Tuesday, 27 February 2007

#5: On the unbearable lightness of being Kevin

Most people have an opinion on the quality of education provided to the children of Australia.

After all, just about everyone has been to school themselves and the majority of older people have had children or grandchildren at school.

Kevin Donnelly is no exception, except he’s an “expert”. He’s certainly a prodigious commentator: he’s written a couple of books on the subject and he’s the education commentator of choice in The Australian. You can go here for a fairly comprehensive selection of his commentary.

My problem with Donnelly is that, no matter how much he writes, he’s really only got one story. Australia’s education systems are failing and the remedy is "back to basics” - phonics, rote learning, highly structured and prescriptive teaching and learning.

Now, there are undoubtedly elements of the story which ring true. Nothing is perfect – continuous efforts at improvement are to be applauded, as we learned in Blog # 2 – and from time-to-time, as in all areas of human endeavour, teachers and education policymakers stuff up.

BUT: by and large, Australian schools do pretty well by most Australian kids.

At one level, I’m speaking from personal experience. I went to school and my posse of kids have been/are going to school. And it is my considered view that, in every single aspect, the education experience of my kids is more exciting, more interesting and far more demanding than my own.

And my story – that Australian schools are doing OK by Australian kids – is not merely based on the rather subjective measure of my “experience”: it’s supported by data.

You see, Kevin Donnelly would have us believe that the “failure” of Australian schools is supported by international surveys showing Australian school children falling further and further behind school children from other countries in literacy, numeracy and study of science.

This is simply not so, and Donnelly’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the data simply discredits, in my view, what ever elements of truth and insight his story may actually contain.

In the Programme for International Student Assessment of the OECD, it is true that Australian kids are “outperformed” on some measures by kids from some other countries. But the reverse also applies: Australian kids outperform kids from other countries on some other measures. Only the kids of Finland consistently outperform Australian kids on all measures, as they do all other kids in all other countries. Here"s an analysis of the 2003 results by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which concluded that
....Australian 15 year olds performed well when compared with 41 OECD and other countries across both mathematics and science scores. Australia's average (mean) scores of 524 in mathematics literacy and 525 in science literacy placed it above the OECD average of 500 for each skill area and in the top third of countries.

The then Commonwealth Minister, who was not given to gratuitous praise of Australian education, seemed pretty impressed too - OECD study ranks Australian school students amongst the world's best.

Admittedly, Donnelly is not a fan of PISA – he believes the results for Australian children are somehow “cooked” – so he defaults to Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies [TIMSS]. But that doesn’t really support his case much at all. For the 2003 TIMSS survey, in grade 8 mathematics, Australian children rated 14 out of 50 with a score of 505 as against the average of 467. With respect to science, the report noted that significant improvements in achievement occurred in seven countries, including Australia.

Any which way I look at the data, Australian kids do pretty well.

At the risk of falling into post-modernism – a particularly nasty affliction, apparently – I have come to the conclusion that there may be a distinctly ideological basis to the Donnelly critique.

Like John Howard (who launched his latest book a couple of weeks ago), Donnelly decries public education (and possibly Sydney C of E Girls Grammar School as well) as being “values free”. Well, it (they) would be values free if it weren’t for the legions of left-wing teachers polluting the minds of our little ones with such Maoist claptrap as tolerating diversity and pursuing independent inquiry in considering issues. And that damnable “black armband” view of Australian history would be positively subversive to the interests of the nation, if they taught Australian history (fortunately they don’t and Julie Bishop had a summit to prove that).

This brings me to one of Donnelly’s pet subjects, which could be described as – well, it’s the way I will describe it – the “liturgy of the canon”.

You see, before he became an expert, Donnelly was a secondary school English teacher and accordingly he has firm views on what constitutes the study of “English”. It seems to be classical literature, with the works of Shakespeare at its heart. This is the “canon” and, like the Bible, it is apparently immutable. Anything written after a particular point in time is likely to be suspect (although Donnelly’s not quite clear on this point – all I can work out is that if you haven’t read Shakespeare, you’re a bit of a nong if not an actual dunce).

I am quite fond of the work of Shakespeare myself, even though it is chock full of clichés. But don’t tell me that it is the end all and be all of “English”. While the study of Shakespeare would seem to me to be pretty important in the study of English literature and the evolution of the English language (aforementioned clichés), it‘s not actually essential to learning English as a language, as a means of communication. On that point, the English of Shakespeare is almost a foreign language compared to today’s English.

This is, in my experience, the way it’s been for a long while – it’s not merely a “modern” view or practice. When I did Year 12 – it may well have still been called “Matric”, that’s how long ago it was - there were 2 streams of English:
• “English” which was compulsory and which involved some study of literature – a couple of novels, a modern play or two but no Shakespeare – and a range of writing skills, - composition, précis and so on.
• “English Literature”, an intensive study of texts, including Shakespeare but also texts such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

It seems to me to be much the same structure available to senior secondary students today but, in the general English component (still compulsory), taking account of a wider range of texts and media. Donnelly expresses outrage that analysis of SMS texts are accorded the same “value” as analysis of Shakespeare – I don’t think that’s the case (and I don’t see what any conventionally trained English teacher might teach any young person about SMSing, frankly). But is it an outrage that a contemporary English assignment might comprise a review of a film or TV program? Why? While I’m sure Shakespeare would be gratified – if not stunned – that some people read his plays for enjoyment and intellectual edification, surely he meant that his plays actually be performed, heard, viewed? Would Shakespeare have eschewed film and video, if it had been available to him? Is the study of a complete reinterpretation of Shakespeare, in modern settings and language (as in the recent series screened on ABC TV), completely devoid of educational merit?

Donnelly has other objections, in particular, the way in which English literature is taught. Here’s the flavour of what he’s got to say:

The South Australian Curriculum, Standards and Accountability Framework English document also adopts a politicised view of English, one where "students learn that language transmits cultural perspectives, including gender, ethnicity and class; and who or what is or is not important" and where being literate "involves an understanding of the past, present and possible future relations between language, power and society”.

How on earth could you study, in any meaningful way, the works of Shakespeare without considering issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class and/or power relationships? What would the modern reader make of Huckleberry Finn without considering the social and cultural context in which the novel is set (and perhaps reflecting upon the significant changes in perspectives and values that have occurred since that time?). How would you consider the novels of Jane Austen in isolation from relevant cultural perspectives?

Donnelly’s objection extends to other disciplines – for example, modern day students of geography study not only the environment (truly) but also issues surrounding climate change.

It’s little wonder that Donnelly decided to leave teaching to become an expert. His English classes must have been about as interesting and engaging as those of the hapless civics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Post Script
1. In researching this article I came across this quote (see comments on Y this Generation is ready to teach our children);

Your boy has just got his HSC, and yet he has no cultural interests. He despises classical music, never reads a serious book, and seldom uses a word beyond the range of a six-year old child. And he has no manners….this generation of teenagers is inferior in almost every respect to the generation of, say, the 1930s. (William F. Broderick, “The Ugly Teenager”, The Age, 7/2/1976)

A case of plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose?

2. Earlier this year, Time magazine published its list of the 10 greatest books of all time. As yet, I can only mark four off the list but thankfully there will be an abridged version of War and Peace soon, so I will be able to lift my score to say, 4 1/2 .

Monday, 19 February 2007

#4: Careful what you wish for

A journalist (was it David Marr?) once said about another journalist (was it Piers Akerman?) that if John Howard was caught doing terrible things to a small cat, he (i.e. journalist number 2) would justify it on the basis that the small cat undoubtedly deserved it.

That is the nature of a certain breed of polemical journalist in this country, who stand as bulwarks against the pinko tendencies of mainstream journalists (with the exception of Matt Price who is a bright shade of puce) and the strident red hue of ABC journalists. In addition to Akerman, leading practitioners of this art are Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen and Alan Jones.

(Disclaimer: there are polemicists from the other side - John Pilger, for example.)

At the very least, these people are entertaining. When in Sydney, I always make it a point to tune into Alan Jones at the earliest possible time and he never fails to disappoint me. In fact, just about my favourite radio moment ever was Jones' comment on the unfortunate demise of Steve Irwin. According to Jones - this is fair dinkum - the enduring legacy of Steve Irwin to the children of Australia was that he taught them that wild animals are not dangerous. In this context, how utterly embarrassing for Irwin that he was killed by a mere fish.

Like most newspaper columnists these days, Janet Albrechtsen (of The Australian) has a blog. Her first effort this week (18 February) was on the subject of Hicks & his mighty PR machine. She acknowledged that the US has been too slow in prosecuting the Hicks case.
But let's get a sense of balance here and recognise the unmitigated hypocrisy emanating from the "free Hicks" hecklers and harridans.

That the list of "hecklers" and "harridans" includes just about every eminent - and most non-eminent - jurist in Australia (and many overseas, such as the British Attorney-General) is beside the point. Janet, after all, has a law degree, so she knows what she's talking about. And that a goodly proportion of the Australian populace is disturbed by the circumstances of the Hick case can be entirely explained by said pinko, puce and red members of the fourth estate. And GetUp! which is running a Bring David Hicks Home campaign.

Janet states that she's concerned by the fact that we don't know the "true facts" but, like any true polemicist, she doesn't let facts - true or otherwise - stand in the way of her story. You get the impression from her blog (she doesn't actually say this but this is what she conveys - OK - I'm being a touch polemical) that Hicks was apprehended by American troops, Hicks being armed to the teeth with an AK-47, 300 rounds of ammunition and three grenades. From what has so far emerged, in fact, Hicks seems to have been captured by members of the Northern Alliance, while he (Hicks)was attempting to flee Afghanistan in a taxi, sans weapons - he'd flogged them to pay for the taxi. At the time of his capture, he was actually in every sense a non-combatant. And GetUp! is not mounting a campaign to free Hicks but a campaign to bring Hicks home - there's a difference, as we'll see below.

OK - that's enough of that - it's not the point of this entry. Rather it's the response to Janet's blog. At the time of writing there were 299 responses to Janet's blog (at the time of posting there were 345 but I'm not going back there):
1. Four respondents were what could be called "neutral".

2. Eighty three (83) supported Albrechtsen's proposition (with a goodly proportion suggesting Hicks ought to have been summarily executed at the time of his capture).

3. one person seemed to be denying that planes crashed into the twin towers at all on 9/11.

4. And 211 - that is 71% - one way or another took issue with Albrechtsen.

Of course, in one sense, then, Albrechtsen is absolutely correct: in recent times, the campaign protesting Hicks continuing detention - without valid charge, without trial - has gathered pace and force, it's crystallised opinions and galvanised effort.

What Albrechtsen misses or ignores, is this has not been so much about freeing Hicks as it is about the affront to conceptions of justice that Hicks's continuing incarceration causes reasonable people (those people who express a wish that he had been summarily executed when captured are not, in my view, reasonable people). It's the "person on the 109 tram" test, to adapt an old saying.

Goodness gracious me, Janet, even John Howard is beginning to feel affronted. I suspect that the effectiveness of campaigning by the likes of GetUp! and by Hicks' US mlitary lawyer (Major Mori?) may have something to do with the sudden onset of Howard's affront.

I think the whole thing was best summed up by "dotz of Modbury SA":
Guilty or innocent, David Hicks has been denied any semblance of justice by being detained for 5 years without trial.
And in support she quotes Winston Churchill:
The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist.

Dotz's contribution was far more substantial than that of one "Andrew Bolt of Melbourne" who was apparently so moved by the power of Albrechtsen's argument that that he could merely observe "right on" in support of her views.

Careful what you wish for

Quite a few people have drawn attention to the apparently different treatment accorded American citizen John Walker Lindh, who was apprehended in Afghanistan around the same time as Hicks in late 2001(with the important distinction that Lindh was captured on the battlefield). Lindh was indicted in February 2002 by a grand jury in the US on ten charges, a number of which carried life sentences for conviction. Walker was eventually offered a plea bargain by US authorities: plead guilty to 2 charges and agree to a gag order order in order to receive a reduced sentence. In July 2002, Walker pleaded guilty to
1. Serving with the Taliban
2. Carrying weapons.

In October 2002 - less than a year after his apprehension - Walker was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.

The charge sheets recently released in respect of Hicks detail alleged offences remarkably similar to those originally levelled against Walker.

So, I guess John Howard's prefferred template is
1. Hicks is charged with a range of offences, a number of which carry life sentences for conviction
2. Hicks is forthwith offered a plea bargain on 2 "lesser" charges - say, serving with the Taliban and carrying weapons
3. Hicks accepts and is sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, minus time served
4. Hicks is returned to Australia to serve out his sentence.

Hicks' defence to those possible charges looks a bit tricky. He appears to have volunteered in a letter to his dad information supporting the charges, and his dad went on to place that information on the public record.

John Howard's recent public comments and demeanour suggest there's something in the offing. Here's Howard on yesterday's Today program:
I don't want to speculate about what might occur except to support the remark that was made by Mr Downer yesterday, and that is that if the trial does take place quickly, as we want, then either way he could be back on Australian soil later this year.

If he's free, well as he obviously comes back, he's an Australian citizen; if he is convicted, we have an arrangement with the Americans whereby he can serve out the remainder of his term in an Australian prison.

Hicks has a history of annoying US authorities - according to one commentator "Hicks was one of the few to resist Guantanamo’s devastating mix of interrogation and isolation, and persevere, without compromise or confession, in a habeas corpus action that would later become the landmark Supreme Court case Rasul v Bush".

So, maybe he won't play ball. But it seems to me to be a classic case of Hobson's choice: he does the deal and is transferred to a somewhat more comfortable environment (in relative terms). If he doesn't, the hellish Gitmo experience cointinues indefinitely, maybe forever.

Whatever Hicks does, it's a get out of jail card for Howard, isn't it? If he does the deal, Hicks "confirms" his guilt and he's back "home" in Australia mid-year or thereabouts, albeit in custody. If he doesn't, there's really no saving some people from themselves is there?

Post script 22 February

Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock has since opened up the possibility that, if there are further delays, for whatever reason, the Howard Government will move to get Hicks back to Australia pronto. This may depend on the High Court's findings on the "allowability" of control orders and such like - see here.

Post Script 23 February - How Andrew Bolt views the world of journalism

Vive la difference

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

#3: On Howard & Obama

John Howard taking a slash at Barak Obama (and the US Democrats in general) about his plan to disengage US combat troops from Iraq has had Australian commentators a touch nonplussed.

Taking my cue from The Australian newspaper today (13 February 2007, it may well have been a brilliant piece of political playmaking. It diverted attention from issues of climate change and refocussed it on national security, Howard's preferred ground. That's according to Dennis Shannahan.

Greg Sheridan seemed absolutely bursting to be positive about Howard's admonition but he just couldn't bring himself to do it:
The substance of what Howard said was right....Nonetheless, Howard clearly crossed the acceptable rhetoric to say that al-Qa'ida would pray every day for an Obama victory.

Sheridan also thought that portraying Howard's statement as political playmaking was "too Machiavellian": Howard merely showed a "rare lapse of discipline". Howard would never play crass political games with matters of national interest. Would he?

Oh, yes he would and, oh yes he did, is the way I read Steve Lewis. This was a "calculated risk... with carefully chosen remarks." And, according to Lewis, Howard fundamentally mishandled it.

Geoff Elliott, reporting from Washington, agreed with Lewis: "it was a deep miscalculation on a number of levels." The Elliott article is a pithy insight into the adroitness of Obama's politics.

Obama has more or less pinched the "exit strategy" set out by the Iraq Study Group (comprising luminaries of the Washington foreign policy establishment - go here for background) and now pretty well owns it with the bill he's introduced into the US Senate. It's great politics because:
1. it resonates with the American public - it's called "democracy" ("get us out of here")
2. it's credible policy.

Obama must have loved Howard's gratuitous intervention, to the extent that it allowed him to play it out a bit more to the audience that coumts - the voting US public. And his comeback is virtually unanswerable: if the Australian Prime Minister is so "ginned up" about Iraq, then he/we should commit 20,000 more Australian troops to bolster the 1400 troops we already have there (actually, on a per capita basis, that would be an extra 8,000 troops to achieve "equal effort" but the point is made).

Obama's risoste was picked up in a letter to the editor from Sean K. Davis of Alabama USA:
I am apalled and disgusted with John Howard's comment....It's easy to posture with such bravado when it's not your young men and women being maimed and slaughtered. It's easy to say 'carry on' when it's not your national treasure being sucked into a political and military balck hole.

Quite so.

Howard's calculated risk here is that, this time round, Obama is highly unlikely to be the Democrat nominee, let alone President. Hillary doesn't thrill me but she's cashed up with a formidable political machine behind her. And, from left field, what are the prospects of the incipient "draft Gore" campaign? Whatever, but from this distance, it would seem that there's a pretty good chance that, come January 2009, there will be a Democrat occupying the White House. In this context, having a slash at all Democrats seems most unstatesmanlike, pretty dopey in fact.

Howard is a master of diversionary tactics - bagging public education is tried and true - but this time,on this issue, I can't see it being particularly productive, for a few reasons:

1. Obama's not going away any time soon and he will continue to articulate his policy position through a particularly long lead in to the US primaries
2. In the absence of an unlikely turn of events, debate on the direction of the Iraq war isn't going to quieten down. Quite the contarry, given rising disquiet, here and in the US (and the UK, of course)
3. Other tricky issues - climate change, education, health, for example - aren't going to drop off the radar screen.

I reckon Howard's stuffed up this time.

A postscript

Check out Obama's speech in 2002 opposing the Iraq adventure. Here's an excerpt:

But I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

Seems right on the money, more than 4 years on. You can find the full text - it's not very long - here.

Update 15 February
Mike Steketee has a pretty good line on the politics - "the whole context has shifted to when and how to withdraw" while Greg Sheridan has abandoned his caution and declared it that this "has been a good week for John Howard and a very troubling week for Kevin Rudd".

As at the time of writing, the Iraq War had been in progress for nearly 4 years - 1427 days. Check here for the current length of the war. The First World War went for 1563 days. The Iraq War passes this milestone (sic) on 1 July 2007.

Post Script 23 February - Blindsided

Tony Blair's announcement this week of a scaling down of the UK military commitment in Iraq demonstrates how just how comprehensively Howard (together with Foreign Minister Downer and Defence Minister Nelson) did stuff up.

Howard has been left looking discredited and dopey - and his assertion that he has been aware for some time of British intentions beggars belief.

It's a little bit reminiscent of Billy McMahon's furious denunciation of Gough Whitlam visiting China in 1971 (?), only to have Richard Nixon do likewise a little later.

However, John Howard is no Billy McMahon to Kevin Rudd's Gough Whitlam.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

#2: On self improvement

I'm currently between assignments so I have had a bit of spare time on my hands.

There's been time to undertake a couple of modest home improvements, with a bit of input from IKEA (I once read that an astounding proportion of Western Europe's population born since WWII was conceived in an IKEA bed - something like 60%).

I've also been on an intermittent program of self improvement, which has introduced me to the genre of "how to" books - How to take over the world has inspired me.

Many of the others have been somewhat less than inspirational.

As a person contemplating new career directions, What color is your parachute? A practical manual for job-hunters and career-changers looked to be of interest. After all, it's Still the best-selling job-hunting book in the world! 9 MILLION COPIES SOLD!.

Could 9 MILLION readers possibly be wrong?

The idiosyncratic use of hyphens should have been a dead give away. As it turns out, I didn't make it past the acknowledgements (page XV) in which the author gives his thanks to "The Great Lord God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and source of all grace, wisdom, and compassion....." and so on and on and on for 132 words. Now I'm not necessarily offended by public affirmations of personal faith (nor of irregular comma use) but:

1. 132 words is a mess of a sentence
2. there's a definite imputation here that this is divinely inspired - who does this guy think he is, the Pope?
3. there's not the usual disclaimer - 'thank God for the good things in this book and I'm responsible for the crap' (I suppose that if 2 is the case then then 3 is unnecessary?).

I should have browsed more carefully before handing over the requisite $34.95. I do take comfort in the fact that the book is printed on New leaf EcoBook50, made with 50% post-consumer waste , processed chlorine free, which saved 1116 full grown trees. Here's a recycling idea: anyone feeling the need to consult this manual can have mine for the cost of the postage.

365 ways to change the world - how to make a difference is quite an engaging browse (this is the sort of book you browse in off moments, rather than read). Did you know there are now over 46,000 pieces of plastic waste in every square mile of the world's oceans? I didn't and I have no idea whether it's actually true but it does give force to the recommended action on 22 February which is to "say NO! to PLASTIC BAGS". Perfectly rational to me.

A few random selections from other recommended actions

1. on 1 April (why doesn't this surprise me?) MASTURBATE for peace
2. if, sadly, you happen to die around 2 June, have a GREEN funeral which involves a bamboo coffin and burial in a paddock
3. on 25 July, whip up some open source COLA, the syrup of which comprises, among other ingredients, 2.25 litres of water and 2.25 kgs of white granulated sugar - just like the real thing.

That's the flavour of it - there's some quite wacky (and arguably vaguely criminal recommendations) but overall well worth a browse and, as these things go, just a snip at $24.95. Unfortunately, it's not printed on New Leaf EcoBook50.

But now to today, when I came across the SEE cafe (an establishment which is a story in itself - go here) and was immediately attracted by a blurb for a manual called GUTS - The book too bold for bookshops. This is possibly overstating it, but it does have a few contestable propositions:

Want the secret of success in life and business?
Then, first you need GUTS to tell the truth

1. Like, we need fewer women in the workplace and more cavemen.
2. Jesus Christ was the original brand guru and business is our new religion.
3. Rationality is over-rated and it's why business can't connect with consumers.

As an aging SNAG and, I like to think, an occasionally rational person, I found this blurb absolutely arresting. It's not immediately apparent to me as to how you will unshackle the creative potential of humanity in a "new Renaissance" (which seems to be our author's goal) through shackling the greater part of humanity. And for my part, I think irrational behaviour is grossly overrated and quite often fatal for innocent bystanders.

But, hey, let's not get ahead of this - I haven't actually read this one, merely browsed through it on the 109 tram. You never know, there may be in this tome a pointer to the ultimate destination in my journey of personal self improvement (i.e. something akin to world domination in something), in which case this will be $45 well spent.