Schools confront the globalisation of superficiality


Cro-Magnon cave paintingWe live in an Australia of burgeoning secularism, one where individual choice can be seen as its own justification. Within this context, educators of young people, particularly within the Catholic system, face two challenges in particular: the need to educate for choice, and the need to educate for depth.

Confronting today's young people are choices of an extensive nature, far more than confronted their parents — not just choices of websites, or choices of TV stations, or choices of stores in shopping centres, but also choices concerning values and beliefs and lifestyles.

A choice enables us to be free, but choice is not its own justification. Education about choice is a real challenge for those charged with forming the young.

Five or six years ago, Allen Close wrote an article in the Weekend Australian in which he reflected on his generation, which was then just touching 40. He was struck by the childlessness of so many of his social circle and of the failure of himself and others from his circle to have established sustained relationships. He wrote;

What happened that so many of us have ended up entering middle age the way we have, on a grim treadmill of hope and disappointment. Our marriages ending, our families are split asunder, our assumptions about life devolving into confusion and loneliness?

We had choice, is my answer. More, I would suggest, than most of us knew how to handle. We got selfish, or greedy, or something. We left our partners because we could. We terminated our babies because we could. We discarded the rules, loosened the ties that bind, stretched the limits of the allowed, and this left us dependent on instincts, on our untutored human frailty.

In the fight for freedom which we considered our right we lost the quiet skills of commitment and relationships. We lost the gentle wisdom of putting our own needs second ... the art of love.

Unless there is education about discernment, the consideration of what directions and consequences choices will lead us to, students may make disastrous options or at the least become mired in indifferentism.

Another challenge is the need to educate for depth.

When in Rome for the canonisation of Saint Mary MacKillop in 2010, the then recently deposed prime minister, Kevin Rudd, visited Fr Adolfo Nicolas SJ, the present Father-General of the Jesuit order. In the casual way that one employs when having morning tea with someone, Rudd asked Nicolas what he believed to be the major challenges facing western society. Nicolas replied 'the globalisation of superficiality'.

In a world of massive and instant communications and distractions, it is possible never to go beneath the surface, never to go in to those deeper places where our humanity registers. 

In year 12 classes I used to employ the Cro-Magnon cave paintings, which show the earliest homosapiens to be tool-makers, lovers, thinkers and worshippers.

You can see evidence of the axe as the tool; see the lover in the flowers that were laid around the bodies of the dead; the thinker in the scratchings and calculations made on the walls; the artist in the paintings; and the worshipper in the subjects conveyed by the paintings.

In essence one might say that nothing has changed, that human nature appears to have a consistency and a constancy. There can be no full humanity without those dimensions of creativity, of love, of thought, and of worship. To be fully human we must develop on all fronts.

To help our young people mature we should guide them on what Teilhard de Chardin called that most difficult of journeys, the journey within. 

Educators live in a world these days of NAPLAN, of issues affecting numeracy and literacy, and of where their school comes on a league table. This is increasingly to the detriment of education for depth and discernment. I do think it is time for principals to look closely at the phenomenon and to see what can be done about it.

Bishop Greg O'KellyBishop Greg O'Kelly SJ is the bishop of Port Pirie. He has been the headmaster of two Australian Jesuit schools and has served widely as an educational adviser. This article contains edited extracts from his opening address at the 2012 Conference of Catholic Secondary Principals of Australia and his address to the 2011 National Catholic Education Conference.  


Topic tags: Greg O'Kelly, NAPLAN, Catholic education



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Existing comments

...and with this growth of superficiality we are surrounded by despair. The growth of mental illness at all levels of society indicates we are missing something in our evolutionary process Something has gone amiss and I suspect you have gone some way to explain the issues Inject philosophy into teacher education courses Make it a mandatory course of study from the early years. Develop some sense of perspective in the world

GAJ | 27 April 2012  

Yes-Culture is one thing and varnish is another. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Myra | 27 April 2012  

This is such a timely article. Students in our Catholic Schools are torn between values education and deep learning. Time and choice are major conflicts in deep learning. There is a push to achieve outcomes, meet NAPLAN demands, pass examinations, introduce a new curriculum - yet we are missing the core of our being: why are we learning? why are we learning it? where can it take us? This relates so much the holistic meaning of life: who are we? why are we here? where are we going? Who knows? We are indeed a very mixed up world.

Jane | 27 April 2012  

Part of the blame lies with certain sections of all religions - when faithful people seeking truth come to them seeking meaning with life's struggles and doubts, they are presented with a list of rules (the church doctrines) and told to go away and sin no more. How can there be any humanity or spiritual growth if that is the approach?

AURELIUS | 27 April 2012  

Dear Greg, Congratulations for an enormously thought-provoking piece. Tremendous, to say the least!

Tony | 27 April 2012  

I received a Jesuit education - My Goodness! sixty years ago. I didn't realise it at the time but the Matriculation class of '53 had been streamed from Form 1. A choice of four vocations lay before us - Medicine/Dentistry/Science; the Law; Prieshood or Religious Life; and Commerce or Agriculture. The range of subjects we studied was limited: English Expression & Literature; Latin, Greek & French; Physics & Chemistry; Calculus & Pure Maths; History and Economics. Most took only five subjects. Really clever students took six and won University scholarships. Sport was the most important extra-curricular activity. In the spirit of the times we had school cadets for all boys over 14. Mass, Confession and The Rosary were routine practices. Religious Knowledge classes varied according to the piety or quizzical personality of the Jesuit teacher. Ah!such simple times! In recent years students of my old school have aimed for tertiary education in Management and Commerce (35%), Law/Arts (22%), Sciences +IT (32%), Health & Agriculture (10%), Education (1%). I don't envy those teachers trying to impart a Catholic education in the Jesuit tradition to prepare their students for a world so different from that I entered sixty years ago. AMDG

Uncle Pat | 27 April 2012  

Bishop O'Kelly, thank you and bravo!

Caroline Storm | 27 April 2012  

A fascinating and thought-provoking piece. Is this the same bishop who has recently imposed the Angelus on the schools in his diocese? Can liturgical nostalgia like this help contemporary young people resist the 'globalisation of superficiality'? More likely, it will make it much harder for religious educators to be taken seriously when they invite students into our deeply life-giving religious worldview. And this is truly tragic.

James | 27 April 2012  

While the need for meaning and depth of thinking is universal, the problem of superficiality resulting from too many choices is mainly a western or affluence problem. For many struggling people in developing countries the choice is to adopt a 'dog-eat-dog' attitude, or die. For some even, their best hope is simply to die with dignity. Perhaps an equally pressing problem is to prepare young mind for 'Future Shock', when they have to face the emerging realisation that the Traditions of all Established Religions contain, as well as ideals, many myths, misunderstandings, and superstitions. Decrees of the Fifth Session of the Council of Trent gave people the choice of denying evolution or of being anathematised. Some church teachings that are presented as "Fiats" are really Ideals, such as Jesus would add, "Let anyone accept this who can." (Mt19:12)

Robertr Liddy | 27 April 2012  

A powerfully provocative piece which leaves much to be contemplated by Catholic youth educators. Your tool, Bishop O'Kelly, the Cro-Magnon cave paintings, exists many times over in the backyard, in every parkland, every play ground. The magnificence of creation surrounds us on every side. Yet few see it or appreciate it, including sadly, Catholic educators. Maybe Allen Close's observations should be a compulsory guideline text for all who teach the young. The young are the idealists, they are the ones who seek meaning and belonging, they are the fertile ground where the sower will produce the best crop. But if the sowing of this soil is left to the sophistication (adulteration) of unguided experience and choice,the sowing can only produce another Allen Close. The fertile ground hasn't changed.The sower has failed to plant the seed.

john frawley | 27 April 2012  

Just hazarding a guess ..... but I suspect that most people who send their children to Catholic schools, don't agree with the Church on the moral issues that the Church so tirelessly goes on about - abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage etc. What does a child think who gets one message at school and another at home? Unless teachers can model really inspiring behaviour, the home influence will win out. The question to the Church is then, why can't you convince Catholics that your positions are correct?

Russell | 27 April 2012  

Thanks for a courageous article Greg! This is the heart of my blog titled "Education = Society", which I started after becoming a teacher and observing first-hand these severe issues. if you're interested.

James Gutteridge | 27 April 2012  

Greg, I agree with the sentiment of your essay, but I think you a being a bit pessimistic. We can choose the popular superficial lifestyle of secular materialism or something which is more meaningful. Most Australian people are financially well off and have access to books and other resouces about philosophy, history, classic literature, the visual and performing arts, world cinema, travel and learning languages. I think most Australian people are happy living in their 'macmansion' with their 2.2 kids, a dog and many electronic gadgets. I believe that our education standards have deteriorated in the past twenty odd years with the result that a significant number of people have poor literacy and numeracy skills as well as poor standards of moral and ethical behavior. However, this does not seem to affect their ability to earn a good income and satisfy their self esteem with acquiring the latest fashion clothing and electronic gadgets etc.

Mark Doyle | 27 April 2012  

There’s a feeling of nostalgia about how things were done in the past, but not so much about how things done have directly contributed to the way things are now. In my opinion that’s a more important question. Especially if you consider that the responsibility to guide the present generation has always rested with the previous one and so forth. Perhaps then instilling an understanding of personal responsibility may be more important than teaching discernment because having an abundance of choice or having not much at all is of little consequence when we are able to take full responsibility for every choice we make, collectively and individually. In terms of a traditional Catholic education, what does a person learn by Christ taking away the sins of the world or where all is forgiven upon confession? What do we learn by having the consequences of our actions and choices only coming to effect on God’s future day of judgement? And what do we learn in a society where most things are valued pre-packaged then disposed of at their used by date, without seeing or even wanting to see the vast amount of resources that literally goes to waste in the process?

David Wall | 27 April 2012  

This resonates with a phrase I use often about our culture particularly our Australian culture - a suicidal rush to mediocrity.

graham patison | 28 April 2012  

Many thanks for a succinct presentation of what I also believe to be a singularly disastrous trend, which I regret to say at leasst appears to be unstoppable. And I am greatly pleased to hear it come from one of our bishops, because like many other catholics I have become used to lack of leadership in that area. be that as it may, I draw attention to the fact that this phenomenon - being global, as you say - is far from confined to catholic schools. I have been a university educator, and I belkieve that not only I but many of my colleagues have been observing it for a number of years. I do not have space to give the many symptoms of this developing superficiality - which, by the way, is not confined to moral matters but also to politics, attitudes to science, even environment, and academic leraning. The virtue for me of the article is that it was written by a bishop, but the essence to me is the writers desire for a more fully humasn existence, and Catholicism and christianity in general) is to me a form of humanism, albeit with very special credentials and a focus on the divine. I am also familiar with Theilhard's writings, and unfortunately I do not think many of today's generation will take to it- mind you not many of older generations have done so either. THe disastrous pity is that today many mistake breadth of knowledge for depth, and do not appear to realise it.

Dennis Green | 28 April 2012  

I can't agree with this rosy nostalgia. When I grew up in the 60's lack of choice was a millstone around the neck of many. Female members of my family suffered for years in unhappy marriages because divorce wasn't an option. Young unwed mothers were persuaded to give up their children because there was no support. Homosexual people had to live their lives in secret. I'm glad that my children are growing up in a more caring world where difference is celebrated and the influence of the church has waned so substantially.

Stephen | 28 April 2012  

AURELIUS27 Apr 2012 "when faithful people come ... seeking meaning with life's struggles and doubts, they are presented with a list of rules (the church doctrines) and told to go away and sin no more. How can there be any humanity or spiritual growth if that is the approach? I suggest that for spiritual growth it must first be exercised. Individual responsibility is needed. It is all too convenient to try to put the responsibility on to others - who are often all too willing to accept the responsibility ! While Church teaching should be consulted as a guide, and often as an ideal to be reconciled as far as possible with a practical course of action, individuals will only develop spiritually by examining closely, and accepting personal responsibility for their beliefs and actions. This is the only path to spiritual maturity.

Robert Liddy | 29 April 2012  

To ROBERT LUDDY: My comment was in no way intended on a personal basis so the "blame" I mentioned is more on a general basis, reflecting on the lack of meaning and the tendency towards superficiality. In my experience, those on a spiritual journey tend to take too much burden of responsibility - which can hinder growth and happiness - and there's a yearning for a humane approach. I dare say the current atheism crazy is a backlash against this loss of faith in organised religion and a healthy correctional mechanism. Also, to commentators like JOHN FRAWLEY criticising Catholic educators - your posting seems to suggest that you are in possession of wisdom that "others" don't have. Pray tell - what is it that they are missing?

AURELIUS | 30 April 2012  

Well, Greg, I think you hit the nail squarely on the head when you wrote of Teilhard de Chardin and his concern with the development of the inner man (or woman). Kevin Rudd is what I would call "a public Christian". I am unsure how deep his Christianity goes. Superficial "Christianity" is a very common thing these days. I wonder how many schoolboys in your teaching career were interested in developing a deep spiritual life of their own? Despite great mentoring by quite remarkable clergy it took me years to find my own place and peace. Teachers and clergy at schools have often to aim their pitch at the lowest common level of adolescent religious aspirations. I would've appreciated knowing about the genuine tradition of Western Christian meditation going back to the Middle Ages and further back again to the Church Fathers. It would've helped me develop as a person. I think we need to learn the practice of silence. Just being quiet in God's presence and communing with him as the Cure of Ars described an old French peasant doing. Without long winded prayers. Realizing we exist in God. Fully. It is something worthwhile teaching interested young people. I would suggest it would radically change lives quietly but powerfully from within.

Edward F | 16 May 2012  


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