Lessons from Ed Hillary’s life

The most remarkable feature of the life of Edmund Hillary was that he remained so unaffected by the adulation and clamour which surrounded him after the Everest feat.

He persistently rejected what he described as the “hoopla” or “carry-on” surrounding his media image and the public hero-worship which went with it. He said he would not have accepted the knighthood he received in 1953 but for the fact it was publicly announced before he was even aware of it and by that stage he felt it would have been rude to turn it down.

He insisted, not from false modesty but a genuine personal feeling, that he was an average New Zealander with moderate abilities. It was this in part which helped endear him so strongly to his fellow kiwis. (Pause for a moment and compare this with the current crop of so-called celebrities who exude vacuous self-importance. They are as substantial as the polish on a pair of climbing boots)

What particularly distinguished him from others who have achieved fame was his work in poor Nepalese communities over several decades. It is through this example that he leaves us his greatest legacy.

Some have said he reflected the values we share as New Zealanders. This can’t possibly be true or New Zealand would be a very different place to what it is today. Instead I think he embodied the values to which most of us would aspire.

His descriptions of his early life are interesting. His father and brother were pacifists with his brother Rex spending four years in a detention camp during the Second World War as a conscientious objector. Hillary himself eventually went to war but his deep respect for pacifism was clear throughout his life.

Much has been made of him feeling an outsider as he grew up. He hated Auckland Grammar School where he was belittled and dismissed physically as being fit for nothing. Ironically the school placed (and still does) its students as though on a mountain with its high sporting and academic achievers at the top and the misfits and outsiders well down the slope. Hillary was there with the dross at the bottom.

Despite his huge physical achievements he was deeply affected by this sarcastic denigration for the rest of his life. Till the day he died he still saw himself physically as his PE teacher had seen him. This is a story which should be told and retold to teacher trainees at Teachers’ Colleges for the next millennium and beyond.

There is a theory, strongly supported by anecdote, which says that those who make the most significant social contributions are more likely to come from a school’s outsiders and misfits than those who dominate school prize-givings. So often our highest young achievers end up as well-paid professionals but are essentially bricks in the social establishment rather than agents for change. Hillary’s life supports the theory.

A lot of consideration is being given to what the country should do to remember him. Thankfully another statue seems to have been ruled out. Hillary would be pleased at that. But should we perhaps name a mountain or National Park after him? A national holiday perhaps?

All the above are the easy, safe options. Many would be quite happy to change a name on a map, set Ed aside and move on. But the best tribute we could pay would be to embody his values in our economic and political life. This is an enormous challenge because there are vested interests in the corridors of parliament and in corporate boardrooms whose very power relies on the denial of Hillary’s values.

Perhaps though we could begin by introducing these values into the way we run our schools. A great place to start would be ensuring every school in New Zealand was funded by the government based on the learning needs of the children. This would give all our kids the very best start we are able in the way Hillary did for Nepalese communities.

Our schools are underfunded to the point where $508 million was collected from local communities last year to supplement government funding. We know the greatest shortfalls occur in low income areas where additional government funding is swamped by the learning needs of the children.

This will seem like an opportunist proposal to some and I can see it being rejected outright by the government. But remember Hillary spent his life building schools to give educational opportunities to impoverished people and he lent his name to two schools – both of which are in low-income New Zealand communities.

A country with the heart of a Hillary would make sure it happened.