Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam.
My first duty tonight as Headmaster is to welcome you all to this Presentations evening, especially our ex-students who have returned, possibly for the first time since results day in August. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing most of you, but I can see from the examination results that you produced that you were a class act. Overall, this year’s A level results were superb, and the GCSE results were fantastic. I don’t know whether you are aware that on the Government’s main measure of success at GCSE, which is called Progress 8, St Augustine’s achieved the best results in Wiltshire by some margin. These headline figures are important, but even more important are your own individual successes and your personal achievements, both academic and otherwise. We are here tonight to mark and celebrate your excellence, in so many ways.
My second duty is to thank all those who have contributed to your success. Your parents, families, and friends. The staff at school. The hard-working, committed, and knowledgeable teaching staff, many of whom have spent long years making St Augustine’s the success it is today. Also the support staff, who in various departments make the College run smoothly from day to day, often behind the scenes and unsung, but no less important. May I ask all the students and ex-students to join with me in a round of applause for all those who have supported them in their journey.
My third duty is to welcome our Governors and guests. Tonight we have with us Mrs Jude Starkey, our co-chair of Governors, who will be speaking after me and awarding certificates. Fr Tom is with us tonight, as parish priest to lead us in prayer and to bless us, and he is also a Governor of the College. And our keynote speaker tonight is Mr Jeremy McKenna, also a Governor – he will award our subject and special prizes. We are fortunate to have a strong and committed board of Governors to direct and oversee our work, and I am grateful to them for being present tonight to add gravitas and wisdom to our meeting.
On occasions like this, my thoughts go back over many similar events I have attended, and to reflect on how things may have changed over the years – or perhaps not changed. Presentations evening 30 or 40 years ago was probably very similar to tonight. The biggest change in my lifetime has been technology. I remember when I was a teenager the first computer arriving in my school, as part of an innovative scheme to get a computer into every school. Now most of us carry in our pockets a smartphone which has more processing power than a supercomputer would have had back in the 1980s. Artificial intelligence has moved from science fiction to a daily reality, and this is likely to continue in our lifetimes. Every time we use a search engine, or a sat-nav, or shop online, decisions are being made by computers. It is frustrating when ‘computer says no,’ but most of the time these decisions are fast, accurate and welcome – we have started to take them for granted.
So in a world of artificial intelligence and robots, what would be the role for human beings? I’d like to suggest to you a few areas which seem to me to be characteristically human, and where there are no signs of electronics being able to take our place. These are the areas where I would encourage you to focus in your continued education, or employment. A world run by robots might be highly efficient, but where would be the joy, the hope, the humanity.
The first area I would identify as essentially human is Ethics – awareness of right and wrong, the commitment to choose virtue and reject vice. Computers can and do make decisions about ethics, in line with the rules provided by their programmers, but a human being is needed to determine those rules. An example might be the current development of driverless cars. If the car is in an emergency situation, and its controlling unit needs to decide where to swerve – into a group of schoolchildren, or into the back of a lorry – what are the processes it should follow? Also, if in future our scarce national health resources are allocated by artificial intelligence, where should they be directed? Computers might increasingly do the heavy lifting for us, but the moral compass remains distinctively human.
The second area is creativity. I often think my mobile phone is being quite creative, but in fact technology is operating in accordance with strict though complicated rules. Computers are good at replicating, regurgitating, mechanizing. What they don’t have is the creative spark – the capacity of human beings to give a situation their own personal perspective, to follow a new direction. Just a thought – if study and training become a matter of replication, without personal ownership, then we are imitating machines and becoming dehumanized. Learning from great thinkers, writers, artists, practitioners, and then giving what we have learnt our own unique, personal imprint – that is a human enterprise.
The third area is empathy. Some of us do seem to be literally in love with technology, but in the end it is hard to believe that computers or robots are capable of human emotions and relationships. A philosopher called Martin Buber once wrote a book called “I and thou”, advocating the view that human existence is ultimately defined by the quality of our relationships. Technology may be fantastic in connecting us to other humans, but what it can’t make are the human connections. If our computers help us to relate better, to be more empathetic, to love each other more fully, they will advance humanity. If they detract from this, we have gained materially, but at the cost of our own souls.
It may be worth reflecting, on the verge of Christmas, that when God wanted to intervene in our world, he did not send robots endowed with superpowers, but Himself became a human being, to share our lives, our joys, and our sorrows. Humanity is special since we made in the image and likeness of God – we have God as a Father, Christ as a Brother, and the Holy Spirit as a bond of love. You might say: the creativity of the Father, the ethical example and self-sacrifice of the Son, and the love of the Holy Spirit. We’re back to creativity, ethics, and love.
So my message for you tonight is that it is increasingly important for humans in the 21st century to cultivate moral awareness, to be creative in our lives, and to be more loving and empathetic. I hope you will all go forth as ethical, creative, and empathetic humans, and that your time at St Augustine’s will have helped you to be that person.
Finally, two practical points. If you are an ex-student, I invite you to fill in tonight an ex-student contact form – one of these – before you depart. This will enable us to send you occasional updates about the College, any events for ex-students, and also in time to build up a database of ex-students who are willing to be contact by others, for example about careers advice. There is a box to put your forms in before you depart.
My other final point is that, since we are a Catholic organization, we are inevitably taking a collection tonight. It’s actually for Charity – for the Children of Choba, the very needy school that we support in Tanzania. On Tuesday our students raised £780 for Choba in a Mufti day, and it would be nice if we could top the £1000 this evening as a Christmas offering. So if you have any spare change weighing down your pockets or purses, please consider putting it into the collecting bowl at the door and it will go to this very good cause.
Mr D Forster