Quite a few years ago the ABC TV news included what turned out to be a very short interview with an African lady in a war-torn, drought-ridden, poverty-stricken African country — holding her very young, ailing child in her arms. When asked what she needed, the woman replied — simply yet so complexly — “food and education”. With this aspiration for education as a fundamental driver for societal reform, I concluded my Keynote Address at the 2012 Annual Conference of the NSW Secondary Principals Council as follows.
In quite a few of my speeches in recent years I have pointed to education as perhaps the most powerful 21st century force to combat and eventually defeat the injustices, evils, poverty, hunger, abuse of women, triumphs of religious intolerance and bigotry, sexual slavery, wars and famines, and so on.
However, today, looking at the relentless persistence of so much of these obscenities in the world, that optimism and hope is somewhat diminished.
But I am also reminded of that superb poem 1st September, 1939, written by the great Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden, in which he expressed his profound fear, on the edge of despair, as he reflected on the almost certain consequence of Hitler’s invasion of Poland on that day — the outbreak of what would become the Second World War.
Yet in that very powerful and moving poem, he found something to cling to in his final stanza.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Colleagues and friends, I put it to you that although we educators cannot defeat the macro forces that inflict such misery on so many people on this planet, surely we can continue to be “ironic points of light” — “ironic” in the sense that we retain the capacity to critique
That we are “just” men and women who exchange our “messages” of human dignity, aspiration, hope, respect and all of those other values championed by public education. Who, “beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair”, nevertheless continue to show to our students, to one another, and — as educated citizens — to our local, national and international communities, “an affirming flame”, cherishing our belonging to the “knowing and caring” profession.
Dr Paul Brock AM is Director of Learning and Development Research in the NSW Department of Education; he is also an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. He has been a school teacher, a deputy principal and an academic. This is an extract of his thought-provoking article “Show an affirming flame: A message to the profession” published in JPL, the Journal of Professional Learning, by the Centre for Professional Learning.