twenties to express anything from worry to outrage against people who disagree with them. They cite the number of times that ivy league university professors have expressed concern about stating a view that is outside of the dominant trending set of perspectives. The concern of First Things is that freedom of conscience and freedom of speech are being denigrated in the leading universities. A second concern is the lack of personal resilience in young people who champion a victim mentality in their personal protests. They see government and institution as existing to make them happy.

A recent ‘The Atlantic’ article (‘The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools’ 28th November 2015) cited the clusters of suicide attempts in wealthy and success-driven communities in USA. Whilst wisely not claiming to know the factors that lead to the tragic choices of these young people, they suggested that the advent of over-protective parenting, an emphasis on academic success without a holistic base, and the rise of the ‘Tiger Mother’ were possible causes.

First Things advocates that an antidote to youth issues in USA is found in the book ‘Free Range Kids’ by Lenore Skenazy. I haven’t read the book but the notions are well-attested – that we should be seeking to build resilience and agency in children. My wife and I referred often to a book called ‘Raising Kids on Purpose’ when our family was young. It argued for similar ideas.

Just about every public discussion creates its own discourses that can create ‘common sense’ readings on either side of the debate. What to one parent is ‘keeping their child safe’ is ‘helicoptering’ to another. Tragedies occur on both sides of the divide: from the teen whose injury is because he hasn’t been properly supervised, to the child whose mental health is poor because she has not been allowed to mature.

A recent ‘History Today’ article covers the spate of suicides that was associated with the release of Goethe’s tale: ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’. The article by Frank Furedi reports that the media created a fear campaign that even questioned if young people should read novels. The advent of Romanticism into literature was associated with a series of tragedies, where young people suffering unrequited love followed the protagonist in the book and ended their own suffering, just as Werther did. Parents, scientists and church pastors spoke up strongly against Goethe’s book.

Goethe himself reportedly regretted writing the book at one stage. It is interesting that the book can of course still be read, but it is now not counted as a cause of any modern youth tragedy. It seems that troubled teens find their own cultural connections when they are in pain.

My experience with young people fighting mental health issues is all with particular individuals. It is possible to identify factors that link to studies and it is possible to ascribe ‘blame’ to a family dynamic, or to alcohol, or to a social matter, or to school, or to a medical issue. My limited experience is that the causes are deeply personal and particular.

Since much of the pain occurs in the young person’s mind, it is nigh impossible to know the causes properly.

By no means does this indicate that schools or families can’t act. The pro-active approach is very important. We need to parent and teach positively and deliberately. We need to be able to critique our processes honestly.

Yet, in the individual circumstance it is very easy for the outsider to ascribe blame. The media reports don’t fit so neatly when you are working through a personal circumstance with a family.

I write this article because I believe it is important to recognise that even when factors mount up against an individual, it is possible to find a way through it. Young people in the depths of poverty survive, even thrive. Victor Frankel survived the concentration camps of the Nazis. What are the positive qualities that they shared? How do we grow these in our young people?

From Soren Kierkegaard

“The despairer thinks that he himself is this evidence (of his own despair). And it is this that he wants to be; this is the reason he wants to be himself, to be himself in his agony, so as to protest with this agony against all existence. As the weak despairer will hear nothing about what comfort eternity has in store for him, so too for this despairer, but for a different reason: the comfort would be his undoing – as an objection to the whole of his existence. It is, to describe it figuratively, as if the writer were to make a slip of the pen, and the error became conscious of itself as such – perhaps it wasn’t a mistake but from a much higher point of view an essential ingredient in the whole presentation – and as if the error wanted now to rebel against its author, out of hatred for him forbid him to correct it, and in manic defiance say to him: ‘No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against you, a witness to the fact you are a second-rate author.'”

In the letters of Paul we read of spiritual warfare. Such a phrase has been the symbolic basis for The Crusades – that those who are ‘the good’ should ‘banish evil’ in a physical warfare; and it has been the basis of the Pietist movement – that we must banish the moral evil within ourselves. Here Kierkegaard frames spiritual warfare existentially. It is at the heart of our very existence. The Christian, for him, is the opposite of Dylan Thomas who ‘rages’ against the night. The Christian receives the hope that is in Christ. Receives it humbly. Accepts in faith that Love exists because it is existentially extant.

And it is an antidote to despair.

And, quite strangely but astutely, Kierkegaard notes how we are adept at holding onto our own despair. That we grip it quite firmly almost as an anger against the God who would allow such things to exist in our hearts.

Herein may be a window of understanding of what it is to ‘convert’, to fall, like Saul on the road to Damascus and ‘have hope’. To not cling to pain. To have faith.

So everybody laughed at Earl’s funeral

My wife and daughter returned from octogenarian Earl’s funeral with lots of stories:

How he kept a diary every day. Recorded everything. Added his own comments on life for himself: the awards earned by his grandchildren, of their friends. The odd collectables of life.

The time he sought to time entering the garage in his Honda Civic when the wooden doors were blowing in the wind. Three attempts it took, with the doors bumping on the car. No worries. He just backed up and tried again. And the bumps? “That’s what bumper bars are for.”

How he and Shirl rode a tandem bike to church when they first moved to Gymea Bay.

How he and his mates went weekly to garage sales and constructed elaborate gifts out of other people’s throw-aways.

The fact that every day he and his sons placed their tooth brushes in the number one slot in the tooth brush rack, returning the tooth brushes of Earl to the lesser slot – yet no one ever said anything about it. Not once. Not ever.

The fact that each evening Earl set out his breakfast for the next day, including placing sultanas in a glass of water to ‘plump them up’. When his family played a practical joke on him by putting absolutely everything in the cupboards on the benches, he put everything back but said nothing. This mutual silence was a mark of great respect and quiet joy.

And the night that his musical family completed an accomplished performance only for tone deaf Earl to come out at the end, aping seriousness, by himself, and nod a bow. How everyone laughed.

‘Glory be to God for dappled things”.

All of this laughter, all of this joy, was at a funeral of a man whose humour was understated and familial. The happy self-forgetfulness of a man who loved.

15 thoughts about running a school

For what its worth here are fifteen thoughts for anyone thinking about running a school in which young people flourish:

1. Understand your own beliefs about God, the universe and the purpose of education. Understand your own epistemology. The faith and perspective of the leader matters.
2. Work with your governors on marrying your vision and theirs for the school. Keep on discussing the vision with them.
3. Articulate consistently in a variety of venues and modes the central vision of the school. Tell your school’s story every day.
4. Seek in collaboration with the governors, executive, staff, students, parents and other key stakeholders to develop a strategy to fulfil the vision. Document this well.
5. A school is then run by ten thousand conversations. It is not run by acts of power but by acts of love.
6. Focus on developing school tone and student agency. Work assiduously towards giving the students agency. Partner with students behind the scenes of the public events. A successful school has students leading events and learning. If an event can run fully without any teacher instructing a student whilst it is running, if students can self-monitor and exhibit self-control, you are developing a good school tone. Effective classrooms are about learning, not teacher power. The teacher has authority in order to allow learning to occur.
7. Teach all disciplines well and seek to interconnect them. Teach science and mathematics, language and history, the arts and physical pursuits with passion and skill. Avoid any one of these subjects becoming your base philosophy (e.g., Scientism)
8. Teach theological, philosophical, scientific, mathematical (etc.) thinking as well as critical thinking. The focus on deconstruction assists students to critique power but not to know how to create anything useful in its place. The aim of education is to learn to love, not simply to gain equality or influence, wealth or status. Our task is to educate students to build a good society, not just to voice their discontent or enrich themselves.
9. Foster the moral conscience. Yet consider that grace and forgiveness are its basis.
10. Never take someone else’s package of epistemology and values (e.g., positive psychology, critical pedagogy) and simply implement it. It must be developed within your setting and be based on your vision.
11. Really enjoy children and teenagers. Foster a culture of love for youth.
12. Respect and enjoy your staff. They are the only way that any of the above will occur.
13. Connect closely with parents and build a community.
14. Make sure people have time to rest. Rest is an act of justice and not simply a chance for self-pleasure. Rest is an act of love towards another.
15. Dream with your use of resources but stay within your budget.

Conversations with my mother

My mother is 92 years old.

Her mind is sharp. Her stories are rich with detail.

I am interested here in how families remember their own.

I have a letter at home sent by Great Uncle Fred Burgis, from the Western Front. I have his cigarette tin and an Empire Tin. Tonight my mother told me that Great Uncle Fred returned from World War I with tuberculosis and that little Elizabeth, my ‘aunt’, then two years old, caught it from him and died.

How my Nanna must have cried.

But what of my grandfather, Fred’s brother? Do I really know anything about Charles Augustus Burgis? I never met him. I saw a photo of him for the first time some six years ago at Aunty Enid’s house. My father never spoke of him. Not once in my child hood or adult life. We had elegant picture frames for all of our relatives, but not one of him. We had miniature paintings of our family from the 18th Century but not one image of Charles Augustus. My mother told me that he was a drunkard and a womaniser. A chronic gambler. A sometimes violent man. She said that officially he fell down some steps at age forty something and died. No loss, she said. Whilst the police said it was an accident, she knew that he was pushed by his mistress. Aunty Enid had the same story. He deserved it, they both said. He treated my Nanna badly: no money, alcoholic rages. My father once was awoken as a child in the night to flee Melbourne to come and live in Sydney because Charles Augustus couldn’t pay the rent. It had all gone on gambling and alcohol. And my father had to leave school at age thirteen, even though his grades were excellent, in order to get a job in a retail store to pay the bills at home. Melbourne Boys’ High School to Snows Department Store.

And the proof of the depth of my father’s feeling is that we had no alcohol in our home in my years at home. No cooking sherry. Nothing. I didn’t really know it existed. When my brother turned twenty-one some of his mates brought a keg of beer to the party. My mother emptied the entire drum down the laundry sink.

But tonight I heard of the loss of Charles’ little girl. Was he long gone at this point? Already a slave to something less than himself? Or was he, dare I think something different, was he, someone once said he was, charming? Was he the man Nanna once fell in love with?

I admire my father greatly. He treated everyone in our family with fairness and respect. He never lost his temper. He loved my mother.

Some violence must have happened in him at some point. Some utter rebellion against his father’s values.

And yet, who was Charles?

My father never said anything about him, bad or good. It was as if he didn’t exist.