Value lessons from Jessica Watson


Jessica WatsonThe arrival of Jessica Watson back in Australia was small news in cosmic terms. But it provoked a great deal of discussion around the morning coffee pot. Most had to do with values.

Some questions really said more about the questioners than about the sailor. Did those of us who frowned when she began her voyage now owe Jessica and the human race an apology for our little faith? And was her achievement more calculating and less impressive than we were being told?

Other questions were more perennial. Should we encourage our own 16-year-old daughter or son if they were inspired to take off on a similar trip? And was it right for anyone to do what Jesssica did, given that it would require great public resources to find and rescue her in the event of a mishap?

Jessica herself responded more than adequately to the first kind of question. She said she was not a hero but someone who was allowed to follow a dream. Her parents deserved more credit for encouraging her. She did not care whether she had broken a record. She had enjoyed sailing, and had done what she set out to do.

She confounded those who implied that she has measured her trip by the cash book, by knocking back lucrative but intrusive photo stories. Her own values proved to be more deeply grounded than her older admirers and critics. Indeed, her maturity made a good case for those of us who questioned her maturity to examine ourselves. And her modest words certainly suggested that many reporters and politicians might benefit from spending 200 days or so in solitude.

Whether she should have been encouraged to pursue her dream is a more interesting question. It makes us reflect on our own values and those of our culture. In contemporary culture the preservation of our own health and life is often seen as the supreme human value. My own life and health are more important than the life and safety of other human beings, more important than any other values that compete with them. Prudence demands that I protect my own life and health first.

That attitude flies in the face of the great stories of our traditions that praise those who have risked their life for something more important to them. The Christian tradition celebrates children who accepted death rather than renounce their faith. We also preserve the stories of adventurous young people like George Morrison who walked unarmed from Normanton to Melbourne in the early 1880'.

Each of us have stories that encourage us. I remember the young Jesuits sent from Europe to China from the 16th to the 18th century. Only about a third survived the journey. I also remember Ruth, who during a university holiday cycled alone through Malaysia to Northern Thailand, diverted to the Burmese Border and spent some years teaching refugees there. For these people their own life and health were not absolute values.

Such stories ask us whether we would want our children to privilege security over adventurousness, stability over possibility, maintenance of health over mission. Of course, these considerations alone do not answer whether we ought to encourage our children when they want to take great risks. There are many other questions to consider.

The question whether it is right to depend on massive public resources reveals a paradox of contemporary culture. Our culture privileges the choice of the individual to undertake demanding enterprises. But it also commits the resources of the community to protect individuals from adverse consequences of their choice. It privatises freedom and nationalises risk.

This imbalance is even more striking when the individual's adventure is supported by corporate interests in the expectation of profit. Profit is privatised, while the risk is nationalised. This imbalance encourages popular cynicism about the enterprise, and invites people to ask whether public resources might be used better to meet more pressing needs.

At first glance, this objection to adventures such as Jessica Watson's could be met fairly easily. Those organising, funding and profiting from yacht races and other activities that may involve rescue at public expense, should be required to contribute to a public fund that will defray the cost of future rescue attempts. Profits derived from such occasions should also be subject to a tax for the same purposes.

Finally should we celebrate what Jessica Watson did? Of course. She prompted good conversation about values around many coffee pots. She also made me remember Fiona, a depressive, suicidal young friend who died many years ago. For her to stay alive each day required as much bravery as anything I could conceive myself ever doing. We should also celebrate the heroism that is not robed in celebrity.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Jessica Watson, sailed around the world, 16-year-old



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Existing comments

I'm struck by the enthusiasm for some folks to leap on the "I'm no hero" contradiction of Kevin Rudd to beat up on Kevin. If she really thinks she's no hero, what was with the vast crowds, the pink (!) carpet, the book deal, the sponsor shirt etc? A touch of having it both ways? And has anyone pondered why compulsory schooling is enforced if a "home schooled" 16 yr old can spend that much time hanging around boats while being schooled and become so successful?

clive newton | 20 May 2010  

Putting aside Clive Newton's disingenuous remarks, I'm most impressed by Jessica's gargantuan effort. Rarely do we credit our youth for the kind of successes they have achieved. Jessica clearly comes from the kind of families that don't breed hoons and self-serving people, the kind who were encouraged and flourished during Howard's regime (beat that one Clive!). So what if book deals and sponsored T-shirts come in Jessica's wake? Of course, like those shonky pink batt contractors, there always will be those who unashamedly profit from her success? The fact remains that she has conquered the vast unknown all by herself at 16! And that, is heroic!

Alex Njoo | 20 May 2010  

I agree with Clive on the perceived need for compulsory schooling. My students would learn so much more from doing what they're interested in rather than being forced to sit in a classroom with students they don't get along with, waiting until the bell tells them to stop being engaged and switch to something else.

Children today need to be creative, and that will only happen if they're self-disciplined and make mistakes to learn from. This will only happen when they're allowed to follow their dreams.

People are naturally motivated to better themselves. Look at how a baby teaches itself to walk and talk. Look at a sportsperson or musician practise without extrinsic motivation. Look at Benjamin Franklin, Richard Branson, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, all who dropped out of school to follow their passions. You cannot tell me they needed school to learn to read, write, and become numerate (and not all high school graduates can even claim this).

There is not enough trust of people today, and too many people think children will just play video games all day if given the choice. This isn't their choice, it is society's, and education reflects society.

James Gutteridge | 20 May 2010  

I agree that heroism comes in many forms, not always recognised, but I am also very impressed by Jessica Watson. At 16, I was timid and shy; even now, at 32, I am not sure that I would have the courage to take on such a challenge. Many other girls at 16 don't think beyond their friends, boys and clothes and would never think to set themselves an extraordinary challenge. I think Jessica Watson's parents have done a great job in raising a young woman with a sense of confidence and independence that many women twice or three times her age are yet to achieve.

Kathryn Kerr | 20 May 2010  

Norah, good issues raised in this article, probaly not necessary for school reading e

Norah Moloney | 20 May 2010  

Rosey, article an interesting read, raising interesting issues. e

Rosey Moloney | 20 May 2010  

I did appreciate your thoughtful article. I had missed the news that Jessica refused lucrative offers from magazines so it was good to hear that. BUt what I valued most was your last paragraph and the reminder that we have many unsung heros among us.

Jean SIetzema-Dickson | 20 May 2010  

What an interesting read! I am most impressed by this article; it certainly puts a different perspective on everything. As a person who was home schooled, I believe that my mother gave my siblings and I (9 of us)the best education one can have. I also believe if it had not been for this, I would not be the person I am today. Congratulations to Mr and Mrs Watson for raising such a young woman - no wonder you are proud of her.

Mish | 20 May 2010  

Andy writes: ‘And her modest words certainly suggested that many reporters and politicians might benefit from spending 200 days or so in solitude.’

For one thing, such a retreat might improve the politicians’ powers of recall. Sadly, one memory I’ll keep of Jessica Watson’s arrival is the sight of a minister standing up in parliament rabbiting on about how the people of NSW were as one in hailing the magnificent feat of … Jessica Simpson.

David B | 20 May 2010  

In addition to the imbalance of individual / national choice and of profit / risk, your point about heroism not robed in celebrity actually strikes home most for me.

Charles Balnaves | 20 May 2010  

What a profound statement from Clive on the need for compulsory education as it is currently delivered .

Just watched two years of what seemed like torture to me as a young woman close to me achieved her years eleven and twelve education............interminable time spent on assessment tasks some times of questionable use and certainly often of little interest to an intelligent late teener.

If I had a magic wand I would revolutionise the current system and give these students time to evolve.. to become creative outside the narrow bands of subject about giving them credit fot 6 months overseas living and travelling in another country..or time spent in a nursing home caring for others....all this along with areas of study.

Jessica is a marvellous example of an articulate, thoughtful, reflective and evolving young woman. Go girl!!!! you have a fascinating life ahead of you and the trust of parents who perhaps know you better than any of us.

GAJ | 20 May 2010  

Surely there must be limits on the physical and psychological risks that parents should allow/encourage their teenage `children` to undertake? And there must be limits to the risks that we as a society allow parents to sanction/provide for their 16 year-old children? What Jessica did was sort of impressive, if rather futile...but enormously risky. So risky as to be complete madness!

Eugene | 21 May 2010  

Wait a minute. So you would be required to pay a rescue tax and obtain permission before being allowed to travel outside the country? Or to, let's say, go rock climbing, or snorkeling, or anything that involves risk that may lead to a need for rescue? People already pay taxes for these things. It would be better to dismantle the government entirely and abandon all rescue services than to submit under such a totalitarian and freedom limiting taxing scheme.

X. J. Scott | 03 September 2010  

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