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Instant senescence

Thinking today as my coachees approach D-Day for the HSC 2009 that it is FIFTY years since I was similarly placed. Oh my!

Now just 40 years before that and where were we?

1919---Hughes-addresses-Aus council_of_four_versailles

Vladimir_Lenin_and_Joseph_Stalin,_1919 070405b_1919wreck

And 50?

1909 Latham over chanbel

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2009 in amazing, ex-students and coachees, personal

 

A five-finger exercise

While my coachee slaved away on a Trial HSC English Advanced paper this morning I undertook to answer the creative writing question from our previous session: “Select one of the following quotations. Use this quotation as a catalyst for your own piece of writing on belonging.” I think I rather overdid the thematic side, but I was hoping to demonstrate how this rather artificial task may be done. It isn’t fiction, but that’s in the parameters given.

c) “My fondest childhood memories”

When you think about it there is a lot of truth in the old Catholic saying “Give me a child to the age of seven and I will show you the man.” By that age our sense of identity, which is so much shaped by our sense of belonging to family, home, town and country, are basically set – if not in stone, at least firmly enough that escape if needed is quite difficult.

In my case my grandfather rather than my father was the key influence. My father, you see, was rarely home, being overseas with the RAAF, so my family were living with my grandparents, and the one who had time for me most was my grandfather.

My grandfather was a retired teacher. I don’t know how he did it, can’t remember, but before I went to school I could already read and tell the time. This led to early alienation in Kindergarten. Invited in week one to “write” on the blackboard I wrote “Sydney Morning Herald” and the date. I gather the teacher was not amused and rang my mother to complain – strange as that may seem.

He was a mine of information, my grandfather, and I was a hyper-inquisitive child. Once he was gardening and I asked him: “What are snails for?” He stood up and took me round the garden, showing me snails, describing their life-cycle, their means of locomotion and their feeding habits and why, if we wanted our lettuces, he had to get rid of them. “Yes,” I replied with precocious analytical skills, “but what are they FOR?” Since the metaphysics of the snail was not something that had occurred to him he became uncharacteristically short with me and called out to my mother, “Get this bloody kid out of here!”

I never have found out what snails are for, but I guess they fit into the web of life. Even snails belong, don’t they?

Another thing about my grandfather was that he talked to just about everybody. He was genuinely interested in their lives and what they did. I would accompany him on his walks and get impatient as he stopped at this fence or that gate to chat to someone for what seemed like hours to me. I was not displeased though when he would climb over the railway fence to chat to the driver of the milk train when it was waiting at the siding for the express train to go through. There were steam engines in those days and I was enthralled standing on the tracks with my grandfather as the fireman and driver leaned down from the cab to share finer points of their trade.

On the other hand, so I am told, when my father at last returned from overseas my first words to him were “Get that man out of here!” (Perhaps I learned the expression from my grandfather.) To me my father was the picture on the dressing table, not this large imposter who had suddenly disrupted my life, just when I had my mother pretty much in control. What this may have done to our relationship, indeed to my father’s recovery of his belonging, I can now only guess – but it did rather colour our later lives.

You can see what a network one close relative can set up for you in those formative years. With my grandfather I explored so many aspects of my environment and he was, you could say, my map-maker. Through him were developing all those templates of background, culture and place which shape so much where “I” fits in – belongs, indeed.

There are many other stories I could tell of my grandfather. Did I mention he only had one eye? No? But that is another story.

I was 21 when my grandfather died. He had mentored me in so many ways, easing the pain of high school maths, answering my incessant questions about other countries as we browsed the atlas together, showing by example tolerance of people from other cultures, leading me (without pressure) to emulate him in my choice of career. If he were removed from my life story I wonder if I would today have the network of belongings that I now possess, modified as they may have been by other experiences and circumstances. Nonetheless, if I look for the rock on which it all has been built I need look no further than those childhood experiences with Roy C. – my grandfather.

 

Some non-fiction read recently 2c – tentative conclusions

And I really mean tentative. Further, there is no way a shortish post like this can do more than indicate rather than expound. After all, the books with which this series of posts began comprise around a thousand pages, while this post will most likely be just one to three! And I am about to add to that by recommending another thousand pages or more, which I have either skimmed or, in the case of Jason Burke, read attentively since commencing these posts.

Supplementary texts

star30 star30star30star30star30star30 Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: the true story of radical Islam, Penguin 2004. This is the most thorough and most convincing book I have read on the subject. The writer has gone to first-hand sources and has relevant language skills, unlike very many who write on this. He speaks Urdu, the principal language of Pakistan and a second language understood by many of the players in Afghanistan. He has been to many of the relevant places and spoken to many of the people involved and thoroughly documents everything he says. His understanding of Islam and of the bewildering array of groups and their connections, or lack of direct connections, with Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda is superior to that of most western commentators. Anyone at all interested has to read this book. It outclasses the derivative work of Burleigh in this area by a factor of what – 1000%? The small sample of his work I attach below barely indicates the strengths of the book, but does indicate the direction Burke takes.

star30star30star30star30star30 Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: the Islamist attack on America, Granta 2002. There has been an edition since then, which I don’t have. This was the first book of its kind that I read and remains among the best, but some of his conclusions about his subject need to be reconsidered in the light of Burke’s book. He is sceptical about the direction much US and UK policy was taking at that time, particularly about reliance on military solutions. That remains true, but does not rule out all military involvement. Excellent on the ideological background of “Islamist” groups.

star30star30star30star30star30 Karen Armstrong, Islam: a short history, Verso 2001. Short it is indeed, but also scholarly and fair-minded.

star30star30star30star30 John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, Faber 2003. Even shorter! The thesis is very interesting, however, and has a lot going for it.

star30star30 Melanie Phillips, Londonistan: how Britain is creating a terror state within, Gibson Square 2006. Burleigh endorses this book, but I still find it tendentious. Phillips does, however, highlight some of the ironies of following our own values of free speech. She overdraws, as does Burleigh, the “multiculturalism is to blame” argument. In The Mighty and the Almighty Madeleine Albright comes almost to the opposite conclusion: that a deep understanding of cultural pluralism and a willingness to respect the Other may be part of the solution. There’s a big difference, I would argue, between that position, which I share, and craven surrender to the bizarre and positively dangerous in our midst. Getting the balance wrong in either direction won’t help us, and may indeed do worse than that. The temptation to divide the world into goodies and baddies, alluded to below under “complexity”, must be resisted.

star30star30star30star30star30 Abdullah Saeed, Interpreting the Qu’ran: Towards a contemporary approach, Cambridge UP 2006. Saeed is Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne. I am sure this book would not please either of the speakers at that 2005 Mine Seminar, but it will please very many Muslims and seems to me, by analogy with my understanding of some parallel dilemmas in Jewish and Christian circles and with my understanding of the nature of text and reading generally, to be a very fruitful approach for all concerned. Accepting, as all observant Muslims do, that the Qu’ran is indeed of divine origin, Saeed argues that interpreters of the Qu’ran are not so blessed.  He distinguishes three approaches, and in that respect adds nuance to the rather too broad idea of “fundamentalism”. The three approaches are: i) textualists, who argue for a strict following of the text and adopt a literalistic approach to the text; ii) semi-textualists, who “essentially follow the Textualists as far as linguistic emphasis and ignoring of the socio-historical context are concerned, but … package the ethico-legal content in a somewhat ‘modern’ idiom, often within an apologetic discourse.” Apologetic there is in the theological sense of presenting scripture in a way meant to refute sceptics. Having broken that sentence structure, I now present: iii) contextualists, who emphasise “the socio-historical content of the Qu’ran and of its subsequent interpretations.” Or, as a Presbyterian minister I knew many years ago was fond of saying, “a text without a context is a pretext.”  Thus, while I agree with the very well expressed statement by Sheik Yasin on context towards the end of that video referred to in the previous post, it is clear nonetheless that he is not a contextualist in Saeed’s sense, and may even be in camp i), though possibly in camp ii).  I still find it unfortunate that contextualism does not, in general, go as far in Qu’ranic studies as perhaps it should, as it has (much to the distress of many) in Biblical Studies.

Complexity

0402occidental140 So much could be said here! People often resist complexity. They like their boundaries neat. Thus the vision of Al-Qaeda that emerges in Burke’s book may be resisted because the appeal of something resembling a Western or a James Bond movie is far easier to imagine. This can be a fatal trap when the true situation is simply not so neat, as Burke convincingly demonstrates. See too a 2005 post here: Lernaean Hydra – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. I posted that at the time of the London bombings.

Let’s just take one example: Did the CIA fund the Taliban?

This is a widely held view. I even shared it myself. However, is it true? It may well be that it is not. There are issues of chronology involved – the Taliban emerged rather late in the day compared to other mujahadeen groups, and Burke is excellent at unpicking all that. (Some thought of by many as Al-Qaeda in many books turn out to have been very loosely connected, or not connected, or even rivals of Al-Qaeda.)  Certainly the CIA, mostly via Pakistan intelligence and along with Saudi and other financiers, did fund some of those fighting the USSR and the Afghan Marxist regime, but it appears the US backed off from that policy during the Clinton years, and that further in the stage when such funding was occurring the Taliban hardly existed. Nonetheless, much of the materiel did fall eventually into Taliban hands.

This video is a typical example of the case for the CIA having funded the Taliban, but looking at it carefully one does see much chronological sliding going on. Rather, when the Taliban did emerge it appears the question really was “Who the hell are they?” See for example The Taliban Files from National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 97. Various Pakistani groups, on the other hand, were heavily involved, but Pakistan too is another instance of complexity, but there isn’t space here to go down that track. See also Beyond the Burqa: The Taliban, Women and the C.I.A. (September 12, 2001).

Idealism

shsislam I am really trying not to sound patronising, because I respect idealism and even cling to some to this day, modified as it might be by experience and knowledge, especially of history.

The young, confronted with a world that all will admit is not the best of all possible worlds, may react with cynicism, apathy, or a deep desire to make a difference. Those who desire to make a difference will soon seek out how to make a difference, and therein is some danger, as well, of course, as much of the hope of the world. Those boys at The Mine, just like their confreres in the rather fundamentalist Christian and Jewish or political activist groups in the school, look for people who offer convincing solutions. Now you have to admit that both those speakers in the 2005 seminar (the video linked from the previous post in this series) are quite excellent public speakers. As a former debating coach I wouldn’t mind having them on my team, and it is no accident that one of the two sixteen year old presenters was indeed a valuable member of his age-group’s debating team, as was the brave young lad in cadet uniform who got up to rebut what he had heard. (The body language going on behind him, if you have seen the video, is interesting; it’s almost as if the presenters wish there was a hook in the wings or a trapdoor under the stage.) That lad, by the way, is now one of my Facebook friends.

You will also note on the right that the seminar the previous year directly dealt with the issue of terror. The tactic was definitely not recommended.

We need to remind ourselves that terrorism is a tactic and not an ideology, nor is it inevitable in a Muslim context. The nearest that terrorism came to being a rather empty ideology was in the case of the Russian nihilists and the weird Germans in the 60s and 70s. Burleigh is actually very good on both, especially on the Germans.

On the other hand, when an ideology goes in for group judgements, whether these be based on class, race or religion, there is a likelihood that terror may become an attractive tactic. In my view we need to strenuously resist group judgements. It also must be said that the ideology recommended by the two speakers in the 2005 seminar is ultimately total – they said as much – and you can’t get a higher authority than God as its author. Indeed, if the premises of the speakers were in fact correct it would follow that we should listen, but unfortunately I think the premises are highly questionable.

But as the speakers also said, we do have to all live together. Their solution, however, is not mine. In the world, let alone Australia, we all have to find ways to harmony in difference. It is a challenge, one we have not done too badly on here in Oz, comparatively, much better in fact than much of Europe.

Language

One small but important example. In Blood & Rage (p. 468) Burleigh defines takfir as “the art of deluding infidels”. Burke notes (p. 331) “Takfir: excommunication, a practice in Shia Islam but until recently almost unknown among Sunnis.”  See also this from a conservative Muslim source. The authority referred to there is a key figure in the development of political Islam in the 20th century.

Jason Burke article.

 

Some non-fiction read recently 2b – the personal component

See also Some non-fiction read recently: 2a.

This goes back to 2005 and a particularly interesting if controversial event. On the day I was not there, as I had to attend a meeting of ESL teachers at Erskineville – or was it Arncliffe, one of the last such meetings for me as I retired the following year. But I did know all the participants at The Mine end, and I posted on it at the time and the following year. See Salt Mine and Islamic Students; 7.30 Report: The Mine and the Islamists; The Mine and the Islamists: cause for concern?. On Floating Life Apr 06 ~ Nov 07 there is also a major entry from April 2006.

What I found yesterday was a video on YouTube of the complete 2005 Seminar referred to in those entries. The controversy centred on the guest speakers, Sheik Khalid Yassin and Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Wassim Doureihi. These people would fall in one of Michael Burleigh’s inner circles (see previous entry) but not necessarily, of course, into the innermost circle. While I had concerns about the Mine students involved, I very much doubt they would have even considered the innermost circle – quite the opposite in fact. (I also refer to these students in my Cronulla 2005 posts.)

05shs

Stills from the video.

Mine students often show initiative, of course, and these particular students were very bright indeed and participated in all aspects of school life to the full. An earlier generation some ten years before promised they would have Barry Crocker and Kamahl at their farewell assembly. We thought they were joking, but on the day, there they were! The Tamils were especially happy. So were the office ladies.

Now you have to wait for Part C of this post.

 
Comments Off on Some non-fiction read recently 2b – the personal component

Posted by on April 20, 2009 in Australia, Australia and Australian, events, ex-students and coachees, faith, interfaith, Islam, multicultural Australia, personal, Postcolonial, religion, reminiscences, Salt Mine, terrorism

 

Notelets

1. Dr C has gone to Fiji for a week’s holiday. That could be interesting as a coup seems to be in progress.

2. A couple of (reconstructed) bits of conversation with coachees this week.

Coachee 1 (14): Yes, I read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 4.

Me: Really? That’s a bit much for a four year old… Did you read it in Chinese or English?

Coachee 1: In Chinese. (He was in Shanghai then.)

Me: Have you read it since in English?

Coachee 1: Yes.

Me: Do you still read a lot?

Coachee: One book a week.

Me: English or Chinese?

Coachee: Mostly in English.

********

Coachee 2 (17): I’m having some problems with Keating’s Speech on the Unknown Soldier. (One of seven set for the HSC unit on speeches.)

Me: What problems?

Coachee 2: What is mateship?

That led to an interesting discussion.

 

The nitty gritty of English

I have one coachee in Year 12 doing Advanced English for the HSC who presents with a considerable problem. It isn’t lack of intelligence or insight, but rather a level of English that makes it hard for him to demonstrate what he knows effectively. He arrived in Australia from Hong Kong in May 2007. While he had some English language instruction in Hong Kong, he is very much a Cantonese native speaker.

Here is a small example.

In the movie Australian, Baz Luhrmann is dealing with the same sort of idea that an outsider Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidmen), is trying to fit in to a country that is completely new to her. The way she belongs to the new continent is by understanding the aboriginal’s thought and accept the way they live and try to fit in to them. With the introduction of the rough cow’s drover (Hugh Jackman) as an assistance of Sarah Ashley, the drover help her to save her remote cow station. In this case, Sarah not only fit in to the aboriginal society because of her acceptance and understanding, but also affect by the drover, she as an English noble is not really standing on their side, one of the reason is the drover doesn’t want to join the English noble group but there is another important reason base on identity that is when a person belongs to a group they will understanding their thought and support them, which is in this case, the aboriginal kid is being accepted by her as her children in the white man society. Her we can see the connection between the experience of Peter Skrzynecki in “Migrant Hostel” and in Australian, both of them experience a lack of belonging to a place because of the lack of understanding to the place. However, in Australia, Sarah Ashley has successfully understand and accept the Aboriginal culture then finally she is truly belong to the continent which is different to all the white people who live in the continent, they just physically belong to that place but not spiritually belong to this place. The sense of belonging is shown in the final scene of the movie, that Sarah Ashley release and let the Aboriginal kid goes back to his grandpa his root this is a acceptance to a culture, which is a way to belong to a new culture.

Here is the work in progress; I have left a section untouched* because I need to discuss it further with the student. Anything in square brackets is to be deleted.

In the movie Australia Baz Luhrmann is dealing with the same sort of idea: that an outsider, Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), is trying to fit into a country that is completely new to her. The way she belongs to the new continent is by understanding [the] Aboriginal[’s] thought and accept the way they live and try to fit in with them. [With the introduction of] The rough cattle drover (Hugh Jackman) assists Sarah Ashley, [the drover] helping her to save her remote cattle station. *In this case, Sarah not only fits in to the Aboriginal society because of her acceptance and understanding, but also is affected by the drover. she as an English noble is not really standing on their side, one of the reason is the drover doesn’t want to join the English noble group but there is another important reason base on identity that is when a person belongs to a group they will understanding their thought and support them, which is in this case, the aboriginal kid is being accepted by her as her children in the white man society.*

“Cow” is feminine, “bull” is masculine; “cattle” is the generic or collective noun.

Here we can see the connection between the experience of Peter Skrzynecki in “Migrant Hostel” and Sarah Ashley in Australia. Both of them experience a lack of belonging to a place because of a lack of understanding of the place. However, in Australia, Sarah Ashley has successfully understood and accepted the Aboriginal culture so that finally she is truly able to belong to the continent, which is different from most of the white people who live in the continent, who just physically belong to this place but do not spiritually belong to this place. The sense of belonging is shown in the final scene of the movie when Sarah Ashley [release and] lets the Aboriginal boy go back to his grandfather and his roots. This is an acceptance of a culture, which is a way to belong to a new culture.

In the previous paragraph I have replaced a few examples of colloquial language with more neutral or formal language.

He is, by the way, improving quite rapidly, but still has a long way to go and not much time to get there.

 

Random

Just so you know what time of year this is, here is a pic I took a few minutes ago. People in the Northern Hemisphere, eat your hearts out!

dec18 003

And speaking of weather, or rather, climate, Miranda has been regurgitating again** with her accustomed objectivity and deep scientific training: “The tantrums from Australia’s screeching environmental banshees have barely abated since the Government revealed its plan to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions from between 5 and 15 per cent by 2020, an amount deemed too small by green groups.” Or: “The fact is temperatures have not risen in a decade, and have actually been falling in recent years, despite increasing carbon emissions. The tide has turned for the fundamentalist zealots of the climate change movement as more scientists declare their doubts that the science on climate change is ‘settled’, and opinion polls show the public growing ever more reluctant to make personal sacrifices to reduce carbon emissions…”

Shame about the other climate story in the same newspaper: Weather watch: a record year of extreme events.

AUSTRALIAN temperatures remained hotter than average this year, the World Meteorological Organisation reports, summing up the year as one marked by extreme weather events.

They included floods, severe and persistent droughts, snowstorms, heatwaves, cold waves and the shrinking of the Arctic sea ice to its second-lowest level on record.

The year is expected to rank as the 10th-warmest on record for the planet. Temperatures were about one-third of a degree above average despite the normally cooling impact of a La Nina event. Australia’s temperatures were 0.37 degrees above average, making this year the 15th-warmest on record for the nation since 1910, even with a strong La Nina bringing flooding rains to Queensland and NSW.

"Its warmer than most previous La Nina years," said Dr Andrew Watkins, a senior climatologist with Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. "Generally with La Nina events we get cooler than normal temperatures over Australia."…

I don’t consider myself a “banshee” or a “fundamentalist zealot of the climate change movement”  — as I probably demonstrated in  Very quick assertions, not arguments, about the Rudd government’s climate package, but Miranda is just such an idiot on this topic, and persistent too. Yes, what we do in fact makes only a small difference, but to still believe there isn’t a problem is to be in a very select group, most of whom Miranda quotes – again. Visit the side bar and look for Climate sceptics… There you will find plenty of reasons for taking Miranda less than seriously.

Meantime, the HSC is out, and The Mine has done not too badly. 60 Band 6 in English is not bad at all, given The Mine’s clientele.

hsc10

The graphic links to the Herald story from which it is taken. Doesn’t one of those arrows point the wrong way??

I was also happy to see a coachee from a little while ago made it into the top 1% in ESL English.

Update

** On 22 December fellow right-wing columnist Paul Sheehan responded: Politics trumps policy on polluters.

Miranda Devine and her husband are coming over for Christmas drinks tonight. She’s good company, even if we do fundamentally disagree on the most important issue facing the country.

Last week she ripped into Kevin Rudd’s policy response to global warming, the Government’s multibillion-dollar plan to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. She quoted Professor Bob Carter describing the plan as "a non-solution to a non-problem". She weighed into the "screeching environmental banshees" who say the policy is not enough. She raised the grim fact that while Australia contributes 1.5 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, "China will almost double its emissions by 2030, from 18.3 per cent in 2005 to 33 per cent in 2030, [so] even if we reduced our emissions by 100 per cent, as the crazies want us to, our sacrifice would be meaningless".

Good point. Rudd’s grand plan is a grand illusion. It is so badly designed it would have been better if the Government had done nothing and let the US president-elect, Barack Obama, provide the leadership next year.

At this point, Devine and I diverge. Because I believe this policy is a non-solution to a big problem. Rudd’s strategy has been praised as political shrewdness, but it is political capitulation….

See also my post on 27 November: Miranda and Piers in duet after “Quadrant” dinner….