Archive for September, 2013

A legend with moral authority

September 30, 2013

I am considering a question from implementing the Australian Curriculum: why and how to teach history.   (I am also breaking a half-dozen of the “rules” they teach for writing-to-the-test, because my authentic voice doesn’t fit the standard pattern.  Just saying …)

My main interest here is not the understanding that, as Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  It’s not the hope that flows from seeing the marvellous changes over time, and the thankful feeling from comparing most of the-lives-lived with our own.  (I really appreciate instantaneous hot water, vaccination, soap, and eye-glasses, for example.)  It’s not the intellectual training from asking the questions like “When does now become history?  How do we know what happened – what do historians do?” – or the surprises that brings when we find that our “history” was propaganda, as in Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time.”  (Worth borrowing from the library, even if you have read it – I reread it this week, and was enthused.)

It’s the creation of legends with moral authority, to give a deeper meaning to”Being Australian.”

Consider the etymology of the word:

from the delightful  legend (n.)

early 14c., “narrative dealing with a happening or an event,” from Old French legende (12c., Modern French légende) and directly from Medieval Latin legenda “legend, story,” literally “(things) to be read,” on certain days in church, etc., from Latin legendus, neuter plural gerundive of legere “to read, gather, select” (see lecture (n.)). Used originally of saints’ lives; extended sense of “nonhistorical or mythical story” first recorded late 14c. Meaning “writing or inscription” (especially on a coin or medal) is from 1610s; on a map, illustration, etc., from 1903.

As a child I came across “Van Loon’s Lives” and was entranced by the stories of truly interesting people from the past.  I read and watched many biographies, but few were of Australians, and none of those struck me as really amazing.  It was only as an adult, through an ABC Radio National program (one which seems no longer to be on the net, alas)  that I was introduced to the life of an Australian whom I rate with those Van Loon chose:  Sir John Monash.

Sir John Monash was the child of Jews who had emigrated from Prussia, at a time when Jews were socially unacceptable unless wealthy (remember, this bias continued in many places even after WWII – “No Blacks or Jews” signs in lodging house windows.)  He excelled at school and loved music and drama as well as  languages and mathematics.  A respected  engineer, he served in World War I as an officer – not in Engineering – becoming one of the most respected Generals of the war.  Higher ranks were impressed by his planning, execution of plans, and ability to command; returned soldiers appreciated his victories, but praised his ability to get them hot food.

After the war, he chose not to seek election to Parliament, but – despite social rejection by some traditionalists – used his skills to improve the country.  For example, he worked as the head of the Victorian State  Electricity Commission, changing electricity from a “rich man’s commodity” to a basic utility.

A more important example to consider: when the police were on strike and looting and rioting broke out, he led – at the request of the Premier – a group of other  generals and ex-servicemen ( five battalions, not just a mob) to restore order.  Another:  when the State government had rejected a proposal for developing the power grid, he talked his way into addressing the Cabinet, and told them 

‘Gentlemen,  you have rejected my proposal because you have clearly failed to understand it’. He explained it to them. For thirty minutes. In the end, they agreed! He then said ‘Well, you will now need an Order in Council to implement the decision’, pulling from his pocket one that he had prepared earlier. He stood there while it was signed.

There are many sites with pieces on his life, but I am interested in an aspect less commonly (at present) reported: his decision not to lead armed groups to overthrow the Australian Government.   The Australian Returned Services League (RSL) has one teaching resource which puts it in historical context ( it is in Source 9), and Engineers Australia has a biography    where it is in his life context on page 9.

An outsider by birth, often insulted for his race and his ideas, a brilliant man who cared for the unfortunate, a polymath  who had won the respect of common soldiers, an expert who faced down politicians for the good of the State, a man who saw fools in elected positions of power at a time of crisis, a man who was then offered the chance to take control of the nation  – and supported the fledgling democratic system.  Would you like that to be the children’s idea of a hero?  Their idea of  what it is to be Australian?

That’s a man who deserves to become a legend.

The wisdom of the masses: Why I worry about the fashion for distrusting politicians who are too intelligent

September 27, 2013

In my last post (an appropriately mournful connotation there) I quoted Ogden Nash.  It was a fragment I remembered from a book, old before I was born, which I read again and again as a child.

The search on-line for the correct wording – after all, it was years since I had read it –  led me to consider democracy and the often claimed “wisdom of the masses.” (That was the phrase in the 50s.  Now, by Google, “of the crowds.”)

I started with the quote I recalled, involving “fell or jumped … picket fence” and found only one  which had the poem, “Everybody tells me everything”:

Wanting as always to double-check, I found many pages which responded to my search by the name of the poem, for example , , and the first three pages full of blogs where people quote the poem – but only as a scrap.  Strangely, none of them use an ellipsis to indicate something comes within the scrap:

“I find it very difficult to enthuse
Over the current news.
Just when you think that at least the outlook is
so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens.
And that is why I do not like the news,
because there has never been an era
when so many things were going so right
for so many of the wrong persons.”

Wondering whether followingpuliutzer and I come from some parallel universe, I went to check the historical source.  I found the book (my family are at the stage of having to part with a book if we want to keep a new one, but some things we will not cull):  the reference is “Everybody Tells Me Everything” by Ogden Nash in “The Face is Familiar” 1943, Australian Edition,  J.M.Dent and Sons, London, pp 16-17,

presented here copied as hyperlinked by the notably accurate followingpulitzer :

I find it very difficult to enthuse
Over the current news.
The daily paper is so harrowing that it is costly even at the modest price of two cents;
It lands on your doorstep with a thud and you can’t bear to look at it but neither can you forbear, because it lies there with all the gruesome fascination of something that fell or jumped from the thirtieth floor and lit on a picket fence.
And you think that perhaps a leisurely perusal of some unsensational literary magazine will ease the stress,
And there you find an article presenting a foolproof plan for the defense of some small nation which unfortunately happened to get swallowed up by a nation not so small just as the article presenting the foolproof plan for its defense slid off the press.
And you furtively eye your radio which crouches in the corner like a hyena ready to spring,
And you know that what you want is Baby Snooks or Dr. I.Q. and you know that what you will get is Elmer Davis or a European roundup or Raymond Gram Swing.
Wherever you turn, whatever escapist stratagem you use,
All you get is news,
And just when you think that at least the outlook is so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens,
And that is why I do not like to get the news, because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons.

I can upload an image if you like.

A truth sometimes forgotten in talking about democracy: the majority having an opinion does not make it an accurate description of that-which-is.  That is why web-searchers must assess the reliability and expertise of their sources, and why the ideal of Democracy is to elect people whom we consider wiser than ourselves.

That is why I worry about the fashion for distrusting politicians who are too intelligent.

Picket fences, Miranda Devine, Federal Cabinet’s one woman, and Team Sports.

September 24, 2013

I was fascinated (as I often am) by the weekend newspaper, which has, to quote Ogden Nash, “all the gruesome fascination of something that fell or jumped from the thirtieth floor and lit on a picket fence.

In this case, particularly by  “Sorry Ita, but Bishop’s no token woman.”  From The Sunday Times (Western Australia)  (“Insight” P.63 22.09.2013) – Miranda Devine’s blog, online at the (Australian) Telegraph:

If it were voiced by “First Dog on the Moon”     I would know it was satire.  Unfortunately, it is printed in a Western Australian newspaper and, from the comments permitted to remain on her blog, I think she is serious.  Please read it before continuing (should it disappear, let me know and I will post a jpeg of the newspaper page.)

If you are too busy – in essence, she suggests that there is only one woman “ready” for a Federal Cabinet Ministry because too few of the women in politics have been  involved in team sports, so they are not “Team Players.”

For non-Australian readers, you might need to know that:

1. The generation of men in power here come from a background where “Team Sports” means foot-egg and cricket.  This generation tends to like strong women as long as they are in a subservient position (daughter, deputy, etc.) BUT tends not to hear if they voice some new idea –  however, it will often be said again ten minutes later by a man, and then is greeted as a good idea (Personal observation, echoed by others involved in committees.)

2.  The Prime Minister’s team sports background is rugby – a variety of foot-egg where male players are noted for macho behaviour and objectification of women.

3. The status of female team sports is clearly demonstrated by their usual absence from the nightly TV news  “sport” section.  Most young women here have played some team sport – hockey, netball (the home of “here if you need”), basketball, lacrosse …   giving up part of the weekend for their team.   Generally, not foot-egg or cricket, though.  Why? Well, just ten years ago a girl in a State primary coeducational school was  told that she couldn’t sign on to do cricket in the Sports period.  When her family supported her complaint of unfair access to the sport, she was allowed to sign on – on the same basis as late-signing boys.  So, as she had not done the sport the previous year, she joined the “waiting list.” And took up hockey.  Women’s rugby and cricket are seldom reported, even if the teams are winning internationally.

4.  High – level business mentors find that women often subsume their ambitions to the leader’s claimed needs of their teams (personal communications.)  The social conditioning of female children in Australia strongly encourages the compliant/supportive behaviours over individualistic drives, and discourages challenging dominant males.  For example, I heard one older woman tell a teenager “Don’t show how clever you are – men don’t like women who are more clever than them.”

5.  The reality of politics is closer to Mungo MacCallum’s “How to be a Megalomaniac”  – this book is written by a senior and satirical journalist, and rings true to long-term Canberra watchers.

So: few women fit for Cabinet? Sure, it’s because they aren’t on the Women Pollies’ Hockey Team.

Yeah.  Nothing to do with the tendency of selection panels to choose “People like us” as the most capable, and the selection panel here being really not representative of the national demographic profile (i.e. being mostly older white male politicians.)  The link I give is to Mikki Hebl’s  “Subtle Biases in Job Selection,” from Rice University website, and includes the truths that

…there are other Biases we have:   Job/Gender Congruency.
1) In masculine-stereotyped occupations (i.e, sciences and engineering), men’s performance is evaluated more positively than is women’s, even after controlling for the performance itself. This bias shows up in scores of studies and is consistent (i.e., Glick, Zion, & Nelson, 1988; Top, 1991).
2) When women act in noncommunal ways, they are penalized by evaluators; however, when they act in communal ways, they don’t get the job (Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004; Rudman & Glick, 2001).

And many people read Miranda Devine for a “sensible” view of things.

Lit on a picket fence, indeed.

Newspaper Editor at work: a call for change to journalists’ behaviour becomes a call for MPs to be ethical.

September 15, 2013

I have noticed that the media now mainly quote (or sound-bite) people without giving background facts or historical context.  I object to this, as many of the consumers of modern media haven’t the energy or training to do this for every factoid that gets spread.

Wanting journalistic responsibility, wanting facts over factoids, I wrote to a newspaper demanding action.  The letter was published – sort of.  I give both versions here.

This gives a resource for English and Society & Environment teachers:  How could the letter be improved? (See below.)  How could the letter be shortened while keeping its intent? What changes have been made in the published version?  How does the new meaning compare with the original?  What is, and what should be, the duty of reporters and editors in the media when it comes to reporting factoids?  And when editing letters?

What I wrote:  904 characters

There is much reporting of Mr Abbott’s claim to a “mandate”. Mandate: in politics,the authority  to carry out a policy, seen as given by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins an election.

When reporting Mr Abbotts claims, journalists should add that, by the intent of our constitution, the candidates which won election on a policy against to Mr Abbott’s have the mandate to oppose his efforts, and also have the ethical duty so to do.  Also, they should remind their audience that the Senate system was designed to let people who liked part of the major winner’s policies elect senators to block the parts they dislike.

They should do this EVERY TIME the Coalition claim that the others should cave in to their “mandate.”

Any Green or Labour MPs or Senators who vote against the policies in their election platforms will be betraying the mandate the voters who put them into parliament.

What they printed:  608 characters

There is much reporting of Mr Abbott’s claim to a “mandate” (n: In politics, authority to carry out a policy, seen as given by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins an election).

It should be added that the candidates elected on a policy against Mr Abbott’s have a mandate to oppose his efforts, and have the ethical duty to do so.  Additionally, the Senate system was designed to let people who liked part of the major winner’s policies elect senators to block the parts they disliked.  They should do this every time the Coalition partners claim that the others should cave in to their “mandate”.

(I see many errors.  I’m sure they weren’t there when I typed the email – but then, I didn’t do a hardcopy.   Another point to raise in English:  do students find they can proofread beter on paper?)