Open Eye: A system that 'makes people surprise themselves'

'Enchanted' radio Rabbi Lionel Blue praises the OU's commitment to life-long learning
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The Independent Online
Encourage and believe in the people you are educating and give them room for some mistakes.

That's the advice from Rabbi Lionel Blue who received a honorary Doctorate from the Open University for his notable contribution to the religious, educational and cultural well-being of society.

Rabbi Blue has worked energetically to promote constructive inter-faith dialogue. Both in his popular contributions to Radio 4's Thought for the Day and in his lecturing, writing and broadcasting, he has brought spiritual reflection and healing to large numbers of people who do not think of themselves as 'religious'.

His listeners and readers are captivated by his accessible manner, and his awareness of the mundane and painful realities of human existence.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a high-profile person, this was the Rabbi's first honorary degree, although he has two Fellowships, one from the Leo Baeck College, where he has been Lecturer and Tutor in Prayer and Comparative Religion since 1964. He also has an OBE.

He said he was "overwhelmed" by the honour given to him by the OU. "It's one of the few occasions when I heard about it that I was left speechless," he said.

Speaking at the OU's Milton Keynes campus, where he received his degree, Rabbi Blue described himself as the "end product of many systems of education some of which must seem pretty historic because they were before 1950."

The first system was Hebrew Studies, required for his confirmation or bar mitzvah. The other was the state system, "complicated by the war which meant I ended up in about 12 schools in a few years and sometimes no school, because of the blitz."

Looking back, he said he saw education "rather like a racehorse going round in a circle with ditches to be overcome." These were the equivalent of the 11 plus, the Schools Certificate and the Higher Schools Certificate.

"And then you went to university where you did one exam and then you did some final exams which tested your memory and then you got a semi- safe job and that was that."

But that's not how things worked out for him: "The semi-safe job was no longer there, and I no longer knew what jumping over all those ditches meant any more. I went through the motions because I basically knew nothing else."

Alongside the formal education was what Rabbi Blue called the school of life, or life studies. That meant "dropping into lectures at Conway Hall to listen to anyone who had any kind of recipe for redemption in this world. I used to sit and eat toffees and listen to them seriously."

He also read through "stacks of books, starting at one end of the stack and reading through to the other end."

Other life-learning exercises included spells as a barman and as a waiter. "You learn a lot about human nature when serving."

Another learning experience has been his regular appearances on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day. "That was another college for me. I had a new congregation I never had before and it's the nicest congregation I've ever had, where the only scriptures are people's life experiences.

"I try to tell people how I've tried to work out the scripture of my own life and to help them work out the scriptures of their own lives. I was not concerned with trying to sell any particular religious system."

The one system of education the Rabbi admitted he had not tried is the OU, but he knew students of his who had done so.

The thing which attracted him about the OU was both the content and structure of the courses because they were "designed to answer the questions students have. Also, the way you can fit courses together is flexible so they can fit different lifestyles.

"I feel the university is user-friendly and that you go out of your way to encourage students; so students do better than they ever thought they would, whereas a lot of the systems I went through would somehow squash you." The OU system "made people surprise themselves."

But the greatest thing, he said "is that you are enthusiastic believers in the people you teach, so that you bring out things in your students which the students themselves didn't know were there.

"You are concerned with the individual lives of your students, so that studies can be formed around the logic of students' lives, and there is a real feeling for the student body. "The OU works because it believes in its students who, in turn, learn to believe in themselves.

"It's rather like the tale of the Wizard of Oz - the tin man finds he has a heart and the straw man finds he can get his diploma.

"And why? Because someone believed that the tin man had a heart and the straw man had a brain. I have seen students who have gone to the Open University and gone through your courses and seen a change in their self esteem.

"They learn to believe in themselves because other people, your tutors, believed in them, and that is truly wonderful. It is your belief in your students that has enchanted me. I only wish my own studies had been so many year's later."

In step at the OU: Rabbi Lionel Blue is flanked by OU Vice-Chancellor Sir John Daniel (left) and Dr John Wolffe, senior lecturer in Religious Studies. Background left is Professor David Sewart, Director of Student Services, and right, Joe Clinch, University Secretary.