Thursday, 19 December 2013

Words of 2013

Words of 2013
Words have their currency, like any other fashion.  I remember quite clearly when the word ‘resile’ was au courant.  It was in the 1980s, I had left the public service, but hadn’t rid myself yet of the habit of listening to question time, and suddenly I heard it.  The oddly negative but nonetheless passionately delivered construction.  Minister after minister declaring, ‘I do not resile from …’  I don’t know its provenance, but there it was, the word of the moment.  And then it faded.  You hardly ever hear it now, though funnily enough I did just the other day, from the CEO of Vinnies as it happens.

2013 has had its fair share of repeated words, and I’m taking a stab at listing them here, with my own idiosyncratic takes on them.

1.     Misogyny
Brought to its peak of exposure with Julia Gillard’s electrifying speech in parliament, the word rushing  from her lips like a fire eater’s flame, it caused a conflagration on internet sites throughout the world and as part of the process even melted its meaning somewhat, transformed by the Macquarie Dictionary into a milder form of woman-hatred - something more like ‘sexism’, which was searing enough back in the 1970s.  Perhaps the Dictionary could have saved itself the trouble, however, as deep-seated revulsion against women appears to still have its grip on the hairy underbelly of our society.

2.     Signature

Most commonly used as a qualifier for ‘policy’, and in contrast to ‘misogyny’s’ fireworks, this is a word that has crept onto the horizon but is finding a firm place in our public discourse.   So much so that I’ve been  forced to delete it from a manuscript I’ve resurrected but drafted some years ago.  The phrase I’d used was ‘my mother’s signature passions’, which was unusual when I wrote it and good for the rhythm of the sentence, but I’ve had to abandon it for fear of using of what is fast becoming a cliché. 

3.     Competence

Admittedly, in this usage the concept takes precedence over the word.  The word that’s mostly used is the negative adjective formed from it – that is, ‘incompetent’.   ‘Incompetent’ is bandied about almost unthinkingly to describe the shortcomings of any person or group of persons, most particularly our governments, with the noun ‘incompetents’ also employed to the same purpose, with monotonous frequency.   But underlying these criticisms is the ideal of competence.  Which seems to suggest that this is what we prize above all.  Just that something is done right, with minimum fuss and expense – an ever-receding chimera as we sigh our collective sighs. 

4.     Deficit

There’s no greater sign of incompetence than the size of the budget deficit (though its percentage of gross domestic product is a much more significant marker).  We didn’t used to worry about government deficits, and we still don’t cavil when it comes to spending on things like defence.  But ever since the GFC our tidy little surplus has evaporated, and now we have a hole instead of a pile of cash.  Our current prime minister has been given to comparing government budgets to household ones, but any economist worth her salt will tell you they are very different beasts.  The last time we had a holy grail of a surplus we let a lot of essential services run down, there was a shortage of skills and our infrastructure was sorely neglected, so that an argument could be made that if government investment in these areas had been allowed to proceed our economy would have greatly benefited.  This applies just as much today as it did then and possibly more so when interest rates are just about as low as they can get.

5.     Debt ceiling

This particular piece of idiocy is yet another fercockte idea lifted holus bolus from one of the most dysfunctional government systems you could think of, and had no business here in Australia at all.  We finally saw what damage it could do when the US government was shut down because of the Tea Party’s ideology-fuelled shenanigans in the US congress.  The Coalition government should be congratulated for dispensing with it. 

6.     Carbon tax

The bogey of the decade, a tax designed to discourage polluters from polluting and to encourage consumers to change our wasteful habits but for which exemptions were made and compensations were delivered, and still we found it intolerable.

7.     Climate change

The whole point of the above.  No matter how many scientists in how many reports warn about its dangers and the consequences for our children and grandchildren, never mind the people today living in low-lying regions, the public has been made to believe that it isn’t a problem - even as ever more frequent, more severe weather events have affected thousands so far.  For the rest of us, these catastrophic bushfires, cyclones, blizzards, receding glaciers and rising sea waters tumble about ominously on our television screens.  I know otherwise intelligent people who have been convinced by the garbage they read on the net that climate change, or global warming as it should be called, is some colossal con perpetrated by conspiracies of one kind or another, or is due to sun spots.  (They assert as well that the climate has cooled over the last decade or so, when the records show the opposite is true, that the global temperature has been on an irrefutably upward trend.)

8.     Marriage equality

The High Court has decided that ACT’s legislation allowing same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, but only because the feds have had jurisdiction over matters nuptial since the establishment of the commonwealth.  The ruling disappointed, but also offered hope, because the judges took pains to observe that marriage, a bond between ‘natural persons’, has evolved over time and thus their unanimous opinion was that it was gender blind, and in fact always had been until the 2004 amendment of the act which stipulated that it had to be between members of the opposite sex.  What parliament did parliament can undo, the court ruled, and so it’s only a matter of time.  It’s true that back in the 70s marriage was seen by many of us as an oppressive institution, and so it was initially puzzling that gays wanted anything to do with it.  But they’ve made their case, and in spite of the Christian lobby’s efforts, the issue is not going to go away.

9.     Anytime soon   

Okay, it’s not a word but a phrase, an adverbial one, but how many times in the past twelve months have we heard it?  I rather like it – it lends a nice kind of emphasis while avoiding stridence to whatever it happens to qualify.  But when does an apt phrase become a cliché?

10. Identity theft

Is this today’s ‘signature’ social panic, comparable to the Cold War bomb scares and terrorist fears of yore?  Count your passwords.  Measure the stress.

11. Innovation

We all approve of it, until it’s actually attempted.  Most of us loathe change but disguise the fact by asserting we welcome it.  What has actually changed over the past year is now in real danger of changing back.  Think of the educational reforms, designed to base funding on individual students’ needs, and so at last sideline the vexatious class issue of public schools versus private.   Or the NBN, that was meant to drag Australia into the 21st century by replacing outmoded copper wires with fibre – something undertaken overseas decades ago. 

12. Child abuse

The shocking revelations of various inquiries and commissions leave us in no doubt that institutions given licence to care for children are far too often the sites of their unbelievable abuse.   Most frequently, these are religious organisations, the Catholic Church being the most iniquitous.  The insistence on celibacy is the culprit here, but the fact that it occurs in other institutions where it doesn’t apply means that a pernicious culture of sadism and exploitation needs to be addressed.  Most importantly, at last the victims are being heard.

13. Asylum seeker

           I use the singular here, as it’s more likely to humanise the people whom Australians have 
            been encouraged to dehumanise.  We have a history of dehumanising people – think of 
            the treatment of indigenes and the notions of white supremacy that informed it, virtually
            unchallenged into the 1960s and beyond.  Just as the perpetrators of child abuse are
            being made to account for their actions today, those responsible for the unconscionable 
            treatment of people who jump an imaginary ‘queue’ by risking their lives at sea will be
            called to judgment one day. 

The list is not exhaustive.  There are other words that have graced our conversations this year and if you have your favourites please let us know.  It's been a bumpy ride, 2013, and the coming one will have us holding on tighter, but here's to love, friendship, kindness and the wondrous currency of words. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

On a Not-So Brilliant Education

This morning I got an email from a friend whose daughter went to the same orientation day my granddaughter did, as they both will be starting their secondary schooling at the local public girls’ school next year.  We live in a fairly affluent neighbourhood (in Abbott’s electorate as it happens) and the public school mentioned has, relatively speaking, a fairly high standard of education.  It could be that, given the choice, both these girls’ parents might have enrolled them in private schools, but there wasn’t the choice, and there’s a lingering whiff of anxiety that a shortfall of funds has disbarred them from the best sort of education.  Yet neither of these girls could be considered disadvantaged.  Nor do I believe that forking out a king’s ransom each year would necessarily provide them with good schooling.  I’ve learned enough about private girls’ schools from the experience of another granddaughter to disabuse me of that.  But where your own children or grandchildren are concerned, there’s always that lingering whiff.  It’s that old dilemma we've been forced to face – which should win out,  principles or parental love? – even though on many counts it’s a false one.  There’s nothing to say that what a kid gets at a state school is, ipso facto, inferior to that from a private one – it depends very much on where she is and the family she comes from.  The actual advantage of a private school lies in the confidence it may engender or the connections it can provide. As for protection from sex and the like  – well there’s little of that, if a particular North Shore private school I’ve had dealings with is anything to go by.

I went to a pretty wild school myself, a West Los Angeles public school with such a huge student body that our classes were staggered, with half of us starting and leaving a full hour earlier than the other half.  The school’s objective was to foster what was called ‘social adjustment’ over any academic consideration, mirroring in its philosophy all the resolute conformity of those Cold War years.  We had good teachers, but they were cowed by the loyalty oaths and the threat of McCarthyism, and the best I can say about this not-so brilliant education is that I made a lot of friends, a few of whom I’m in touch with to this day, and that I managed to survive it with my intellectual curiosity intact if what work habits I acquired were, on the whole, deplorable.  But for all that, we were taught foreign languages, which is more than most Australian public schools do today, and our teachers were members of a respected profession.      

All the recent shock horror over how Australian students are falling behind in the OECD ratings has stirred up a lot of these memories, and it’s started me thinking about education in general.  What its purpose should be and why the way it’s gone about these days is short-changing many of our youth.  I’d like to deal with the narrow partisan politics first, get them over and done with.  How anyone can possibly argue that the ideology of ‘choice’ hasn’t done real and lasting damage is beyond me.  The Howard government (whose reprise we're experiencing minute by minute since last September’s rout) skewed overall spending on education heavily in favour of the well-to-do, so much so that we find ourselves in the pickle we’re in now, with ‘independent’ private school students doing okay, but the many disadvantaged dragging the scores down.  The unfortunately-named Gonski reforms of Gillard’s government were formulated to correct this, but in a bid to get them accepted Gillard herself promised that no school, however well-favoured, would lose a penny.  So on one side of the party divide we had ideology masking class interest; on the other, a lack of the political courage to persuade the public of the need to stop funding the advantaged.

The current government has argued (if one can make any sense of its position from the flip-flopping it’s engaged in this parliamentary term) that it isn’t funding but ‘teacher quality’ that’s at issue.  But how is that to be improved, other than paying teachers more and giving them a better education, and how can this be done without costing the government – that is, us – more money?  So the real question is, do we think the money would be worth it?

As long as the question applies to individuals alone, perhaps it wouldn’t, so long as parents who can afford it are willing to pay for their children’s private education, and setting aside the question of whether such a purchase really does deliver what it claims to.  But if we apply the question to society, to Australia as a nation, as a whole, the answer is clear.  Then spending on education is not a drain on federal budgets, but an investment, at least as necessary as any investment on infrastructure, on ports and roads, and arguably more so.  If our country is to withstand the contraction of the long mining boom, the challenges of climate change, and its full conversion to a tertiary economy, its most valuable asset will be the minds of its population.  Seen from this angle, spending to achieve excellence in all our students is not a mere option but nothing less than an absolute necessity.

But how to go about this?  There are places other than America in which to look for models.  Gillard’s holus-bolus adoption of Joe Klein’s New York system, in which testing and tables play such a large part, I believe was mistaken; this particular model has been criticised since and most famously by Diane Ravitch, one of its principal architects.  Many people look to Finland’s as a better system to emulate, even though the size and relative homogeneity of Finland’s population make its system difficult to transplant to a federal one like ours without some adjustment, though Finland too has immigrant students and makes ample provision for them.  Its essence, however, is eminently transportable - better pay and education for teachers, greater autonomy for them, respect for their profession, in a basically public system.  A system in which equality is the by-word and special teachers are available when they’re needed, and in sharp contrast to the test-based, market-influenced one failing students in the US, features of which are copied too unthinkingly here.

I, for one, will be watching my granddaughter’s time at school like I’ve never paid attention to education before.  I know I survived a pretty lax schooling but survived is the operative word.  For all that I missed out on, I am a member of a lucky generation.  Things won’t be as easy for my granddaughter or for her country later in the century.  Our job now is to show the same respect for teachers as we do for sports stars, celebrities, bankers, CEOs, entrepreneurs and property developers - all of whom  take more from the economy and arguably give back less than teachers have ever done.  It all depends on what we really do value.