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.


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?

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.

Les Miserables

Last night I went with our eldest daughter to see Les Miserables. It was a lovely Christmas gift to me from her and her husband. We went to dinner and then the show. I really enjoyed going out with her.

So much of this theatre I would hope to build into the culture of a family, of a neighbourhood, of a school.

Firstly, it is a production that respects its audience. It expects us to understand multiple plot lines that cover the breadth of human experience: political action, theological wondering and religious belief, personal romance, friendship, unrequited love. None is dismissed. Each is respected. It expects us to consider how they overlap and conflict, entwine and yet matter in and of themselves. With its music and song it expects us to be both aesthetic and ontological beings. I pray this for my family. I would hope any school of which I am a part would expect this of its students.

Secondly, it takes as a theme the importance for each of us of our outward and inward selves. When Plato retells Herodotus in The Republic he focuses on the tale of the Ring of Gyges. Gyges is a peasant who comes across the strange grave of an ancient king. He takes his ring: it gives him the power to become invisible. Using this power he is able to win over the queen, kill the king and usurp power. Plato’s point is that we each have a ring like Gyges’. We each have facades that we display in order to gain power. At minimum calculation, and at worst deceit, is the base of human consciousness. The wonderful thing therefore about Les Miserables is that the whole script in soliloquy. We are given direct access to the honest selves of the characters: the persons behind the masks. As humans we love this – we want the truth, not simply that which people tell us. The play is set up to reveal the truth about everyone: Marius’ love, Jean Val Jean’s anger, repentance and goodness, Epinome’s pathos at not having her love returned, Javier’s reliance on The Law, the comic couple’s duplicity and criminality and the revolutionaries’ zeal. The audience sees people how God sees them.I would like to build a school where we seek to build trust and honesty. The play recognises the challenge brought to us as humans in this endeavour- as Plato notices, we want justice for ourselves whilst maintaining the capacity to act unjustly if it suits us. Yet it also highlights how important trust is to us. Love, justice, grace: these themes draw us in. I would hope our schools would really value these things and not just leave students becoming clever at wearing the Ring of Gyges.

Thirdly, it is a play about prayer. Everyone prays.Javier prays that God will create a world of order and proper recompense. The corrupt couple shout a prayer at God in anger at his distance in allowing them to become villains. And Jean Val Jean prays a prayer of grace and sacrifice. He is willing to die himself if Marius can live. This beautiful prayer of the father for the son, of the mother for the daughter, of the present for the future, would be my prayer for my family, for our neighbours, for our students. That they might live. In every sense of the word that they might live.

And finally it is a play about redemption. Even though poverty remains, and its agony is not diminished; even though the Law that is meant to bring justice breeds criminality and despair; even though the human cost is great, there is redemption. To love another person is to see the face of God. And it is this internal change that matters. It matters that the individual learns to love. I would hope to be part of a family and to lead a school where people learn to love. And it is explicit and implicit in the script that we love because God first loved us.

So thank you Chelsea for taking me to see Les Miserables. It was, in your words, magnificent.

Conversations with my wife on the birth of our grandson

Our second daughter gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby boy yesterday.

On the way to the airport tonight to collect our first born daughter and her husband, my wife said that there had been a number of things that none of us would have chosen if we could have had the ideal birth for our daughter:

  • Our daughter’s waters broke at home before the contractions commenced properly
  • The baby turned quite late in the pregnancy to make the birth posterior
  • She was therefore in great pain for quite a few hours. Labour became slow and difficult.
  • She did need to have an epidural – something she had hoped to avoid
  • The baby had the cord around his neck
  • This stressed the baby and meant that he had meconium
  • The baby had to have suction applied quite quickly to assist the birth
  • The meconium had to be vacuumed out of his digestive and respiratory tracts as soon as he was born.

And yet, last night, none of this mattered because both mum and baby were great.

There were good reasons why the above complications did not ultimately matter:

  • Our daughter and her husband had an excellent doctor who made great choices at key moments
  • The hospital procedures were well established and worked very well
  • People have invested in the hospital, providing great equipment
  • Training has meant staff are confident in the use of equipment
  • The midwives were really supportive
  • Our daughter was calm and confident
  • Her husband was his usual very supportive self
  • Even though they are both university students, they invested in their own health and took responsibility for it
  • All of our families supported her with prayer and love
  • Our daughter keeps herself really healthy and well.

Susan and I could not be more grateful that all of the second list occurred, because it meant that the items on the first list – some of them life-threatening under other circumstances- were just challenges to be met and overcome.

People who care change the world. Physical, social and educational infrastructure matters. In a really good hospital there will be emergencies every single day. The infrastructure won’t limit the number of problems, but it will help to achieve good outcomes.

Thank you Prince of Wales Private Hospital. Thank you Dr John Grey, Dr Harris, Dr Chilton and midwives Lauren, Matalene and Claire.




The Narrow History Project

In the early 1990s I had the great joy of teaching history in Zimbabwe.

At that time the Zimbabwe dollar was still worth 25 Australian cents, there was optimism about ZANU PF and the leadership of Robert Mugabe, and the land was breathtakingly beautiful.

In the store room of my school were piles of decrepit history books, the remnants of an earlier period. They were written during the time when the nation was called Rhodesia, and a minority white population had announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Within these books the Shona and Ndebele people were largely referred to as ‘labour’ and the history was constructed to tell the story of the success of the nation under white economic leadership. White rule equated to ‘stable government’, and thus to ‘the best outcome for all’.

On the desks in my classroom were the official ZANU PF histories of Zimbabwe. Within the pages of these texts were details of the rise of local African populations such as the Rozvi. They told the story of the struggle of the Shona and Ndebele peoples against ‘oppressive colonial rule’ and the final chapter of the second book was totally dedicated to ‘Mugabe the hero’, the ‘saviour’ of Zimbabwe.

It would be clear to any outsider that both sets of texts were terribly flawed. We thus had interesting classes comparing the descriptions of events and movements in both texts. In these comparisons we uncovered the many challenges that exist in the teaching of history.

Something within me loves The Big History Project. It is an attempt to put the whole story together, to tell the narrative of the history of our planet. Context is a very important thing for the historian. We can better understand events by developing a grasp of the cultures and decisions that preceded them.

But The Big History Project is like the Rhodesian and ZANU PF texts in my history classroom.

It is history told from one perspective.

I can hear the immediate rebuttal. No, that’s not true. The project purposefully allows for a variety of voices.

And that is accurate. There are many voices allowed.

But the overarching categories are established for the student. The basic metaphor for history, for example, is development. It is thus a socially progressive history and students are not alerted up front that not all historians see history this way. Religious and cultural traditions are reduced in importance whilst empiricism is promoted as a methodology. Philosophical positions such as Idealism, Monism and Dualism barely rate a mention. Physicalism is King.

This might not matter to the average Australian, but it should.

We swallow given categories in history all too easily. The current debate that the European Dark Ages were not really so dark, and that the Enlightenment was a not really so illuminating, is an interesting example of why categories matter. Terms carry assumptions. Accepted truths. Generations in Africa – and Australia -were taught that indigenous people were primitive. It is essential that students are taught to not simply accept categories.

The Big History Project is backed by the finances of Bill Gates. He has partnered with David Christian to create a brave new world of historiography for our classrooms. Now the Board of Studies in NSW is establishing a new subject based on this investment. Suddenly we wonder if the investor is writing the way we think.

Financial investment is quite enamouring. Well created websites are beautiful. They make the job of the educator easy.

Be trained by us. Just deliver the course this way.

I am all in favour of assisting students to think about the big picture. I am not in favour of Mr Gates or his academic favourites setting our curriculum.

Thinking about Scep

At Sydney Technical High School in the 1970s there was a group of boys who were particularly ascerbic when it came to matters of faith.

Well before I came to my own Christian conviction, a now deceased friend with the surprising name of Ian Leake (think of the potential – I.Leake) taught me a few things about scepticism. His nickname was ‘Scep’. He was clearly a Christian, but was known to all by his capacity to make insightful comments and jokes about all aspects of life. Tellingly, he was sceptical about the ways that sceptics were sceptical.

This morning I listened to two members of the Sceptics Association speak on the ABC and I remembered Ian with great warmth.

Scepticism from the official group is now quite an art form. The two scientists today made a number of very reasonable statements. All educators would say ‘Hear! hear!’ They said that we need to be critical thinkers, that we need to know our methodology in our search for truth, that we need to ask questions. We need to differentiate between fact and belief.

But then came the subtle rhetoric. They created a clear dichotomy between two types of thinking: thinking based on beliefs and thinking based on Reason. And they positioned sceptics as in the minority, fighting nobly against all of the odd-ball thinking generated by religiosity and conspiracy theorists in the USA. Theirs is the good fight. Religious faith is on the dark side.

It was the questions that they didn’t ask that caused me difficulty. I note one.

Is it possible to hold a theory about the Universe that doesn’t rely upon beliefs?

Rightly or wrongly, I have reached the conclusion that it is impossible to comprehend the universe without an element of faith. And I am still to hear a person who relies only on Reason. I hold the position that a valid understanding of the universe must be able to describe both the observed universe and the qualities of the person doing the observing. The observer is ‘in the system’ so the theory that is purported has to have an explanation of how s/he came to be able to make her/his observations. This means that there must be a theory of Mind as well as a theory about the universe’s origins or sustenance or make-up. Philosophy and/or Theology must inform the debate – not just Science.

If I take the view that is most regularly presented by the Sceptics Association- that one should preclude from the outset that the Universe was caused by an Intending Being (or God) – I am left with an entirely physical universe. These ‘words’ are therefore the result of electrical impulses. Personal pronouns I use to describe myself emanate from the eternal chain of cause and effect. There is no teleology. My ‘me-ness’ is just a characteristic like the colour of a butterfly’s wing, or the size of a shark’s tooth. Therefore there is no reason to believe that what my eyes perceive, or ears hear, or mind reads, corresponds to actual reality. This is why some theorists speak of holding a cohesive, rather than a correspondent, view of truth.

Professor Karl this morning was black and white. He is on a pathway to a correspondent view of truth. Therefore, he must have snuck in the back of his mind somewhere an element of faith. For reasons that he hasn’t outlined, he believes the universe is fundamentally intelligible. He has faith that his brain’s electrical pathways, and there connectedness to his senses, can deliver truth to him. Even though the process that created each an every element of his genetics was constructed randomly.

One could say that scientific evidence builds collectively to give us assurance of truth. But Science changes in its sureties. Before Einstein we were confident in Newton. Before the Big Bang Theory many held to an Aristotelian universe without beginning.

Do not misunderstand my intent. The onward search and investigation of science is critical. I am pleased that materialist scientists challenge philosophers and theologians. But myriads of people, including theistic scientists, Platonic philosophers, post-structuralists and other will offer a reasoned and logical reply that has different categories to those on the ABC. They are not precluded from being logical or reasoned because they don’t share the Sceptics’ Association’s epistemology. Like my friend Scep what I object to is the lack of reference to the problematic nature of knowledge in statements like the one on the ABC today.

Scientism, whilst drawing on much excellent science, is a faith position.