Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On morality in literature

Is there a place for popular culture, represented by films, text messages, internet chat rooms and computer games, in the English classroom, alongside great literature? Mark Howie, the vice-president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, believes there is. At the Senate inquiry into standards in education, Howie argued that "given the realities of the modern world (where) students are engaged with visual and electronic text every day", English teachers have to "fmd ways in the curriculum of bringing the two together".

I beg to differ: literature, especially the enduring classics associated with the Western tradition, must be given pre-eminent status, but that does not mean I do not understand the appeal of pop culture.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, every boy in my street in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, including me, had a hoard of comic books ranging from the Phantom, Superman and Spider-Man to Batman and Wonder Woman. By the time I reached high school, my taste in entertainment had developed to include James Bond, Modesty Blaise and television series such as The Samurai and endless episodes of Bandstand. On Saturday afternoons I caught up with the heroic exploits of larger-than-life western heroes such as the Cisco Kid and John Wayne and classic films including Ben Hur, The 300 Spartans and Cleopatra.

The funny thing was, none of this found its way into the classroom. At Broady High, English with Mr Clayton and Mr Mackie involved Australian and English poetry, Dickens, Lawson and Shakespeare, and learning how to parse and precis and to write properly structured essays. Thankfully, I also found my way into a reading group organised by the local Anglican minister, who introduced us to books such as Erich Fromm's The Fear of Freedom and The Art of Loving, Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression as well as Plato.

Rather than the tyranny of relevance, where education relates to the world of the student, my teachers saw their role as challenging us by providing an alternative to the often materialistic and superficial cultures in which we lived. The reality is that for many of us, growing up in a housing commission [welfare] estate surrounded by a wasteland of brick and cement, often with violent, alcoholic parents, the transformative and healing power of literature provided a gateway into an imaginative world without which life may have been intolerable. Literature not only provided an escape from the often empty and repetitive day-to-day routine, it also introduced us to an unknown world of ideas, ethical dilemmas and human emotions in an insightful and compelling way.

That literature, at its best, is far superior to popular culture represented by Neighbours, Big Brother, text messages or the ego-driven, self-centred drivel found on MySpace and Facebook should be self-evident. While the texts that constitute the literary canon are re-evaluated over time, the truth is that enduring works such as Euripides' Medea, Shakespeare's King Lear and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard deal with emotions and predicaments in a profoundly sensitive way, unlike Neighbours or Jean-Claude Van Damme's action movies.

As Bruno Bettelheim and Joseph Campbell point out in discussing the importance of myths, fables and legends, literature deals with the types of heroes and archetypes that are essential for emotional and psychological wellbeing and maturity. Literature is also special in the way language is employed. American academic Louise Rosenblatt points to the unique quality of literature when she differentiates between what she terms an efferent and an aesthetic response.

The skills required to read an Ikea manual are totally different to those needed to read T. S. Eliot's poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The first is concerned with reading in its most literal guise: to understand information as quickly and easily as possible. But reading that requires what Coleridge termed a "willing suspension of disbelief" allows a reader to enter a world that has the power to shock and to awe, and which can speak to one's inner self.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch explains to his daughter the importance of understanding and sympathising with those around us by using the metaphor of standing in somebody's shoes. Literature, unlike texts in a more general sense, is unique in its ability to engender the ability to empathise with others. While the humanising quality of literature cannot be guaranteed, the reality is that in entering into the life of characters, feeling their joy and suffering, and following their exploits and travails, one is made to lose one's sense of self and to value the worth of others.

Literature is essentially moral in focus, unlike utilitarian texts produced for commercial or entertainment reasons. It is wrong to suggest literature provides simplistic answers to complex ethical dilemmas, but fables such as The Iliad, children's stories including C. S. Lewis's Narnia books and more recent works by Patrick White and David Malouf address issues related to right and wrong and what constitutes a good life.

Contemporary approaches to English are driven by a mantra of change. Arguments in favour of dealing with new technologies, including the internet and computer games, are couched in terms of looking to the future and accommodating the demands of the information-driven 21st century. What this ignores is Eliot's point that continuity is as important as change. As such, the knowledge, understanding and wisdom represented by our literary heritage is essential in giving students an understanding of the present and the ability to deal with the future.

Eliot argues that the need is: "To maintain the continuity of our culture - and neither continuity, nor respect for the past, implies standing still. More than ever, we look to education today to preserve us from the error of pure contemporaneity. We look to institutions of education to maintain a knowledge and understanding of the past."

The article above by KEVIN DONNELLY appeared in the "The Australian" on January 19, 2008

Dumbed down teaching degrees in firing line

Even a Leftist government is perturbed! But you almost have to be a dummy to want to take up teaching in today's chaotic government schools

A SLIDE in the entry standards for students training to be teachers in Queensland universities has prompted a threat from the Bligh Government to refuse to recognise an education degree as an automatic qualification into the state's school system. Education Minister Rod Welford accused some universities of "desperation" by continuing to lower the academic bar school-leavers have to clear to be accepted in to a teaching degree course.

He said that, if the slide continued, education authorities might need to introduce extra testing and screening measures for graduates wanting to become teachers so professional standards were maintained. "I'm growing increasingly concerned at the desperation by some universities to fill their quotas by allowing what appear to be underperforming students attempting to become teachers," Mr Welford said.

He was responding to an analysis of education degrees on offer in Queensland this year, which showed that several universities were accepting some students with an OP score as low as 19 [where a top score is 1] into their teacher-training courses. The analysis of course information held by the Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre showed that it is commonplace for universities - particularly regional institutions - to offer education degree courses to school-leavers with an OP of 17 or lower.

Mr Welford said these institutions were doing a disservice to teaching as a career choice. "My fear is that by going lower and lower in the OP scale the universities are damaging the professional standing of teaching," he said. "If it's too easy to get into, people don't see it as the highly significant and noble profession that it is."

While minimum entry levels have fallen at some universities, teaching continues to attract high achievers. Mr Welford said many students with ordinary OP scores did end up being outstanding teachers, and not everyone with an exceptional academic record at school necessarily made a good teacher. But, he said, the approach of some universities to their teaching courses was "more about bums on seats than it is about quality teaching". He said it was important to ensure universities produced education graduates who were "capable and successful students". "Otherwise we will reach the point where education systems and departments will simply not be able to recognise a degree alone as a qualification for entry as a school teacher."

But university administrators defended the lowering of cut-offs for teaching degrees, insisting academic attainment was not the only indicator of to who would make a good teacher. University of Southern Queensland Dean of Education Nita Temmerman said it was important the state's teachers were made up of the best and brightest but that an OP score was "only one indicator of achievement". USQ has an OP cut-off of 19 for most of its education-degree courses, but Professor Temmerman said that once in a degree course, students with ordinary OP scores regularly did better than their more academically gifted counterparts. "Kids with an OP of 16 have outperformed academically kids that have come in with an OP2," she said.

Professor Toni Downes of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, said academic rank was an important factor for trainee teachers but not to the exclusion of other qualities in students. "What parents want most is for teachers to be passionate and committed about their childrens' education," she said. "I never graduate somebody who I would not be proud to have teach my children."


Child welfare bureaucracy could not cope with homeless boy

He was placed with carers with whom he was happy but -- bureaucracy -- the carers were "too old"

A STRING of casual emails about the case of a homeless 12-year-old boy have sparked outrage from a magistrate who is demanding answers from the [NSW] Department of Community Services. The Children's Court heard that welfare workers discussed the plight of the boy, who had been reported to DOCS 10 times, in "Hi Lana . . . cheers Kev" messages.

The court's senior magistrate Scott Mitchell said the response to such a significant matter affecting the future of the boy, whose mother is a drug user, was unsatisfactory. He demanded answers from DOCS director-general Neil Shepherd after being told there were no permanent carers available to look after 12-year-old boys. In a stinging rebuke, he said Mr Shepherd should lay down the law to the welfare agencies paid to find care places, including the Wesley Mission, which was involved in this case. But he questioned whether Mr Shepherd may be too timid to do so.

The embarrassing emails, tendered to the court, were the latest scandal to hit the embattled department. The emails were sent between a DOCS case worker, Lana Martin and Kevin Mezzone, the boy's case worker with Wesley Dalmar, the Wesley Mission's home-care services. In his judgment handed down this month, Mr Mitchell accused Mr Mezzone of "grudgingly" saying it may be possible the boy could stay with foster parents where he was happy but who had been assessed as suitable for only medium-term care because of their ages - they are in their late 50s and early 60s.

DOCS had asked the court for an order placing the boy in care until the age of 18. He had been reported to DOCS 10 times for neglect, poor hygiene, malnourishment, not attending school and because of his mother's homelessness. His mother, a drug user, is medically disabled, suffering diabetic-linked nerve damage. His father has nothing to do with the family.

In May last year the "very obese" boy was taken into care and placed with the couple. Since then he has been going to school and has lost weight. Mr Mitchell said he had already adjourned the case once but DOCS had not addressed the problems of finding somewhere permanent for the boy. He said Wesley Dalmar should not have been allowed to take control. He said he would give DOCS one more chance to address the boy's future and adjourned the case to January 24. DOCS refused to comment.


Bumper-sticker righteousness

A cheap claim of virtue and wisdom

I HAVE this visceral dislike of bumper-sticker moralisers. These are people who go out of their way to advertise what they take to be their own exalted moral sensibilities, but do so at no cost to themselves and without the messy business of having to weigh costs and benefits or to choose between stark alternatives where none is particularly pleasant or easy. It's all form and no substance for these people, and there's no shortage of them around.

Take those who plaster "Save the Whales" stickers on the back of their cars but miss the irony that it's an upmarket Toyota to which they're attaching the thing. Saving the whales is great in principle, but not if it involves forgoing an expensive new Lexus. Far better to bring a lawsuit that has no chance of being enforced.

Or what about many of those who announce that we should "Save Darfur"? Nowhere do they tell us how this is supposed to be accomplished. Through the UN, perhaps? But that organisation is famously hostage to the vetoes of the five Security Council members. It is an organisation that is congenitally unable to stop anything, be it slaughter in Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Burma or ... well, you get the idea.

Indeed the only remotely plausible way to stop massacres in Darfur, and indeed just about anywhere else on the planet, is for the US to do something militarily, as it did in Bosnia and Serbia under Bill Clinton (when the Yanks bombed and bombed and bombed some more, all without the imprimatur of the UN, for the information of those who punctiliously assert that only UN-authorised actions are acceptable). But, of course, most people who put "Save Darfur" stickers on their cars would be horrified at the prospect of US military action.

What they mean is that saving Darfur, in the abstract, as a general notion, as some warm, fuzzy abstraction, is a jolly fine idea. So count them in. But if it were to require making unpalatable choices - killing people, propping up the least bad alternatives and so on - well, then stop right there. This is about feeling good about oneself and showing that one cares.

Signing or ratifying the Kyoto Protocol strikes me as comparable. For many it's all about feeling good about themselves, not about looking to see what works, what is possible, how to balance economic growth and people's adaptability against achieving worldwide reductions. My criticism is much deeper than the well-known fact that Al Gore's Tennessee mansion wolfs down 20 times more electricity than the average American household. Sure, hypocrisy is never all that hard to find. But the more important criticism has to do with whether Kyoto has the slightest prospect of being successful.

A study on the website American Thinker claims that in the seven years between the signing of Kyoto in 1997 and 2004, carbon emissions from countries that signed the treaty rose 21per cent, while among non-signers they rose 10per cent. And Australia, until recently a non-signatory, had a slower increase than Canada, a loud, vocal and proselytising signatory. If that's correct, then what exactly is the benefit of Kyoto? I mean that question seriously, not rhetorically. What good has come from Australia signing up to the thing? (I'm assuming we didn't do it in order to allow ourselves to pump out even more carbon with the other signatories.)

Has anyone else noticed that as soon as the Rudd Government ratified Kyoto and advertised its good intentions, all the heat (if you'll pardon the expression) went out of the issue. It's as though one has only somehow to signal one's on the side of the angels - or at least willing to talk the talk - and that's that. But even a moment's thought is enough to make it clear that whatever the extent of the global warming problem, it is most definitely that: global. And China and India have made their positions clear. (I would say they are defensible positions, too.) They want economic growth. They want to alleviate poverty. If that means 2C or 3C more by the year 2100, so be it.

And both those giant developing countries well know that the West became rich because of cheap energy. Now it's their turn. The gap between their view of what will amount to a fair sharing of the burden of cutting greenhouse gases and the view of the European Union, to say nothing of the US, is so wide, it takes someone wholly divorced from reality to see any prospect of the divide being bridged. As one well-known commentator remarked, "The Kyoto approach is dead and buried." The same person also pointed out the practical flaws in carbon emissions trading schemes.

If you are serious about cutting carbon dioxide emissions, you need to make them more expensive. So you can tax them or you can create a system to ration such emissions. Alas, rationing schemes not only discriminate against new entrants and provide rent-seeking opportunities to those operating the system, they don't really work. We don't set up a complicated alcohol or tobacco rationing system with tradable rights to drink or smoke. We tax these products. The EU carbon trading scheme hasn't worked and won't work. It's more of the form-over-substance charade.

You see, if you approached the problem in terms of taxing carbon dioxide, it would become too obvious just how high the costs would be of achieving a 70 per cent reduction (or even half of that). One can't help noticing that despite endless rock concerts, declarations and meetings of the great and the good, very little in practice has been done and global emissions continue to rise.

Meanwhile, the one obvious, clearly beneficial policy that we could adopt in Australia, namely to build nuclear power stations, dare not speak its name in polite Labor circles. This Government won't even sell uranium to India, even though nuclear power is the only remotely plausible way that enormous country will slow the increase of its emissions.

You see, it doesn't matter that India is a democracy, a huge and successful democracy. It hasn't signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, old boy. And rather than weigh the costs and benefits of what to do and then make a hard call, we're going with the bumper-sticker brigade on this one.


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