Sunday, January 26, 2014


I have been ordered to report to Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland and am currently "hold up" awaiting a suitable time to make my first appearance at the institution. An exciting proposition as I am to be the Director of Montessori Studies at the University; which hopefully involves me attempting to inspire future educators by elucidating the transcendent ideas of the single most visionary educator of the 20th century, Dr. Maria Montessori. All that lies ahead.

But my thoughts this week, have me looking back to where I have come from, Australia, the country I have called home for the past 4 years. In 2009, I was given an amazing gift; the opportunity to travel from Canada, the only home I had ever known to Canberra, the capital of Australia. I did it to continue my journey in education and to explore new adventures with my family. I thought that travel would give myself and my children a unique perch from which we could explore new cultures and new ideas. The experience would allow us to travel around Australia and journey to New Zealand, Fiji, Thailand and Malaysia - locations we scarcely believed we would ever be lucky enough to enjoy. Mission accomplished.

For those that wish to know my impressions of Australian geography and nearby destinations, peruse through my previous 4 years of blogs and you'll get a sense of Noosa, Sydney, Melbourne, the South Coast and assorted locales. However this post, my last before I embark on my new adventures in the United States, is not intended to be a recap of the Rice family's ramblings. Instead, I am aware that I gained something far more profound these past 4 years. It is only when I reflect on my entire Australian experience that I can articulate what I have learned. Learning is the essence, as a four year dalliance will sadly soon fade in my memory, but what I am positive will not wane is the spirit of Australia - something that was a curiosity to me in the beginning and now is a valuable part of my world outlook.

I spent a great deal of time explaining to people the similarities between the Canadian and Australian cultures. The likeness is obvious. A Commonwealth past, an internal struggle in dealing with the treatment of indigenous people, a free and stable democracy and a beautiful landscape that can belie an unforgiving climate. At first I chose to see the differences in the two nations as superficial, perhaps expressed by the price of coffee or the way they spell tire "tyre". Once those initial observations became mundane I sensed a few differences in perspective between Canadians and Australians, but it was very difficult to put my finger on the subtleties  because of the inherent similarity in values. However the test is in decision making. There were many times when I sat in meetings amongst my industry colleagues in Canberra faced with a decision that would impact thousands of students and teachers across the independent school sector. Often in those meetings, I would propose solutions to problems that were not understood. At first I thought it was a reaction to my non linear (polite way to say scatter-brained) approach to problem solving and therefore nothing alarming. However, I came to realize that there was an inherent bias in my approach that I did not recognize. Many times I would quickly default to a compromise solution - perhaps it was not a resolution that would be perfectly fair but by any calculation it was an optimal solution for the majority. Canadians, Australians and indeed Americans all value equality. In saying that I recognize that all three of those nations and people with in them have often strained against that virtue. I don't mean to suggest that any of those countries have collectively solved all moral dilemmas or have some kind of master's license on ethical behaviour. Train wrecks are inevitable. But the sense that equality is a virtue to be respected and is deeply rooted in the nations highest aspirations is something that I believe is entrenched in the American, Canadian and Australian experience. Yet the approach to equality in the three cultures are significantly different. Americans feel that liberty is the path to equality, while Canadians champion compromise to reach the same end (just count how many times the average Canadian says "I'm sorry" in a day...).  Both of these approaches lead to tremendously positive outcomes and of course when taken too far lead to unintended tragic consequences such as the issue of gun control in the US or the failing universal medical scheme in Canada. After all, the things we love too much kill us in the end, as our values become the hills that we die on.

In Australia, the path to equality is always seen through the lens of fairness. The National Anthem of the country is titled "Advance Australia Fair" and there is a sense that everyone in the nation must be given a "fair go". With that as a context it shouldn't have taken me four years to pick up on the difference but there is an interesting sub context to all debate in the country which follows from this national belief. I clearly remember the evening that we had a few Australian friends over for dinner and my daughter and I were lampooning the latest headline in the newspaper in which two politicians were championing the fact the next election would be won be the man that the Australian people felt was more "fair dinkum". I was relating the headline to our Australian friends hoping they would see the humour in the line, after all, I was envisioning a Saturday Night live skit - or a Nordic nudity contest - yet when I relayed the story to our friends their response was a stoic - "yes, I would agree with that analysis."

A culture dedicated to fairness above all is one that should be highly regarded. In comparison to Canada, a compromised solution is not appropriate if it's outcomes, even if optimal, are not fair and in reference to the United States  - freedom is of little use if it does not lead to fair outcomes. It is why I had such a difficult time in understanding the Australian approach to excellence, it is enjoyed but never celebrated, there is something unfair about lauding one's achievements over others. Yes, Australia has much to teach the world, it is a time capsule of a nation, so remote that it has been allowed to develop a unique culture and set of norms. As it's challenges get more complex in the next century, its value of fairness will be tested and indeed will lead to rocky times ahead (evidence the recent national debate around refugees), but I for one will always appreciate and be respectful of the Aussie point of view. It was a privilege to have called it home.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie ... oi, oi, oi!