Foundation Day Speech 2016 – Joseph Waugh

I am here today thanks to an accident of history.

In recent years the School has adopted the very sensible policy of inviting the 50 year reunion class to nominate a speaker for the Foundation Day assembly. But 50 years ago, there was no leaving year in 1966. It was the gap between the end of the 5-year Leaving Certificate in 1965 and the start of the 6-year HSC in 1967.

So here I am. And today I thought I might take a wider perspective than just my years at school and my own cohort since leaving.

I entered Sydney High in 1982 and left in 1987. Since leaving, with a few gaps, I have been involved in the governance of the Old Boys’ Union and the School for over 25 years. This has meant knowing Old Boys as far back as the class of 1922 right the way up to a couple of years ago. That’s a span of almost 100 years.

The question I intend to address today is – why does High consistently punch above its weight in its contribution to Australia and world? This has been the case from its foundation. Some evidence of this can be seen in the honour boards in the Killip Wing stairwell that list those who received honours in the Order of Australia. Why, then, is this the case?

Some might think that Foundation Day relates to buildings. High has had many homes. But there have been very few periods in the school’s history where the buildings could even be described as “adequate”. Originally the school occupied the ground floor of an old convict-built school-house, and the junior classes were housed in an iron shed. Then the school was located in the noisy industrial suburb of Ultimo in the not so salubrious inner city. So it’s certainly not the bricks and mortar.

In my view, the answer lies in the institution and its people.

Now, of course, academic selection has been a characteristic of the School since it began. In some periods the selection has been more rigorous than others. I come from a much less rigorous period – with small selection boundaries limited to the inner city and the eastern suburbs and where places were reserved for the sons of Old Boys. But we have all been selected on some measure of academic merit.

The purpose of the school’s curriculum has always been to prepare boys for university. When the school started, there was only one university and it was completely unrealistic to expect that more than a handful of boys would actually enter it. But the school even then successfully defended a government attempt in 1891 to make it a “commercial high school”.

There are more universities now, and the vast majority of you will end up in some tertiary course. Indeed, we have a seemingly endless succession of university medalists. Just this past week I notice a member of the class of 2005 has been awarded a PhD. He may be the first of his year, but he will almost certainly not be the last.

But this is the basic institutional framework shared by many other selective schools. The other important component is you. You are each academically selected and being in the one place, at the one time, you have each learnt to interact with other talented boys. With boys of many backgrounds, many points of view, and many personalities – sometimes quite difficult personalities.

When my father was at this school during World War II there were refugees fleeing persecution in Europe. The dux of the class of 1944 had fled the Nazi occupation of Austria. The dux of my year came here on a boat from Vietnam in the aftermath of the American War.

Learning to interact with other gifted people with such diverse backgrounds is an important life skill and will take you far.

But again, this situation would not be different from that in a dozen or more other schools in Sydney.

What I think makes the difference is the interactions here take place in the context of an enormously wide variety of curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. Chances are that you will never in your life be able to engage so easily in such a wide range of activities as you can right now.

You have such a variety of academic courses – languages, history, science, social science, art and music. You have a rare chance to pursue learning for its own sake.

You have so many sports to choose from – and I note, so many premierships this year. Not to mention debating, chess, scientific Olympiads, geography contests, charitable work – the High Notes is filled with your successes every week.

Today we are celebrating some of the leaders in the school community who have excelled in many fields. And I join with you in congratulating the prefect interns who take up their office today.

But I say this to all of you — step up to the mark and show initiative, determination and leadership in as many fields as you can. There are plenty of opportunities for everyone.

Engage with all the other talented, challenging, and, yes, annoying individuals. Question the way you do things, understand where other people are coming from, seek to do things better. Whether its on the sporting field, at the boatshed at Abbotsford, in the classroom, or in the science lab.

In my own humble experience, among the many activities I took part in when I was here, I found a niche in debating as the fourth speaker (or advisor) to the debating team. We were quite successful at that – winning three state premierships in three successive years. My role involved analysing arguments, challenging settled positions, asking difficult questions. In debating, just like in politics, the fiercest disagreements were often with colleagues rather than our opponents.

I continue to question, analyse and challenge in my work supporting the NSW Law Reform Commission. Hopefully improving the legal system in NSW and Australia along the way.

It has been my great delight to see recent and not so recent old boys spread across the world – all seeking engagement in a spirit of goodwill, openness and enquiry. All trying to make the world a better place.

Whether it’s this year’s ABC Boyer Lecturer, Professor Sir Michael Marmot, from the class of 1961, leading the World Medical Association and bringing us all to understand the links between social inequality and poor health and what we can do to make things better.

Or whether it’s Jack Manning Bancroft of the class of 2002 leading the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience and helping to break the generational cycle of disadvantage for Aboriginal communities by helping young Aboriginal people complete high school and go on to university.

More than ever we need such engagement in the big ways that I have just described, as well as in the many smaller ways shown, for example, by the Old Boys who receive Order of Australia awards every year. Pay a visit to the website and enter any of the names on the honour boards in the Killip Wing stairwell, and you will find a record of selfless, unstinting contribution to the Australian community.

As we pause to reflect on the school’s Foundation today, I urge us all also to take a moment to think about how each one of us can contribute to and enhance this fine heritage and aim for a better world along the way.