Thank you Mr Black

In Year 7 I had two English teachers. One took my class for my regular lessons and the other had us once a fortnight for ‘Reading’. Mr Black.

Mr Black had us rule up a 48 page Olympic Stripe exercise book with the headings: ‘Number’, ‘Author’, ‘Title’, ‘Genre’ and ‘Mark /10’. In the back we listed the ‘Book of the Year’ and ‘The most influential authors’.

In Year 6 I had read one book. In Year 7 I read 34. I still have the exercise book and I still, as a fifty-two year old, keep within it an updated list of every book I read. 

Mr Black reinvigorated my reading. My mother had read extensively to me as a child, but when I was in later primary school books were seen as the pariah gifts. Three years later I was asking for them for every birthday and Christmas.

One effective way to describe a good education is to say that it consists of ‘three good teachers in a row’, that is, for three consecutive years to have teachers who know and care for their students, know their subjects, differentiate the curriculum and connect it to the real world. 

Many teachers, myself included, would also add that it is important to be reflective. This little exercise book enables me to look back over my life and to remember the influences on me. I can see the pattern of my reading and thinking. And, for me, it gave my reading a discipline. When there were other distractions, I kept on reading.

Mr Black gave me an excellent education in reading in just one lesson per fortnight.

When I moved to Zimbabwe and entered my classroom for the first time, I found three words left by my predecessor on the blackboard: Read and Think.

Now, twenty years later, in an era of ipads and interactive whiteboards, one might think that education has new priorities. There are many new stimulations and these are mostly helpful, but the basis of an education in the humanities is still read and think.

So thank you Mr Black.

Whatever happened to the Arab Spring?

Australian politicians are concerned that our ranking in education is slipping.

PISA tests measure aspects of numeracy and literacy.

These are, of course, very important, but there is an other important element that I would like to hear being discussed more often. We need students who can think. And to think, they need to have access to a broad range of views on a matter.

I have just finished reading an excellent book by Platinga, Thompson and Lundberg called An Introduction to Christian Theology. I particularly enjoyed its structure. It covered the primary topics, then relayed a narrative that surveyed the range of viewpoints on Christian theology across history.

It was a survey.

After reading it I gained a broad understanding of the history of thought about theology in the major Christian churches. The authors provided their own editorial comment from time to time. This was clearly marked, making it obvious that they were entering into editorial voice.

There are voices in the Australian media that identify themselves as celebrating diversity or providing a comprehensive coverage.

Yet I rarely find anything approaching a thorough survey.

Consider for a moment the term ‘Arab Spring’. It was a very popular catch-phrase in 2011-12. Revolutions in North Africa were depicted primarily as people’s movements. Oppressive dictators were apparently being overthrown by popular movements with democratic ideals. Now it is obvious that the rebel groups had a wide range of motives. There were also numerous minority groups who were caught in the cross-fire. It is interesting how little the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ is used today. The term suggested a Hegelian inevitability about democracy. If the coverage had looked at the whole picture, the mainstream media wouldn’t have created a easy to digest picture of what was happening. It is undeniable that there were democratic forces: I am saying the picture was far more complex.

I noticed the size of this shift whilst listening to the radio this morning. I heard a BBC perspective on Syria that took the point of view of a citizen who supports the current regime and who described the popular movement as terrorism. What surprised me was not the words of the interviewee, but those of the reporter. Far from this being an ‘Arab Spring’ it was depicted as an opportunity for ideologues to bring their own agendas. The reporter was no longer celebrating people power but was despairing about chaos.

I don’t know all of the motivations for unseating Gaddafi, nor the range of political viewpoints in Egypt or Syria or Tunisia, but I know enough to realise there were a significant range of views. I have heard in local meetings in Sydney representatives from the Christian churches in Syria and Egypt speak and they each provided insights that I have only heard glimpses of on late night religious programs on the ABC. As of about mid 2013 the BBC started telling these stories as part of mainstream reporting, but the references on the ABC mainstream are rare.

Why doesn’t a public broadcaster give time to different views?

I long for the time when simplistic progress metaphors don’t guide the structure of science spots on ABC radio, or when easy catch phrases like ‘Arab Spring’ don’t guide our thinking in political affairs.

I recognise that the ABC does provide access to different voices. My concern is that there is rarely a survey across the full range of views. Either one voice is presented as the commentator or two groups are set up as binary opponents. Shows like Q & A are a grab bag of quips and short points – they are not set up to provide a thorough understanding.

Schools are places that can make a difference. We have more time than the media, and it is our task to provide depth and breadth in reading. If we alert senior students to the range of viewpoints that are on offer in regard to an issue of history or science or language, and if we are transparent about our own presuppositions, then students will have a chance to really be accomplished in developing an understanding of matters that affect their citizenship of this planet.

I watched a dog run across the road…

Sitting in the car at the corner of Frederick Street and Queen Street Ashfield, I watched a dog run across the road.

I had seen it wriggle free from the lead of the grey haired woman and spill out into the traffic, wildly excited, flitting and scatty between the cars.

It crossed the city bound lane, then darted across the centre line.

I saw the green Holden VF Ute roll it under its front wheels, then its rear wheels. The driver pulled over, his face contorted as he looked back at the scene.

The grey haired woman was already in the middle of the road, picking up her limp puppy. She continued along Frederick Street, walking away from me, ignoring the driver’s apologies as he ran to meet her.

There was a resignation in her walk, a dignified sorrow that this is the way things are: that one can have a puppy, and take it out, and lose it for a moment, and the judgment is severe.

*    *    *

It is not the science that leads people away from a belief in a loving, omnipotent God. It is the incredulity of a lively puppy crossing a road. Granted, we made the road, and the cars, and the woman decided to walk by them. She took the risk.

But God gave us all of these possibilities.

  *    *    *

And so I imagine, what would the universe be like without God? Without a Mind that causes minds to exist.

Suddenly the dog is only its chemical traits, and the woman is as well, and my metacognivity is also an adaptation to help me survive. This very article only exists because the fittest must survive. It represents no possibility of truth about the universe. My notion of pain being an offence is of similar origin and expression. All of the anger of all of the people whom God has disappointed are just expressing an evolutionary adaptation. As are those who hold to their beliefs.

And even if things – like bees in their hives – cooperate, their synergy is of no greater value than the things that are red in tooth and beak and claw.

Materialist reductionism is a terrible tyrant.

There is nothing to be offended by in this event. Lions kill antelope. Ants dissect the caterpillar. The seed falls into the ground and dies.

In A D Hope’s words: And the great earth with neither grief no malice received the tiny burden of her death.

But even Hope’s poetry is an adaptation, as honed as a sharpened claw or an instinct to fight or flee.

The concept of life itself is only an adaptation. The nothingness of the universe only really breeds another form of nothing.

There is nothing

                           to be angry about.

  *    *    *

And yet, my sense of self is extant. The notion that I might feel compassion for the grey haired woman is extant.

The explanation that every single thing in the universe is only an adaptation that enables survival does not actually come to terms with poetry or love or grace.

These notions are profoundly changed by reductive materialists in order to have them fit the model.

God, said Les Murray, is the poetry caught in any religion. Caught, not imprisoned.

Not imprisoned.

Not imprisoned.

The Bible is, in Karl Barth’s words, an ‘otherworldly book’. In it humanity is dignified. Can speak. Can create meaning. Can be angry. Can love.

I do not understand why a loving God would allow such misery. But I do believe that a loving God has created persons who are selves. Who are, as created beings, not imprisoned.

It was the man in Martin Place in Les Murray’s poem An absolutely ordinary rainbow who wept, then finished weeping, and who parted the crowd and walked off down Pitt Street.

It is a religious vision. A Christian vision of an agentive and potentially empathic humanity.

With a dignified sorrow.