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Friday, August 6, 2010

45. The Universe and all that

I’ve written about Brigg’s Elevator before.[See Blog 22] Briggs’ Elevator is a creation of a scientist named Maxwell who devised the idea as a means of helping us to better understand the notion of relativism, the notion of standpoint. It brings us directly into touch with the one of the post modern dilemmas.

We are accustomed to experiencing our surroundings - the Earth, the universe - from the standpoint of beings that stand roughly 1.7 - 2 metres tall. We experience our ‘world’ as being of ‘human proportions’. We are smaller than elephants, bigger than ants.

But what it we were the size of a goldfish; how might we perceive the world then? The 1960s film and television series, Fantastic Voyage, explored this thought-experiment. In the series, human beings were miniaturised; they became so small that they could journey through the body of another – normal-sized - human being. Travelling down the arteries and veins – the bloodstream - in their tiny spaceship-like vessel, they faced showers of meteor-like objects: red and white blood cells. These blood cells were almost as large as their innerspace ship.

During the 1960s, human beings were first able to view the planet Earth in its entirety. Human beings were able to voyage into outer space in space ships, to a sufficient distance that they could see – and photograph – the earth.

In a sense, both of these voyages – into inner and outer space – were journeys on Briggs elevator. The elevator can travel either up or down. It enables us to ‘see’ – or perhaps ‘envision’ or ‘imagine’ different ‘levels of reality’. At ground level – level 0 – the world is as we know it, it’s a world of human proportions. Elephants are large animals; worms are quite small; mosquitoes are even smaller, and we can look at bacteria and amoeba only if we use a microscope. Further, if we want to explore distant planets and stars and galaxies, we can do so only with the aid of powerful telescopes.

Take the elevator UP one level – to the level of 10 to the power of 2 – and it is as though we are 100 metres in the air, looking down. The horizon has expanded – we can see more of the earth’s surface. At this level, we are truly giants; we are as tall as very large trees. Other, normal sized humans look the size of a goldfish. Normal goldfish seem no bigger than a mosquito as normal ground level.

If we were to take Briggs elevator DOWN more one level, the goldfish is suddenly twice as big as we are. If you’re normally afraid of spiders in the accustomed world, imagining facing a huntsman spider that is now the same size as you. There would be some advantages: you could readily stand up inside a matchbox.

Take the elevator up to Level 8 (108) and you join those first astronauts who could see the earth in its entirety. At Level 13, you’re able to view the whole of what we call ‘our’ solar system: our Sun and the many planets and moons and asteroids. At Level 22, the Milky Way fits neatly into your viewing screen:

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.
Eric Idle (from the Monty Python team)

At level 26, the whole of the universe fits into our visual field. However, we can see only large clusters of galaxies; we see the entirety of ‘this amazing and expanding universe’. And that being the case, we may need to go to Level 27 or 28 to be able to keep the whole universe in our ‘full view’.

If we take the elevator DOWN, we travel into the fabric of matter. At Level –5 (or 10-5 where we have shrunk to roughly .0002 cm) we are on equal terms with a human cell. At Level -6 we can swim with bacteria that are the same size as we are; it’s at this level that we join the intrepid explorers on their ‘Fantastic Voyage’. At Level -8, we could do battle directly with the viruses hat cause us so much discomfort, and in relation to which normal-sized medical practitioners are so powerless. Mind you, at this level these viruses are now as big as we are; we might be even more powerless and more vulnerable to them.

At Level -10 we are in the position to observe the interwoven strands of dna; they are about the size of those plastic strips that people put in doorways to help keep the flies out.

At Level 11 (10 to the power of -11 or .000000000001) the nucleus of an atom, along with its surrounding misty cloud of electrons now fully occupies of visual screen. It’s a little hard to take it in: the nucleus is actually not much bigger than an orange (at Level 0) and the misty cloud extends to a distance of 60 kilometres, so we can’t actually get very close to nucleus. (Maybe if the temperature is low enough – down near absolute zero – the electrons will have slowed sufficiently that we’ll be able to dodge them on our way to the nucleus.)

Down another six levels and we can now observe the protons – they formed that misty cloud around the nucleus of the atom. But we’re still not at the ‘heart’ or matter. Two levels further down – at Level 18 (10 to the power of -18 ) - we can ‘see’ the quarks that form the proton.

At this point, we’re just over halfway down. Way down inside matter, so the quantum physicists have imagined, is space-time foam and superstrings … whatever they may be.

This astonishing journey has only been possible in relatively recent times. The invention of microscope and telescope enabled humans to first board Briggs Elevator barely 500 years ago. Humans managed to reach Level 8 in the late 1960s, around the time that Watson and Crick dreamed of Level –10.

Eric Idle wryly observes in ‘The Galaxy Song’ that, despite our scientific advances in knowledge, and despite the fact that (to quote another piece of popular culture: Julian Lennon’s song, Saltwater) we are ‘so enchanted by how clever we are’, we are still prone to insecurity and dark fears, and that there is still ‘bugger all’ intelligent life ‘down here on the Earth’.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.

Reductionist thinkers have had a tendency to view the continuum – from the almost unimaginable expanse of outer space to the perhaps even more unimaginable innerspace of matter; that is, from Level 26 to Level –36 on Briggs’ (mind) elevator, as something that could be progressively reduced and reduced until the essence/ the core/ the real reality is reached.

The search for a Grand Theory that would explain everything, from the origins of the universe to its ongoing expansion, everything from the formation of planets and stars and moons to the emergence and evolution of life, everything from Black Holes to quarks and superstrings, has been the goal of physicists for a half a century.

Holistic thinkers, on the other hand, have sought to understand the wholes (or holons) that exist at each of a small number of levels. Phenomenologists have sought to explore life as it is experienced by the humans living at Level 0. Neurologists, on the other hand, have sought to journey down a level or four or more on Briggs Elevator.

Behaviorists have sought to deal only with Level 0 – with observable behaviours, with stimuli and responses. Depth psychologists have sought to understand what is going on ‘under the surface’ or ‘behind the screen’.

And then there are the Christian (and other) fundamentalists, who make the Behaviorists look positively complex. Oh to be a fundamentalist. On the flat earth of fundamentalism, there’s nothing but turtles, all the way up and all the way down. And they’re all called Yertle, or Yahweh or something. Forget Darwin. Forget the Big Bang. Forget the amazing parallel findings of palaeontologists and geneticists. Forget 13.5 billion years. The univearth was created by Mr. God, roughly 6000 years ago, and He put the fossils there to amuse us – or perhaps to perplex us, and amuse himself. But don’t worry about it. He loves us, so there’s nothing to worry about.

Now, I ask you, which is the more interesting story, the more challengingly fascinating account: Mr God and his Bible-black truth all summed up in 66 books? Or Mr Briggs and his astonishing elevator?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

44. On 'going gentle into that good night'

For any reader who does not where the title of this blog came from, it was a poem - a villanelle - by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The poem began:

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the passing of the light

Thomas addressed the words - the poem - to his dying father, who - as death drew near -accepted its inevitability quietly, without putting up a fight; this angered Thomas, who penned this villanelle. As poets will.

I've been pondering death a bit lately. I suppose it's inevitable as you approach your twilight years. My father had a fatalistic view of death. He'd often say, 'You die when your time comes, and that's that.' As though God had a large calendar, and decided well in advance when 'your time was up', marking the date in indelible ink.

Death's been an issue for poets across the centuries. There's Robert Herrick' wonderful poem, written in the 1600s:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may

For summer if a-flying

And that sweet rose that blooms today

Tomorrow will be dying.

Typically of poets, he uses the imminence of death as an argument to his love to ... yield herself to him. The poem is called: To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time. And it's not hard to guess what 'making much of time' might mean...

That age is best which is the first

When youth and blood are warmer

But being spent, the worse and worst

Times still succeed the former

So be not coy, but use your time

And, while ye may, go marry

For having lost but once your prime

You may forever tarry

The poem is a centre-piece of the film Dead Poets' Society. John Keating, the English teacher (played by Robin Williams), has the boys read the poem while they stand in front of a glass cabinet that contains the school's 'old boys', who attended the school 50, 60, 70 years before, and who are now 'food for worms'.

'Carpe Deum! ' Keating (stage)-whispers: 'Seize the day, boys... Make your lives extraordinary.'

Have you seen the film Where the Heart is? There is a most extraordinary line in the film. One the characters says, at one point: 'Our lives turn on a breath.'

And that is the truth. There is no avoiding death. Some wit once expressed the view: There are two things that are unavoidable: death and taxes! Well he was wrong, of course. You can avoid taxes, and lots of people do, and some get caught and some don't. But death is unavoidable. We all get caught. Death has a statistical probability of 1.0; it is 100% certain. Like a calendar, our days are numbered. As performance poet Myron Lysenko once wrote:
Death is the one test that everybody passes.

I've looked at the statistics, and I estimate that I have somewhere between my next breath and 30 years or so to live. I'm 67 at the moment. More and more people are living into their late 90s. I've never smoked and never been a drinker. Statistically that's significant. But it may or may not make a difference in my case. So - somewhere between my next breath and 30 or so years - is what I have left. Somewhere between one more lungful of air and 10,000 more days, to add to the 24500 or so I've had thus far.

I could write a lot of poems and stories and blogs and novels in that time. [At my current rate of blogging, I could produce around 3000 or so blogs if I live to 97.]

Should I, then, go writing into that good night? I can't see why not. Writing, almost like breathing, is 'second nature to me now.' Like a sailor stranded on the island, every few days I throw this note in a bottle into the cyber-sea.

I can see little point in 'raging at the fading of the light'. It would be like King Canute setting up his throne on the beach and ordering the tide to stop coming in.

Our lives are a moment-to-moment proposition. As the Pythons reminded us:

'Cos when you think of it, life's a bit of shit.
Yes - life's a laugh and death's a joke - it's true ...'

But really, I don't think like that. Some years ago - it was December 2, 2006 - I delivered a blessing at the wedding of my son Erin and his wife Renae. Re-reading it, almost four years later, I'd want to stand by most of what I said on that day:

There is an old Sunday School chorus, expressing a traditional Christian sentiment. It goes:

Count your blessings, name them one by one
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done

In the Christian account of things, a blessing was a gift from God, something for which we should – rightly – be grateful.

The idea of a loving, caring father-like God, up in Heaven, raining his blessings upon people, was – and remains for many – a comforting image. But it’s not one we all ascribe to.

The Blessing that follows grows out of a Humanist tradition, out of the doubt and uncertainty that many have about the traditional views of things. It is a blessing that Athiests, Agnostics and Christian believers might comfortably share:

In this life, we share one certainty: that at some uncertain time we will all cease to be.

It is a bleak prognosis, one that could lead us to despair.

And yet there are blessings to be counted:

Above all else, we live and breathe and love and grow – we have the overwhelming blessing of life.

But there is so much more:

 We have: Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
 We have: Netball and triathalons
 We have: Monty Python, The Office, Billy Bragg; Weddings, Parties, Anything; breakfasts on weekends and latte
 We have independent radio stations, like RRR
 There’s the comforting thought that one day John Howard will NOT be Australia’s Prime Minister
 We have Music – for which we can express our thanks – and guitars (and maybe even ukuleles)
 I-pods, computers and other playthings

Renae and Erin, your blessings are many:

 You are blessed with a changing cavalcade of friends, people who share their lives with you, as you share yours with them … who bring joy and pain, kindness and discomfort, generosity and demands …who bring needs and wants …
but who bring above all, affection, and who share with you their uncertainties, their hopes and fears, their jokes good and bad; and – Renae and Erin specifically asked me to include this item – of course, Dad jokes.

 You both have the admittedly mixed blessing of parents and families. In the matter of friends, you had - & have - some choice, but you are stuck with parents and siblings:
People who love and disappoint
Who care, sometimes too much, sometimes too little
But who are more proud of the people you have become than you can imagine

 You are both blessed with work that engages your passions and your energies, work that exhausts and satisfies you

 You are blessed, too, with interests that consume you, and that give your lives that edge of excitement

 Above all else, though, you are blessed that, in the random chaos of his world and the preoccupations of your busy lives, you chanced to meet; that despite the backdrop of existing commitments and full lives you found time for each other; that you came to share moments of such intimacy and pure bliss in each other’s company that you chose to defy the odds, to take the considerable risks – and get married.

 You are blessed with naughty bits that can bring such pleasure and joy and closeness – an intimacy that passes all understanding.

Like births, marriages are times for rejoicing. They are times of new beginnings, times full of hope and promise. Marriage is an act of defiance. In joining together, as you have done, we stare down the dark side of the Force – we reject loneliness in favour of intimacy; we reject the notion of meaninglessness and despair - and we say instead: ‘In this relationship I find meaning and hope’.

 Erin and Renae, we salute your courage. We wish you only the best.

 And just as you are blessed, we are blessed in turn. We are blessed by knowing you, blessed by being able to see the joy and intimacy that you share as a couple; we are blessed that you are a part of our lives and that we are a part of yours.

 Pop songs sometimes get to the heart of the matter, if at times with a mix of fairy floss and saccharine. The singer songwriter, Jewel, once wrote:

In this life, only kindness matters.
In this life, only kindness matters.

Be kind to each other. Be patient. Be tolerant. Especially you Renae. Be caring. And as for the rest – be buggered!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

43. This Teaching Life (8): The past is a foreign country

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
L.P Hartley, The Go Between

This article was written as a contribution to the Jubilee edition of Idiom, the journal of VATE - the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English. I have been a member of VATE since the late 1960s, became a member of VATE council - its governing body - around 1973 or 1974, and served as President from 1978-80. I was made a Life Member of the organisation in 1990.

It is, and we did.
I began teaching in 1965, after completing an undistinguished BA and Dip Ed at Melbourne. I recall sitting in the auditorium of the Secondary Teachers’ Training College in late 1964, anxiously awaiting the announcement of my fate. Doug McDonnell, who was in charge of the college, was announcing the schools to which we had been appointed.

Stephen Cook, the creator of Porous Pasternak – a zany, ironic cartoon that Stephen created and that was published in Farrago – was a contemporary; we weren’t exactly friends, but we were on chatting terms, having first met four years earlier when we began our degrees, thrown together by the proximity of our names on the alphabetic list.

The truth is, I was in awe of Stephen. Midway through the Dip Ed year Stephen had thumbed his nose at the Dip Ed course and the Education Department and took a month or two off – to write a novel. Like me, Stephen was a bonded student. We’d both received studentships, which had paid our University tuition fees and had given us a small living allowance for our four years of university education; in return we were bonded - required to teach for three years in whatever school we were appointed to.

As with most things in my life at that time, I was ambivalent. Part of me desperately wanted to escape the shackles of my dependency on my mother; an appointment to a country school would have allowed me to move out of home without drama. The other part was not yet ready for independence; besides I had a girlfriend. If I were sent to the country...
So often the course of our lives is determined in the briefest of moments; our lives ‘turn on a breath’.

Doug McDonnell announced: “Barry Carozzi – Glenroy Technical School.”
And a few moments later: “Stephen Cook – Mallacoota Consolidated School.”

For Stephen, it was a cruel punishment. His life revolved around writing, around the emerging culture of Carlton and the University ... I wondered what would happen to him so far from the cultural milieu in which he had been thriving. But my fate was clear: I would be teaching at Glenroy Tech, where I had already completed a teaching round.

2009: Beginning secondary teaching (again)

In September, 2008, after fifteen years of teaching professional writing and editing in the TAFE system – initially at Chisholm in Frankston and Berwick, and then, from 2000, at NMIT Greensborough – I decided to return to Secondary teaching. I was no longer content with the TAFE dispensation; indeed, I felt ill-used by my TAFE employers, and could no longer stomach working for them.

I’d last taught full time in a school in 1984, when I’d taught English at Preston East Tech. – now Northland Secondary College. In the 25 or so years since I’d had two stints as a school principal (Broadmeadows Tech. – Broady - 1985-88; Alphington Grammar, 1992-94), spent three years at Waterdale School Support Centre, and taught writing in TAFE and taught in the Dip Ed and B Ed at Melbourne Uni.(Hawthorn campus).

I successfully applied for a Leading Teacher position at Warrandyte High School; when I began I was six months shy of my 66th birthday. Most of my friends and colleagues – the people I’d taught with over the years – had pulled the plug, had hung up their boots, had retired to quieter pastures. Many raised their eyebrows when they heard what I was intending. Some were more direct: “Do you think you’ll be able to cope?” Or “You must be mad!”

It was a concern for me, too. For 15 years I’d taught writing to adults who wanted to learn, who were – to use that old fashioned term “highly motivated”. I’d set a task – say, a non fiction piece on a topic of their own choosing; 500 words minimum. Few were at a loss for words. Some would hand in 5000 (!) words. They sought my advice, valued my opinion, responded to my suggestions and editorial comments. The four hour classes would slip by, almost painlessly. Often our conversations were engrossing, and would continue during our coffee break. It was – on reflection – very civilised.

During those years I remember feeling grateful that I was working with adults, and not battling with adolescents. Not trying to get blood out of a stone. Garth Boomer once described Secondary teaching as ‘being slowly pecked to death by ducks.’

In late January, 2009, I commenced my 45th year as a teacher, teaching English to 8.2, two year 10 classes and a year 12.

The first year of teaching in a new school is always tough – maybe not quite as tough as your first year of teaching, but very tough nonetheless. I’d started anew at Glenroy Tech, Lalor Tech, Preston East Tech – and now, Warrandyte High. You are a stranger in a strange land; you are entering a complex social landscape blindfolded and naked; they play the game by their own rules; it’s confusing, demoralising. And the ducks have a field day. You’d think it would get easier, but it doesn’t.

The foreign country - where we did things differently

Were today’s first-year-out teachers to climb aboard the Tardis and travel back those almost 50 years to a place like Glenroy Tech., they would find a very different educational landscape...
So much has changed. Let me count the ways... in no particular order.
Two (or so) systems
An obvious difference was that in the 1960s there were two systems of secondary education: Technical schools for students who were ‘good with their hands’; and High schools, the chief function of which was to sort the truly academic sheep from the lesser goats. Those who survived to year 12 could go on to University; around 10% of children actually attended uni.
Technical schools were mostly for boys whose aim was to work in the trades.
[It was much more complex, actually: there were Central Schools, Girls Schools, Consolidated schools, the Catholic system, the denominational schools ... ]

Class Sizes

Another very obvious difference would be the size of classes. Our English classes at Glenroy contained 48 students. They would line up in rows in the corridor – or outside the portable. I taught 3GH (Year 9s in today’s parlance) in a green portable, in a muddy paddock, beside the Woodwork Department’s sawdust extractor. The students sat in rows, two to a desk, and teachers practiced the art of crowd control.
[Teachers of Trade subjects taught groups of 24. Often they taught in 2 period blocks, so they taught 14 or 15 different classes. They taught 300 or more different students a week! In the early 70s, written reports replaced the % mark system. A Woodwork teacher got around the problem of not actually knowing his students by name by giving every boy the same comment: “Good boy, work well.”]


A third obvious thing is the ‘naming of the parts’. The name “3GH” had a special significance. When students entered secondary schools and technical schools in the early 1960s, they were required to complete a ‘battery’ of tests. These were called ‘intake tests’- tests of Vocabulary, Reading for Meaning and Arithmetic. In some schools there was also an IQ test. The students were then “streamed”. The ‘top’ 48 students were assigned to the AB stream; the next group was CD and so on.

Three GH was the bottom stream at GTS – it contained the 48 boys who, according to the intake tests, were least able in terms of literacy and numeracy skills and general intelligence. Most were just waiting for the day they turned 15 and could leave. Fresh from Ian Hansen’s 8 lectures on English Method, and from three years of University English, I thought The Rime of the Ancient Mariner would be the place to start my Year 9 English program – that, and Active and Passive voice.

Three GH was full of slow learners. Ronnie Scouller was one. Ron Geddes was another. I was a third. Ronnie could barely write his name; he couldn’t even read Ridout & McGregor, Book 3, let alone answer the grammar questions. The simplest of texts were beyond Ronnie. I pushed on with Coleridge ...

By thy long grey beard and glittering eye now wherefore stopst thou me ...
The guests are met, the feast is set, mayst hear the merry din ...

For anyone walking through the mud behind the Woodwork room, the din was indeed merry!
It took me a whole term to realise that 3GH couldn’t understand a word of The Rime.
I love God an my country / Take your hands out of your pocket when you are talking to me, son / Put your hand out, boy, and take your punishment like a man!

Today’s young teachers would notice the authoritarianism and traditionalism of schools. Every school had uniforms. Each Monday morning we swore allegiance to the Queen, sang the national anthem, saluted the flag. Teachers were required to sign on and off each day, in the school timebook. Male teachers were required to wear suits; no one wore shorts. Slacks were unheard of; women wore dresses. And in the salary award female teachers earned much less than male teachers, even though they did exactly the same work. [Equal pay wasn’t introduced until the 1970s.]

Our time travelling young teachers would most likely be appalled at the amount of violence, even brutality, that was an everyday part of school life. The strap was a commonplace punishment in schools – especially in schools like Glenroy Tech. For many teachers, hitting children was a routine method of control. School yard violence was ugly, and it was common. You’d see kids running full pelt out to the oval, where a growing circle of jostling boys chanted “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Prescribed Curriculum and HM Inspectors

In theory all schools followed the same prescribed syllabus. It was written by University academics. Grammar was the core of the 7 – 10 curriculum, along with the other mechanics of English – spelling and punctuation. Composition was there too. And literature.
Students were ‘expected to learn , among other things, about the case of nouns – nominative, nominative of address, possessive, objective; transitive and intransitive verbs; and the function of the infinitive and the past participle.’

When I arrived at Glenroy Tech. In February 1965 to teach English and Social Studies. Gerry Tickell, who was Head of the English/Social Studies department, handed me a copy of Ridout and McGregor’s English for Australian Schools, a traditional and dreary textbook, full of grammar exercises and dull writing tasks:
• A Day in the Life of a Shilling
• Write a letter to a Washing Machine manufacturer complaining of a faulty part.
English was pretty dull. As Garth Boomer observed of that time: “Grammar marches on. Give us each day our well-worn chains.”

Each year schools were inspected by the Inspectors. They would come into your classroom, observe your teaching, check your lesson plans, ask questions of your students, and decide whether you were Outstanding, Very Good, Good or Not satisfactory. We lived in fear of the inspectors – they had the power to promote us (to a higher salary) or to have us transferred.

Untrained Teachers

At GTS there were 16 people teaching English and Social Studies. Of the 16, perhaps 4 were trained secondary teachers. Norm, Judy and Peter were trained primary teachers. The remainder brought a range of academic skills: some had completed a year or less of a university degree. Some had even studied in the Arts faculty – albeit briefly.
Getting high on the smell of metho: the Roneo machine
No Xerox machine, no photocopiers. How would we cope, now that we are so dependent on that technology? We had roneo machines, manually operated, fuelled by methylated spirits. Ah, the memory of those intoxicating fumes.

The more things change

I’ve ridden the Tardis in the other direction – I’ve been around for 45 years - and I’m taken by how little some aspects of schools have changed. Teachers still moan about extras; kids are still distrustful of new teachers and give them a hard time. Subjects still dominate the landscape. The territorial remains an imperative.
There are differences , not least the massive changes in the day-to-day lives of kids.
I was amazed at how dependent today’s kids are on iPods and mobile phones, how some spend every lunch and recess texting friends, listening to music. Even in tough working class schools in the 60s binge drinking wasn’t the problem it s today among adolescents. Nor were families as fragmented. Even in the 80s, kids in Lalor would get out into the paddocks and try their hand at catching rabbits.

So much has changed, but the essence of teaching is what it has always been.
‘Relationship’ lies at heart of what we do as English teachers – always did, probably always will. Achieving it is a ‘problem’ we face with each new year, with each new class we take on. But that problem intensifies exponentially when we change schools. I faced this ‘exponential challenge’ at Glenroy in 1965, at Lalor in 1977, at Preston East in 1983, at Warrandyte in 2009 was: how am I to create working relationships with the kids in this school?
In some ways how we think of our work as teachers has changed. As a first year teacher, my question was (and remains): How am I to survive? Which used to slide easily in to: How can I control this class? Maybe there has been a shift in our collective understanding; that slide seems now to be to: How can I more effectively engage the kids I’m teaching? Or as Jimmy Britton put it: How do we ‘harness the intentions’ of our students?
VATE – a pervasive and ever-present force for good
Which brings me to what I want to say about VATE.

Ian Hansen, lecturer in English Method in Dip Ed at Melbourne, encouraged us to join up to VATE. At Glenroy Tech., Gerry Tickell, who was Head of English, and became my mentor and friend, and who was – and is - one of Australia’s great educational thinkers and practitioners – also encouraged me to join VATE. It was a fledging organisation then – barely 5 years old.
The early issues of Idiom were produced on an ink printer, called a Gestetner. They were foolscap sized and had green covers. I may still have some hoarded away somewhere.
The VATE Council was largely composed of University English and English Method academics and private school teachers. My recollection – admittedly vague and therefore suspect – is that during the late 1960s VATE was preoccupied with Senior English and with supporting the status quo. But changes were in the wind.

AD Hope, the patron of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, came out publicly and opposed the teaching of grammar, which he described as ‘a diverting and amusing game ... (However) the time might be better spent playing chess or scrabble.’ His views were supported by research findings that a knowledge of grammar correlated more closely with skill in algebra, and that – despite the ideology that had prevailed for 60 years – knowledge of grammar did not seem to correlate at all with the ability to write.

The change came with amazing rapidity. In February 1965 Gerry Tickell handed me Ridout & McGregor as the English textbook of choice. Within 12 months he was working with Tony Delves on a book that was to bring revolutionary changes to the teaching of English in Australia: Themes and Responses.

Garth Boomer described the years 1968-72 as ‘The Great Adventure’. We went from a prescribed course that ‘largely (followed) the pattern laid down at a time when English meant the literature and language of the educated classes in England’ (Hope, 1967), to an era when the leaders of the Education Department in Victoria established as policy that ‘each school is responsible for developing its own curriculum in response to the characteristics and needs of its students.’

In my version of the history of that era (mid-60s to mid 80s) VATE shifted from being a conservative organisation that upheld the traditionalist status quo to being at the forefront of change in the teaching of English.

VATE hosted the visits of a range of major thinkers, people whose ideas were powerfully reinterpreting the English teachers’ role. David Holbrook, who wrote the highly influential English for the Rejected, spent several weeks in Melbourne, and spoke to teachers around the state. It was Holbrook’s thinking that most influenced my teaching practice and that prompted me to write the Patchwork books, which came to be widely used in the 70s.

I remember John Dixon, author of Growth through English, speaking at a VATE conference in the early 70s, and introducing us to Ronald Blyth’s Akenfield. The American linguist Roger Shuy and the gentle English academic, James Britton brought powerful ideas and new perspectives. Douglas Barnes, the writer of Language Across the curriculum, also spent time here. They were exciting days, when new ideas were being tried everywhere.

Idiom became a vehicle for teachers to discuss their innovative practice.

I’d been working in the Curriculum & Research Branch in the early 70s, but then became coordinator of the Little School at Lalor Tech. By 1977. I’d been a member of the VATE Council for several years, with the likes of Bernie Newsome, who had worked in England with Barnes and Britton, Mike Hamerston, Neil Fuller, Marie Brennan, Lena Perlman and others. We attempted to generate greater teacher participation in VATE activities. One of the most satisfying of these ventures was the creation of the Narrative Working Party, a group that met over a three year period, and discussed and wrote about narrative and its role in thinking.
Bernie was keen to see the focus of VATE shift away from its traditional past. He began arguing for a symbolic change. The role of president of VATE had previously been filled by University academics; Bernie argued that a teacher should fill the role.

I was president of VATE for three years, and a member of its Council for almost a decade. They were great years, during which VATE played a central role in bringing teachers and theorists together as we sought to rethink how English might best be taught.

English swing like a pendulum do

I’ve not had a lot to do with VATE over the past 20 years. I went down the cul de sac of being a school principal, and then, as I said, taught writing in TAFE. I was deeply honoured – and moved - when, back in the early 1990s, I was offered Life Membership of the organisation.
Now I’m back working as a secondary teacher of English I’m taking more notice of what’s going on. The formal teaching of Grammar, which had been ‘sent packing’ 30 years ago, is well and truly back, and has been resurrected in the National curriculum. It’s there with something called ‘Addressivity”. (Neither my spell checker nor I recognise the term.) So I daresay there’ll be some interesting conversations/debates/arguments about such matters.

It’s not much of a climate for intellectual debate really. As I write, the Commonwealth Government has just threatened to fine individual teachers at a rate of $6000 a day if they don’t administer the Naplan. Spin and coercion, rather than open and vigorous debate, dominate the scene.

I’m enjoying Warrandyte High. I feel like I’ve returned to the place I first started ... and while I don’t quite know the place ‘for the first time’, I feel comfortable – at home here. In fact, I am really enjoying my teaching! So I think I’ll hang about for a while yet.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

42. God, Misha and Me - a meditation on 'reality' (whatever that is)

Reality? What is reality? We each of us make our own reality.

My year 12 class at Warrandyte - and thousands of other VCE students around the state who have been studying English - have been required to think about the question: Whose reality? It's an interesting group. Earlier in the year I brought in the results of an international study of beliefs. Before I shared the findings of the study, I asked the class to respond to the questions.

Do you believe in God? 0/17 believe in a divine power, a god of any kind.
Do you believe in life after death? 0/17

92% of Americans believe in God. 72% of English people. 68% of Australians believe in God.
And 0% of my Year 12 class. Like Julia Gillard, they are athiests. It was not what I had expected. I had not realised just how strong the secular tide has become. It is reaching tsunami proportions, it seems.

My disenchantment with organised religion - or disorganised religion for that matter - emerged in my early 20s. Up until then I had viewed the world through the lens of Christian belief. I went to Sunday school as a child, became a Methodist. When Billy Graham came to Melbourne, I answered his call and went forward to 'my give life to Christ'. From 15 or so I attended Church twice every Sunday, taught Sunday school, became heavlily involveed in Methodist Boys camps and Summer sc hools, studied Theology, became a lay preacher at the age of 17. Christian belief was the prism through which I viewed the world.

I interpreted the world through a Christian framework.

Up intil the age of around 9 I had believed in Father Christmas, but about that time the evidence began to mount that I had been (albeit benignly) duped. Other people around me - my friends at school - spread seeds of doubt. Could what they were saying be true? Christmas was fast approaching. I tested out the evidence. One day, when my parents left me at home alone, I went trough my father's wardrobe, my mother's glory box, my mother's wardrobe. Nothing. I climbed up on the bed and hit pay-dirt; I discovered the toys that 'Father Christmas' was going to be leaving for me on Christmas morning. I don't think that I was in any way traumatised by the discovery of my parents suberfuge. And I certainly didn't let on that I knew. On Christmas morning I acted surprised as I undid the parcels.

A similar process occured with my belief in God.

But more of that later. Back to my Year 12 class ...

What conclusions have we drawn about "reality"? Here are some of our tentative conclusions:

* Reality is all a matter of perception.

* Reality is a sort of map we carry in our heads. It is built out of our past experiences of the world, and it provides us with a map for finding our way around.

* Our 'reality map' is constantly changing. On this score, Piaget, the Swiss psychologists, suggests there are two key processes at work here. He called them assimilation and accommodation. We have a 'MAP in our heads'; we are constantly EXPERIENCING 'the world'. An anecdote :

While Simon Boomer [the son of an old friend, Garth Boomer - one of the most inflouential thinkers and writers in the field of English teaching] was 22 months old he used the word FLY to refer to virtually any small insect. the word stood for a 'proto-concept' that was part of Simon's mental map of the world. Whenever he saw a small insect he would call it a 'fly'. The 'new experience' of the small insect was readily assimilated - it fitted his map of the world.

Then came the day he was bitten by a bee. The bite was very painful. From that day on, he had two words for insects: 'fly' and 'bee'. In other words, he changed his map - he accomodated the new experience. He built on to his house of understanding - added a room - to accomodate the new information.

* Everyone's reality is different, and constantly changing. Some parts of our map seem very solid; other parts are subject to constant change.

Throughout my childhood, and particularly during my adolescence, I was a 'practicing Christian'. The Christian story - of a creative and loving God, of human frailty and weakness, of Christ's redemptive death on the cross - was part of my 'core beliefs'. It became something like a habit ...

But new experiences - in particular working in a mental hospital [See Blog 2: Unrelenting Sorrow], working at Glenroy Tech School, and meeting people who lived their lives with a different perception of reality - created much turbulence in my mind; there was much that needed accommodating. My 'house of understanding' was redesigned and rebuilt.

* Life could be a dream, Shaboom

So the old song goes. It reminds me of the old saying: 'Am I am man, dreaming that I am a butterfly, or am I a butterfly, dreaming that I am a man?' Central to Buddhist philosophy is the notion that we live in a dream much of the time; Charles Tart (in a book called 'Altered States') argues that much of the time we operate in a kind of consensus trance. Our mantra is 'assimilate, assimilate, assimilate - and ... sleep'. We don't attend much to the 'present moment' - what 'the world presents us; we attend to whatever is going on in our hears. We drive from home to work, and arrive there with no recollection of the journey; our mind was elsewhere; we were living in a dream of our own making - the constant flow of our consciousness, taking us here, there and everywhere. And more 'there and everywhere else' than 'here'.

Politicians are fond of saying 'the reality is'. At its heart, this is an assertion that "my perception of reality is superior to yours". I've given up trying to discuss any matters with Fundamentalist Christians - or fundamentalists of any kind, really. The map they carry in their heads is made of concrete and steel; not only that, the lenses through which they perceive and interpret the world enable them to totally dismiss the notion of evidence.

Fundamentalists base their lives on rocks of certain knowledge:

'You ask me how I know He lives - he lives within my heart.'

'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'

Politicans are also tricky. Their reality is :"what I am telling you now". Reality is ALL spin. It is composed of whatever slogans, half truths, lies, misinterpretations the spin doctors can come up with. The word 'debate' used to mean 'a clash of minds', a rational argument in which speakers presnet the evidence that supports their position; these days it means 'a parading of untestable assertions'. [I notice that Tony Abbott has started to use one of John Howard's old lines: 'Interests rates will always be lower under a Liberal government.' When someone tackled him on this, pointing out hat over the past two years under Labor interest rates have been at 'historically low levels', Abbott without a blink of an eyelid responded: 'Oh you can't count the last few years.' ]

This rant emerged as a result of my reading of a wonderful blog from Misha Sim. I've known Misha since 2001, when she enrolled to study Professional Writing and Editing at NMIT. She was - and is - a gifted writer who has had more than her fair share of kicks in the guts from "Life" - the bastard who seems to have no discrimination in apportioning suffering and pain. Three years ago, it looked as though things were settling down for Misha. She had met an American guy, was in love, and was engaged to be married. And then, he died.

How are we to react when life stings us like that - in so devestating a manner?

Some people turn to religion, of one sort or another. I have a friend who has turned to the certainty of numbers; numerology seems to have replaced the fundamentalist religion that enabled her to get through her 30s. Prior to that, drugs had been her rock , her refuge. [What's that old joke: 'Reality is what people turn to when they can't cope with drugs.']

Jean Gebser studied the emerging consciousness of human beings. He identified five 'states' or - more accurately - 'forms' of consciousness. Bernie Neville refers to humans as five-minded creatures:

1. Archaic mind:

This form is rather like the consciousness of other mammals - dogs, cats, monkeys. There is no distinguished self and other; we are at one with what happens. Gebser called it apersectival; in our archaic state, we have no perspective.

2. Magical mind

As the title suggests, this form of consciousness relies upon a magical view of the world. If we sing this song, the rains will come; if we dance this dance, our hunt will be successful; if we leave a gift at this place, we will become fertile. Ritual and dance and song enable the tribe to survive.

Even in a society that sees itself as rational, magical practices are still there. People choose special numbers as a way of influencing fate - and winning the lottery. The Christian church, though based on myth - on grand story - still has numerous magical elements. The Catholic doctine of transubstantiation holds that, during the Mass, when the priest holds up the host - the bread and the wine - before the altar, God work magic, and they actually become the body and blood of Christ. That is very powerful magic.

3. Mythical mind

This form of consciousness is dominated by story, by coherent narratives that explain the origins of all things, the nature of the human condition. The myths of Greece, the myths of Christians and of Jewish people, the Dreamtime stories of indigenous peoples - these provided coherence and meaning; they provided a map of the temporal and of the spiritual world, and established the links between the two. Mythical consciousness has a single perspective.

4. Rational mind

The test of truth for those whose consciousness is 'mythical' is: what do the myths tell us? What does God say? To Fundamentalist Christians, the Bible is 'the word of God' - the literal world of god. With that there can be no argument. Rationality, on the other hand, is essentially a matter of argument: it's a matter of making assertions and supporting them with evidence. In its 'stronger' forms, rational consciousness relies on experimental research.

5. Integral mind

Gebser, writing in the middle years of the 20th century, thought that human kind was on the brink of the dawning of a new form of consciousness. If the 20th century demonstrated anything, it was the shortcomings of rationality. The gas chambers of the Holocaust were an outcome of 'rationality'. The developments in science had enabled humans to produce methods of mass extermination: the gas chamber, the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the fire bombing of Dresden...

Not only that: the extermination of the Jews was firmly based in logic. Once you accepted that the Jews were a menace, a lesser race responsible for most of the problems in the world, it made perfect sense. Just as the taking of children from their aboriginal parents made perfect sense. Just as the invasion of Iraq made perfect sense.

The process in all of these cases is entirely rational. And the lesson is clear: start with a false premise, and use rationality to establish conclusively what should be done:

Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction - the logic leads us to the obvious conclusion: we must invade Iraq.

We can't rely on our rational mind, because it is competing with other, deeper minds: our archaic mind, our magical mind, our mythical mind. From the turn of the 20th century, with the findings of quantum theory, and throughout that era, the assumed dominance of rational consciousness came under increasing criticism. At its most essential - at the quantum level - lay Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. At that level of existence, nothing is predictable - all is chance. Chaos rules, okay.

For post modernists, 'reality' is relative. There is no one truth; there are many truths, each equally justifiable.

A couple of years back I wrote a song exploring this notion of post modernism.

The Essence of Post Modern Thought

Every tree grows somewhere
And every photographer,
takes the shot from somewhere
he’s decided to stand

Yes, every tree grows somewhere
And every assassin,
takes the shot from somewhere
Where he’s making a stand

Now every photographer
comes from a certain address
and that is the ess-

ence of post modern thought

Every photographer
Uses a camera
A pin hole, box brownie
or maybe SLR
Or these days maybe a digital
With zoom lens and macro
And wherever they go
Is where they record what they see

Painters are dancers
Composing their own symphony
To be deconstructed
To be decomposed – or maybe not to be

Trees grow from tiny seeds
Just like photographers,
The ground’s ever-shifting
wherever they stand

and every photographer
waits for every development
and that is the essence
that is the essence
that is the essence of post modern thought

For Gebser, post modernism is a disfunctional form of rationality; but it is an essential step along the road to the next phase.
The name he gives the emerging consciousness is integral. The rational mind dismisses the great stories and the quaint rituals of the magical mind as childish. Once I was a child I thought as a child, and acted as a child, but now I am grown up, I put away childish things.
The integral mind integrates the other four; none has precedence over the others.

And that brings me to Misha's blog.

Everything happens for a reason that I make up

Not long after my partner died, an old friend arrived at my home unannounced, to offer her condolences. At the time, Lou had been travelling around Australia with her new lover, a younger doe-eyed, hippie-chick with sun-kissed dreadlocks and too much turquoise jewellery. When they arrived, I was out of my mind with grief and exhaustion (not to mention being medicated up to my eyeballs on valium), and I was not in the headspace for entertaining, particularly someone that I had never met. As we all sat outside on the verandah, smoking and sipping tea, Lou's girlfriend took hold of my left hand and proceeded to read my palm. After reeling off some nonsense about the long and abundant life up ahead of me, she began caressing my fingers, softly, as though we were about to make out. 'Lou tells me that you recently lost someone very close to you', she whispered, as though it were a secret. I nodded my head. 'You know Misha, even though you might not feel it right now, everything happens for a reason'. I immediately pulled my hand away and lit a cigarette. I was deeply offended and I wanted to be sick. For the next 30 seconds I tried hard to contain the feeling of disgust that was bubbling up inside my stomach. In the end I couldn't keep it down. 'I don't know you, I said, and you certainly don't know me, so please don't come to my home where I am grieving, feel free to read my f######g palm and then tell me that everything happens for a reason'. 'Everything is not happening for a f#####g reason.

The 'hippie-chick' seems to be operating on the magical belief. Hers is a magical view of the world. There are spirits at work, that determine what will happen to us; they are the ones who control our fate, and they will ensure that 'all will be well'. The creases and lines in our hands are, in some magical way, related to not only what has happened, but will happen. And these spirits have their reasons. It is the opposite of Chaos theory, which suggests that all is chance, all is unpredictable.

A person who basic beliefs are drawn from Christian mythology might have sought to give comfort to Mish by suggesting, 'God works in a mysterious way', and that, in time, his purpose would become clear.

Placing the reason for an event - such as the death of a loved - on some supernatural power who knows best is of no comfort to someone who is suffering.

After reading my first draft of this blog, she wrote to me to say:

Nothing happens for a reason (hehehe) but it would sure be nice to turn your recent turn of events (my discovery that I had been adopted) into something wonderful and positive wouldn't it? That is what I have tried to do. In the words of the late great writer & womaniser Mr. Charles Bukowski - what matters most is how well you walk through the fire and I think the two of us have enough courage and fortitude to walk head on into the flames.

Misha's longish final paragraph is a profoundly moving statement of her current state of beliefs, and of the peace she has found. Like me, Misha has no faith in a sky god, or an earth god, or a mythical spirit, or any other universal force. There is no cosmic plan. Things happen. Pleasure and pain are random. Our lives can turn on a turn on a breath.

Job's suffering was a result of God's plan. Job's god wanted him to suffer. I'm just grateful that I don't have such a god inflicting pain on me, to teach me a lesson.

Almost three years later and I am no closer to finding a reason for the way things have turned out. And despite the sentiment of other well- intentioned, turquoise wearing folk, I am actually grateful that I have been able to move through the process of grief without relying on that comfort. It may surprise you to learn that as an atheist, I am a deeply spiritual person. While I may not have followed the conventional route, I have carved out my own spiritual path with deep connections to nature, morality and humanity - it just doesn't include the omnipresent mythical spirit, God or otherwise, who has orchestrated a cosmic plan. The way I see it, things happen to each of us that can bring great pleasure or great pain and inevitably change your life forever. I do believe that in order to find our way through the chaos, people choose to believe that these events happen for a reason. It was meant to be - you tell yourself this, as a way to understand things. Attaching meaning becomes in itself, a coping mechanism, a source of comfort when the pleasure or pain are too much to absorb. In order to make sense of pain and suffering, I have seen people try to weave each twist and turn of life into some coherent whole - to fashion the specific meaning they need, because without meaning - from God or an alternate creator - then we are ultimately alone. But to live truthfully, I have had to forgo this comfort and accept that there is no cosmic plan for each of us, just a story that you tell yourself after the fact. The absence of reason does not scare me, on the contrary, there is freedom in the thought that all pleasure and pain is random; that nothing is personal. It feels wonderful to me, like finally being unhinged. Mysteries are not necessarily miracles and people do not die or suffer so that other people can work out how to live better lives. Actually I find that concept a little creepy. It is true that in my experience of losing Chance, I have decided to make my life count for more than I had done before. I have quit drinking and smoking, gone back to study and even started this blog. We all learn and grow from both good and bad experiences but that is not the same thing as attaching some cliched, new-age, bumper sticker onto those experiences in order to explain them away. When I think about the third world, about the countless number of men, women and children who's entire lives (and deaths) are determined by the place in which they are born; where life means malnutrition, aids, starvation, torture, rape, disease and horror... I wonder if in the midst of all that suffering and survival, they ever stop to ponder the way in which everything is unfolding for a reason. Or does the 'theory' (or 'law' as I have also heard it referred to) in all of its mystical wonderment, only apply to a smaller section of the world's population born into more affluent circumstances; to the blessed white, middle-class demographic with a penchant for hypocrisy and self-importance.... What is the reason for that massive disparity I wonder.