Notes for addressing the senior pupils at Christchurch Boys High School

26 July 2012

Headmaster, staff, boys,

You may not fully appreciate it, but you’re incredibly lucky to be here.

Lucky to have been born at all — your being born depended not only on your parents meeting, falling in love, and making love at a particular time; but on their parents meeting and falling in love; and their parents meeting and falling in love; and so on back through millions of years; in fact, as Richard Dawkins pointed out on his recent visit to New Zealand, if the dinosaur hadn’t sneezed at 3 o’clock in the afternoon 80 million years ago, you wouldn’t be here.

You’re also lucky to have been born in the late 20th century, and to be growing up in a world where your life expectancy is now well over 90; where you take it for granted that you can fly to the other side of the world in 24 hours; where you take it for granted that sitting at home in Christchurch you can watch events in Sydney, or London, or Washington, and see them at the same instant as people in those cities; where you take it for granted that you can carry a small electronic device which enables you to talk to almost anybody on the planet.  When I was your age — and that’s not so very many years ago — none of these things was true.

You’re lucky to have been born in New Zealand — or at least to be growing up in New Zealand.  New Zealand has more natural resources per person than almost any other country on Earth and, in an increasingly water-short world, more fresh water per person than almost any other country on Earth. 

New Zealand is ranked in the top three countries in the world in terms of being free of corruption.  We have a welfare system which, for all its faults, protects almost everybody from the seriously grinding poverty in which many hundreds of millions of people still live.

On the night before the 2002 general election, I was at a black-tie dinner in Napier.  Before we started our dinner, the local vicar gave thanks.  He gave thanks for the food and drink we were about to eat, and gave thanks for the fact that, in 24 hours, we would have had a general election, and nobody would have been shot, nobody would have been beaten to death in political violence — and he reminded us that New Zealand is one of a tiny number of countries where he could say that with absolute confidence.

A couple of years later, after I gave a speech at a place north of Auckland called Orewa, I received what the Police called a “credible death threat”, and my wife and I were placed under quite tight Police protection.  Indeed, we had a Police officer in our home 24 hours a day for some weeks.  I thought my wife might have been a bit nervous, but she told me I should send them away.  What on earth makes you think, she said, that you’ll be the very first victim of political assassination in New Zealand history?  And of course, she was right.  We don’t do political assassination in New Zealand.

New Zealand has produced some remarkable people.   You’ll know about Ed Hillary, and possibly about Kate Sheppard, the woman on the $10 bank note who led the campaign to make New Zealand the first country in the world to grant women the vote.  But do you know about William Pickering, who headed California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 22 years, and played a crucial role in America’s exploration of space?  Do you know about Bill Buckley, whose Auckland engineering firm today produces about 90% of the world supply of electromagnets used in the production of computer chips?  Or do you know that many physicists regard Ernest Rutherfurd as one of the greatest physicists who has ever lived, ranked behind only Newton and Einstein?

And of course, you’re lucky to be attending this great school.  You’ll know about the huge contribution which Old Boys have made to New Zealand sport — men such as Dan Carter, Andrew Mehrtens, and Sir Graham Henry in rugby, Sir Richard Hadlee and his father Walter Hadlee in cricket, Barry and Selwyn Maister in hockey. 

You may also know of the huge contribution which Old Boys have made to the defence of New Zealand — Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger being only the most famous of a long line of distinguished military leaders who attended this school.  When I was at School in the fifties, the heads of all three of our armed forces — army, navy and air-force — were Old Boys. 

When I was Governor of the Reserve Bank, I realised that the Minister of Finance and the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury were also Old Boys. 

Considering our small size, New Zealand has a surprisingly close relationship with China.  There are no doubt many reasons for that, but one of the important reasons is the high regard in which the Chinese people still regard another Old Boy, Rewi Alley, who lived for many years in China, both before and after the communists took over the country in 1949.

So you’re extremely fortunate.

But I also want to say that you’re growing up in a world with plenty of challenges.

New Zealand’s living standards, though still among the best in the world, are gradually falling behind living standards in other countries to which New Zealanders can easily move.  So we’re losing a thousand Kiwis across the Tasman every week, and on present trends that will continue.

New Zealand is still heavily dependent on the savings of foreigners.  As a country, we owe more to overseas creditors than all but a handful of countries, and that debt to foreigners seems bound to get even greater over the next few years.

And we live in a wider world with serious challenges:

- economic challenges, with Europe in turmoil, the US and Japan burdened with massive and growing levels of government debt, unemployment appallingly high in many countries, and hunger and curable disease far too common in many parts of the world;

- environmental challenges, with concern about climate change, looming water shortages, desertification, and the rapid decline in biodiversity as species become extinct;

- and the challenges arising from religious fundamentalism, particularly but not exclusively Islamic fundamentalism.

So there are plenty of challenges.

Some of you will know the parable of the talents, which Jesus told to remind people about the importance of using the skills and abilities which they’ve been given.    “To whom much is given, much will be required.”(Luke 12: 48)  And that’s as relevant to young adults like you as it is to older adults.

All of you will know about the vast fortune which Mark Zuckerberg has created for himself.  He launched Facebook before he turned 20 and he’s still just 28.

Some of you may have seen in the media a couple of months back a story about a German student of Indian origin by the name of Shouryya Ray.  He has just solved a mathematical problem which has baffled the mathematics world for centuries.  He’s 16.

You probably won’t know that soon after the great astronomer Kepler worked out that the planet Venus would transit across the face of the Sun in 1631, and then not again until 1761, a man called Jeremiah Horrocks worked out that Kepler had failed to realise that there would also be a transit of Venus in 1639.  He was right, and was the first person known to have observed a transit of Venus.  He calculated that previous estimates of the distance between the Earth and the Sun were wrong by a factor of 10.   How old was he when he made this startling discovery?   Just 19, not much older than you.

Yes, there are plenty of problems to solve, and plenty of challenges to meet.

I have no doubt that the education you are getting at this great school will give you the skills you need to meet them.

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Copyright © 2020 Don Brash.