Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, was guest speaker at the IPPN Primary Principals’ Conference in Citywest Hotel, Co Dublin, 25 Jan 2013.
Here we bring you extracts from Abbot Hederman’s keynote address to over 1,100 Principals from every county in Ireland.
“It is my privilege to address you. I hope that this meeting is full of encouragement for the work you do. It is no exaggeration to say that our future is in your hands. The young people who are in your care are the future of this country.
“I have just written a book which claims that the human person is the ultimate reality in education and that personal relationship between the teacher and the pupil is the most important means of transmission. I cannot give you all the details, or the essential argument, in half an hour.
“What I do want to say to you here, in this unique gathering where most of the principals of our primary schools are gathered, is easily stated. Don’t allow anyone – politicians, economists, church leaders, anyone – to deflect you from your great purpose which is the complete flourishing of every one of the young people in your care.
“Education should be the art of cultivating the emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the developing child. Anything less than this is a betrayal of… their trust in us.
“Every child is more than a future employee; every person’s intelligence and abilities are far more complex than his or her scores on standardized tests.
“I think we should agree that the curriculum devised for Primary Schools dating back to 1971 has been an overall success. Obviously it can be improved and the teachers can be better trained to cope with it. But we should not start to panic and regress to methods of the past in the interest of better literacy and numeracy.
“In the present economic crisis it is too easy to cut off all subventions for the arts in schools and to concentrate attention on what are referred to as the basics. Such a short-term and pragmatic decision will be seen as counterproductive in the long run.
“The full flourishing of the children in our care, in every aspect of their personal lives, including their ability to read and to calculate, should be the overall goal of our education system.
“Education, in the end, means a certain kind of relationship between a teacher and a pupil. We see this writ large in the case of King George VI of England and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, portrayed in the film The King’s Speech which won so many Oscar awards in 2010.
“Here the new king is forced to find his own voice and is fortunate enough to meet the person who can help him to achieve this goal.
“But it is not just royal personages who need such highly personal attention. From birth to adolescence, the human person, like plants in general, need sheltered conditions and personal attention for maximum growth.
“Small is beautiful when it comes to schools. The secret of education is to have a lower teacher-student ratio: this is more important than having expensive facilities and up-to-date equipment.
“Communication between people is vital for any form of education, as the essential element is person-to-person contact.
“Real education is a duet between the person of the teacher and the person of the student.
“The work of education is not that of imparting a vision or supplying a ‘world-view’. There is a real world out there which is more than my vision or my perspective on it. There is a child who is about to enter that world and who may be the one to provide us all with an insight into that world never before imagined. Some Primary School Principal must have had Einstein in their class.
“The genuine educator is one who makes that introduction, that connection, without second guessing the conclusion or pre-empting the possible result. Anything can happen when personhood meets the universe. Unless the life of dialogue can be inserted fully into educational practice, education ceases to be a fully human or humanising activity.
“Geniuses don’t need education from anyone – they flower in spite of circumstances. But geniuses are few, and the average child needs care and individual attention from competent and dedicated adults, in a small environment, to develop their own personalities.
“Unless such education is available to our children, then let’s not pretend that what we are offering is ‘education.’
“Instruction can take place in a warehouse; education is the miracle that happens between people who have the time and the imagination to engage at a personal level in the very precise and creative activity which is educational relationship.
“It is possible to impart instruction to any number of people, even by electronic means over great distances, but the secret of education is transmission from person to person.
“So often, education is at present a matter of luck: meeting the right person at the right time. But such luck is more likely to happen in a small environment where real educational dialogue is possible.
“This view was reiterated by Schumacher in his influential book Small is Beautiful in which he suggests that ‘if Western civilisation is in a state of permanent crisis, it is not far?fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education.’ (E.F.Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, London, Abacus edition, Sphere Books, 1974, Pp 64-66)
“No civilization has ever devoted more energy or resources to organized education than ours has, and the point of it all seems to be to train politicians, administrators and the entire community to know enough science so they can understand something of what the scientists are getting at. At least we might be educated enough to know what scientists mean when they talk about the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
“We should not harness our children to the business needs or the short-term economic growth of this country. Just because some multinational company is offering payment for a number of jobs to be done does not mean that our children’s prospects should be tailored to meet this requirement.
“A new form of slavery to the imperative of economic growth should not become the aim of our educational system. The Spirit may have other plans for at least some of these children and we should be respectful of these possibilities.
“Instead of making our educational system fit the targets of some economic plan in terms of market needs and jobs on offer, we should be listening to the voices of the children. These are the prophetic voices of the future. Teach the children how to speak for themselves and then let’s listen to what they have to say.
“… It is true that changes have taken place in education at both the practical and the theoretical level which make it seem as if something has happened which revolutionized what went before, but these changes represent no more than reorganization of the same paradigm.
“Who needs to memorise vast chunks of information when we all have Google? And what kind of job based on obedient following of rules has not been computerised or designed for robots? The whole obsolete factory model of education has to be challenged and replaced. Education is ‘to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past.’
“Why should we all be educated in our age groups, as if from our date of manufacture? Many children are better than others at some subjects. Why should we impose this standardization – why do you have to do everything together because you are the same age? We have to change our paradigm and our production-line mentality…
Mark Patrick Hederman is Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick. To read his full address to the IPPN Conference click here.