Sunday 10 June 2012

Walking Together for Education

The following Welcome and Introduction was delivered at the 'Walking Together for Education' summit organised by the Citizens Movement for Social Change, at St John's College, Houghton, Johannesburg, on 6 June 2012.

Dr Ramphele – or shall I say, dear friend, Mamphela! – Educators, Ladies and Gentlemen, friends, it is a great pleasure, and considerable privilege to welcome you all here this morning, and to share some opening reflections on the day before us.

Let me begin with some words of thanks. First, on behalf of us all, let me thank Roger Cameron, and everyone at St John’s College, for hosting us today. St John’s, I am glad to underline, is of course an Anglican School, founded in 1898. While honouring the heritage it received from England, it is firmly rooted in the soil of this land, defined by its African identity. It is committed to producing leaders who are ‘rightly trained in body, mind and character’, and ready ‘to serve God in Church and State’. Roger, thank you for providing such a context in which we can meet.

I also want to thank Roger for the wider role he plays in heading the organisation that brings together the Principals of Anglican Schools across South Africa. Last September, I met with this network, and offered a challenge: the challenge to consider how they – with all their expertise, experience and resources – could best ‘walk together’ with the Government education sector. I asked them to look at ways they could constructively engage with National and Provincial education departments. And I asked for their advice on how I personally could use the opportunities that come my way; and how the Anglican Church in this country, from national to local level, could also realistically, and practically, become more fully ‘part of the solution’ that we need in education.

So I am glad to tell you all today, that I am able to thank Roger for taking up this challenge, and beginning this process, with further serious discussion planned for the meeting in KwaZulu Natal later this year. I am sure we send you there, Roger, with our wholehearted encouragement.

But now that these wheels are in motion, let me offer you a further challenge! I would love to see an ‘alumni society’ of retired Principals and Heads of Anglican Schools – and perhaps other senior teachers too – who can come together to ‘give back’ to our nation. We know the needs are great – but we also know that the freshly retired are still so often full of energy, enthusiasm and ideas! So let us release and channel at least some of this potential towards strengthening the educational capabilities of South Africa!

Well, after this, Roger, my friend, you may well be wondering whether being thanked by me is something of a double-edged sword since it comes with so many requests attached! But never fear, because now I shall focus my thanks on Mamphela! Thank you, my friend, for your great energies at a time when others might be beginning to look longingly to the retirement I seem so keen to deny them! I’m am sure I speak for a great many, here today and across our nation, when I voice my gratitude to you for your persistent commitment to promoting a better future for us all; and especially for your initiative in launching the Citizens’ Movement for Social Change.

From the perspective of the Anglican Church – of which I am glad to note you are such a faithful, longstanding, member! – and from the perspective of the Christian faith (as indeed many other faith traditions), it is clear that we can only flourish as individuals, if we are committed to the flourishing of all our neighbours. Jesus’ call to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is, to a very considerable degree, a charter for active, constructive, engaged, citizenship!

My hope and prayer is that the Citizens’ Movement will be able to make a significant contribution at the cutting edge of change in South Africa. I hope also that this contribution will cut across all the political, religious, cultural, linguistic, class, and other lines that we are too often tempted to draw between us in our rich and diverse nation. In contrast to such lines that can divide, our common citizenship should be a powerful tie that binds us to one another. We should not be afraid to acknowledge, and indeed joyfully affirm, that we share together one over-riding common interest: to bring about a flourishing future for us all, through the flourishing of all the promises our constitutional democracy offers to us.

All of us yearn for a South Africa of which we can be proud: a place in which – to borrow your own words, Mamphela – we ‘lay to rest the ghosts’ of our past! Above all else, we do not want the pressure of these ghosts to fall upon those too young to have any personal experience of those difficult and divisive years. We want them to be free of the heavy and dehumanising hand that lay upon us all, and which demeaned and diminished so many. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that education must be one of our highest priorities. Thank you, Mamphela, for making it so within the Citizens’ Movement.

When Archbishops ponder education, it is not long before their thoughts are drawn, as they were with citizenship, to Jesus! For it is crystal clear that he was a remarkable teacher:
• a teacher who cared for everyone;
• a teacher who educated by walking with humanity in the ups and downs of our lives; and by walking with each individual he encountered, in their own uniqueness;
• a teacher who encourages and delights, with his vivid, thought-provoking parables; and
• a teacher who models by the example of his own life.
And he is a teacher who calls us all to follow in his steps. So I am doubly grateful, Mamphela, that education is one of the key areas on which the Citizens’ Movement for Social Change has chosen to focus.

So let me now, briefly, make some comments about education, as a means of helping set the context of today’s Summit. What is the task of education?

A rather simplistic response is that its role is to disseminate learning. But, more than just communicating information – facts and figures, opinions and arguments, practices and procedures – it must equip us for living in today’s world. And today’s world is complex, pluralist, and multicultural world. For many of the questions that we face, there are no neutral answers to the moral and ethical challenges to which all our contexts give rise. This is true of all of us, young people included: from the choices we make within our families and closest relationships, to the careers young people aspire to pursue, and the influences that all have, in big ways and small, in shaping our nation.

Education must therefore include enabling individuals to become competent and skilled in engaging well with life. It must prepare young people to tackle wisely and well the ethical and moral questions that endlessly arise in every area of human activity; and so to play a constructive role in wider society. Education must help us all become committed, constructively engaged citizens, who understand what it means to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, in South Africa and the wider world.

Questions of good judgement face us at every turn: from how we utilise the finite resources of our planet through to the way we live as spouses, parents, neighbours, colleagues, employers, employees – every choice has consequences, for ourselves, for others. And it is not enough merely to speak broadly of seeking a world of justice and fairness for all, which moves towards overcoming inequalities, and strives to promote conditions in which all may have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. We also need to have sharp mental tools that help us analyse more specifically what it means in practice, so we may discern what is tangibly possible and how we can achieve it.

The task before us is great. Alongside the legacies of the past are new challenges, not least increasing economic disparities and the inequalities that flow from these. Further, as we have seen in vivid ways in the last two weeks, we have not yet learnt enough about how to live with one another’s different and distinctive cultural norms, in ways that affirm all that is good, and that express mutual respect and uphold the dignity of everyone. We do not do ourselves any favours if we pretend these challenges are less significant, less serious, than they are; or that there are simple and easy solutions. But to name the challenges is the first step in facing them, and overcoming them.

Jesus said ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’. And above all else, education is in the business of helping us know what the truth is, and responding with honesty, and justice, and all that is good and right and true. So may God bless you all, richly, in today’s meeting – so that you, and all with whom you engage, through the Citizen’s Movement, and through your hopes for education: so that you may be a blessing to others and to this nation. Thank you.