Acting Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, members of the Council, Staff of the University, Families and Friends of Graduates, and most importantly, Graduates, it is a great privilege to have been invited to give the Occasional Address at this graduation ceremony tonight.
My role within the Uniting Church requires that I get out and about speaking in the public forum about the Church’s vision for a just and peaceful world. This can be a risky activity for someone wearing a clerical collar. Sometimes the risks are obvious, like the time I sat on a panel at the annual conference of the Australian Secular Association. That was always going to be tough gig. But there are plenty of other reasons why listening to a church person talk might not be on the top of most people’s list of fun things to do on a Thursday night, especially at their graduation – everything from the totally understandable expectation of sheer and unadulterated boredom or irrelevance, to well-founded disdain based on the history of the Church and Christians behaving badly.
The Christian Church has a lot to answer for. We have claimed God’s name, God’s purpose and God’s will as our own, and we have used them as excuses for prejudice, oppression, violence, imperialism and abuse. This is the dark part of who we are and we should never engage in society without carrying this history with us.
So while I wanted to say that to you up front, I hope you will might be even a little relieved to hear that I won’t be preaching a sermon or trying to redeem the Church’s reputation.
What I would like to do is share with you something of why I believe that you are the most important graduates this university produces. Doctors, musicians, scientists, engineers, physicists, artists, economists – they are all important, but as a cohort, none of them has potential to influence the character of our society more than you.
For many of you, some of that influence will be around the content matter of the disciplines you teach: your love for mathematics, science, music, literature, will inspire some students to study in those areas and they will become the scientists, artists, economists of the future. That in itself is an incredible influence. But for me, that’s not the most important one.
Regardless of how young or old your students are or what your subject area is, regardless of what particular passions you inspire, or how well your students perform in the endless parade of tests and exams, I believe that the most important influence you will have will be in how your students come to see themselves – as individuals and as people in relationship with others and the world around them. It’s never just down to you, but teachers are often the ones that make the difference in the way young people see their futures. I could talk about so many aspects of school life that matter but tonight I want to talk about dignity and hope.
Over the years I have visited a number of our immigration detention centres. I have spoken to many people who have fled situations of persecution, violence, imprisonment and torture. But it is in our detention centres, locked up for indefinite periods of time having committed no crime, in a country that is meant to be a decent democracy and a proud supporter of human rights, that they suffer what often turns out to be the most irreparable of harms: hopelessness. Hopelessness is what people experience when they are excluded, forgotten and abused. Hopelessness is what happens when people experience the systems and structures of society as unforgiving, demeaning and exercising a careless disregard for their person and their life.
So here is my challenge to you.
In your classroom, regardless of what happens in other schools, in the playground, on the sporting field and in the classrooms on either side of you, in your classroom, will your students be treated with dignity?
- Will they be treated with dignity, sure in the knowledge that even if no-one else in their life values them for who they are, you do?
- Will they understand that regardless of their background you believe in a good future for them and are hopeful for what is possible?
- Will they hear encouragement in your voice?
- Will they the see respect in your face?
- Will they continue to see that respect even if they are pushing you hard, testing you, almost willing you to slip up?
- Will they feel safe enough to discover that they can be brave and courageous?
- Will they be respected regardless of how they might struggle with being in school?
- Will they know that at the end of the day you care more about them as person, than how they performed in a test?
It is, of course, the responsibility of all of us to seek the common good: to help build a just, peaceful and inclusive society, where all people are valued, where the first peoples of this land are respected as the precious soul of the nation, where the diversity of religions, languages and cultures is regarded as a great gift; where everyone has a home, decent work, access to a good education and good healthcare and the opportunity to live meaningful lives free from fear, prejudice and violence.
But as teachers, never underestimate the influence you will have in your classrooms. It will always be within your power to demonstrate to your students the meaning of dignity for all. Everyday, in every interaction, you can bring the vision of a just and peaceful society just a little closer to reality. As teachers, you are involved in the most deeply transformational enterprise. We need you. I wish you every happiness and success. Congratulations.