Virtue died in Australia on 23 May 1994,
at 4:30 in the afternoon.
For it was at that moment that the
Australian Broadcasting Corporation,
traditionally one of the foremost guardians of our culture, began its
television screenings of "The Adventures of Blinky Bill".
And by doing so it confirmed what many
already suspected: that our society’s premier institutions no longer view
moral education - the teaching of traditional virtues like honesty, courage
and justice, or concepts like right and wrong - as a necessary component of
the upbringing of our children.
The larrikin Blinky is an Australian
icon. With Mrs Koala, Nutsy, Mr Wombat, and a forestful of other creatures,
he has become
engraved on the public psyche, as much a part of our national Dreamtime
as the Sydney Opera House, Aussie Rules and the
He has been used to inspire our troops in
World War II, and for a short time was the mascot of the Australian
Republican Movement. But most importantly, he has taught generations of
children about right and wrong, about justice, about good and evil and
honesty and courage.
No more. In his dizzying ascent to the
status of international television superstar, he has morphed from being a
cute but cheeky teacher of the old virtues to just plain cute and cheeky. It
is a transformation that speaks heaps about the kind of society we have
Blinky was born in 1933, when
Dorothy Wall, a New Zealand artist who had come to Sydney at the age of
20 to seek her fortune, first published Blinky Bill, the Quaint Little
Australian. It was an immediate hit, and this book and her subsequent
stories have remained continually in print.
Though essentially entertainments, her
tales were threaded with subtle lessons in the virtues. That was typical of
the books of her day. It was part of the normal order of things: if you
wrote children’s books, you provided moral guidance to help nurture the
character development of your young readers.
Look at the very first story. It sets the
scene, with the bush “alive with excitement” at the birth of Blinky. A sense
of community is established, as Mr and Mrs Kangaroo, Mrs Rabbit, Angelina
Wallaby, and even Mrs Snake, share in the joy. Both Mrs Kookaburra and Mrs
Magpie offer to help Mrs Koala nurse the baby, and the Reverend Fluffy Ears
is called upon to perform the christening.
Mrs Koala proves to be an old-fashioned
mum, showing great humility in her dealings with the outside world, but
concerned that Blinky (and thus the readers) will learn lessons in polite
behaviour. She is also a disciplinarian. Blinky is liberally scolded, cuffed
The second story introduces death to
their paradise. Men with guns invade, seeking koala pelts, and kill Blinky’s
father. The animals are forced to flee. Death - from hunters and from
predatory animals - remains a continuing reality of the stories. In The
Rabbits’ Party, angry spectators at a cricket match - which is being
played by crickets - stomp to death the bowler, who had been dangerously
bumping the ball. (The infamous “bodyline” cricket matches, in which English
bowlers deliberately propelled the ball with deadly force towards the heads
of Australian batsmen, had occurred shortly before the appearance of the
There is a poignant moment after their
escape from the hunters when Mrs Koala (who is also known as Mrs Bear)
realises that Angelina Wallaby is to live out of wedlock.
“Where are you going to live?” Mrs Bear
enquired. “We want you near us, please.”
“I’m going to live just round the
corner,” said Angelina. “I have a friend who is waiting for me.”
“Is she a relation?” asked Mrs Bear
“No!” replied Angelina. “She is a he!”
And, blushing, she looked very slowly down at her paws; then suddenly turned
and hopped away.
“Dear, dear,” grunted Mrs Bear. “The
world is full of surprises.”
The ever-practical Mrs Koala is not
judgemental, and the matter is not pursued further. But the point has been
made for children: certain norms of conduct are desirable for our world,
even if inevitably in our lives we fall short of perfection and standards
cannot be met.
By 1994, when he made
his Australian television debut, Blinky had become a post-modern koala, less
concerned with virtue than with cracking jokes and, occasionally, with the
fashionable issues of the day. And as youngsters increasingly got their
values from television it was a disturbing trend, especially as Blinky was
actually one of the best kids’ programmes around.
The programme was a
production of the award-winning animation house
Gross Film Studios. It was excellent viewing, and whenever I watched
episodes while researching this book I quickly found an audience gathering -
of my three sons. The stories were bright and amusing (and non-violent), the
graphics were vivid and the music lively.
The show was a major
export success for Australia, with viewers in more than 80 countries. It
seems many Europeans, in particular, went nuts over the programme. Some
German department stores gave over whole floors to Blinky Bill merchandise.
At one time you could type “Blinky Bill” into an internet search engine and
be rewarded with links to an extraordinary number of Scandinavian-language
The programme, like
the original book, was simply a product of its times. It was intended to
entertain, and succeeded brilliantly. Messages were presented – such as a
plea for conservation, or a thrust against unscrupulous land developers -
but they were low-key and were woven seamlessly into the plot. (This was in
contrast to the original Dorothy Wall writings. She presented conservation
messages in some of her fables, but at times did so in a clumsy manner that
worked against the story line.)
There were some modest
moral tales. In Blinky Bill and the Crocodiles, Blinky and the gang
met up with a bunch of mean crocodiles in training for the Iron-Croc
championship. They also met Cyril, a real wimp of a crocodile who had been
kicked out of the family by his macho Dad, who did not like his son’s habit
of trying to kiss him and give him flowers. Blinky and his friends engaged
in some low-level cheating to help Cyril win the Iron-Croc trophy, and he
was reunited with Dad.
But in general the
television production made little pretence of trying to teach kids about
significant issues like right and wrong, truth, justice, or life and death.
Of course, environmental protection is an
important message (especially if you are a koala), and it is certainly
commendable for kids to be taught that those who are different - like Cyril
the wimp croc - are not losers. But when ethical education consists mainly
of instruction in popular values we are apt to leave our kids adrift in a
confusing sea, where they are buffeted by the fashionable issues of the day.
On the one hand they hear vital messages
about the importance of environmental protection, or respect for the rights
of Aborigines. But they are also exposed to strident voices bellowing
support for shallow nationalism, or in favour of the venom of a Pauline
Hanson. Often they end up following the crowd.
They need a basis for making decisions,
which means instruction in right and wrong, good and bad, truth and
falsehood, justice and so on, based on traditional moral absolutes. They
need to be presented with heroes and heroines and role models who embody
these character traits, and with stories about the great acts of history.
They also need training and practice. As
the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in his famous treatise on ethics:
Moral virtues come from habit….These
virtues we acquire by first exercising them, as in the case of other arts.
Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it: men come to be
builders, for instance, by building, and harp players, by playing the harp.
In the same way, by doing just acts we come to be just; by doing
self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled; and by doing brave
acts, we become brave….Therefore we must give a certain character to our
activities….In short, the habits we form from childhood make no small
difference, but rather they make all the difference.
I took up tennis at the age of 46, in an
attempt to get some regular exercise. With little natural ability for the
game, I paid for a series of lessons. While making me repeat a forehand
top-spin, my coach informed me that unless I could return the ball correctly
virtually every time in practice, I would not be much good in a real game.
In other words, he was stressing the same
lesson as Aristotle: that I must be persistent in working at forming good
habits, for use in real life. (Though Aristotle did not use the same words
as my tennis coach: “You need to be stubborn; you need a bit of the mongrel
One problem is that virtue nowadays is
seen as a doggedly old-fashioned concept. Several commentators have
marvelled that this word, which not so long ago meant the manliness of man,
has now mysteriously become a somewhat fusty way of referring to the
chastity of women.
But essentially I am talking about
character education: training that makes us better people. In 1992, the
Josephson Institute of Ethics,
in the United States, convened a conference of educators and youth leaders,
and came up with an important statement:
The present and future
well-being of our society requires an involved, caring citizenry with good
moral character….People do not automatically develop good moral character;
therefore, conscientious efforts must be made to help young people develop
the values and abilities necessary for moral decision making and
conduct….Effective character education is based on core ethical values which
form the foundation of democratic society, in particular, respect,
responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice and fairness, and civic
virtue and citizenship.
This is, I believe, what most parents
want, and indeed what most parents try to provide to their kids. But
unfortunately, as I commented in the Preface, the institutions of our
society are not providing the support that is needed. This is having a dire
effect on our culture.
But a renewed emphasis on character
education - helping our youngsters know how to distinguish between good and
bad, between right and wrong – is only one need. There is a bigger and
perhaps more urgent issue facing us: a spiritual vacuum in our society.
Humans possess a spiritual nature, a
deep, burning need for something that transcends their lives and provides
them with meaning and hope. This can be something as simple as a love of
music or poetry, though normally it involves ritual of some kind; and
throughout history most people have practised religion.
Yet in Australia, not only have we, by
and large, turned our backs on organised religion, but we have also, as a
culture, often denied our own spiritual traditions. We are depriving our
young people of any means of developing their spirituality. It is like
leaving them out in the desert without a map to the oasis.
In the Preface to this book I touched on
the death of Princess Diana. It affected people around the world, and led to
an amazing out-pouring of grief. It laid bare, I believe, the spiritual
anguish which affects so many in the West.
In the words of pop guru Bruce
Springsteen, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart”. But in our coldly clinical
consumer society, with money and power the main focus of worship, our
youngsters lack an outlet for their intrinsic spiritual natures. For
numerous people around the globe, Diana represented a light of warm humanity
in an increasingly cold and materialistic world. She brought spiritual hope
to people whose lives felt blighted by nihilism and despair.
How did we reach this
state? I believe one factor (I shall discuss others later in the book) is
that for too long we allowed our society to be dominated by the appalling
claims of authorities such as Sigmund Freud, to whom religion was a
“neurosis”, an “intoxicant”, a “poison” and “childishness to be overcome”
(all that on just a single page of one of his books). Now, with his
authority dramatically waning, new studies are revealing a dynamic
relationship between religious belief and our well-being.
In America, esteemed child psychologist
Robert Coles has pointed in several books to the vital role of a sense
of spirituality for even very young children.
In a profound statement in his marvellous
Greater Expectations, Professor
Director of the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown
University, in the United States, wrote:
In a literal sense,
the most dispiriting result of our myths about children is that we withhold
spiritual messages from them. Our reticence springs from the myth of
childhood incompetence. Many assume that it is an empty exercise to teach
religious and moral principles to children, since they won’t be able to
understand them….We do not trust the child’s intelligence or attention span
enough to engage the child in serious consideration of transcendent values.
We refrain from communicating other people’s high ideals to them - or when
we do, feel almost apologetic about it….Children are fascinated by the
timeless enigmas of life and death, are not at all threatened by talk of
them, and are eager to be drawn into discussion about them….Children are
openly receptive to spiritual ideas and long for transcendent truths that
can nourish their sense of purpose and provide them with a moral mission in
In Australia, some studies suggest that a
sense of spirituality is an important factor in helping depressed and
suicidal youth. In his Australian best-seller
wrote that, “The most potent and effective men and women…are those with
religious underpinnings to their life….To not have some kind of
spiritual practice in one’s life…is a serious mistake.” He said that the
“brand” of religion one chose to pursue was “not so important”.
I believe it is vital that children today
have a spiritual dimension to their lives, the chance to experience
something bigger than themselves. Unfortunately, as I have already noted,
our society seems to have conspired to lock away all the news about the
spiritual lives of some great Australians. Instead of solving the spiritual
crisis damaging our youth, we are making it worse. I shall examine such
issues further in later chapters.
So, the decline of
religious values and the consequent loss of spirituality in our society
together comprise the main themes of this book. And, in at attempt to help
people in their quest for a relationship with the divine, there is a
sub-theme: my own spiritual journey. This started at my childhood home, in
New Zealand - my father was a World War II Jewish refugee, as well as a
Communist, and I was raised in an intensely political and non-religious
household. It helped set me off on a trail of spiritual adventures.
In Japan, I became deeply involved in Zen
Buddhism, so much so that I co-authored a book on the subject,
Zen Guide. I took part in several Buddhist and Shinto pilgrimages.
But my spiritual journeying did not end there. In Australia, at the age of
44, I tentatively started attending church, and eventually found that
Christianity answered my spiritual needs. Now, my wife and I believe that
one of the most important actions we take for the upbringing and welfare of
our three children is sending them to Sunday School each week.
I am a baby boomer, and I see many
members of my generation engaged in spiritual journeys that in some ways are
remarkably similar to mine. Like them, I was attempting to fill the
spiritual void that seems to afflict so many in the West today, and I
suspect the story of my experiences will be helpful to many readers.
The book is divided into four sections.
Part A is a series of snapshots - some might call them potshots - of our
society today, with examples of what I believe has gone askew. It is not
intended to be comprehensive (if it were, there would need to be several
chapters just on the impact of television), but instead meanders around our
relates my own story. I speak
about my sometimes chilly relationship with my father, which was partly
responsible for my embarking on my spiritual quest in Japan. I describe my
religious pilgrimages and discuss how my decision to become a Christian
followed my experiences in Zen Buddhism.
I have said that I believe a renewed
emphasis on spirituality is one of the keys to a healthier society, and I
take up this theme in Part C. I also discuss issues of religion and
morality, including the notion that the sense of service and duty that is
engendered by religion is a vital part of a properly functioning society.
Finally, Part D looks
at some of the traditional virtues, and a selection of Australian men and
women who personify those character traits. From dozens of virtues, I have
selected seven: the four traditional cardinal virtues – justice, moderation,
courage and wisdom - and the three spiritual virtues – faith, hope and love.
The heroines and heroes I examine embody the spiritual qualities for which I
believe our nation is searching.
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