I matriculated from Grey High School in 1984. A third generation, as my father Bernie Abel attended this fine institution, as did my maternal grandfather Dr Philip Perl.
But, Rector Christian Erasmus did not invite me to talk to you today about what was, rather, what could be. In considering this, one is forced to think back on one’s own school experience. I tried to recall precisely what I could remember as actual lessons.
“The digestive journey of a buttered meat sandwich.” I have every idea why I needed to know this. It’s proven invaluable in my advertising career. I recall it because it was impossibly hard to study and so I was forced to cast it to memory.
How much of education back then was more a test of memory than understanding? How much teaching today is more a test of memory than understanding and usefulness?
Another memory is of Jock Cullen, our irascible but charming Christian religious studies teacher, asking what we understood by the word faith. Unlike the meat sandwich lesson, the class engaged in a bit of discussion about what this meant.
Unsatisfied with our answers, Cullen said bluntly: “Faith is like sitting on a chair. Everybody sits on a chair without giving it a second thought. But the day you sit, and it gives way beneath you, you’ll never quite sit on a chair the same way again.”
The reason this intrigued me is because it was about life. About ideas. About values.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
Another character was Seamus Maloney, an old, crusty Irishman. Sharp as a whip, I recall getting an English essay back that I had put great effort into, and used the biggest words I could find. I got an okay mark, but Seamus wrote in red pen at the top: “Never use the word ‘marmalade’ when you mean ‘jam’.”
On that dreaded day that matric results are handed out, I looked at mine and was very disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, seeing as I hired videos and watched movies during my matric finals.
As I looked at my marks, Maloney came up and stood next to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You are capable of so much more” – and then he walked away. I was both gutted and inspired by his brutal words. And yet, here I am today.
I don’t appear on any boards around the school. A messy, middle kind of kid. My creativity, problem-solving abilities, leadership skills and entrepreneurial spirit were never fostered nor tested here. I was evaluated on mathematical numeracy and memory. The ability to regurgitate facts, to learn the quadratic equations and solve parabolas. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my time here. But did it prepare me for working life? Not much. That I got at home and from working at my dad’s business.
What Grey did do is help shape me into the man I am today. Holding one’s head high. Shoulders back. Hopefully good manners and an admiration and aspiration for both living and upholding traditional values.
It wasn’t a school that fostered a social conscience or an evolved sense of tolerance or embracing diversity. I got those from my parents who actively sought to inculcate a hatred for the apartheid system and all intolerance.
Almost 40 years later, I can see the hall is almost exactly as it was. The oil paintings on the wall are still of old white former headmasters. I wonder what a young black boy must think when he sits here and looks at these?
He doesn’t see Siya Kolisi or other legends of sports, politics, the sciences or business. Iconic South Africans like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu or heroes like Steve Biko or Govan Mbeki. Could these paintings not be strategically placed around the school, separately, rather than collectively harking back to a period of exclusion?
I guess the compelling question is – and it’s a challenge to everyone involved in shaping the minds of tomorrow – when are traditions helpful in liberating us to stand proud in the world, and when are they unhelpful in keeping us stuck in the past without the chance for new thoughts, ideas, dreams or possibilities?
The renowned composer Gustav Mahler said: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
And to this observation I ask: are values more important today than value? What I have found in life, and business, is determining and detecting the correct problem is often far more important than simply seeking the right answer. Because it may actually be answering the incorrect question. The one that doesn’t quite address or solve the problem. Value must be added to values as an area of focus.
What value will the school bring to the pupil in the world? Not just at school but post school too. And what value will that boy bring into the world? I want to share some areas where I believe huge value lies.
Shaping the future
Technology cannot be ignored in shaping education because the entire world, past and present, and in some way the future too, is available 24/7.
Today’s world is surely about finding the right information via search, understanding it, assessing it, filtering it and then applying it. Not memory.
Until November, we knew nothing about ChatGPT. We knew that advances were being made in artificial intelligence, but it was still a while away, and we were told that creative thinking was ultimately the great saviour of employed man because computers can’t think creatively. Both observations have been proven to be wholly untrue.
Schools are naturally aware of the powers and importance of technology. The real question is how innovation and relevance of tech will be implemented.
As Angela Ahrendts, the previous CEO of Burberry and more recently Apple Retail, said: “The more technologically advanced we become, the more we need to go back to the basic fundamentals of human connection.”
And all of us here today have the incredible opportunity to build an understanding and appreciation of the human condition.
Lighting the flame
I like to look at a headmaster and teachers as candles. When they walk into a classroom, they carry the flame and there are all these unlit wicks in front of them. The job is to light each flame of each child in the classroom.
Jacques Burger, the group CEO of my company, recalls John Galloway, the rector of his alma mater Paul Roos Gymnasium, saying: “The power of this institution is unlocked when we understand that we are not responsible for schooling, but for education.”
There is an age-old method of teaching that is embraced by young adults who want to study the Torah at religious schools called a Yeshiva.
The key behind this form of education is active and constructive debate. It’s a room where testing of ideas and concepts is central to learning. Lively discussion and argument about established thoughts and ideas in testing their veracity and ability to withstand harsh scrutiny.
The beauty inherent in this is it enhances critical thought, exchanging of ideas, the right to be wrong and dramatically enhances the brain’s ability to remember.
Deciding a career
Last year, I was invited to talk at this school. It was to inspire thoughts and ideas around choosing a career. One of the things I questioned was the consideration the pupils had given towards understanding their passions and interests in deciding a career.
Standing at the lectern, I could literally see lights being switched on. Until that moment, there was a definite disconnect between hobbies, interests and passions and what might be considered as a career or further studies in something that genuinely interested them.
In following days I got some wonderful notes from the parents who said their children had come home excited and enthusiastic that their careers might one day be something that interested them.
These kids could start thinking about what that could look like beyond the safe traditional choices that lead to job and income security but may not ignite their souls.
I can honestly say that little attention was paid during my schooling career, or that of my sons, towards uncovering true passions and interests, and for subject choices and related decisions to be made around these.
How do we better inculcate the belief and behaviours where students understand that their abilities can be tangibly enhanced and honed through hard work, determination, dedication and resilience? What if we re-evaluated the curriculum against this?
Central to a growth mindset is understanding and embracing that there are too many detractors (or readily available comparisons) of authentic value.
Too many kids, and adults, lose their passion and interest because of comparison. They are not encouraged to run their best race against themselves, but others. Heightening self-belief and inspiration is far more important.
Huge attention needs to be paid to teaching children about the perils of social media. The fake lives created. They don’t need to attend every fight they are invited to. To disengage is often more important. To understand the essence of the joy of missing out.
If we have one job to succeed at today it is for children to have self-belief. It’s all about inner awareness, to genuinely be interested in the world and things around them.
When you arrive at M&C Saatchi Abel the first thing you will see as you exit the lifts is a sign that reads: “We are a place for curious and imaginative people.”
Are schools fostering both curiosity and enhancing imagination? Curious people actively look for solutions. They are invaluable in the workplace. What are our interventions to enhance creativity? To foster and reward creativity? By creativity I don’t mean Art, I mean within every subject.
To be valued in the workplace, we need to foster both independent thought and individuality at school so that kids matriculate with inner confidence and a sense of self.
When I walked these halls, individuality was undervalued by teachers and pupils. I undervalued individuality and thought the kids who had rock bands and did stuff that didn’t conform were weird. Probably most of my staff today – who I value highly – were those exact weird kids. The unconventional and authentic ones. Not the highly praised cookie-cut models of what a “schoolboy” should be.
I am not praising individuality for individuality’s sake, and I am well aware of the often-unbelievable challenges that may emerge through the latter-day concept of identity. I’m talking about embracing and fostering authenticity.
This is the challenge that our schools – in moments of careful self-awareness – must meaningfully grapple with.
Where value really lies
I spoke of the balance needed between encouraging traditions where they are helpful and questioning them when they keep us stuck. Likewise, we must teach the value of both individuality and community if they are to succeed.
There’s a book called The Good Life, which is based on the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study asks: what makes a good life? And the bottom-line message is this: the difference between just existing and living well is relationships.
So we must teach people to be individuals so they know their value intrinsically; but we must also teach them to live in community so they know their extrinsic value to their fellow man. Put another way, we have value in our own right, but also value in relation to others.
Power of problem-solving
I want to encourage that we give much greater consideration to enhancing the power of problem-solving – how to actively drive and hone these skills, measure and even test them.
Problem identification, verification and the ability to solve oneself, or collaborate around solutions is possibly the most important thing in any workplace. It’s the ability to run towards a problem, rather than away from one.
With successful problem-solving skills comes the understanding of the supreme power of simplification. In a world of growing complexity, the ability to simplify is extremely valuable. Complexity is the hiding place for first base and shoddy thinking, but if we teach our pupils to simplify, then they will shine and stand out.
It is essential to teach kids the power and purpose that comes from community. If you were to ask me what the most important thing is that I have done so far in my career, I would say, helping to clothe the poor and homeless around the world.
We need our kids to understand the power that comes through giving and sharing – and how that can unlock better futures.
The boy who gave
I want to tell you a wonderful story about the boy who gave.
Eleven years ago, my company was hosting a day for children from a shelter that protects women and their families once they escape domestic violence and gives them safe haven.
We took these kids to Zoo Lake for the day, and each child received a box containing jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, hoodie, some books and sweets. A business partner of mine, Diana, took her two little girls to the event so they could meet and play with these children.
One little boy, eight years old at the time, came over to Diana’s children and said: “I see you didn’t get a box. Here, you can have mine.” This, from a child who had nothing.
When I heard this, I asked them to track this boy down. We immediately sent him to an excellent boys’ school until he matriculated. He was a boarder in high school and captained their chess team and got his colours blazer. Today at almost 20, he is on a full scholarship and studying to become a teacher himself.
In a world of mass consumption, image, comparison and social media madness, huge meaning and value can come from the next generation understanding the concept that in life you don’t always get because of what you take, but that better things come to you through giving.
How are we educating givers? Young minds who want to make a positive difference in the world, who have a social conscience and who understand kindness as a superpower?
Teaching these young minds, as part of this journey to kindness, wisdom and understanding, to embrace diversity. In race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Boys’ schools are still notoriously poor at this. I’m not confusing wokeness with basic kindness and a genuine appreciation and respect for differences.
An important part of inculcating true empathy and respect is deliberately enhancing EQ that will not only make their lives happier and more purposeful, but equally enhance those around them. Equipping them with knowledge and insight on differences in cultures, upbringing and ways of viewing the world.
By embracing diversity, we also get to understand the magic and power that comes from diversity of thought – the idea that when two people agree on everything, you only need one of them.
Diversity, however, often falls under a banner of tolerance and respect for differences. It’s framed incorrectly. When one understands its true power in the highly connected global village we live in today, rather than just embracing diversity, we should be actively seeking it out in enhancing ideas, solutions and our overall lives.
For when each boy brings their own flavour, it dramatically enhances the dish. And they will emerge as men of character who deliver both values and value to the world around them. DM
This is an address by Mike Abel to Grey High School in Gqeberha.