Young Minds and Big Ideas

“Talent and discipline will determine how fast you go, but your faith and values will determine the direction.”  That was the key message from the fourteenth annual National Student Leadership Forum (NSLF) on Faith and Values, held in Canberra between 20 and 23 September.  This writer was sponsored by the ANU to attend and found it to be one of the most interesting and stimulating weekends of his five years at ANU.

The enthusiastic discussion about faith and values at the NSLF is a marked contrast with the absence of these concepts from normal Australian discourse.  Volunteering is cool, especially overseas in an exotic location, but we do not talk often about why it is good. In contrast, the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Head of the ABC and others at the NSLF all spoke about how critical your faith and values are to your conduct and decision-making.

Chief of the Australian Defence Force General David Hurley, and NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione were particularly – to use a cliched word – inspiring.  These men are high performers and examples of integrity, but they’re not self-promoters.  Equally engaging was Lynne Sawyers, who with her husband has fostered over 200 children in the past 15 years.  Or Jon Owen, who with his wife and three daughters has committed to live in the poorest parts of Western Sydney on the median local income in order to serve their poor neighbours.

The speakers at the NSLF were all examples of how to live a life at a high level that, through service to humanity, has a depth of purpose.  Their example was also convicting because of their normalcy. No doubt we all know people with greater raw intelligence or natural talent at ANU but the speakers were inspirational not because of what they had been born with, but because they decided to serve.

The bipartisan character of the NSLF also provided a touching insight into the pressures of parliament.  MPs were effusive in their expressions of respect for the faith and values of their opposition, and their relief at being able to operate amicably together in the group sessions was palpable.  Each NSLF Small Group was also privileged to meet for an hour with an individual politician in their office.  The decline of cynicism among delegates was a testament to the character we saw in the MPs we met.

The Small Groups were at the heart of the NSLF.  It was there that the lessons of each day were discussed. It was also where each person was encouraged to be vulnerable, and discuss the fundamental beliefs and values of their lives.  It was an honour to be trusted so deeply by relative strangers and amazingly refreshing to think deeply about what I believed and why. The NSLF was the only secular environment I’ve ever talked truly reflectively about the ‘why?’ of life.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the NSLF addresses a massive cultural blind spot. At University we are mostly young, independent, and think perhaps three years ahead to an uncertain thing called ‘work’ or ‘career’.  Though we may sometimes think about our values ourselves, we never talk about them, and mostly seem to do what we feel is right, instead of examining why it is so.  The NSLF has convinced me that there is a better way, that we ought to talk publicly about the big questions of the present and future.

The only way to conclude this article is with the last questions delegates were asked before leaving.  “Before you get up, you need to ask yourself what are the fundamental things you place value on, and propositions you hold to be true.  These are the things that determine the direction of your life, and that is important.  If you don’t know them, then where the hell are you going?  And how do you know you will like it when you get there?”