Ms Sarah McGarry, Dean of Student Transition
This week has seen the School celebrate the diversity of our community in Multicultural Week. At first glance, this has taken the form of students (and teachers) donning national dress, sharing internationally-flavoured foods, and partaking in music and dance. On a deeper level, though, it has provided us with the opportunity to reflect upon the importance of each individual’s contribution to our community. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ wrote Joan Didion in 1967. Even SBS television’s slogan ‘7 billion stories and counting …’ is recognition of the value of the narrative in our local, national and global communities. UNESCO (2001) notes that culture is at the heart of contemporary debates about identity and social cohesion and that the process of globalisation, facilitated by the rapid development of new information and communication technologies, creates the conditions for renewed dialogue among cultures and civilisations. In our particular biosphere of over 1,100 adolescents and the adults who care for them, how do we celebrate diversity and enable the development of identity, acknowledging that it is our individual differences, our journeys and our stories, which ultimately enrich and strengthen our community?
New technologies are the defining characteristic of our increasingly globalised contemporary era, impacting upon almost every aspect of our public and private lives. The rise of social media and virtual communities offer new opportunities for connecting with others around the globe and sharing stories. According to ABS statistics, seventy-nine per cent of Australian households have internet access. If you are a family with children under the age of 15 years, then that figure jumps to ninety-three per cent, which has increased from forty-six per cent in 2002. Sociologists and anthropologists warn us that when information is so easily distributed throughout the world, cultural meanings, values and tastes run the risk of becoming homogenised, diluted to the point where cultural heritage is dismissed or overlooked completely. In our school community, where we aspire to be creative, imaginative and wise, we reject the idea of uniformity, mindless clones that ‘fit in’ to a homogenised setting.
Throughout history, tribes, communities and nations have charged certain citizens with the responsibility for initiating their young into the patterns of behaviour and the crucial knowledge required if the neophytes are to become full, participating members of the community. Every human group has its own rites of passage, like moving to high school or changing schools, formally marking the progression from birth into full citizenship. Scientists have identified that when some climatic or geographical revolution occurs, upsetting the established balance of nature, not just one new species but a whole clade will appear. In biological terms, a clade is the opposite of a clone – essentially a group of organisms, such as a species, whose members share homologous features derived from a common ancestor. This is the outcome of an episode of rapid multiplication and diversifications of small populations expanding into a new and disturbed habitat. We can think of the move into high school, or changing schools throughout the course of secondary school as a ‘climatic or geographical revolution’, and the Girls Grammar environment as the ‘new and disturbed habitat’. Our challenge is whether to become a clone or to be part of a clade, and how to make our social institutions flexible enough to preserve our precious biological and cultural diversity. So what does this mean for an adolescent navigating this terrain?
Adolescents today are experiencing not one but two transitions – from childhood to adulthood, but also the transition of the nature of society. This current generation has been born into an era of unprecedented transition – from industrial to information-based culture and economy, from print-based to multimedia, digital approaches to communication (Bahr & Pendergast, 2007). Their social and cultural patterns are characterised by this significant paradigm shift. No longer are any of us constrained by enclosures such as time and distance – communication technologies are constantly developing and hybridising to form new and unexpected forms of media – and a simultaneous universe has been created.
The central task of adolescence is to achieve a sense of personal identity (Head, 1997) and schooling is one of the means whereby an individual cultivates his or her own unique set of skills, temperament, potentialities and physical attributes so that over time each will develop into her best self. The challenge is for one’s best self to emerge not as a ‘great reveal’ of pre-existing static personality characteristics, but as part of a developmental process where beliefs and mindsets are updated and modified by experience, and identity is ‘grown’. In other words, not the cloning of pre-existing or externally imposed notions of self, but the preservation of what is special, unique, and good. More than ever before, questions of identity plague our society, hence the growth in phenomena such as the mid-life crisis and now, the quarter-life crisis. Greenfield (2008, p.3) talks about a societal swing, where ‘identity shifts away from the unique person with their idiosyncratic personality in favour of the collective persona, the collective narrative’.
We recognise the collective narrative at Girls Grammar – our Grammar ‘tribe’ begins initiating Year 8 students even before they have finished primary school, clearly modelling patterns of behaviour and sharing knowledge. This is intended to be a process of story sharing, of welcoming new members to the community and recognising each individual’s strengths and abilities, not sublimating an individual’s voice in order to create uniformity. There is also a certain amount of socialisation that occurs here, where certain norms, values and beliefs are reinforced. Egan (2008) warns that socialisation today not only fits us to a particular social group but also identifies ‘us’ to ourselves as distinct from other groups. Creating and maintaining healthy, inclusive and productive communities is not about widening a chasm between ‘us’ and ‘them’ but increasing the range of people we include as ‘we’, widening our solidarity with others (Rorty, 1989). Maintaining personal integrity, developing empathy and a sense of self while fitting in to a new environment can be a considerable challenge.
In this process of transition into a new school environment, some have a smoother path than others, welcoming the opportunity and growth that adaptation brings and finding like-minded individuals almost immediately. For others, ‘getting it right’ in a new environment can be a very stressful process requiring additional support and encouragement. Friendships take longer to cultivate, and worry about managing workloads and new routines feels overwhelming for some time. This challenge is amplified when students join the ‘tribe’ after Year 9, for it is just that bit more difficult to differentiate between the clones and clades, and for a new student to understand the culture and find her place in the School while retaining her individual character and developing into her best self.
It is with this understanding of difference and individuality – in ourselves, in one another, and in the ideas with which we engage –that we bring our individual coloured threads to the loom of school life. These threads, over time, are interwoven, stretched and combined to create a unique and vibrant tapestry. 137 years of stories … and counting …
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2001). Household Use of Information Technology, Australia, 2010-11. Retrived May 7, 2012, from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/8146.02010-11?OpenDocument
Bahr, N. and Pendergast, D. (2007). The Millennial Adolescent. Camberwell: Acer Press.
Egan, K. (2008). The future of education: reimagining our schools from the ground up. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Greenfield, S. (2008). i.d. The Quest for Identity in the 21st century. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Head, J. (1997). Working with Adolescents: Constructing Identity. London: Falmer Press.
Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
UNESCO. (2001). Universal Declaration on Cultural Identity. Retrieved April 24, 2012, from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001271/127160m.pdf