Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Top students can't write

Elite students at one of Australia's best science research institutes have rushed to sign up for remedial English classes. It follows concerns by world-leading researchers at the poor English contained in some Australian-born and educated students' PhD theses and articles for scientific journals. The problem is so bad that the Queensland Institute of Medical Research has hired a lecturer to teach remedial English to its PhD students. One QIMR professor has even declared that he had "students from countries like Portugal and Holland whose written English is better than that of our own students".

So popular is the course to be run next week by University of Queensland English lecturer Dr Joan Leach that it has had to be moved to a larger venue. The program includes two 90 minute lectures and individual clinic-style workshops will cover basic issues including grammar, clear expression and sentence construction. QIMR Director Professor Michael Good, who is one of the world's leading immunologists and malaria researchers, initiated the move after senior staff became concerned at the level of English expression students were displaying in their written work. The QIMR has 700 scientists and support staff and about 120 PhD candidates researching in fields including cancer, malaria, genetic influences on illness, asthma and epidemiology. As one of Australia's leading research institutes it selects only the best first-class honours science students. Only about one in 10 of those who approach QIMR are taken on.

Acting director Professor Adele Green said excellence in English was paramount for scientists, who published their findings in prestigious international journals and had to write long, detailed scientific papers which could run to tens of thousands of words. Professor Nicholas Martin, head of QIMR's Genetic Epidemiology Group has strongly supported Professor Good in establishing the program. He said PhD students who came to the institute from all over Australia after at least 16 years of formal education recognised the deficiencies in the way they had been taught English at school and were keen to improve their writing. "I regularly recruit European PhD students from countries like Portugal and Holland whose written English is better than that of our own students," Professor Martin said.

He said the aim of the course was not to cover the finer points of English but the basics, such as correct punctuation, including a verb in every sentence, varying sentence length and construction and clear expression. "At the clinics the researchers will be able to bring along their written work and discuss it with Dr Leach," he said.

Leading Queensland educationalist Professor Kenneth Wiltshire said remedial English for Australian-born and educated students was common at universities all over Australia and was one sign that school English programs were not catering for the top third of students. "There are not enough challenges and not enough literature and not enough emphasis on good writing," Professor Wiltshire said.

Education Minister Rod Welford said teachers should not neglect the importance of well-structured written communication, while at the same time striving to ensure students were competent with newer means of communication such as digital media and video


Leftist educators care about "correctness", not knowledge

Is the campaign against political correctness in education and the destructive influence of critical literacy and postmodern theory on subjects such as history, literature and science justified? In the past two years, The Australian has provided example after example of the way the cultural Left has taken the long march through the education system in its attempt to change society by overthrowing the traditional academic curriculum. As revealed early last year, Wayne Sawyer, then editor of the national English teachers journal English in Australia, argued the re-election of the Howard Government was evidence that teachers had failed to properly teach students how to think, since many young people, according to Sawyer, made the wrong decision by voting for John Howard.

The solution? Sawyer argued that English teachers must redouble their efforts to teach critical literacy, an approach to reading that analyses texts in terms of power relationships, especially through the politically correct prism of sex, ethnicity and class. As a result, instead of valuing the moral and aesthetic quality of literary greats, students are instructed, in the words of the Queensland curriculum, to deconstruct Wordsworth's poetry from an "eco-critical" perspective and Shakespeare's Macbeth in terms of "patriarchal concerns with order and gender".

With history, students are told that interpretation is subjective and relative to one's cultural and social position, and the subject is reduced to studying issues or themes. No wonder many students leave school with a fragmented and disjointed understanding, knowing more about feminism, peace studies and multi- culturalism than they do about the narrative associated with Australia's birth as a nation.

Even the hard sciences have fallen victim to postmodern claptrap. Advocates of outcomes-based education say that Western science cannot be privileged, as science - you guessed it - is a socio-cultural product, putting faith healing and astrology on the same footing as Euclidean geometry and Pythagoras's theorem.

Given the public's right to know and the billions invested in education, one may think the debate about curriculum is one we have to have. Not so, according to the cultural Left brigade controlling Australian education. Marxist-inspired Melbourne-based historian Stuart Macintyre describes The Australian's criticism of post- modernism and moral relativism as pernicious and recently attacked the newspaper for what he sees as its "denigration of teachers".

The Australian Association for the Teaching of English, in a book entitled "Only Connect. English Teaching, Schooling and Community" bemoans what is described as "one of the most motivated by a neo-conservative agenda and are interested only in creating a crisis where there is none. A recent edition of "English in Australia" contains a paper written by David Freesmith entitled The Politics of the English Curriculum: Ideology in the Campaign against Critical Literacy in The Australian. Freesmith defends Sawyer's argument that critical literacy equals a healthy democracy equals not voting for the Howard Government and condemns The Australian for promoting a cultural heritage view of literature, one that prefers Shakespeare to Australian Idol. He also condemns writers such as Luke Slattery and me and editorial comment in support of the literary canon as advancing arguments that are disguised as neutral when they are ideologically driven and based on a world view that is - the worst of sins - "conservative, Eurocentric and nationalistic".

Post Bali bombings and 9/11, one may be forgiven for thinking that being conservative, valuing continuity as well as change, being Eurocentric, valuing the Western tradition with its commitment to a free and open society, and being nationalistic would be seen as good things. Not so, according to the cultural Left.

The AATE and Macintyre are not alone in their attacks on conservative education warriors. Alan Reid, co-author of the proposed outcomes-based South Australian senior school certificate, argues that Brendan Nelson, when education minister, was guilty of creating a manufactured crisis. Geoff Masters. head of the Australian Council for Educational Research and given the job to carry out the Howard Government's review of Year 12 subjects across Australia, also says Australia's education system is at world's best standard. Not only is Masters an advocate of outcomes-based education, he also argues the crisis is manufactured.

So concerned are the educrats about the bad press education is getting that the Australian Curriculum Studies Association convened a conference earlier this year to address what was termed the "black media debate". Given those attending, bureaucrats from various boards of studies responsible for Australia's outcomes-based education and like-minded teacher academics and union officials, it should be no surprise that the consensus was that standards are high and all is well. At the conference, Masters' contribution was summarised as: "The simple point for Geoff Masters, in his response, was the need as a profession to ensure our voice is being heard in relation to curriculum issues; because at the moment it is not. Our voice is not heard above those who seek to manufacture a feeling of crisis in education."

The first stage in remedying a problem is to admit there is something wrong. Not only are the so-called experts in control of Australia's education system in denial but - given many are responsible for the mess - without further public scrutiny and action there appears little likelihood that anything will change.

The above article by Kevin Donnelly appeared in "The Australian" on 23 September, 2006

The joke of "parole"

The Northern Territory Coroner has demanded to know why Correctional Services staff failed to enforce parole conditions on an Aboriginal prisoner who beat his wife to death. Twenty-seven-year old Trenton Cunningham killed his wife in a brutal attack on the Cobourg Peninsula last year. Yet he was on parole at the time, and under orders not to go anywhere near his wife. Parole and probation officers have revealed that they had no idea the pair were living together again, in breach of those conditions, when the woman was killed.

The most tragic thing about Jodie Palipuaminni's death is that it was so preventable. By the time her husband, Trenton Cunningham, beat her to death in May last year, she'd suffered 11 years of the most horrific domestic violence. Cunningham had already spent 18 months in jail for two earlier assaults and at the time of her death he was on parole, with strict orders that he wasn't even allowed to live on the same island as his wife. Today the Darwin Coroner's Court heard that both a psychologist and a parole officer had warned up to two years earlier that Cunningham might kill his wife if he was allowed to go near her again. In a pre-sentencing report to the Supreme Court, psychologist Peter Mals had written: "If the relationship continues, the end result might well be a fatal injury to Mrs Palipuaminni, either deliberate or accidental in nature".

Today, a Correctional Services Officer, Marguerite Fawcett, testified that she too had warned of the consequences if Cunningham was allowed to approach his wife after his parole in 2003 She said, "I suggested the offender may be a serious danger to the victim." Counsel Assisting the Coroner, Jon Tippett QC, asked her, "did that danger include the possibility of death? "I thought so, yes", she replied

Yet parole officers today admitted in court that, 18 months after Cunningham's release, they weren't even aware that he was again living with his wife in breach of his parole conditions. They only became aware when, on May the 25th last year, he killed her. In that last brutal attack, Jodie Palipuaminni sustained a ruptured liver, serious head injuries, three cracked ribs, skin burns and heavy trauma to the chest and abdomen. She was pregnant at the time.

Jon Tippett QC has said, "the fact that Mrs Palipuaminni died at the hands of her husband, was not surprising. It was an event that was entirely predictable and had been predicted". Trenton Cunningham was convicted last month of manslaughter, and is now serving an 11-year jail term. But Coroner Greg Cavanagh is investigating the broader issues of why Correctional Services officers failed to enforce Cunningham's parole conditions and whether reporting of such domestic abuse should be made mandatory.

Cunningham's former parole supervisor, Madeline Trentham, today admitted there'd been no real supervision of Cunningham in the months before his wife's death. She said staff shortages, wet season rains and the remoteness of many Aboriginal communities made it impossible for authorities to visit all prisoners on parole. And she confessed the Department lost contact with Cunningham altogether for four months until shortly before his wife's death.

When asked why, she admitted that parole officers had been slack. "Sometimes he just forgets to ring or he's lost our number", she said.

Counsel for the Correctional Services Department, Michael Grant asked, "is it fair to say with Aboriginal remote area parolees sometimes you just cut them a bit of slack". "Yeah, that's correct", she said. Then the Coroner Greg Cavanagh: "so you're saying, if they don't call in when they should and the case manager is away, nothing much happens, the file just stays on the desk?" "Yes sir", she said.

When Trenton Cunningham finally renewed contact he made no mention he was again with his wife and Correctional Services staff never thought to ask. On May the 24th, he told parole officers that everything was going well. The next day he beat his wife to death.


Below is a sequel to the story above:

Murderers in the Northern Territory will find it harder to plead manslaughter under reforms designed to eliminate "reverse racism" from the justice system. As foreshadowed by The Australian last month, Attorney-General Syd Stirling yesterday announced changes to the Criminal Code following concerns about the high rate of convictions in the Territory for lesser charges instead of murder. Mr Stirling said the reforms, to be introduced in parliament this month, would remove drunkenness and any reference to cultural or ethnic backgrounds as partial defences to murder. "The amendments will ensure that those who commit murder are convicted of murder," Mr Stirling said.

The Northern Territory has the nation's highest murder rate, with the majority of homicides involving Aboriginal people, alcohol and domestic violence. In the 10 years since 1996, there have been just 12 indigenous people in the Territory convicted of murder compared with 62 for manslaughter. Over the same period, 24 people have been convicted for dangerous acts causing death and 23 for doing a dangerous act causing death while intoxicated.

But the changes were attacked by Sharon Payne, head of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, who said removing the need to prove intent represented a "return to the Middle Ages". "Under homicide rules, you really have to prove an intent to kill. The onus has to be on the Crown to prove that they (the offenders) intended to kill."

The reforms come one month after a coronial inquest in Darwin highlighted the circumstances leading up to the brutal death of Jodie Palipuaminni, a 27-year-old Aboriginal woman from the Tiwi Islands who was killed by her husband, Trenton Cunningham, in May last year. Northern Territory legal figures have questioned why Cunningham was convicted for manslaughter, not murder, since no alcohol was involved in the crime and the killer was breaching the conditions of his parole at the time. Cunningham, who had inflicted 11 years of horrific abuse on his wife before he finally killed her, was originally charged with murder but faced court for manslaughter. In August, he was sentenced in the Northern Territory Supreme Court to 11 1/2 years behind bars, with a non-parole period of 6 1/2 years.

Mr Stirling said too many offenders had previously been able to get away with lesser charges than murder. "I've always ... thought that there's been somewhat of a reverse racism-type element in law," he said. Under the reforms, the defence of diminished responsibility will be clarified, with new provisions for defence to focus on the accused's ability to understand events and determine whether their actions were right or wrong. Mr Stirling said the charge of "dangerous act" would also be abolished to ensure offenders were "appropriately charged". "Offenders will face the full arm of the law," he said.


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