It is tempting to imagine that remote learning is a new phenomenon and that but for the wonders of digital technology, we would be unable to conquer the physical distance that lies between us. Whilst it would be foolish to deny the transformative role that video-conferencing software and Google Classroom have had in recent times, the pioneers of distance or ‘remote’ learning made do with much more humble appliances. The Open University has been providing distance learning from its base in Milton Keynes for decades. Indeed, alongside concrete cows, this is probably the town’s greatest contribution to modern civilisation. More recently, MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) have led to a democratisation of education for millions of learners around the world. Even in Biblical times, Paul’s letters to early Christian communities in Colossus and Corinth could be seen as an ancient exemplar of remote learning.
My first boss grew up in Western Australian and had a colourful life which included active service during the Vietnam War and a short stint running a circus school in Belarus. He was a great storyteller and he often used to reminisce about his early educational experiences. His family owned a huge farm somewhere inland from Carnarvon. His was a remote childhood for he had no siblings and the nearest neighbours were almost a hundred miles away. His lifeline to the outside world was a transistor radio that he had set up on a desk in his bedroom. All of his lessons and interactions with other young people were dependent upon this clunky device with its curious looking dials and crackling reception.
‘The School of the Air’ owed its creation to the radio communications expertise provided by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. It received an initial boost after Alfred Traeger invented the pedal radio in 1929 as this provided radio communication to remote homesteads and cattle stations in the Australian outback. Many farms had no generators or mains electricity and in the absence of batteries, radios had to be hand cranked or pedalled.
Above all else, the success of the ‘School of Air’ was down to a remarkable lady named Adelaide Miethke (1881-1962). Addie was an indefatigable campaigner and joined the Women Teachers’ Progressive League in 1912. During the First World War she raised funds for the ‘Children’s Patriotic Fund’ and she was elected president of the ‘National Council of Women in 1935. She loved theatrical spectacles and, in 1936, she personally choreographed a ‘Pageant of Empire’ which involved no less than 13,000 children.
Addie was a reformer in every regard and her impact on girls’ education in Australia was immeasurable. In the early years, ‘School in the Air’ children received tuition for just one hour a day and then spent the rest of the day working through assignments with siblings or a hired home-stay tutor. Typically, completed assignments were then returned to a central educational hub via either the post or Royal Flying Doctor Service. The School in the Air was a triumph of new technology and organisational zeal. Underpinning it all was an uncompromising belief that all children should receive an education regardless of the obstacles.
As a young adult, I was beguiled by the novels of the Australian author Peter Carey. ‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’ is a cracking read but the beauty of his Booker Prize winning novel ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ is not just attributable to its sensuous use of language but is also due to its utterly enchanting subject matter. Lucinda Leplastrier, a young Australian heiress buys a glass factory and bets Oscar Hopkins (the son of a Plymouth Brethren minister) that he cannot transport a glass church from Sydney to a remote settlement at Bellingen, some 400 km north of Sydney. It was made into a film starring Ranulph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett and is well worth a watch.
During these times, we can all be inspired by those who achieve extraordinary feats either in fiction or reality. To ‘dream big’ and to take on seemingly impossible enterprises touches something deep within our own sense of what the human spirit can endure and conquer. It allows us all to live life with hope.
Reflecting upon Australian flights of fantasy, my wife’s great uncle was sent to Geraldton in Western Australia after having been ordained in Dublin in 1947. Not long before, the Diocese of Western Australia had acquired a couple of Tiger Moth aircraft and, upon hearing that Father Michael could not drive, the Bishop of Geraldton threw a flight manual across the desk and retorted, ‘Well you best learn to fly then, my son!’. Father Michael mastered the basics of flying and became one of Western Australia’s only flying priests. He would think nothing of flying a couple of hundred miles to say mass in some distant cattle ranch. He was, by his own admission, not an especially accomplished pilot or navigator, but he only crashed twice and escaped serious injury on both occasions. He used to fly a couple of hundred feet above the roads so as not to lose his sense of direction.
Father Michael served as parish priest of both Morawa and Mullewa for many years. It is an unremarkable small outback town but for one thing, and that is the wonderfully eclectic church which was designed by Monsignor John Hawes.
Monsignor John Hawes left school and trained as an architect with the firm Edmeston and Gabriel in London. Initially, he designed houses in Bognor Regis and was commissioned to design his first church in Gunnerton in 1899. After this, he trained as a Church of England minister and was ordained in 1903 before converting to Catholicism in 1911. The rest of his life was spent in Florida, the Bahamas and Western Australia. He designed various churches including the Cathedral of St Francis Xavier in Geraldton. He was mift that his plans for Perth Cathedral were rejected and consoled himself by designing this gloriously unexpected celebration of the Romanesque style deep in the outback of W.Australia. Monsignor John was a dreamer and a visionary. He project managed most of the churches that he designed and rolled up his sleeves and carried out much of the building work himself. At no point did he let practical considerations thwart his vision. Why not build a Romanesque church in the middle of the Australian outback? His buildings are on a human scale but he intended for them to reflect the glory of God. It is difficult not to be inspired by this triumph of the human spirit.
As we enter this Easter period, I will leave the final word to Father Michael O’Flaherty who, close to the end of his life, reflected that he had simply ‘tried to see Jesus in the face of everyone I met’. Whether or not one has faith, this seems like pretty good advice. If we see the best in everyone and make the best of every situation then we will undoubtedly achieve a level of tranquility and acceptance which will enable us to flourish. If we can combine this with the visionary creativity of Monsignor John Hawes then even better!
Happy Easter & Floreat Rossallia!