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Friday, 22 November 2013

The Foolish Minister

I am playing whack-a-shark today (it's like whack-a-mole, but with shinier teeth), but I set things aside, because something is annoying me.

Yes, Minister, I write history. Do you?
I would like to muse briefly on the concept of educational policy, and the way in which it ought to formulated in the Westminster system. This is brought upon because I am a professional writer, and I write a lot of history. I am no historian, but I am soaked in history, and I know what matters.

History isn't about dates, it isn't about the names of dead white males, it is about ideas and about ideals. It is inspiration, it is about wit and intelligence. It is about methods, and technology, and cleverness, and bravery, grit and determination, wherever it comes from.

At the moment, a preening coxcomb (you point, I'll whistle) has been swaggering around declaring that he is the Minister of Education, and he will decide what is to go in the history syllabus.

The man is a fool, of course, but he also has the cunning of a sewer rat, and he is playing the populist card. Think of somebody talking about ''********-bashing'', given that the missing word is specified as a profession. If I say this form of bashing is a popular sport, what word will you put in place of ''********''?  It won't be sharks or moles...

Nobody would bother singling out dentists, accountants or grocers for extreme abuse (aside from Mr. Chesterton, who had a thing about grocers, that is). Those professions are not seen as worthy targets.

To my way of thinking, there are just three professions that draw down the spite and ire of the general public to the extent that people want to badmouth them and tell jokes about them—and politicians want to join in bashing them. Lawyers probably come first, then doctors, then teachers.

It occurs to me that we really ought to bash pollies first and foremost, but like the schoolyard bullies they undoubtedly were, once upon a time, they see the need to distract their victims by leading them to an attack on somebody else. So lawyers, doctors and teachers cop it from the public—but politicians fear crossing the doctors and lawyers, so teachers are the low-hanging fruit.

Two of these professions are seen as bastions of the rich (as in ''the law is an appropriate study for the avaricious who cannot stand the sight of blood'') and as homes for aloof users of obfuscatory language, but why are teachers in the target range?

Teachers are not well-paid when you look at their training and the hours they work, if you compare them with the other two professions—and they use simple language. While they have professional expertise, teachers describe what they do in simple terms, unlike lawyers and doctors. So why bash teachers?

Some people may be aware that over the years I have worn a mixture of hats, and some years ago, wearing my media hat, I attended a media briefing on genetic modifications, where several CSIRO heavyweights and UTS researchers gave excellent accounts of their work. I have formal training in genetics, and I found their accounts fascinating.

At the end, a well-known television nonentity spoke up (no names, but he liked backyards). ''I used to breed budgerigars, so I understand genetics, and I know that GM is wrong,'' he told the scientists, and those who (he assumed) would be hanging on his every word.

I know very little about the breeding of birds of any sort, but I do understand genetics, and I am well-versed in the many variations of technology.  From this background, I am convinced there is no such thing as a bad or wrong technology, though I realise that many technologies can be misused. The objection was founded on a sadly flawed premise.

Let me put it this way: GM can be used for good or bad purposes, so can a motor vehicle, which may be am armoured personnel carrier, a tank, a Mob getaway car—or an ambulance, a school bus or a fire engine. So would you ban motor vehicles or not?  You should, if you would ban GM because it can be dangerous!

Back to the idiot Don, for some reason, I said nothing at the time, but like the other people present who knew their science, I left the venue wondering how this bloke could be so thick as to think he knew it all. After several purely medicinal applications of diluted carbonated ethanol, we concluded that it was because the idiot knew so little of genetics that he really WAS convinced that he knew it all.

I believe that this is where the teacher-bashers come in. When we stand in front of a class, education, teaching, training, wisdom, knowledge, learning, understanding and erudition are all parts of what we should be transmitting, along with culture, enthusiasm and a few other things.  It is a rich and nourishing meal that we deliver, day in and day out.

But to the simple critics, teaching is what they did when they taught a younger blood-relative to ride a bicycle, or to swim, or to drive. There are no nuances, no finesse, no planning—you just step up to the mark and commence your spiel. No control problems either, because the young'n has volunteered, is alone, motivated, and with a relative.

Because the would-be critics have never stopped to evaluate their respective performances, they are convinced that they achieved perfect results in minimum time. In fact, any decent cost-benefit analysis and standardised pre-test/post-test evaluation would show that in most cases, the driver-teaching was abysmal in terms of productivity, woeful in terms of societal attitudes transmitted, and directed at reaching a pass-mark, not at achieving true excellence.

Why else do we have so many traffic accidents and incidents of road rage? I blame the teachers, you know...

Nonetheless, from their data-free position, the critics of the teaching profession believe themselves well-placed to sit in judgement on those who devote their working lives to trying to broaden the views of their children. It is their self-assigned role to find teachers wanting, because they have taught, and they know what it is all about.  As well might they claim expertise based on breeding budgerigars!

It is my belief, based on my own observations and those of my father before me (he was in the same game), that over the past 50 years, the most amazing disasters among New South Wales ministers of education were mainly those who had teacher training. Like my budgerigar-breeding acquaintance, they thought they knew it all. One of the greatest disasters had been a lecturer in education, another gained a Dip. Ed. as a tertiary teacher, but never faced a school classroom.

A minister of the crown is, by definition, a politician, one versed in doing that which is politic, They need good people skills, and I envy them that—even the poorest back-bencher outshines me on that dimension. Ministers would not be where they are without some sort of brains (Charlie Cutler was an exception), but they are generally not great thinkers, and ministers of any portfolio and political complexion are most certainly not people with expertise in the byways of their department.

No medico, lawyer or teacher is, by virtue of training in that discipline, capable of administering a large system in the area in which they are trained. They lack the necessary experience to lead, and they are far less fitted to play the part of despot.

It is the role of the minister to play the part of a ship's owner and say ''sail to this port", but not to specify the alloy that will be used to cast the propeller, the oil with which the engines will be lubricated, or the frequencies to be used by the radio operator. Any sensible ship's owner would leave that sort of thing to the captain and crew.

It is inappropriate for a minister, any minister, to formulate operational policy in any portfolio, and any minister who does so in the field of education is, to the extent that the ministerial policy is forced upon schools and students, an inept failure.

Ministers are not there to micro-manage: their task is to provide directions at the level of, say, ''we want more excellence''. Ministers are there to be advised, and to make choices between carefully designed policies. Allow them anything more than that, and we have a recipe for disaster.

Allowing ministers to dictate curriculum or to determine daily and operational policy is the equivalent of making somebody transport supremo on the basis that he or she once saw Mulga Bill's bicycle, half a mile off, on a stormy evening, by lightning flashes.

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.

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