In June I attended the 50th reunion of my old high-school. Expecting just a lot of drinking with old schoolmates, I glimpsed instead a story that was historic in some ways, geo-political in others and certainly all about lives, values, character and choices.
The story begins in 1959 when the school was opened. It is a Catholic school, and the De La Salle order of brothers had recently agreed to staff it. I was born in 1959 and my father, a young Irish labourer, doubtless very proud of his new son, went up to the college to watch the opening, listen to the speech by the new principal, and drink a cup of tea. He would have been thinking to himself, “I shall send my sons to this school.”
What the thinking of the Order was at the time is harder to fathom. Why choose the small provincial town of New Plymouth, in the rural, isolated and windswept agricultural province of Taranaki, I cannot say. The ‘50s was a different time in so many ways, but I understand that the Catholic population of Taranaki had been petitioning for a boys school for some time, and had managed to raise sufficient funding for the purchase of the grounds and construction of purpose-built classrooms, gymnasium etc.
The great value of a labour force of De La Salle brothers as teachers is that they have dedicated their lives to teaching, are a bright, motivated, highly educated and committed workforce. And (having taken a vow of poverty), they are very cheap to run.
And so, in due course, in the early 1970’s I did make my way to that school where I continued as a student for seven years.
The De La Salle order was far more established in Australia, and so we had the fairly unique experience of being educated in rural Taranaki by recently-arrived Australian teachers (with a small leaven of kiwis).
I have to say that it was a privilege to have been educated by these young energetic, enthusiastic and idealistic men. It was a fine education that we received, by men for whom it was not just a job, but a “vocation.”
I did not have much on-going contact with the school or the Brothers until I returned for the 50th reunion in 2009.
A number of impressions were immediately apparent. A lot of them were not there, or not mentioned. Those remaining were no-longer the energetic and passionate young men that I remembered and there are pictures of them scattered around this blog posting. Also conspicuous by its absence was the presence of any young Brothers. I had been alerted in advance by a couple of references to the fact that there were no longer very many Brothers teaching at the school, that most teachers now were “lay-teachers” as they are called (laymen and lay-women).
The story unfolded some more when I met the new college Principal. He is the first Principal not to be a Brother, and he said that this was the third school where he had presided over the transition. It was announced at the end of the reunion that, after fifty years exactly of excellent service to the people of Taranaki, the Brothers were leaving the school. They are now too scarce and too old to continue. A number of the oldest are heading off to a De La Salle retirement community in Queensland, for a life of continued spirituality and contemplation.
What we are witnessing is the result of a demographic change in society that occurred across the Western world between the 1950s, through the 1970s and now into the early 2000s. Those ‘vocations’ stopped coming. Those idealistic and energetic young men were the last of their type. Almost the last of the Mohicans. As a member of the generation that I am talking about, I find it hard to say exactly what it was. In the same way that young men would not now queue up to volunteer to go to war as they did in 1939, the spirit of the age (the zeigest) has become cynical and independent.
I remember someone saying in the early ‘80s, that, “There are still young men enrolling for the priesthood, but very few of them are palangis.” The implication being that most were Pacific Islanders. This demographic change is limited to the scions of the West. Different cultures are experiencing their own different demographic changes. Pacific Islanders are still a committed, faithful and religious people.
Lest there still be doubt that this is just a localised phenomenon on which I am hanging too much grand theory, the final confirmation came recently when I was reading the school’s latest ERO Report (from the Education Review Office of the Ministry of Education). One sentence pointed out that the school was having trouble finding sufficient students in the intake, as one of their criteria is that the boy must identify as Catholic. I guess that is the logical conclusion of the trend. Not only a lack of vocation, now a lack of suitable school-age boys as well.
The ERO report also stated that the school is a ‘decile 8’ school (this is a measure of the socio-economic level of the families in the area), but usually out-performs other schools in the decile 8 to 10 range (Auckland Grammar would be a decile 10 school). It out-performs them on almost all indicators (academic, sporting, social development, independent decision-making abilities of students…)
I asked one of them about the possibility of ‘reverse mission’ as it is called; ie, having Brothers from the Pacific Islands, South America, Africa or The Philippines teaching in Western De La Salle schools, but the problem there is that their qualifications are not recognised by Western governments. And anyhow the real need for superior education is in the Third World, not over here.
And so the strategy of the De La Salle order is to go to the third world. Where the need is. And where the vocations still are. The official language of the order was originally French (The founder, St. Jean Baptiste de La Salle was French). At some point in the distant past the language of the order was changed to English, and quite recently it has been changed to Spanish, a reflection of the first language of so many of them now.
But what of all of those fine young men from the ‘70s? Are they disillusioned and going quietly into that good night? Do they think, “Well we did our best, but everything that we stand for is pretty much in retreat these days?”
Hell No! Listing just some of my old teachers:
Bro. Bill and Bro Denis are heading to a town called Malakal in Southern Sudan. There they will head up a teachers’ college and set up and run a distance-learning programme. The Southern Sudanese are primarily Christian and oppressed by the Muslim North and the government in Khartoum, with Darfur in the middle of the country. The UN recently named the President of that country as a war criminal.
Bro. Peter is the Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University in Gaza. An ‘unapologetically Catholic’ university in a Muslim country that has just been invaded by Israel and that is run by Hamas, a terrorist organisation turned government.
- Bro. Jack told me a story about his school in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. Apparently all the schools in Moresby hold their selection/ enrollment weeks in the same week. Brother Jack holds his the week after. So all the boys who do not get into the other schools come to them the following week. This year they had 400 applications for 250 places. But Jack said to me, “You just get sick of saying ‘Sorry no education for your son.’ to poor Papuans.” So this year he took all 400 of them! Not quite sure how that is going to work out.
Bro. Pascal works in a half-way-home for broken families in outer Sydney, doing excellent work at the bottom end of his own society.
I should also mention the excellent record of the school at Balgo Hills, on the outskirts of the Simpson Desert, educating Aboriginal youth. The consistent contribution over decades has meant that the elders in the town recognise the stability that the school has brought to their area and to their people, and they now include the Brothers in their decision-making, as wise counsel and as good men.
They are all, by now, over the age of 60 and they are for the most part going into the middle of some of the most unstable political regimes in the world. Older and bolder. Rage against the night.
As one of them said to me, “Logic is our second recourse.” I am assuming that Faith, with a capital ‘F’ is their first recourse. To be so committed, so intelligent, dripping with resources, some of the best and most idealistic that we breed, to see all that you stand for and have worked for in retreat, to have to live with the (in their cases unwarranted) stigma of paedophilia. And yet to carry on leading by example, having forsaken wealth, marriage, independence and status. Now that takes a special sort of man.
Dangerous men. You only have to spend a couple of hours in their company and they challenge your thinking once again.
So that’s how I spent Queen’s Birthday weekend. And it was perhaps the best-spent few days in a good many years. In between all of this I drank some beers with some of my old classmates.
There are still good men out there, but you have to look for them. The world of business is full of bad men pretending to be good men. And quite a few who have abandoned the pretence. I like Lord Acton’s dictum about “Power corrupts etc.“ The third line is, “Great men are nearly always bad men.”
The views expressed are my own and the unauthorised version.