In March 2007….

Worth more than 200,000 blogs?

21 Mar 2007

My first Best Read of 2007 today is the current issue of Meanjin, that venerable Oz Lit magazine: “ON FAITH: Vol. 65, no. 4, 2006”. You may review the contents there and read some extracts.

It’s taken us a bit by surprise. We who felt so secure in the belief that our predecessors had bequeathed us a secular state with thoroughly secular institutions, free from the burdens of religious bigotry, find ourselves more surprised than anything else by the appearance of religious bigots trying to blow us up or, perhaps even scarier, seemingly directing our country’s foreign policy from afar. Why us? So what if we use Sunday mornings for the gardening and spend Sunday afternoons around the barbeque? That’s not hurting anyone, is it? But secular Australians have learnt what thoughtful religious adherents have always known: that there are few things more dangerous than belief.

There can be little doubt that ‘secularism’ was one element of modernity. The transcendent was demystified, domesticated and marketed as a commodity. Belief, if you were gullible enough to believe anything beyond what supposedly met the eye, became a matter of private opinion: indefensible private opinion. But now we are told on all sides that modernity—the modern era—is a thing of the past. Could this possibly mean that we live in a world that is also in some sense ‘post-secular’?

This is the question a number of contributors to this issue attempt to explore, explicitly or implicitly. Their answers vary: from the vehement ‘no’ to the unqualified ‘of course we do’, or ‘well actually, we never lived in a secular world anyway—we just kidded ourselves we did’. Other contributors grapple with the experience of belief, either through personal confrontation or immersion in a community of believers. These experiences are diverse, but they have this in common: they testify to the pervasiveness of belief, and its surprising reappearance in the public forum…

You will probably find more of interest, and greater quality of writing and thought, than you would on my hypothetical 200,000 blogs, even including this one. Yes, there are excellent blogs, but something still has to be said for publication that is actually edited… Sadly, this blog quite possibly reaches more people (around 15,000 a quarter at the moment) than Meanjin does, though I hope my plug helps to correct that. (According to Young People and Media, Meanjin has a circulation of 2,500 copies. Of course much of that is in libraries.)

Another journal that is better than 200,000 blogs is Griffith Review. One could add The Monthly and its associate Quarterly Essay. I am not inclined to include Quadrant, as it would be too easy to find 200,000 blogs more worth reading… 😉

The second Best Read is the small book by Louis Nowra which I recently referred to. Now I have read it.

Put your preconceptions on hold and really read Bad Dreaming (Pluto 2007). Do not be content with the extract in The Australian. I think it is a very important contribution.

Right-wingers who have used the book to thump left-wingers have totally missed the point. Left-wingers who ignore the book because right-wingers have exploited it also miss the point. Nowra’s account of the effects of European settlement on Indigenous Australians sits quite comfortably with a so-called “Black Armband” view of history. He does rightly point to the deleterious effects of a too soft “noble savage” or New Age reading of the realities out there, however; he also concedes much that is good. It is a wise book. Become wise yourselves and bury your politics, or shove them you-know-where, as you read it.

9/10 to Nowra from me.

When I was a twenty-something conservative in transition…

11 Mar 2007

… at Dapto High School south of Wollongong, a colleague in the English Department was Dale Spender, who once told me that if I didn’t have shit for brains I might know what she was talking about. Trouble is, she was probably right at the time. Dale went on to a career much more spectacular than mine. To give Dale her due, she knew far more back then than most of us did about how to deal effectively with some of the less able (as in “IQ too low to assess”) and more disadvantaged students we had, and I did learn much from her.

I see she has entered the current silly education debate: Now the class scapegoat is the teacher.

No one has a good word to say about teachers. Not so long ago they were well-informed and well-respected members of the community whose advice was sought after and highly valued.

Today, if you are to believe the Government’s condemnations and the media coverage, teachers have had a spectacular fall from grace.

Press stories over the past decade accuse teachers of everything from illiteracy and incompetence to outright ill will. A few regular media commentators charge classroom teachers with left-wing tendencies, lowering standards, and with throwing out the worthwhile curriculum in favour of “dumbing down”.

Yet no hard evidence of the harmful behaviour of teachers is provided. Rather teachers are being made the scapegoats for the disruptive changes that are under way in society – and in education. For education consultants [it] is so much easier to blame the teachers than it is to look more intelligently and constructively at the problems and pressures of the 21st-century classroom; and at the failure of the nation to properly fund the information-education revolution.
Teachers have been caught up in the turmoil of educational change, but they have not been supported with the resources to make the massive leap from traditional education to computer-based classrooms.

Teachers can teach only what they are taught. Now that they have to learn the art of teaching with the new technologies, they need information, facilities, and a great deal of encouragement. Without such support, it is the teachers who have the genuine grievances: they could put at the top of their list the counterproductive smear tactics used against them by Commonwealth educational advisers and ministers…

Each year teachers are asked to do more: more national testing, more meaningful reporting on students, more social welfare tasks and more new technology courses. And each year teachers are blamed for more school failures, more lapses of discipline, and more of society’s ills. Teaching is the most demanding job ever devised yet the teachers’ side of the story is rarely heard; they can’t “tell someone who cares”. The profession is so badgered and abused, the wonder of it is that there are not more of its members walking out the door.

The bad press that teachers get is not the only source of low morale. Teachers know that there can be no art of teaching with technology when the technology does not work. Spare a thought for the masses of overworked, dedicated teachers who stretch themselves to prepare exciting internet-based lessons only to enter the class of 30 eager, energised students, and find that the computers have crashed, and the network is down. Such disasters can be an everyday occurrence. And although this is definitely not the teachers’ fault, they who must deal with the dire consequences when their anticipated mind-expanding learning experience turns into a nightmare.

One might well ask how teachers’ critics and Co would stare down such high-maintenance students: it would take more than a pile of platitudes and a dose of Shakespeare…

Well, as for technology… I’m here, aren’t I? I suspect that Dale overstates her case a little in that article. It would have been more true ten years ago. It certainly was true of me ten years ago. Nonetheless, she has a better understanding of what is happening out there in the schools than many of her opposing commentators.

In her column today Miranda Devine praises the recently established Redfern Exodus centre which aims to provide intensive remedial reading to children in Years 3 to 6 who have fallen behind. It is a good project, housed at the moment by my very own church, South Sydney Uniting Church, but run by the Exodus Foundation of Ashfield Uniting Church. The methodology employed derives from the Macquarie University’s phonics-centred approach, and that is Miranda’s angle: the success of the MULTILIT programs underscores the tragedy of so many other young lives wasted – countless smart children who believe they are stupid because they haven’t been taught to read. I do not knock what is happening in Redfern, but do suggest Miranda (all praise to her though for supporting the venture) is unfair in her ideological stance. More “countless” than the numbers of students benefitting from this intervention are the numbers of students who do not need it because they have in fact been taught to read. No single factor explains the issues that led the minority being helped in this and similar programs to their present plight, though more adequate staffing and funding of remediation programs in schools both public and private would no doubt have helped. There are, even so, “countless” students who are assisted within the system and who therefore never need a Redfern program. For very many students the NSW government’s Reading Recovery program has been especially effective. I have seen it done, and spent a year some time back in a research project tracking its effects in a number of schools in a more disadvantaged part of the south-eastern suburbs. (See also Research in Reading Recovery.)


Reading Recovery session at Brookvale Public School Sydney.

One key to both the Redfern program and the Reading Recovery program is individualised intensive tuition. It is a fact too that provision for such individual help after Year 2 in the system is inadequately funded.

All ideology aside, I wish all such programs success.

Same old same old, eh! A selection of much more recent items in this endless loop of a topic.

Basic facts about Reading Recovery

There are many remedial programs superior to Reading Recovery

Reading Recovery ‘harmful’, visiting academic Louisa Moats says

Reading recovery: Catholics launch defence of $55 million a year program