We live in destablising times. What is most troubling, from the perspective of the story this lecture has told, is that I personally find myself less confident now than as a schoolboy in the 1950s, that education will eventually win out over catastrophe. I fear that, as ever busier individuals, we have become so distracted by our technological progress that we’ve been blinded to the threat that people who have been overschooled but undereducated pose to the on-going well-being of civilisation. The truth has to be that the more confused adults feel themselves to be about the big issues of life, the less willing they are in their turn to give their adolescent children the space to work things out for themselves. Uncertain adults breed uninvolved, inexperienced adolescents: a society that has to rediscover reasons for its faith in the future is a mean place in which to bring up children. A whole new way of doing things has to be found. We each have to start thinking strategically, and that involves analysing problems in depth by separating out symptoms from causes, appreciating other people’s perceptions, and above all avoiding the temptation to set up still more short-term panaceas that have so characterized the last twenty or thirty years, and which simply detract from long-term solutions.
To establish a national vision of education in terms similar to that of Milton has now to be the starting point for a national strategy that reverses our overschooled but undereducated society. It should be self-evident that the better educated people are, the less they need to be told what to do. Unfortunately the reverse is equally true, for the less educated people are the more governments feel it necessary to issue even larger rulebooks. That then becomes self-perpetuating, for the more people accept being told what to do, the less they think for themselves. Which is the point that I believe England has now reached, and I must ask you to question whether Australia is also getting to such a point. We have become so over-taught that we have lost the art of thinking for ourselves. How do we break out of this self-repeating cycle?
The second part of the strategy involves acting upon that research into the learning process that, starting with the insights of Milton and his mentor Comenius, has now been reinforced by findings from neurobiology and cognitive science. This gives a whole new way of looking at the evolved grain of the brain, and calls for a pedagogy that works to progressively wean the growing child away from its dependence on instruction. Just as parents have to let go of their children and a shipbuilder has to have faith in the yacht he built to sail into unchartered waters, so education has to be a relationship of trust, not control. This is absolutely basic to worthwhile learning. If as an adult or an inquisitive young person we equip ourselves to be able to do something, and then are constantly over-ruled or micromanaged, we fast lose the motivation as control slips away from us.
Thirdly, England, as with many other nations, needs an education system that would reverse the priority that Dr. Arnold gained for secondary education in favour of seeing the primary sector as the time and place where the essential foundations for lifelong learning are built. Secondary education would then involve schools sharing with the greater community the responsibility for providing adolescents with the range of in-school as well as community-based learning opportunities. This is hugely challenging both for the current structures of education, and to the public’s perception that school should be the place to do with children what adults now think they are too busy to do for themselves.
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That is the challenge; that is where we are now. It is tough, but we have no alternative but to act, for knowing what we now know we no longer have the moral authority to carry on doing things the way we used to do them. Remember, just as the rising sun heralds the promise of another day, so the natural exuberance of youth predicts the arrival of fresh potential. In the saga of the ages, if a generation fails, the fault lies squarely with the previous generation for not equipping them well-enough for the changes ahead. The most immoral thing that any man can ever say is “this will last out my time”. We were all once adolescents; those of you who have had the patience to sit through this lecture to this point have done so, not on the strength of your own muscle or brainpower but because we have each been privileged to walk with older men and women who have stiffened our sinews, and stretched our minds. Do that right now and generations yet unborn will give thanks that we returned adolescence to its rightful place of enabling young people to go beyond their self-imposed limitations, and exceed their parents’ aspirations. That is what adolescents do naturally – given the right opportunity.