Friday 12 March 2021

Culture

Culture is an amorphous and slippery phenomenon. It represents a shared understanding of and subscription to a set of beliefs, values, customs and practices that provide identity for an organisation or a community. Culture is complex, for while it must acknowledge and authentically attest to the foundational roots associated with its origin, it must also be responsive to contemporary standards that change from time to time. No profession, no organisation, no sporting code and no community can be immune from the need to review its culture and the prevailing standards and norms associated with it. Herein lies the essence of renewal that leads to a re-invigoration and healthy expression of the organisation, often in creative and innovative ways, ones that embrace a synthesis of the past with the present for the way that it shapes the future. I am reminded of the words of Fr Jose Mesa SJ, the General Secretary for Jesuit Education throughout the world, that when the Jesuits founded and built their ministry of education, it was their desire to build and develop schools – not museums!! In this way, Jesuit schools own a cultural impulse that attests to the creativity of
their roots.

The highest expression of Jesuit ‘culture’ is grounded in the theology of the Christian gospels. It is a call to the example of Jesus Christ: one that is lived out and through relationship and the service of others. This is a mighty aspiration; one that we aim to give to the boys as they navigate through their formative years. It is a fundamental element of our vision and our culture. Implicit to this message is the call to justice, conscience and compassion: to act on behalf of those whose circumstances suffer disadvantage and marginalisation. As a formal teaching and a belief that is now 500 years old in the Jesuit tradition, it is expressed in action. In the contemporary world it is animated and given witness through the active support of the aged and infirmed, the disabled, the homeless and the disenfranchised. It is appropriating the cause of being a ‘man for and with others’.

In a world where culture competes and clashes, there is sometimes a need to be counter-cultural. This is when an organisation finds it necessary to challenge those with whom they come into conflict. Jesuit schools have never been slow to do this. At Riverview, the spirit behind the educational program is one of provocation – to disturb, to challenge and to encourage our young men to critically assess the world in which they live, and, to interrogate the very assumptions that lie beneath it. It is no twist of fate, that when Alex Seton (OR1994) was asked to apply his extraordinary artistic talents to a commissioned work some years ago, he distilled the essence of his education into two words: Question everything. These are proudly carved in stone at the entrance to the Christopher Brenan Library, in a work of consummate artistic skill and one that encapsulates the principles upon which Jesuit education rests.

Culture is multi-faceted with a tendency to produce off-shoots called sub-cultures. We need to be vigilant about sub-cultures, those that selectively identify with and disproportionately emphasise one aspect of culture to the detriment of another. As we have seen many times in sport, the competitive desire to win at all costs can be to the peril of the individual and the code. In a school, the reification and/or deification of a particular element of the educational program – sporting activities, academic achievement or musical prowess – can lend itself towards elitism if not carefully monitored in context of bedrock principles. Disproportionate emphasis on one sub-culture or one aspect of culture can result in the marginalisation of those who do not possess specific capabilities to excel in these areas.

Riverview is in the process of a cultural review. Some of the sedimented practices that have had dominance in the past need to be measured against the core values of the school and the works of the Society of Jesus. As we come out of the period of recess associated with COVID, we are well placed to question some aspects of our culture that need renewal. I don’t accept for one minute that this is an easy thing, but if it leads to a better expression of who we are and who we need to be, it will be decidedly beneficial. It is particularly timely at the beginning of a new decade and relatively early into a new century.

A healthy culture is one that undergoes constant review and renewal. It is reflective and self-critical but not judgemental, it is open to change but not without discernment and it is mindful of the larger cultural forces that are external to, but impact upon it. Culture should never be self-seeking. It must honour the lofty ideals and the vision of the founders in ways that embrace the past, guide the present and inform the future.

What a great exercise to engage in. In the words of one of our prominent Old Boys: Question everything – particularly the amorphous and prevailing influence of culture in our school and in our world.

Dr Paul Hine