Earlier this evening, I had the great opportunity to hear Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial, speak at an Illawarra business dinner. He gave an extremely impressive, rousing speech about his work at the memorial, his values and also his experience as former federal Leader of the Opposition and Ambassador of Australia to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg.
The entire crowd was silent and transfixed. At the conclusion of his speech, he received a standing ovation.
I have no doubt that most of the audience members were impressed by the touching stories of fallen soldiers and their families and how he has transformed the memorial from a museum into a more interactive, inviting place for contemporary storytelling. As he explained, there are conflicts and peacekeeping missions that are happening right now and the more information that we have to understand current issues, the better. It’s more than just wars of the past.
What I found the most impressive in Dr Nelson’s speech was his discussion of a man called Neville Bonner, who was the first Aboriginal Australian to be elected to the Australian Federal Parliament. Dr Nelson apparently keeps a large portrait of Bonner in his office and has taken it with him wherever he has worked. Bonner overcame extreme adversity and prejudice against Indigenous Australian peoples and was inspired to join politics during the 1967 referendum, which saw Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders finally regarded as human citizens and counted them in the census.
Dr Nelson posed the question: how did Bonner achieve this? The answer is education. Knowledge is power and I believe that the opportunity to learn (along with others) is something for which we should be grateful.
Too often, I fear that learning is taken for granted, particularly with regard to university studies. I hear people complain constantly about their university courses and assessments, just counting down the days until they get their piece of paper. University study is now seen as a necessary evil and a kind of transaction for ‘job-readiness’. You give them money (now or later) and they give you a certificate. That’s it.
Learning to understand the world and expand your horizons appears to be out of fashion. I went to university not just because I needed a qualification for a job; I went because I enjoyed learning. I could have finished my studies after three years of my undergraduate degree, but stayed for an extra honours year and then did a year of distance with another institution. I’m by no means exceptional and many people do postgraduate studies, however the majority of people just whinge and whine about doing the minimum. Why go if you’d prefer to do something else?
Dr Nelson’s message was about the power of education, whether in helping people to understand something as specific as the consequences of war or to overcome societal oppression and prejudice. I just wish that more privileged Australians would realise how fortunate they are to have access to education.