brisbane girls grammar school – critical thinking


Address to Assembly – Critical Thinking

Thankyou for asking me here to talk today – I’m delighted to be able to thank all the girls and the mothers (and perhaps fathers) who are such a support to Second Chance. And who have made such a contribution to improving the lives of other women and girls who are so very disadvantaged.

But I’m also going to talk to you about critical thinking.

I’m sure that most of you know it’s the in-thing. Its one of the most important problem solving skills we need for the 21st century. But it’s hard to find people who can tell you exactly what it is.

I’m not going to be able to provide you with a full picture in less than half an hour! But I can give you some idea of what gets in the way of critical thinking and prevents us from reaching our full potential.

We all bring cultural patterns of thinking to every problem we have to address. I call them cultural blind spots – the patterns or prejudices that we don’t recognize that we have, and which only permit us to see part of the problem, and which get in the way of many solutions.

There are hundreds of blind spots in our society and I am sure that some of you who have worked with Second Chance would have come across them in relation to homeless women.

So many people have such a distorted view of homelessness – and particularly of homeless women. Some even state quite openly that there must be something wrong with the women who haven’t got a home.

They discount domestic violence, or illness, or divorce – all of which can leave women homeless. You only have to have even a limited experience of homelessness to know that it can happen to any woman, rich or poor, young or old, sick or healthy.

And then the blind spot diminishes – you can see the problem more clearly – and you are in a better position to do something about it.

I’m just going to give you a few other examples as well, of where a blind spot distorts our perception of a woman, or a group of women. And I am going to start with Florence Nightingale.

You know? The little old lady with the lamp who went among the ghastly wounded soldiers in the Crimean war and offered words of comfort during the night!

Well, I want to tell you about someone else with the same name but who was a completely different person with an entirely different career. The Florence I know about would have bowled us over if we had ever met her!

Florence Nightingale was born into a wealthy family in 1820. And while she had a well-educated father who taught her Latin and mathematics – she had to learn at home of course, as she wasn’t allowed to go to university.

Florence’s mum however – provided a very different environment for her very attractive daughter whom she wanted to see married. This however was a state that Florence was determined to avoid. Florence couldn’t bear the inanity of married women’s lives; she wanted to do something to change the world.

Madness, everyone said!

The only activities Florence was permitted as a young woman living at home – was to get dressed up and make formal calls – usually with her mother – or to accept visits from others. All very high tea and proper, and chaperoned. And of course there were some very eligible young men who sought her hand in marriage: – all offers were declined.

Florence’s resistance to marriage – the only career considered available – was regarded almost as a form of mental illness – and the doctors prescribed rest, and the removal of all books (they were stimulants) – although her mother conceded that Florence could lie on her bed and be read to – a process Florence described as slow torture. At one stage she was sure she was going to die from intellectual starvation.

But Florence Nightingale was wily; she knew that the longer she postponed marriage the less eligible she was, and the less likelihood that it would happen.  Finally  – when Florence was 30 and a confirmed ‘spinster’ – and by choice – (which only emphasised her psychological problems) she started on the life she had planned. A life of meaningful public service.

To the great distress of her sister and her mother she announced that she was going to be a nurse and did her utmost to educate herself in all aspects of nursing. (There were no nursing colleges or institutions. Bu she had managed to read stacks of books.)

She took a position in charge of sick gentlewoman to start with, and her father gave her an allowance of about $75,000 a year in today’s terms. Don’t forget – she wouldn’t have been able to earn her living – or keep her wages if she did!

A year after Florence got started  came the Crimean War, and there were horrific accounts in the papers about the condition of wounded men. Florence went into action. She recruited 38 volunteer nurses and trained them, and off they went to war.

She was appalled by the conditions: and she was not only a very upper-class woman, but a very persuasive writer who sent reports to the newspapers as well as the government – demanding more resources. She set out her specifications and her needs and the great railway and steam ship engineer Brunel, designed a prefabricated hospital that was delivered to her.

Florence was a nurse when nursing was what she said it would be!

(Some people suggest that she wasn’t very caring with the patients – which is interesting given the image we have of her, is one of going without sleep to take her lantern round to check on the wounded).

She said nursing was as much about designing hospitals, providing proper meals and adequate ventilation  –  and digging ditches to get rid of the sewage –  as it was about bandaging and dressing wounds. What good was it to save the patients from a physical wound to have them die of cholera or typhoid or dysentery etc.

She reduced the death rate from 42% to 2% – although you wont often find this acknowledged – as quite a few people who have written about her have also had cultural blindspots, and have been unable to recognize the extent of her ability and contribution.

It is easier to keep her as a stereotype woman who went nursing, and wasn’t all that successful, rather than mention that she was a brilliant mathematician, logician, and statistician. Florence challenged every aspect of appropriate behavior for a female of her class and time. And the evidence is there if you want to see it.

She didn’t make any friends among powerful men when she returned to London after the war, and prepared a submission for the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army: she used her statistical and communication skills to indicate that the soldiers were killed by their living conditions! (Army conditions were improved even after the war ended.)

The Florence Nightingale School of Nursing was established in 1860 and Florence wrote the curriculum which today would read more like an engineering blueprint  – plus nutritional and exercise advice.

Even Wikipedia says that Florence Nightingale became a pioneer in the visual presentation of statistical graphics and is credited with creating the early form of the pie-chart, that made it possible for politicians to understand her statistical reports that supported her work.

She was the first female to be elected to the Royal Statistical Society and she went on to design the Sanitation System for Delhi – which has only relatively recently been replaced.

So much for the little old lady with the lamp.

And now I want you to think about something else;

In Brazil, engineering is a good job for a girl. The new Head of the International Society of Rock Mechanics is a Brazilian woman.

In Australia – Engineering and IT (where maths and stats are a big component) are the only subjects where girls don’t dominate. (And in most Asian countries, IT is a good job for a girl!) Not all cultural blindspots are shared!

What would it be like if  – instead of a blind spot — we had a full picture of the role played by Florence Nightingale as one of the world’s first women engineers – a great pioneer for public health and education? (Don’t forget there were no degrees then in engineering at university)

I have only taken ten minutes to transform her from the somewhat pathetic lady with the lamp, to a pioneering, highly talented, mathematical genius, a determined and responsible woman, a brilliant organizer and teacher,  committed to public service and public health.

How would her story change your view of the possibilities of an engineering career? Or IT? Or logistics?

Our entire existence from roads and rails and ports and sewage systems and hospitals and electricity depends on many of the things that Florence Nightingale started to draw attention to.

If it could save lives, and contribute so much to society?  Would this encourage you to think about engineering or IT as a career – rather than be stopped at the blind spot?

(Even the buses and trains and ovens and dishwashers would look different if women were designing them! Think about it!)

How would public health engineering compare with a business degree if we did a little more critical thinking instead of persisting with the cultural blindspot?

But now I want to move just a little closer to the present day. I want to talk about blindspots and feminists.

I’m a feminist. Have been for fifty years. The Governor General, Quentin Bryce proudly claims to be a feminist. Hillary Clinton is a feminist. Mia Freedman is a feminist. And one of the reasons that you are here today is that like your current principal, Ms Euler, and your former Principal, Dr Bell, your history is the result of the work of feminists who devoted their lives to public service and to girls education.

All of the rights that women have today, didn’t descend from heaven. Feminists fought for them.

History books might tell you that men gave women the vote – which is a blindspot of major proportions, and a good indication of the gender of the author. Women won the vote after centuries of campaigns, agitation, civil disobedience, and rational arguments.

Both here and in England, women fought for centuries for the right to be educated, to enter a profession, to own property and keep their wages and to have options other than marriage as a career.

And they are still fighting for women to be considered as respected and honourable human beings – rather than like Florence – as not being a proper woman who conformed to the stereotype of the time.

Florence Nightingale was a feminist; she didn’t join the civil disobedience movement – she didn’t hold with disrupting society – but by example she opened the door for a profession for women that exists to this day – and if you get rid of the blind spot – I would say that the profession was logistics, or engineering, or public health systems. And maybe a bit of night-duty nursing.

We all have blind spots. No matter how well we consider an issue we have to take into account that we can only see what our culture wants us to see – unless we make the effort to work out whose ideas are we dealing with? Whose interests do they serve?

And this is the area of critical thinking.

There is no one definition of a feminist as there is no one definition of public service, or a good education, or a happy family etc.

With feminism, you don’t have to pay an entry fee or fill in a membership form to join: you just have to think that every individual has the right to reach their full potential without threat of violence and to be respected for their choices – and that includes women.

Women’s rights are long in coming, and readily lost. Many of us might have thought recently that with a woman PM and a range of women ministers in Parliament that real gains had been made.

But on September 7, there was only one woman in the cabinet again; the same as nearly fifty years ago when in 1976 Senator Margaret Guilfoyle was the only female Minister.

One hundred years ago, in 1913 the famous writer and feminist Rebecca West said ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.

I know exactly what she means

But I’d like to add a bit more to the definition and eliminate the cultural blindspots that would have it that feminists are ugly women, who cant get a man, burn their bras – and don’t shave their legs!

I’m sure you have all met loads of such awful women.

My definition which has been used by quite a few people and in some very unusual places would be




A perfectly rational definition of a good citizen! And a well adjusted and  determined woman!

bggs critical thinking

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