Malala and Australia: A Reflection on the Purpose of Education
Malala Yousafzai was born in 1997 in Pakistan. After the Taliban began attacking girls’ schools in her local village, Malala gave a public speech calling for her right and the rights of girls in her area to an education, and later began an online blogging advocacy campaign to this effect. Despite her youth she was nominated for and received national awards for her fearless advocacy – and yet her high profile made her a target. On October 9, 2012, on her way home from school, Malala was deliberately shot in the head and neck by a Taliban gunman who boarded the bus she was riding on.
After being in critical condition and undergoing numerous surgeries, Malala survived and resumed her life and schooling together with her family in the UK. Continuing her crusade for universal rights and education, she became a Nobel Prize Laureate in 2014, the youngest person ever to receive this prestigious award.
In honor of her efforts, “Malala Day “ occurs annually on July 14, dedicated to the insistence on the value of education and the critical importance of ensuring children’s access to it. This day gives us pause to reflect on the courage, determination and unflinching belief in the inherent human right to education that Malala displayed with such dignity, humility and grace. This day has caused me to reflect on the state of education within our own Melbourne Jewish community.
I, like many others in this wonderful community, was privileged enough to attend a private Jewish day school. At school I received a sterling Jewish and general education in a safe and supportive environment. I was taught from a young age to respect my heritage, pursue knowledge, engage meaningfully and deeply with my Jewish and Australian identities, develop positive social interactions and was encouraged to be a constructive member of society. I was blessed with access to modern technology to help me achieve my goals and more than adequate sporting facilities to develop as a whole person. The calibre of the education I was fortunate enough to receive has certainly continued, as the next generation of young Jews goes through, and grows up in, our prestigious Melbourne Jewish Day school system.
And so, as I reflected on Malala and her struggles for education, and juxtaposed this with the experience that many of us (young and not so young adults and current students alike) share of our privileged educational upbringings, I pondered the following questions:
• Do we use the education so many of us have been so lucky to receive to benefit the greater good?
• Have we used the gifts we have been given wisely?
• Do we use our knowledge and skills to pursue careers that will benefit the world, the Jewish people, Israel and / or our community?
• Are we educating the next generation to ask these questions and encouraging them to become those who will use their education for good?
Overall, I think that the answer to these questions is a resounding “yes”. While there are challenges within our education system, there exists an almost inbuilt spirit of volunteerism, communal pride and a desire to contribute that has been admirably modelled for the younger generations by our predecessors. Indeed, as an informal and formal Jewish educator at Mount Scopus Memorial College, I am blessed to work every day with upstanding, inspiring and talented youth who I can attest continue this tradition (indeed, this veritable need) to consistently focus on the world around them and continually seek out avenues to benefit those in need. So many of my peers, and the graduates of Mount Scopus that I have worked with (and this certainly rings true for the graduates of our Jewish day school system and youth movements) have gone on to achieve incredible things in their studies, volunteer work and careers that unquestionably help others and contribute to the world. In this regard, our youth and day schools are certainly the jewels in the crown that is our community.
And yet, despite our many successes, I can’t help but be concerned by the worrying trend identified by US author David Books in his powerful book “The Road to Character” that manifests itself in the world of Jewish Australian education. In his book, Brooks analyses high school or university graduation speeches and posits that as graduates are about to embark on the adventure called life at the conclusion of their formal studies, they are often called upon to “follow their passion, trust their feelings and to reflect and find their purpose in life” .
However, Brooks points out that there is something askew with the exhortation that students follow their dreams and do precisely as they wish. This process of identifying one’s talents and passions and then strategically planning a career that allows one to express these desires is a “method that begins with self and ends with the self”. These young adults ask ‘what do I want out of life’? but at no point, argues Brooks, is the graduate compelled to, nor do they often, ask “What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?” . Or to paraphrase President Kennedy, no one is really asking ‘what they can do for their country’, most people are asking ‘what their country can do for them’ to fulfil their ambitions and goals.
Thus, despite the volunteerism and focus on community and those in need that is indeed a mainstay of the educational values instilled in our youth, the concerns raised by Brooks resonate with, and nag at, me. Our children and students are growing up in an unprecedented age and world of materialism, self orientation and almost grotesque self aggrandisement where values are inverted such that the most debased are lauded and those of virtue are rarely given air time. Unfortunately, increasing numbers of our best and brightest are inexorably succumbing to the glitter of this world and are proving unsuccessful in acting on the educational imperatives and privileges that behoves them to do and be better.
Our ability as a community and as educators to imbue the values of chessed, tikkun olam and concern for others, is well-honed. On the whole, our kids and students are good, even very good, at embracing and acting on these ideals. But we can and should be better.
In our contemporary climate it is incumbent upon us, educators and parents alike, perhaps now more than ever, to encourage and inspire our students and children to consider their paths in life and to deeply think about what their educational privilege means to them and what they intend to use it for. They must and should be encouraged to find the place, vocation and calling whereby what they have to offer the world and what the world needs merge and become one.
This insistence on giving to others is not just a nice idea. On one level, it is a fundamentally human compulsion. As Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, writes in his seminal work “Man’s Search for Meaning”,
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Further, this raising of our eyes and opening of our hearts to the plight of others is a fundamental and unequivocal Jewish imperative. A famous Midrash compares Abraham’s discovery of God to:
“a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: “Is it possible that the palace has no owner?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” So Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?” G‑d looked out and said to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe”.
Former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth Lord Jonathan Sacks describes Abraham’s bewilderment as being clear: He looks at a brilliantly structured universe and realizes that the ordered world is indeed a palace. And yet, the palace is in flames as the world is “full of disorder, of evil, violence and injustice”. It is at this juncture, says Rabbi Sacks, that Judaism is born, as “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be” .
We are thus exhorted to become G-d’s partner in perfecting and repairing the world and assuming the responsibility to extinguish the flames of ignorance, poverty, disease and oppression we see in the world. In our context, it is our educational privilege that has armed us with the tools knowledge, education and inspiration to put out those flames and we (ourselves, our peers, our children and our students) must not be derelict in our duty to engage in this noble calling.
A final thought: On Friday night during the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service in which we welcome in the sanctified Sabbath day, we joyously sing ‘Lecha Dodi’. In one of the stanzas, we exhort the downtrodden, destroyed Jerusalem “hitna’ari me’afar koomi” – rise up and shake off your dust” as you are returned to your former glory. In his visit to Australia a few years ago, Rabbi Sacks explains that the word “hitnaari” (“shake off”) is actually connected to the Hebrew word “no’ar” – youth. In other words, the people shaking things up, the people making the revolutionary changes, those unwilling to stand by as they see things the adults are getting wrong – those are the youth. It is their energy, their sacrifice, their vision and their passion to repair this world that it is so crucial. It is in them that we place our hopes and I am confident that they are up to this challenge.
It is with a sense of gratitude, and a sense of renewed commitment, that I mark International Malala Day this year. May the spirit of Malala, our humanity, Jewish heritage and our communal spirit compel us and our youth to ‘heed the call’ – to continue to commit ourselves to identify the paths by which we can optimally engage in the sacred task of healing our fractured world. While we are not expected to complete the work, teaches the Mishnah in the Ethics of the Fathers, neither are we free to desist from it.
Let’s get to work.