Winding up 2012: Dear Students…

Dear Students,

After this week I will not see many of you until February of next year and, some of you, I may not see again because you’ll go on to do other things. This is the time of the year when I reflect upon what I have achieved in terms of contributing to the knowledge and skills of my students and how I can do it better. I have to start from the presumption that I can always improve upon what have I done but, even without that, accepting that every year will bring a different group, with different needs, forces me to think about the core of my teaching – as opposed to what actually came out in the teaching activities. What I always want to achieve is to help you develop yourselves. I can’t change you but I can help you change. If you know more, understand more or can do more at the end of the year, then I’m happy. If you go on to help other people, then I’m ecstatic!

Many people throughout your lives will tell you big, shiny success stories and expect you to take a certain path because there’s a big brass ring at the end. I have walked that path and have known success but, if we are being honest, success is not the same as happiness. Throughout the year we have discussed many things, scholarly and secular, but we have rarely had the time or the opportunity to talk about some of the most important things in life: the reasons why we do things and, ultimately, how it will make us feel. But you shouldn’t be listening to me because of who I am or how you think of me, I’m just another voice from our species and I have one of the many opinions. My friends will (I hope) tell you that I am mostly a good man, with some occasional moments of selfishness and stupidity. You should realise that almost everyone is like this. It would be impossible for us to live as we do, where we do, were this not so. The majority of people are good, most of the time, with occasional moments of stupidity. What that means, of course, is that we have a terrific amount of force to act against those who are always stupid or unpleasant – the silent majority is powerful.

Firstly, let me tell you how much I love our magnificent, terrible and bizarre species. We are terrible and beautiful. We are capable of acts of tremendous selflessness and kindness, yet sometimes we taint it with greed, selfishness and cruelty. We are driven by so many things and, the more I read, the more it becomes apparent that who we are, as individuals, is as much about the world around us, our families and friends, our education and our overall exposure to reality, as it is about ourselves. I can think of several points in my life where the intervention of other people has held me back from a terrible and destructive course, explicit examples of changing direction, but there are so many examples that speak of casual intervention: a smile on a day when I needed one, someone holding the door, being let into traffic after waiting forever.

To try and distill this species, into the “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” myths of Horatio Alger or to claim it is all emptiness and cynicism, is to sell us, and you, short. Fairy tales are conveniently small fictions, now separated from their original cautionary endings, that sell you a “happy ending” as a bill of goods, as if all you have to do is to kiss the frog, find the right name or have the right shoe size.

Nothing is that easy. If it is for you then, sadly, experience tells us that you will not really appreciate it that much. This is not a rationale for suffering but an observation of the bad behaviour that seems to come at certain levels of privilege. Be in no doubt, if you leave with a degree then you are privileged. This is not a matter of guilt or a burden, it’s just a fact. Some of you will never appreciate how lucky you were to go to University at a time of peace in a prosperous country because you do not quite realise how fortunate you were. You are no more or less entitled to be educated than the next person and it is pure accident that determines who enters school in a safe, highly educated, country, rather than trying to learn under gunfire in a cramped and broken classroom where you might be lucky to get to Year 6 before forced to go and work to keep your family alive. Some of you have made it through wars and fought your way to restart your education, surviving that and striving for more. Some of you represent minorities, first-in-family or face terrible ordeals that your peers will never quite understand. Many of you, facing no other impediment other than ignorance of a certain area, strive for more and to achieve a greater understanding. I salute all of you for your efforts, especially where you have reached out to help your peers. But why are you doing this?

We often fail to ask ourselves ‘why?’ “Why are you doing this degree?” “Why are you looking for this job?” “Why are you doing this?”

You will often be encouraged to believe that questions like “Am I happy?” or “Should I be doing this?” are somehow not appropriate questions – indicative of some sort of laziness when you should be seeking jobs and working harder, every single day. So, what are your plans? If your answer is “Get a job”, then which job are you looking for? If the answer to that is “a programming job”, then what kind of programming job? If you don’t know what you really want to do, then how will you know when you’ve found it? How can you search for something better? How will you say no to something that will make you miserable? What do you need to live and what do you need to make you happy? Can you combine them?  Many of you will have dependents and you will have to take the work that is offered, when it is offered. If you do have some freedom of movement now then I encourage you to make the best use of it so that, when people do depend upon you, you can support them with little or no resentment. Remember that rarely do the people we support ask for our help for any other reason than they need help. I always have to remember that when a student asks me a ‘silly’ question. It’s not about me – they just need my help and probably don’t yet realise what the question sounds like.

What makes you happy? Can you make it a job? Are you happy now? Do you actually want this degree? Why? Most students start University with no clear plan or understanding of why they’re doing it. Now, most students then end up finishing and having some idea of what they’re doing – and a Uni degree is a great thing to have when we teach it properly – but leaving after 3-5 years with a degree and no idea of direction means that finding something that you want to do is going to be a crap shoot. This must be tempered by the realities of your life because this is no fairytale.  You will give 5% of your time to some people and they will be so grateful in return that you will be embarrassed. You will try to give 200% to other people and they will only demand more. You will not necessarily know in advance which way this will go. Those of you have choice must remember that there are many, many more who don’t. Again, this is not about guilt but about perspective and valuing what you have, and what you can do.

I am, unashamedly, focused on actions taken for the good of us all: our community, our society and our home, which is far more than just a place for humans. I have spent time at a very low ebb over the years: depressed, deep in debt, terrible job or unemployed, living on almost no food for weeks, giving away my own books and CDs as gifts to not stand out at social gatherings, washing my clothes in the bathroom sinks at work to hide the fact that I couldn’t afford laundry powder or new clothes. I hope that none of this ever happens to you but you should be aware that this is happening, day after day, to people everywhere. Many of these people did not go to Uni, did not finish school, may not have basic literacy. How do you expect them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they have no boots and someone is standing on their toes (to quote Dr King).

I do not want to encourage you towards any movement, political, secular, religious or otherwise. It is none of my business what kind of “-ist” you become, if any, as long as you do so fairly, ethically and with respect and an appreciation of who you are and the people around you. I find myself constantly challenged to live up to my own beliefs and my ideals. Sometimes I do, sometimes I wish I had tried harder. That’s just how it is, for almost all of us.

My sincere wishes for a beautiful and happy future,


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