While we live our daily lives

My brother has recently returned from Africa. He loves to visit volcanoes and thus went to Sao Tome and Principe. He had hoped to go to DR Congo but the civil unrest there makes this a very dangerous place and thus he had to abandon the idea.

Like my brother, I enjoy visiting other cultures, and, like my brother, I can pick and choose where I go.

Of course, millions of people do live in the DR Congo.

I heard a BBC report by Will Storr on DR Congo last night. I don’t really know what to write about it. The violence against everyone is awful, and the violence against women is particularly horrific.

As a father with three daughters, as a principal of a girls’ school who spends each day trying to work out how to get as many young women as possible to flourish, as a husband and son, and as just another person who shares common spaces like streets and parks and shopping centres with women and girls of our community I think I need to do something.

Will Storr’s BBC report features an interview with a rapist. It is horrible to listen to, but it provides an important insight into the mindset of some men who operate with freedom. Significantly, we also hear from the women.

DR Congo is an independent state. It has a dysfunctional government and warlords controlling vast spaces and resources. It thus has mobs of young men with guns roaming the countryside. The BBC reported the situation as follows in May 2012.

Despite a peace deal and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, people in the east of the country remain in terror of marauding militia and the army.

The war claimed an estimated three million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition. It has been called possibly the worst emergency to unfold in Africa in recent decades.

The war had an economic as well as a political side. Fighting was fuelled by the country’s vast mineral wealth, with all sides taking advantage of the anarchy to plunder natural resources.

As long ago as March 2010 Christian Aid called upon key leaders in the UK to act to end the use of rape as a weapon of war (see press release ‘Ongoing presence of armed groups in eastern Congo fuels use of rape as a weapon of war’). They have a series of podcasts and articles regarding this issue that are helpful in providing some ways to act against this horror.

Their capacity to change things is limited. As an NGO they  help the victims and lobby governments. At least they do this consistently and thoroughly, and, I think, they, and other groups like them, deserve our attention.


Some thoughts about interacting with the Media

Recently PLC Sydney held its annual Journalism Forum. We were honoured to have five highly regarded journalists talk with our students about issues connected to ethics and the media.

Our guests spoke purposefully about how they seek to report honestly in order to support a strong democracy. They seek a range of perspectives and try to uncover the key issues of public interest. They also spoke openly about the challenge this presents. I am very grateful for their input: it was a very worthwhile afternoon.

In my six years as a principal I have been asked on only a few occasions to make a comment about a matter related to education. I have sought to answer the questions directly and simply, considering it important that a variety of voices is heard in relation to education. On occasion, when the topic has been appropriate, a journalist has interviewed staff or students.

I am pleased to report that in each of my interactions with the ABC the reporting has been very accurate. When we put on the play Cyberbile, about the issue of bullying on-line in Australian schools, I thought that the ABC handled the interviews with staff and students with great professionalism. Elizabeth Jackson provided a report that included our school alongside a number of others. Schools from different sectors had their approaches canvassed. This is a difficult issue for our society and it was covered with thought and depth.

Recently I was interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald regarding the multicultural nature of independent schools. The theme of the final article was about supposed ‘white flight’ from public to independent schools. I spoke for ten minutes to the journalist and the key phrase that was attributed to me in the paper was that this was an ‘invisible question’ at PLC Sydney. PLC Sydney is a school with a rich cultural diversity and the point I made consistently through the interview was that it seemed to me that our school has students from a large number of heritages who are getting on very well.  I believe I did use the word ‘invisible’, but I think the final article cleverly altered my use of the term to appear ambiguous, suggesting that I might be ignoring a problem within the school as much as not having an issue at all. This was not the tone of my comments.

I wrote an article in response. It is a blog on this site (Everyone can share the meal).  I am  thankful that it was printed. Interestingly it was printed verbatim, except for one word. I referred to the earlier Herald article by stating: “Andrew Stevenson’s recent piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, The White Bread Playground , commented on the lack of ethnic diversity in some independent schools.” but an editor at The Herald changed it to say “Andrew Stevenson’s recent piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, The White Bread Playground , revealed the lack of ethnic diversity in some independent schools.” It is a subtle but important change. What is troubling to me is that the article is attributed to me. I don’t think that The Herald ‘revealed’ anything. They have their view and that’s fine, but I don’t share it.

This is minor is comparison to the practices of an employee from The Sunday Telegraph. The Telegraph ran  articles over a few weeks about architecture in schools. An ex-student contacted me to ask if she could complete a piece on The Macindoe Research Centre, finished in 2010 in my predecessor, Dr. William McKeith’s time. It is a fabulous building. Given her positive connection with the college and the tone of the earlier articles, I agreed. I met her and we talked for 25 minutes about the Research Centre and its uses in the school. I then showed her the building. Whilst I was distracted talking with her a photographer asked some students to hold some cups and took a photo of them in front of the cafe. The next Sunday the newspaper ran an article on private school students drinking too much coffee.

We actually don’t sell much coffee and the story was based on one question asked of an employee of the cafe. Their answer was nondescript.

I was duped.

Needless to say I won’t be welcoming back The Sunday Telegraph in a hurry.

That’s a shame really. I don’t mind if someone wishes to say that they disagree with a model of schooling, or if they want to ask challenging questions about how we improve the ways that we help children to learn. This is the media’s role. I applaud those journalists who engage with schools honestly, seeking to present a viewpoint or to investigate a matter.

I just think that the editors and journalists who don’t care about the integrity of the people they interview are damaging the trust on which democracies rely.

I am pleased our guests held up a flag for integrity in journalism. They contributed much to the education of the students at PLC Sydney – much more than some editors are contributing to the public debate about education.

Conversations with my daughters (4)

My youngest daughter is completing her HSC.

She is currently writing an assignment on ‘History and Memory’ and reading The Fiftieth Gate. It is a mixture of memoir and recount about the Holocaust. One of her self-selected supplementary texts is the film Hotel Rwanda, about the brave Paul Rusesabagina, the man who saved all of those people who fled to his hotel from the genocide in Kigali.

Paul Rusesabagina said of the film that it couldn’t possibly show the horrors of those days:  the rapes, the killing.

On the ABC tonight I heard about Bosco Ntaganda, who is currently operating in The Congo as one of the ‘most wanted’ warlords. More ‘unrivaled’ violence.

And there was a boy who died this week from a random king hit in Kings Cross…

Each of our visits to Africa: to Zimbabwe in the 1990s when we lived and worked in Harare, or more recently to Tanzania visiting the Katoke Trust schools and work, has been to communities that are vibrant and dynamic, to hospitable people.

Holly is just like anyone else who has had a personal experience, or who seeks to be empathetic. She does not see the people who die as film extras, or as distant shadows. She sees them as our neighbours.

How do we do more on a consistent basis in schools to close the space between us and the people who live in such circumstances? The students want to do the best possible thing to assist – and not out of post-colonial guilt. They hope for safety and significance for other people. And parents, rightly, want their own young adults to be safe and to undertake any such connection wisely.

I am grateful to my predecessor at PLC Sydney that we have links with orphanages in Vietnam and schools in Timor-Leste. We are now connecting to work in Kolkata where children are being freed from sex-slavery and to the Mizoram province in India where we have much to learn. And we have links with Katoke where wonderful things are happening.

Of course schools can’t connect with the dangerous places. And we need to focus on a few projects rather than cast the net too widely. And with each project there needs to be parameters and clear expectations as to the nature of the relationship.

Perhaps I say to my daughter ‘Thank God for the Salvos’, and for World Vision, and for The Katoke Trust…

There are whole communities addressing these needs. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

On the idea of intellectual virtues

When I made an attempt at coaching under 9’s cricket I tried to teach the boys a front-foot defensive position. It was a basic stance that they would take to certain deliveries. It provided the platform for them later developing a range of attacking and defensive shots.

As a principal I believe that it is my baseline Christian beliefs and convictions that help me the most in my role.

I have found that a very positive approach to learning is to see the student as a thinking, choosing, feeling person who is receiving an education for the benefit of their community.  They will gain much. Their family will be proud. But the real reason is so that they can contribute to people they don’t even know.

Whatever examination boards and the media do, I would like to suggest that it is time for schools to shift the focus of their rhetoric away from talk of ranks and marks to the virtues of learning. We have too many teenagers with high anxiety levels. They are searching for top marks, top bodies, top popularity on social media sites. They will never be good enough.

I think that Associate Professor of Philosophy at  Wheaton College, USA, W. Jay Wood offers a better structure for unpacking the qualities young people might strive to acquire.  He writes of qualities that are within everyone’s reach.  He writes of virtues connected to the acquisition of beliefs and ideas, their maintenance, their communication, and their application to concrete problems and situations. Those connected to acquisition include curiosity, teachableness, love of truth, intellectual honesty and tenacity. We want learners to be attentive and observant. It is also important for them to be circumspect, recognising that the learning one does is not complete and that knowledge is a difficult thing to acquire. ‘We see but through a glass darkly’, said the apostle Paul. The learner also requires persistence. These are the virtues that motivate us to learn.

Of course, once we gain some knowledge we develop our own ideas and those ideas are tested by others. To maintain our attitude to learning we require dialectical skills to be able to defend our views, developing an internal voice and an external expression of our ideas. This includes the capacity to express ourselves orally and in writing. The intellectual virtues overlap with personal virtues at this point. We need intellectual honesty so that we don’t become sophists – people who simply make a weaker argument sound stronger. Intellectual honesty allows us to avoid the danger of relinquishing a belief too easily – at the first sign of a storm – or of holding onto an unreasonable belief too stubbornly, thus becoming dogmatic.

The person who is mature in their views can teach others. They develop pedagogical virtues, or virtues connected to how they communicate. They are honest in their report and thorough. They are committed to the learning process and disciplined in their thinking. The ability to administer, to organise, to foresee issues, to problem solve and to strategise are all virtues as they are gifts utilised for the good of others.

Finally, there are virtues connected to the application of knowledge.  I hope students will ask moral and ethical questions and not simply seek to acquire knowledge as a type of power. I want them to ask ‘should we’ as well as ‘could we’. We should not underestimate as a society how much we prize the virtue of attentiveness. Spouses expect it of each other, parents expect it of children, teachers expect it of students. Citizens expect it of politicians and patients of doctors. I am sure I am not alone in believing educators would do well to frame knowledge as being an aspect of personhood and not as a capacity one uses simply  to gain power and influence.

All learning, according to this model, is about learning how to love. I learn to provide for my family, to think also of the good of my neighbour, to contribute something to my society, to possibly play a part in a community beyond my own, to be a good steward of the natural environment. I learn to be resilient when life is tough, to problem solve, to strive for integrity.

Stated like this I understand how these sound like lofty ideals, but I wonder if I simply seek to be attentive the next time someone speaks to me, or curious the next time I meet someone if I am not building this notion one interaction at a time.