Our school has as it’s motto, “ Strive For The Light Of Knowledge.” Without hiding the wisdom of the words in the learned cloak of Latin it was emblazoned on my school blazer in English. No skill was needed to interpret what it conveyed. The problem was it simplicity. It disguises its complexity and remains difficult to fully analyse. It was George W Bush’s, Secretary of State, Donald Rumsford who gave us the depth of the problem in 2002 when he spoke. “There are known knowns, there are known unknowns, and there are unknown unknowns.”
The problem for me was the truth of this statement was made decades after I left school. As the idealist, ignorant kid setting out on this adventure that has become my life, I had no idea how hard it was to fulfil understanding the depth of the school’s motto. Without unnecessarily dwelling on the words, they have served as a constant unconscious quest throughout my life.
December this year marks the sixtieth year since I walked out the school gates for the last time as a student. At that time I had no understanding life was finite. Typically I had no expectation of death, but could not comprehend anyone my current age could possibly think, feel, act and still be filled with wonder so many years later. At that time I was aware only a few men ever reached my current age. Today my inner man, is a man of of an indefinite age, he is capable of great feats. It is only by attempting something I once easily performed I realise the effort required is best left to the young.
I have learned about life from books. Several books I read as a young person have women at the core of them. Henry Handel Richardson’s book, “The getting of wisdom” Louise Alcott’s “Little women.” This list includes at least one book from each of the Austen women, including, Pride and Prejudice, and “Sense and Sensibility”. On reflection it must have been the influence of women teachers that set me to read these books. I also read with enjoyment the work of Dickens, including “David Copperfield”, “A tale of two cities”, and “Bleak House”. In this moment the only books with male leads which come to mind start with Mark Twain’s “ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, “Kim”, by Rudyard Kipling, “Lord of the Flies.” By George Orwell, and the character “Billy Bunter” invented by Charles Hamilton
At school I tended to spend a good deal of lunch time in the school library on inclement days, reading magazines such as Popular Mechanics, dreaming I might make myself a stick Kayak, or a beach yacht. I also read 50 famous inventions and some of the titles from the Whitcombe and Tombs books. I would also browse through pages of Encyclopaedia Britannica. They stood proudly on the shelves of most school libraries until the arrival of the internet.
This anniversary of leaving school has also reminded me of life-skills I have received. I was listening to the radio, as I frequently do through the night, to a discussion. The theme of the program was, Can you, or should you, remain friends with an ex? The talk wandered into places new to me. “If your partnership drifted away before you were ready” was one, another was, “ Should you get back in touch with a partner if your partnership was toxic?
I realised just how naive I had been in my own plutonic relationships as I was growing up. Perhaps I was too timid, but some of the earliest advice I was given tempered my behavior, “don’t go out with a girl you are not prepared to marry.” These words had a special poignancy as they were said to me before the contraceptive pill. Sometimes it was whispered in corridors, “Did you hear that Harry had to get married last weekend?” The worst fate, to a young man of my period, was to face the prospect of an enforced marriage when both sets of parents were unhappy. Many of those marriages were successful but too often people grew apart and relief spread across the country when Don Chip proposed our current, No fault divorce. Then divorce rates skyrocketed into ten of thousands of homes. A shotgun marriage was an unenviable outcome. In those dark days it was worse to be an unmarried pregnant woman. Sadly, many girls did became unmarried mothers. These women had their babies taken from them. Frequently this happened by trickery. It was considered a wise thing to do in order the children might have better lives living with infertile families who “wanted them.” As we have learned this practice was widespread, and has been the cause of great grief to mothers and children born in previous generations. Perhaps worse were the innocent deaths caused to women seeking an end to their pregnancy from back yard abortionists. It is a societal relief these “solutions” no longer form part of the acceptable mores of our country.
The reminder of this anniversary is good. (I must have been in form 5 – now known as year 11- when first I spoke momentarily to the blonde girl Joy introduced me to. I recall seeing both girls horse riding miles away from Joy’s home months later. Hard as might, I cannot recall how I got to be in the car that drove past the girls. I think I must have been with Les because he was keen on Margaret, Joy’s sister. In the coming months I frequently met Joy and her sisters at church dances in different townships across our district. I started to write to Joy, as a pen pal, so I might encourage her to bring her blonde friend to a dance. Eventually the blonde got permission to go to a hay shed hop in an abandoned district home. (The house was abandoned because Lake Corangamite was encroaching over hundreds of acres of farm land and this house was in its path.) We met in a poorly lit corner, in the chaos of the teenagers hop. A spark was lit in both of us when a door, taken off it hinges, was knocked over and hit us both on the head in our first kiss.
It was not until after my graduation as a teacher in 1962 we met more frequently. In the following year I was appointed to Colac High School. From that point we have been in daily contact. Within eighteen months blondie was my bride. In the years since my learning has continued. I have learned knowledge is not certain. In much the same way as Donald Rumsford predicted there are many things we do not know. Each day something new is learned, and the sphere of knowledge is expanded. More intricately, as people, we are realising the evidence is, there is much we need to know that is unknown. Wisdom is a step beyond knowledge.
As a teacher it didn’t take me long to realise we were not assisting kids if we resorted to teaching them facts. Text books formed part of my teaching arsenal. That was so especially in the early years. Money for educational programs was scarce, and the result of that was many of the teaching materials we had were out of date because there wasn’t money to upgrade them. An English text I used had lots of practical examples, but it also included tests of trivia. One question led me to alter the way I taught from a didactic model to an experiential model. The question was – name the seven living presidents of the USA. Firstly, why? How would this knowledge help any child grow to wisdom? Secondly, Can you name seven? Thirdly- How is this a current question when 4 of them are dead? Finally, the last question could be wrong if Dr Death has visited any one of the once-famous-bodies. The thing is knowledge can stink. Each of the many globes of the world I have collected has different names for countries that once thousands no know by another name. The same can be said of major cities now sporting a new name. It is hard to keep up when we rely on facts alone as a basis for our knowledge.
Fortunately – I have grown older. I became wiser when It occurred to me my children had grown to become much smarter than me. They had taken the opportunity given to them and become very astute in their chosen fields of endeavour. When I became aware of their knowledge I started asking them for advice. (At least that is what I thought I was doing. I purposely stopped being KIA (Know it all) at every opportunity.) As luck will have it, I am discovering my grand children have the traits of their parents. I am discovering I am learning from them.
To finish, I pulled off the bookshelf the book I chose as a prize at school all those years ago. It was Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice. As I left school the fear was, mankind was facing a nuclear Armageddon and filmmakers were making the book into a film in Melbourne. (As it was on the other side of the world to the approaching Armageddon Melbourne was considered the proper place to hide) It was selected to make the film here because nothing ever happened. It was the end of the World.
For my grand children the gloom of their age is the threat of global warming. My hope is mankind will perform the miracle of arresting the threat, much like it did with the nuclear threat faced by my cohort, and this knowledge will be transformed into the wisdom needed for health by future generations.
Refer to this review of Neville Shute’s book, a Town Like Alice