An Examined Life

What is a life well lived? We consider the ripple effects of one man’s influence on generations of students.

A British Prime Minister is once reported to have said, “I wish I had as much power as a school headmaster!”

Every one of us has some influence on those around us, for better and for worse. For some people, the ripple effects of that influence go on and on, far beyond our expectations.

Rod West was one of those people. In this episode of Life & Faith, we hear about the impact one ordinary – but also not-so-ordinary – man had on students, families, and communities over two decades as headmaster of Trinity Grammar School in Sydney.

“I always saw him as a bit like a Prime Minister, and that I went to a school that was like a country, and he had his teachers and his senior officials around him who were like his cabinet. I thought he had the charisma of – well, in those days, Bob Hawke was Australia’s Prime Minister – he reminded me a lot of Hawkey, because he had this larger-than-life presence. Our notion of a Prime Minister probably has changed since the days of Bob Hawke … but Rod had that character of largeness.”

Tim Dixon was a student of Rod’s, and went on himself to become a speechwriter for two of Australia’s Prime Ministers. His respect and admiration for his former headmaster and mentor is shared by hundreds, if not thousands, of his fellow students.

In a letter Tim wrote to Rod a few days before his death, he tries to articulate what he most appreciated about him:

“You’ve always had a wonderful sense of the theatrical and you brought exuberance and vitality to classrooms and dinner tables all the course of your life. But more than that, you’ve always brought a sense of transcendence to every endeavour, whether it was a chapel service, a Latin class, a prefects’ meeting, or a bunch of lifeless bureaucrats working on a government report … I think you’ve helped me understand a larger God.”

If the bestseller lists are anything to go by, biographies and autobiographies are perpetually compelling to the reading public. What makes a life well lived? What is power for? How do we manage, across a lifetime, to focus on what’s truly important, rather than getting constantly caught up in the merely urgent?

This episode sketches the character of a humble but influential man through the eyes of one who knew him well, in hopes that an examined life has something to tell all of us about who we are, and who we would like to become.

BUY Rod West’s book, The Heart of Education: