Wesley College Institute (Melbourne)

Advisory Committee

27th May 2006


Presentation by John Abbott, President

The 21st Century Learning Initiative (U.K. and International)

Currently in a Partnership with Wesley College to explore new thinking and directions for schooling during the Adolescent years


The Challenge of Synthesis; Making sense of Research

Across the biological and Social Sciences



Good morning.

Last evening, at a dinner given by the College to mark the (almost) first year of this Institute, Sir Gus Nossal asked me what I would be speaking about today.  I gave him my title.  He paused for a moment; “That’s probably the biggest challenge of our times”, he replied, “It’s relatively easy to work out and follow through the logic of scientific research.  What’s difficult is how people react to this.  People in their human relationships don’t work in the same linear, logical way as does scientific research.”

I though much about that overnight.  It touched a raw nerve in me, as well as excited me.  The achievement of the human race is, it seems to me, is that we are more than linear, logical thinkers.  And that comes at a cost.  We can be unbelievably stupid, as well as extraordinarily wise.  I was reminded of a comment made many years ago by Niels Bohr, the great Danish Nobel Physicist, who in remonstrating with a very bright graduate student, said “You’re not thinking, you’re just being logical.”  Sir Gus was right… what I had chosen to speak about required being bold, but it certainly was not going to be simple.

There was a story circulating in England a year or so ago that sought to illustrate the difference between managing mechanical and organic processes.  If you were seeking to improve the functioning of a factory, say for the manufacture of DVD players, it was rather like an athlete bending down to pick up the shot.  The athlete feels the weight of the shot, calculates the energy needed to throw this so that it lands in the exactly specified location, and then pitches it accordingly.  Depending on how well the athlete completes this exercise we describe, as with factory production, his efficiency.  Human, organic systems — such as schools or hospitals or universities — are subtly different.  Let me continue the analogy… the athlete, instead of bending down to pick up an inorganic shot, picks up a very organic bird.  He correctly feels the weight of the bird, calculates the energy needed to throw it the correct distance, and pitches the bird into the air.  He gets his calculation exactly right but — unfortunately for him — the bird has a mind of its own; midway through the air the bird decides it doesn’t want to go there, and simply flaps its wings, and goes somewhere else.  To stop this happening in the future the athlete decides to bind the bird’s wings together so that next time the bird will land exactly where he, the athlete, wanted it to land.  It does this, but because the bird can’t flap its wings at the last moment to de-accelerate, it simply breaks its neck on impact.  It lands in the specified place, but it’s dead.  It’s useless, even though it is in the right place.  Systems can squeeze the life out of what they are supposed to be sustaining.

One hundred and forty years ago your founding fathers gave you a motto — “sapere aude”.  Nowadays few of your students can make sense of Latin so they need it translated for them; “Dare to be Wise”.  They probably need more than a little translation; they need an interpretation, for the word “wisdom” has become so over-used that its significance is frequently lost.  It is not as easy — dare I say it —as the marketing slogan that you are using at this moment to advertise your junior year programmes seems to suggest — “The Journey to Wisdom starts here”.  The faces of the young children on the poster are intriguing as they peer intently at their class readers.  But wisdom is a far more elusive entity — it’s so much more than information, so much more than knowledge, and it’s frequently so challenging of people’s perceptions and personal aspirations as to be very uncomfortable, often unwelcome.  Wisdom frequently challenges the status quo.  That is why your founders urged you to “dare” to be wise.  Knowing what you know may make you very unpopular, but that should not stop you declaring it.  If there ever was a man who understood that it was John Wesley — one of the most subversive men of the eighteenth century whose memory still inspired the influential Victorian society of Melbourne in the 1860s to know that their young had to be prepared constantly to question assumed values and assumptions.

Recently you have adopted as timeless principles those identified by Jacques Delores — Learning to know, Learning to do, Learning to live and Learning to be — and you see these as coming together, eventually, to create wisdom.

So why, one hundred and forty years after your foundation, do you need an Institute?  Have you lost faith in what you have been doing well over all those years?  Have young people changed? Has society itself changed, and has our vision of the future changed?  Do the things we held dear seem to have changed?

The answer to each of these questions is probably “yes”.  And the implication is that we probably don’t quite know what to do about it.  The word “we” is significant; the College is as organic as the bird that decided it wanted to go to a place different to where the athlete (or maybe even its founders, or today’s senior management Team) wanted to pitch it.  Life in 2006 is, indeed, very different to 1866.  Where we are going to may not be as obvious now as all those years ago.  For starters we — you in Australia and many of us in the rest of the world — reserve the right to think for ourselves.  We need to be persuaded of a course of action before taking it.  Propelled into a trajectory we don’t like we simply go off on our own.  Individualism, something we hold dear, comes with its own cost.  Often a heavy cost.  Individualism’s first cousin is selfishness, and that leads to greed.  Society has come to be dominated by the expectation that people are only satisfied if they can get more and more.  As a college you experience young people learning such an ethic from the materialistic world beyond the school gates that has changed, quite fundamentally, what you used to be able to assume about the values of the pupils sitting at your desks.

Whatever the stated views of the College (and your new prospectus makes good and bold claims) the College is totally, and utterly, dependent for its survival on the day-to-day interaction between some six hundred teachers and any, and all, of the three and a half thousand students.  You all need to be very clear as to what you are about, or you’ll be giving very mixed messages.

You have defined the Institute in a wonderful three-fold way; as an observatory of what is going on elsewhere; as a Laboratory where your own ideas are developed and tested, and as a Conservatory embodying all that is best about your past.  You probably realise that such a three-fold process also describes the basic functioning of the brain as it guides our actions from moment to moment; we observe what goes on around us, we relate this to what we thought ought to be happening next, we identify any inconsistencies, and then go on to decide what to do next.

The Institute has to become the “brain” of the College.  Not something implanted from above, for that would surely be rejected by the rest of the body, but an organic entity of constant questioning, energy, reflection and dynamic action.  It will have to breathe through the lives of pupils and teachers, trustees and parents, and will have to help the College to understand its history if it is to have any chance of discovering its future course.


*     *     *

 The 21st Century Learning Initiative, to which you have expressed the wish to partner, has this to say about itself.

The 21st Century Learning Initiative’s essential purpose is to facilitate the emergence of new approaches to learning that draw upon a range of insights into the human brain, the functioning of human societies, and learning as a self-organizing activity. We believe this will release human potential in ways that nurture and form democratic communities worldwide, and will help reclaim and sustain a world supportive of human endeavour.

It’s worth pondering that for a few moments before reading any further.

The only other school I know that has “Dare to be Wise” as its motto is ManchesterGrammar School, probably the most elite grammar school in England.  Its high master once wrote in the school prospectus, “The idea that talents are lent for the service of others and not given, and that knowledge brings humility and a sense of involvement in mankind, are just as necessary correctives to the arrogance of a meritocrat in a highly technical world, as they were in Hugh Oldham’s day (1517), and without them the schools record of academic success would be indeed alarming“.

That is what The 21st Century Learning Initiative means when it places such a stress on democratic community, and a world supportive of human endeavour.  We educate not simply for the potential benefit this brings to the student, but so that through them a better world can be fashioned, in other words, Education with a moral purpose that is above the individual.


*     *     *

So, why now in 2006 do we need to reconsider what should be the “brain” that informs every action of the College?  Well, that’s quite simple.  In the years since the foundation of the College science has discovered an enormous amount about how the human brain works, how intelligence is created, and why it is that some people have so much difficulty in “thinking straight”.  It’s worth noting that the College was established only seven years after Charles Darwin published “The origin of Species” in 1859.  Within the lifespan of the College is the struggle of contemporary society to understand what it means to be human when, as now, we can see the evolution of our species over a period of millions of years, not just the six thousand or so years that was largely assumed to be the spread of human history by the early Victorians.  It has been an eventful, stressful hundred and fifty years for our ancestors.

The dilemma of being able to subdivide scientific knowledge through the epistemology of analysis, without as yet having an intellectual framework for synthesising the different ways of “knowing” into a format that is helpful to people, was well expressed by the famous Austrian biologist, Ervin Schrodinger, in his famous paper “What is Life” published in 1944.  in this he wrote the much quoted words:

“A scientist is supposed to have a complete and thorough knowledge at first hand of some subject and therefore is usually expected not to write on any topic of which he is not a master.  However, we have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, allembracing knowledge. The very name given to the institutions of highest learning reminds us that from antiquity and throughout many centuries, the universal aspect has been the only one given full credit. But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a specialized portion of it.”

I showed a slide to demonstrate the emergence of a possible new synthesis, drawn from a number of separate disciplines that have matured over the past forty or fifty years, which could give us a deeper understanding of human nature.

“Learning about Human Learning” –

The emergence of a new Synthesis drawn from several disciplines:

1) Philosophy, and later pedagogy

2) Evolutionary Theory

3) Psychology (Behaviourism)

4) Cognitive Science  (Metacognition)

5) Neurobiology

6) Evolutionary Psychology

7) Values (philosophy, purpose); Nature via Nurture

In the first hundred years after your college was formed there were few new insights into how humans learned.  When I studied for my Higher Diploma in Education in Dublin in 1965 I can recollect no one talking about the brain as such, and psychology was still dominated by the theory of Behaviourism.  The very first note I took on my post-graduate course stated that “animals have instincts, humans have learned behaviours”.  The inference was clear.  We humans were a superior species because we depended on learning, not on instinct.  Such a misunderstanding went back all the way to psychology’s decision in the early 1860s to have nothing would be, an exquisite learning mechanism.  It was not organic; in no way did it shape itself.  We were what we were born with — the perfect explanation in the generations that followed for a theory of eugenics, and the search for a master race.  Education had to be everything to do with instruction, and was controlled by external factors.  Hence, J. B. Watson’s extraordinary claim to be able, in a totally controlled environment, to do anything he wanted, with anybody.  While such a theory ascribed extraordinary importance to teachers, it progressively excluded everyone else from being involved in the education of young people.  Behaviourism exalted teachers above parents.

It was not until the emergence of Cognitive Science in the 1960s (in conjunction with the first computers), the discovery of the non-invasive technologies of PET and CAT scans in the 1970s, and the growing confidence in the hybrid subject of evolutionary psychology in the 1980s, that pedagogy was in a position to develop a far more rigorous approach to a “science of learning”.  But this science has been hard to define.  Each of these disciplines (and there are others, partly medical like epigenetics and neurophysiology, and others that are primarily theoretical like systems theory and complexity) has a language of its own.  They are not easy to see as an entity.  It’s rather like the three blind men in the Hindu Proverb trying to define an elephant.  The first felt its trunk, and assumed it was a snake; the second felt its ears and assumed it was a large leaf, while the third, feeling one of its legs, proclaimed it to be a forest.  Being too quick to accept their own conclusions no one actually saw “the elephant”.  Each of the sciences, being so caught up in its own affairs, can easily be as blind.

It was this problem of learning how to see all these “different ways of knowning” as contributing to a greater, more inclusive understanding of what is involved that lead Ervin Schrodinger to conclude his famous statement by saying “I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost forever) than that some of us should embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with a second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them – at the risk of making fools of ourselves …”

That is the risk your Institute has to take.  It has to go beyond amassing ever more information, and it must not allow itself to be satisfied with knowledge alone; in seeking to be wise it has to be prepared “to make fools of itself” and ask unpalatable questions.

As an illustration of the mind willing to take such a risk is that of John Barrow, Professor of Mathematical Science and Director of the Millennium Project at Cambridge University, and the recent winner of the prestigious International John Templeton Prize for the advancement of the understanding of science and religion, and the statement he made first in 1996.

“Human beings, together with all their likes and dislikes, their senses and sensibilities, did not fall ready-made from the sky; nor were they born with minds and bodies that bare no imprints of the history of their- species.  Many of our abilities and susceptibilities are specific adaptations to ancient environmental problems, rather than separate manifestations of a general intelligence for all seasons.”

This lecture cannot be an extended discussion on neurobiology, psychology, or the history of epistemology.  All that I can do is to suggest to you that, in the future, no one will have any chance of becoming a good teacher unless they know far more than my generation ever did about human development, and all that has gone into making us the thinking, questioning, learning species that we are.

Between just before birth and the age of, say, twenty-five, the human brain goes through a complex process of change and development.  It’s not as simple as saying it just gets bigger and more efficient.  It changes in ways which reflect how, over millions of years and probably half a million generations, the brain has evolved to mediate between our physical condition (our bodies are weak in comparison to an ant, slow moving in comparison to a leopard, desperately restricted to living on land because we can’t fly or swim very well) and the daily challenge of our physical environment.  It is the brain that gives us our flexibility.

To become the learning species we are we had to learn an amazing array of skills very, very quickly when we were young.  Some Western pupils, growing up in parts of the world where several languages are spoken, are probably fluent in three or four languages by the age of five or six.  Chimpanzees can’t do that, for all the 98.4% similarities they have with us in their genes.  Young humans learn through imitation; we only become the superior learners that we can aspire to if we are surrounded by challenge, encouragement and emotional security.  By the age of twelve, nurture can have worked so well on our innate predispositions that our children can be a wonder to observe.

But note this: it’s a question of revealing our true natures through nurture.  Nature and nurture have evolved together.  It’s a subtle balance.  We are enormously empowered by the experience of our distant ancestors, but we are constrained as well.  Forced to operate in ways that deny that relationship simply drives people mad.

Take a quick look at just one tiny piece of the puzzle, the report of the Kellogg Foundation nine years ago, carried out in the state of Michigan into identifying the biggest predictors of success at the age of eighteen.

Research from the Kellogg Foundation, conducted in the State of Michigan, into the predictors of success at the age of 18 “[This] compared the relative influence that family, community and other factors have on student performance. Amazingly it concluded that factors outside the school are four times more important in determining a student’s success on standardized tests than are factors within the school. 

 “The most significant predictor was the quantity and quality of dialogue in the child’s home before the age of five.”

Home, and informal learning opportunities, are vastly important.  I love the quotation from St. Augustine fifteen hundred years ago — Augustine was that likeable character who once prayed “Lord make me good, but not just yet!” — when he said “I learnt most not from those who taught me, but from those who talked with me”.

Do the current generation of Wesley parents understand this?  Do they realise that good dinner-table conversation creates not only intelligence, but that essential empathy for other people’s feelings that is the basis of civilised living?

More importantly, do your year 12 students factor this into the equation as they think about the lives they wish to make for themselves in five, ten or twenty years time?  Will they recognise that as parents in the future their own children will need far more from them as parents than anything that could result from their working ever harder so as to have more money to buy things for their children?  It is said that young Americans now spell the word love as T.I.M.E.

As we use our brains, so we make our brains.  Mental challenge is to the brain what exercise is to the body.  Take a careful look at the following quotation from a paper on the neural basis of cognitive development, published by the Salk Institute in California.

“As we build networks and patterns of synaptic connections when we are very young, so we build the framework which will ‘shape” how we learn as we get older; such ‘shaping” will significantly determine what we learn – it will be both an opportunity, and a constraint.  The broader and more diverse the experience when very young, the greater are the chances that, later in life, the individual will be able to handle open, ambiguous, uncertain and novel situations.” Stephen J. Quartz and Terrence Sejnowski

Think about that.  Then think about a copy of a letter I discovered in the archives of DuartCastle on the Isle of Mall many years ago.  The MacQuarrie Clan had been evicted from the nearby islands of Ulva and Gometra in the late eighteenth century.  The clan chief’s youngest son, Lachlan, was left penniless, and at the age of ten he went off to seek his fortune in the army.  Years later, after returning to England having finally established in New South Wales some form of law and order, he was asked to explain how it was that, from such humble beginnings, he had achieved so much.  Here is what he wrote:

“If you are born on a mere speck of land in the middle of the ocean you quickly discover how things work, and why people do as they do.  Learn that lesson well, and you are equipped to become a citizen of the world.” Lachan MacQuarrie.

Now pause again.  Was Lachlan MacQuarie’s teenage experience the same as today’s Wesley students?  Not really for his teenage years were spent doing something very specific.  From an almost Rousseau-like early childhood (that part was probably quite like your EarlyLearningCenter) his formative teenage years involved learning on the job.  There was no one around to teach him, but his motivation was so strong that he turned every one of hundreds of situations into learning opportunities.  As a young Cornet (the military equivalent of the naval midshipman) MacQuarie learnt as an apprentice.  Very simply he took every piece of knowledge that he could gain from his superiors, and made it his own.  He knew that he had eventually to be better than them if he were to survive.  Learning well, to adolescents of years gone by, was a life or death issue.

*     *     *

 It is in your dealings with adolescents that the work of your Institute could be enormously important.  Everything we are now learning about the changes in the adolescent brain suggests that they are struggling to break away from the kinds of learning that they perfected in their pre-pubescent years.  They “know” from deep instincts that have been transmitted to them from their distant ancestors, that what was good for them when they were young would be disastrous for them as they grow older.  Put at its most simple… if youngsters were to remain as clones of their parents or teachers they would not have the skills to deal with the world very different to that of previous generations.  Learning to ensure one’s survival has to go far beyond simply being taught the accumulated wisdom of the older generation.

Let me put this bluntly: Would you have wanted to be a clone of your parents?  Think about it.  One thing becomes blindingly obvious; our children, as they grow older, need our love and the freedom to develop skills and attitudes we gave them when they were very young, in their new world.  This is a world that we will never fully understand, for it belongs to them, not to us.  Education involves providing the young with both roots, and wings.  It was ever thus.

As Kahil Gibran wrote in “The Prophet”, “Your children are not your children / They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself / They come through you but not from you / And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you”.

In the last five years a long-term study of changes in the adolescent brain undertaken by the National Institute of Health in the United States involves taking functional MRI scans of one thousand eight hundred youngsters between the ages of twelve and twenty-two every six months.  This is building up a massive, longitudinal study of a kind never before undertaken.  What this research is starting to show is that there are at least as many, if not more, structural changes going on in the brain during this ten-year period than scientists had earlier discovered about the brain in the first five years of life.  Put simply it appears that a significant number of what before the age of twelve seemed to be very well formed neural dendritic connections simply disintegrate during the adolescent years at a rate of up to one and a half percent per annum.  Rather than seeing the adolescent brain simply being “disturbed” by the enhanced production of sex hormones — which was very largely the explanation for adolescent behaviour until very recently — the adolescent brain seems to undergo a profound restructuring in a very short period of time.

Take a look at the following two quotations from a fascinating book written in 1999 entitled “The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager” by Thomas Hine.  For “American” teenagers I suspect you could as easily substitute “Australian” or “English”.  Note that Hine wrote this before the new research on structural changes in the adolescent brain was published.

“Our beliefs about teenagers are deeply contradictory: They should be free to become themselves. They need many years of training and study. They know more about the future than adults do. They know hardly anything at all. They ought to know the value of a dollar. They should be protected from the world of work. They are frail, vulnerable creatures.  They are children. They are sex fiends. They are the death of culture. They are the hope of us all.”

Modern society seems to have moved, without skipping a beat, from blaming our parents for the ills of society, to blaming our children.

 For most of our history, the labours of young people in their teens was too important to be sacrificed – ‘schooling’ for teenagers remained a minority activity until well into the twentieth century. In fact teenagers can be seen to be an invention of the Machine Age.  It was Roosevelt’s solution to the Depression years to take teenagers out of the jobs that could be done by formerly unemployed family men by requiring all early teenagers to attend High School.  “But, for very many youngsters, High School, which virtually defines the rise of the teenagers, is hardly an exalted place”.

In 2004 the New York Academy of Sciences devoted a whole conference to the study of the apparently reckless behaviour of adolescents.  The Academy proposed an inter-disciplinary approach, at which Professor Ronald Dahl called for “a conceptual framework for adolescents that emphasises how the very nature of this developmental transition requires an inter-disciplinary approach… that focuses on brain-behavioural-social context interactions”.

No doubt, you in Australia have too many instances already of the problem, which increasingly seems to involve a very real threat to the actual lives of overwrought teenagers.  Let me share with you a poem given to me in Killarney, Ireland, two years ago by an eighteen-year-old girl who had been the star pupil at her high school.  She had made three attempts to kill herself, provoked, assumed her psychologist, by her desperate desire to live up to the high expectations of everyone around her for what they expected her to achieve.  When I met her she had finally accepted the advice of her counsellors never again to attend school, or put herself under the stress of a public examination.  I quote this with her permission if, as she said, it will help prevent other people like her getting into such a terrible state.

Lost by Anne-Marie, aged 18

As I sit there the wind goes by

Not moving anything.

The clouds slowly move across the sky

With a feeling of departure.

I’m lost, I’m lost in this dark deep place.

I’m screaming from inside for it to go away.

It’s too late.

I stand with a sharp object in my hand.

I feel I’ve been crying for years.

My face reflects this, swollen and red.

As I stand there motionless, I think: why stay?

I’ve hurt so many – even my own flesh and blood.

The sky keeps moving.

I stay locked within the dark circle, and life moves by.

I look at the object that lies in my hand.

I slowly move it to my heart and press hard.

I feel a sharp stinging pain but I continue.

I continue to feel the sharp object penetrate my skin.

Then suddenly I stop. I think: I can’t, I can’t do this.

I drop to my knees, open my mouth to scream

But nothing comes out.

I stay there, tears rolling down my cheeks, and a clean

knife lies by my side.

I feel ashamed, yet disappointed.

I wonder: why does life have to be so hard?

Why do people have to feel so much pain?

It’s so unfair, it’s so draining and confusing.

I’m tired of fighting; I’m tired of fighting with myself

I just want it to stop.


*     *     *


I think that, in dealing with adolescents, society faces a real crisis.  It’s not that adolescence has changed (it probably takes thirty thousand years for a significant mutation to enter the human genome and change any significant structure in the brain), it’s that our whole way of life has gone off at such a tangent that there are precious few places for teenagers to fit in.  As one of the leading evolutionary psychologists put it several years ago, “It seems as if civilisation has destroyed civility”.

Human society seems to be in danger of losing touch with its roots, and it’s the teenagers who feel this most acutely.

I want to propose that the biological changes we are quickly coming to understand see the adolescent brain as going through a critical evolutionary adaptation.  Read and ponder the following statement.

In accepting that the impact of the neurological changes in the teenage brain makes them “crazy by design” it can be seen that adolescence is actually a critical evolutionary adaptation that is essential to our species’ survival.  It is an internal mechanism that prevents children from becoming mere clones of their parents. Adolescence is probably a deep-seated biological adaptation that makes it essential for the young to go off, either to war, to hunt, to explore, to colonize, or to make love – in other words, to prove themselves, so as to start a life of their own. As such it is adolescence which forces individuals in every generation to think beyond their own self-imposed limitations, and to exceed their parents’ aspirations.

You, in the Wesley College Institute, have to think this one through extremely carefully — as do all those involved in secondary education.  Evolutionary adaptations are, in essence, preferred ways of doing things which enabled our ancestors to survive by developing skills at an appropriate age.  Because it is critical for survival for everyone to learn a language, we appear to be able to learn such languages almost effortlessly in the first seven or eight years of life, without any form of external instruction.  Try learning a foreign language, however, in the years after that and it’s extremely hard work.  The same applies to other skills.  It is as if there are “windows of opportunity” which, if taken at the right time mean we learn almost effortlessly.  Miss that window and the task is much more difficult to pick up later, if not impossible.

I would wish to argue that the stubbornness, the bloody-mindedness, the idealism, the contrary-mindedness and the fractiousness of adolescence are an evolutionary necessity to force youngsters to do things for themselves.  If we, in our so-called adult wisdom, try and frustrate this by giving them so much academic work to do that they have no time to experiment, we will probably be guilty of “over-schooling” young people.  If that is so we will have “under-educated” them.  There is far more to the education of a teenager than a classroom and a games field.


*     *     *

 Education does not exist in a vacuum.  Even the most idealistic and progressive parents inevitably have their eyes on the value of what they do to equip their children to deal with the world beyond the school.  That world is changing very rapidly, and not always in the way we have been acclimatised to think.  For twenty or thirty years we have come to think of change as being a whole series of new opportunities awaiting exploration, and exploitation.  Change, it has been assumed, has been the prelude to an even better life.

The Institute, in its capacity as an Observatory, has to scan the wider horizon to make sure that the school curriculum reflects the real needs of the future, not the assumptions of the past.

Many writers are cautioning us that, in our materialistic obsessions, we have become too big for our own boots.  Put another way, our boots are now making too big a footfall on a delicate eco system that could be in imminent danger of collapsing within the lifetime of pupils currently in our classrooms.  One of the best writers on this is the Australian, Clive Hamilton, in his ground-breaking book “Growth Fetish” published in 2003 with a message remarkably congruent with that of Greg Easterbrook’s “The Progress Paradox”.

Take a look at what the Canadian octogenarian, architect and town planner, Jane Jacobs, wrote in the book “Dark Age Ahead” readily available in Melbourne book stores.

Cultures collapse when “mass amnesia” causes an entire population to lose a sense of what created and actually maintains their culture.  Jacobs argues that, in Western society, there are five jeopardized “pillars.” 

  • Community and family
  • Higher education and the cult of the academic specialist
  • The practice of science and its relationship to quality of      life
  • The relationship of structures of government to human possibilities
  • The debasing of intellectuals

Or the warning of the British Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, when asked on July 1, 2000 what chance he gave the world of surviving the next thousand years.

The most crucial location in space and time (apart from the Big Bang itself) could be here and now.  I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilisation on earth will survive to the end of the present century.  What happens here on Earth, in this century, could conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life, and one filled with nothing but base matter.

You Australians may not be quite as aware as other nations who are living in more obvious interconnection with environmental collapse.  Ronald Wright, an Englishman working in Canada, in a little book entitled, “A Short History of Progress”, two years ago explained this extraordinarily simply.

“If civilisation is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital, of nature.  Ecological markers suggest that in the early 1960’s, humans were using 70% of nature’s yearly output; by the early 1980’s we’d reached 100%; and in 1999 we were at 125%.”

It is thought that we could now be closer to a hundred and fifty percent.

Quite simply we are devouring our seed corn.  Never has this happened, nor could it have happened, before.  Our technological wizardry has out-stripped our wisdom to know what to do about it.  Some writers give the planet only about twenty-five years left to turn this around.  That is close to the middle age of some of your present Year 12 students.  Do they know what could come to them if we don’t change our present behaviours?

How much longer can we persist with a curriculum for consumption, rather than a curriculum for a sustainable way of life?


*     *     *

 All this begs many questions, such as the one contained in an e-mail from the JakartaInternationalSchool following a two-day conference for senior staff at that school some five years ago.

“The biggest crisis we are facing is a Crisis of Meaning. The tremendous social changes of the last 100 years have stripped modern society of that which gives us meaning be it in our roots to our ancestors, religions, spirituality, our relationship to nature…… Within this Crisis of Meaning our young people are facing a MORAL crisis – a crisis of values.  Without these anchors young people no longer understand the value of perseverance, learning for learning’s sake etc.. Instead our daily lives are filled with a pursuit of money and temporary ecstasy. Both of these goals are unfulfillable and result in a misguided frenzy in the pursuit of the next thrill, or in depression.”

These are very big issues.  Two aspects of them were addressed in separate meetings which I attended at Wesley in the days before this lecture.  The first was given by Dr. Craig Hassed in the Monday Series Lectures on the topic “From Stress to Distress”.  Out of the many issues raised I would highlight four

  • Forty-five percent increase in reported stress in the last thirty years
  • Stress-related illnesses set to become the largest of all medical problems within ten years
  • Vulnerability to stress-related illnesses increase with lack of personal “connectiveness”; loss of sleep
  • In the U.K. the average level of reported stress between the ages of nine and seventeen would have been treated as a psychiatric disorder in 1957

To those of us who enjoyed distress-free schooling in the late 1950s that last point is shocking.  Is it too naive to quote the Welsh/American poet, W. H. Davis, writing in 1911, “What is life, if full of care / We have no time to stand and stare?”.  As the very essence of learning is the ability to be reflective, is not our “busyness” undermining the very quality of education that we think it is so valuable to give young people?  Have we not, on occasions, got ourselves into the position where we are our own worst enemies… we never know when to stop?

All this is a massive issue for the Institute to tackle.  Are your teachers too busy for their pupils’ good?

The second lecture was given by two American doctors, Messrs. Tweenlow and Sacco, on bullying behaviour in schools.  There was great resonance between the two lectures.  Programmes designed to “convert” bullies hardly ever work we were told; what does work is to ensure that “bystanders” don’t just standby, and do nothing.  A well-connected community makes it impossible for bullies to operate… the only problem is that people who are too busy to notice what is going on around them open the cracks in a community in which human nature can do its worst.  If we are too busy to notice the little things that go on around us, then bullies have a field day.


*     *     *

 The rational, post-modern world in which we tell ourselves we now live, has almost succeeded in persuading us that we are now in this society of apparent super-abundance because we have escaped from the constraining (some would say restraining) influence of nineteenth century religious dogma.  In a sense that is right — but nineteenth century religious dogma was something of a caricature of both Christianity, and the great religions in general.  John Wesley knew that.  So did many of your Australian ancestors who strove to break away from the social constraints of old Tory England.  Wesley, in an anthropological sense, constantly reminded his audiences of the contrary nature of our human passions — we can be both extremely altruistic, and persistently selfish; we can defend our homes, yet bring mayhem to other people.  Wesley understood this in terms of Original Sin, a concept which in our more enlightened age, we are most uncomfortable with.  But there is no escaping the fact that it is easy for our passions to get the better of us; even brothers kill each other, and even St. Augustine in his old age was plagued by adulterous thoughts.

A fascinating book by two Harvard professors, Paul Lawrence and Nittin Nohria entitled, “Driven; How human nature shapes our choices”, published in 2002, takes an evolutionary look at how all our individual behaviours result from a struggle between four “drives” — the drive to acquire, to bond, to learn and to defend.  In a wide-ranging sweep of human history the authors show that, where the four drives get out of balance, political/economical systems (as well as individuals) eventually become dysfunctional.

Far from Freud’s contention that it is civilisation that leads to individual psychosis, it is probably the lack of clearly defined boundaries based on a belief in something greater than self-interest that leads to most human misery.  Western society is learning the hard way that simply to be tolerant of other people’s belief systems, without having a clearly understood rationale for our own beliefs, leads to a pretty vapid existence.  You can’t understand someone else’s religion if you don’t have a personal appreciation of religion.  Which is what the councillor at JIS was saying in 2000.  That is a massive challenge for a school with such a foundation as Wesley.

This is far more than simply an Australian, or an English-speaking cultural problem.  It goes to the very heart of the dichotomy between globalisation, and a respect for diversity.  It was at a meeting of the State of the World Forum in San Francisco in 2001, under the chairmanship of Michael Gorbachev, that I heard one of the world’s leading biologists, an Australian (I think it was Ervin Laszlo) say “the future sanity of the world depends on the coming together of two great disciplines which have not spoken together for more than a hundred years — Biology and Theology”

This is a challenge for the Institute, as well as for the College.  It’s where the three parts of the Institute’s mission come together — Observatory, Laboratory and Conservatory.  Be careful that, in your annual “spring cleaning” you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

There are three titles I frequently use for lectures on this topic.  There is no time now to talk about these, but each should prompt you to think carefully about the extremely important role you are giving to the Institute.

The first is very simple, and you don’t need to know very much about the alternative ways of chicken farming to appreciate it.

“What kind of Education do we need, and for What kind of World?”

Do we want our children to grow up as battery hens, or free range chickens?

The second is equally direct, and needs to be discussed with your whole community — parents as well as teachers, and the communities of Clunes as well as those of Elsternwick, Glen Waverly and St. Kilda’s Road.

Over-schooled but under-educated; Have we got the balance right?

The third drives to the very heart of what we all need to consider in modern society.  How do we see children and their possible futures?  Are they

Pilgrims or Customers?

So, I must conclude.  I have tried to raise the challenges you must face, rather than giving you simply my own solutions.

In the discussion that followed two issues kept on coming up — we need Symbols to guide us, and a Narrative that enables every member of the College to relate where they are, and what everyone else is about.  Symbols and Narratives don’t sound very scientific or precise terms.  That doesn’t mean they are not important.  They are vastly so.  They are the advanced steps towards Wisdom.

I wound all this up with an ethical expectation that comes from the north American Indians.

We have not inherited this world from our parents, we have been loaned it by our children

Isaacs Quist extended this when he reminded us that in Ghana in times gone by no one owned the land; it “belonged” to three groups — the dead, the living and those not-yet-born.  Again, not a very scientifically precise definition.  But full of the essence of humanity.

I then closed with a salutory warning that research that challenges the workings of the system is ignored or ridiculed, and that which can be used to strengthen the power and efficiency of the system is incorporated accordingly.

I wish the Institute every possible success in the future as it helps to guide the future course of Wesley College.