We really know nothing

Socrates reportedly claimed “I know nothing.” That statement resonates with me. After a sound colonial education, wide reading, thinking deeply about almost everything that affects us as human beings, comparing what the scientists are saying about cosmology with the beliefs offered by religions, and after a highly interactive and contributory life as an adult for 7 decades, I too feel that I know nothing.

But then, from about age 8, when I seemingly became aware that I had a brain with an associated mind, I began to ask myself “How do I know what I know?” No one could help me answer that question. The obvious answer? “I do not know!”

Continuing on a subjective plane of contemplation, are there not situations when one just ‘knows’ something, or about something? There are those who read the past accurately, or foretell the future accurately, or accurately read the thoughts of others, or see what is happening elsewhere (not always confirmable) – but seem untouched by their ability. It is as if they are merely conduits. My experience covers all these phenomena.

There are also those who communicate with the spirits of dead humans; and who say that the spirit realm influences – indeed, guides – some of us. As well, there is intuition, an understanding without perceivable cause; the so-called ‘third eye’ is often credited with this ability.

Is it therefore probable that those who seek knowledge, even through what we know as the sciences, can ever be certain that the explanations offered are (realistically) no more than theories, tentative in nature? What if some (many?) theories cannot be tested – ever? Does the use of mathematical calculations prove (that is, beyond challenge) any theory? Or, would a rigorous application of mathematical processes merely enhance the probability of the causal relationship being tested being potentially verifiable, were a process of verification to become available?

Since maths is apparently not created but discovered, does the human brain, drawing on only 5 senses (enhanced by some appropriate equipment), have the capacity to access the totality of the information which may be available? Worse still, the scientific method, which tells us reliably about the mechanistic material realm, is unable to deal with the ethereal realm. How do we obtain reliable information about matters neither measurable nor repeatable?

In reality, we puny humans can only hope to achieve a tentative understanding of matters of relevance to existence, by drawing upon what is set before us as knowledge, relying upon that ephemeral ability known as intuition. If only we could avoid being led into blind alleys by purveyors of faith in both the material and immaterial realms.

Knowing nothing, and awaiting hopefully for some slight infusion of insight from the ethereal realm may be sensible, while reconciling the tie to the material realm of Earth with that innate yearning for communing with the insubstantial Divine.

A Seeker of knowledge may thus need to settle for an understanding drawn from intuition, where the objective may actually be subjective!


Social cohesion and ethnic diversity

With the invasion of Europe by very large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, a major policy issue for European nations is the successful integration of the new arrivals. Australia has successfully integrated its post-war immigrant intake, who worked hard to contribute to their chosen home, even as they benefited from being transplanted.

In sequence, Australia took in needed able-bodied workers, as well as war-displaced persons, from Europe; middle-class Europeans from the Levant; light-skinned East Asians (preferably Christian); humanitarian entrants from Indo-China; and (eventually) coloured immigrants and refugees. All of these settled in (or are settling in) smoothly.

“ It is an undeniable fact that Australia’s immigrants have never been denied the right to pray as they wish (other than to avoid disrupting their workplace); to eat their own kind of food; to speak their own language in public (the Aussie yobbo in the street excluded); to dress traditionally; to celebrate their national festivals freely; and to retain those of their cultural practices which are not inconsistent with the law, institutional practices, societal values, and behavioural norms of the host population.

They are thus required to accept Australia’s Constitution and the related institutions of government; of law, order and justice; the equality of genders; freedom of speech; and equal opportunity. They are also required to respect the nationally accepted cultural practices and social mores of not only the host nation but also of all the other cultural communities in Australia. They are further required to discard imported cultural practices such as spitting in public spaces, clitoridectomy, and such other practices which have been traditionally anathema to their host people. In the event, what other rights might immigrants or their descendants need?” … …

“The bid for a parallel settlement service, and (later) an inter-cultural relations policy, both to be controlled by ethnic community leaders reflected, in my view, an assertion of a newly-created right, rather than a need.” … …

“A parallel settlement service, delivered by language-specific ethnic social workers and controlled by ethnic community leaders, was essential, it was asserted. So, millions of dollars were spent for years in providing grants to ethnic communities under this new approach.

The ethnic grant-in-aid (GIA) social workers and, quite separately, GIA directors met regularly, in order to exchange experiences. As Chief Ethnic affairs Officer for Victoria I did attend a few of these meetings. I sensed that the social workers were pleased to be able to have a dialogue with an official who was a fellow-immigrant. Migrant Resource Centres (MRCs), being multi-ethnic in scope, were serviced in the English language by employees of ethnic descent. I wonder if the social workers manning the MRCs were aware of the apparent anomaly.

State-wide ethnic-controlled councils were then established to ‘coordinate’ GIA and MRC policies and practices. Naturally, a national body (FECCA) had then to be established. State governments also got onto the stage, offering career paths for some, including the odd freelancing academic. Ethnic employment through State or Federal consultative or advisory bodies became quite fashionable. Anglo-Australian federal public servants and I in DIEA (the Department of Immigration & Ethnic affairs) managed the machinery so established.” … …

“For a few years, I was responsible for the allocation of millions of dollars annually on the settlement services provided by this parallel structure. But I was unable to have anyone actually delivering the services tell us about the components of the services they delivered and the efficacy of these services. Basic data were not collected, because these workers said they were too busy. Process was all.” … …

“Mainstreaming, whereby all official agencies would now employ, where necessary, foreign language workers to deliver migrant settlement services (as before), was rejected by one and all in the industry, especially the State agencies established as multicultural policy. Even some academics took up the refrain, although I was not made aware of any research underpinning their assertions.” … …

“As for multiculturalism, the term is a big mistake. Even if the original intention was to encourage the ‘ethnics’ to remain in a separate sandpit, or just to garner the so-called ethnic vote, the refreshed recent emphasis on this term is a policy error.” … …

“What should be of great concern to one and all was the recent public statement by a spokesman for the newly established multicultural body in 2011 that he wished to ‘order’ (so said the news report) certain people to carry out a certain action. It was the tone of the alleged statement that reminds us that people from authoritarian cultures do need time to adjust to Australia’s egalitarian politico-social ethos. It also highlights the imperative of ultimately integrating strongly divergent cultural communities and individuals into one Australian people.”

The extracts above are from the chapter ‘On multiculturalism’ in my book ‘Musings at Death’s Door.’ (2012)


Some interesting aspects of multiculturalism

Multiculturalism is just another term for ethno-cultural diversity. The world over is largely multicultural. When that term was temporarily linked with the term policy in Australia, a vision of a separate sand-pit for ‘ethnics’ did arise, for some. Here are some interesting facets of experience.

“When ethnicity was in vogue, I asked publicly whether I, Australian by citizenship, Malaysian by birth, Ceylon Tamil by distant ancestry, and Indian by culture (Hinduism) could identify myself as an ethnic; and, if so, by what criteria. Even the academics were silent! What of those who are the products of marriage across nationalities or ethnicities? More and more of our young are marrying across parental cultures.” … …

“Cynically, I did ask some of the ethnic community leaders who were second or third generation Aussies if they spoke their mother tongue fluently; and with whom (other than their mums) did they speak. Did they read books, see films and attend plays in that language; dress the way their ancestors had back ‘home’ (except for multicultural festivals in Australia); and celebrate their tribal cultures in any meaningful manner? I also asked if their communities reached out to other ethnic communities as equals.

Then there is the issue of some Australia-born descendants of immigrants going back to their tribal lands to fight a traditional, or even a new, enemy. Further, if integration is rejected by them, would that affect their right to call on the equal opportunity that is available? And since social superiority is given little air in Australia, how would ethnic superiority be viewed? I believe these questions to be relevant.”… …

“In the early 1980s, I once observed 3 teenagers on a tram. Their heads suggested 3 different European regions of ancestral origin. They were dressed almost identically, and their speech accents were identically Australian. This was evidence of integration. Travelling through the city, observing, I saw few turbans, skull caps, head scarfs or face covering. Careful immigration selection was the explanation. Why is the situation different now?” … …

“By and large, were tribal leaders, that is, the priests and politicians, to keep away from the fields of cultural interaction, we the people will eventually reach out to one another? How so?

Excluding the exploiters, there is an innate human tendency – displayed so satisfyingly by children – to do so. In Australia, thanks to the public education systems, by the third generation, youngsters will feel, and behave as, part of a whole far wider and deeper than the family or an ethnic community. The gestalt effect will take over.

How does this work? Good immigrants will tend to retain their values almost intact, while modifying their behaviour as appropriate. Those of their children exposed to Australian values through the public education system will move a step or two away from parental values and practices; reciprocally, parental perspectives may also change, become less parochial. There is good evidence that this happens. The third generation is not likely to be influenced by the values of their grandparents, as peer group values begin to back up values inculcated through public education, socialising, sport, and habituation – unless the priesthood intervenes. Do religious leaders, their schools, and other institutions hinder integration?” … …

“Ingrained prejudice cannot be changed by propaganda. For instance, again in the 1980s, a senior public servant, an icon of his political party, denied accommodation in migrant hostels to British immigrants, thereby denying the most important on-arrival assistance the nation could provide to needed immigrants from other countries as well. The Minister did not note this denial. Are Ministers adequately awake when reading briefs?

This senior public servant also cancelled the planned posting of a Moslem employee to an overseas migrant selection office, and the promised promotion of a Hindu employee to a senior position. But he was not a racist; only a tribal. Tribals tend to look after their own, by discriminating against those who did not belong! And some burbling about the Eucharist!

Racism and tribalism (I have suffered from both in Australia), cultural and religious prejudice, and the ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ attitude, like the ubiquitous bacterium or even crime, cannot be totally eradicated. The young priest who, in the mid-1960s, kept 5 Roman Catholic women away from their Protestant neighbour, is unlikely to have changed.

However, education, habituation, and media scrutiny will moderate extreme behaviour. Strengthening citizenship as a commitment to the nation and its values, as a measure of successful integration, will yet continue to make us one people out of many.”

The above extracts are from the chapter ‘On multiculturalism’ in my book ‘Musings at Death’s Door: an ancient bicultural Asian-Australian ponders about Australian society’.

An ethnic approach to minority communities

Emeritus Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki, an eminent sociologist, and Chairman of the federal government’s Ethnic Advisory Council, said (in a published article) that the policy of grants to ethnic groups pays disproportionate attention to one of the many dimensions of multicultural policy. It promotes “an ethnic approach to minority groups”, by emphasising the things that divide us, instead of the things that bind us. The policy also extends the scope of equality of access (to the nation’s resources) to the equality of outcomes.

The need for some short-term affirmative action or positive discrimination “specifically targeted to refugees and other victims of oppression” is, however, not denied by the professor. He went on to say that wooing the ethnic vote “represents a grave distortion of multiculturalism for all Australians. It measures the success or otherwise of multicultural policies by the amount of special funds and programs directed specifically to ethnics, irrespective of whether they lead to a cohesive or fragmented society”.

He says also that multiculturalism is seen here as an instance of public policy developed for the benefit of minority groups and not as Australia’s legitimate response to the demographic reality of our society.

This view is confirmed (also in a published article) by Sir James Gobbo, an eminent community leader (later Governor of the state of Victoria), when he says that the philosophy of multiculturalism “calls for respect for differences but not their perpetuation at public expense”.

I am grateful to these two eminent leaders (with whom I once had a close and warm working relationship) for articulating my views so succinctly and in such a timely manner. But stacked against the three of us in our approach to funding for ethnic groups (and implicitly to the plural service structures so endowed) and the divisiveness of such an approach, is a multitude of ethnic leaders. Of course, these claim to speak on behalf of their people.

However, it is difficult to know if their constituencies are consulted regularly and whether, in any such consultations, each community has considered how its grandchildren will relate to the grandchildren of other Australians, and to what kind of nation they will belong.

(This is an extract from my first book ‘Destiny Will Out: the experiences of multicultural Malayan in White Australia, written in 1994. Following Prof. Zubrzycki’s positive review of the book, he wrote to me a personal letter. He said “I agree with everything you have said, except on the issue of voluntary euthanasia.”

All the reviews of the book were fabulous. Refer book pages for Raja Arasa Ratnam on amazon.com’s kindle books. Refer also my other WordPress posts on multiculturalism. To me, multiculturalism simply defines ethno-cultural diversity; no policy is needed.)

Observing babies with joy

Every baby, at birth, is a miracle. Fully formed, ready to go – but not quite! Baby birds sit in their nests and squawk – perhaps only when they sight mum returning with food. These nesters will eventually fly away from their perch. Ground-hugging baby birds, like the plover, will practice flapping their flight-wings while standing on the ground. I once watched with interest a young plover falling onto its back repeatedly while flapping its wings. Eventually, it flew.

Baby animals, immediately after birth, get on to their feet with some effort. When they get their joints in synchrony, they move around, but close to mum. I once saw (on tv) a baby elephant walk over confidently to observe more closely a few birds fossicking on the ground. Soon, however, its mama wandered over and gathered her baby back.

What is fascinating to observe is a young animal make friends with a young one of another species. There are so many such examples. A giraffe and a sheep do, however, seem a strange friendship. I once saw (on tv) 3 different young animals moving together as companions. I also saw (on the internet) 3 cheetahs approached by a tiny baby deer while they were resting. It then nuzzled up to one of the big cats. Eventually, the cheetahs got up and walked away!

I have always felt, perhaps quite unfairly, that animals are better ‘people’ than human beings. Surely, it is only hunger which leads carnivores to attack other animals. Since hunger may be the prevailing condition, carnivores may create an incorrect impression as perennial hunters. Apart from some power-seeking or mischief-making, is co-operation not the modus operandi for the rest of the animal kingdom?

Human babies seem to be the only exception in the kingdom of fauna as needing a lot of time to become motile. They do remain on their backs for a long time. What are they thinking as they observe all? When placed on their bellies, after a few weeks they will lift their head to check out their surroundings. This seems to be the first action intimating purpose.

A little later, when lying on their backs, they will suddenly sit up straight but without any use of their limbs. We adults can’t do that, unless we have developed our core abdominal muscles through exercise. How do babies suddenly display muscle strength?

When my baby daughter was only a few weeks old, I sat her up with cushions on 3 sides, next to a window, in order to take photos of her. She was calm while listening to me. Then, in walked my wife, whose voice and words conveyed so much love. The baby became very excited, and tried to move towards her mother, with such joy on her face.

It was an incredible experience – especially for a product of a ‘stiff upper lip’ Asian culture. In that culture, after a babyhood of being cuddled and spoilt, there was thereafter neither words nor touch to demonstrate the close family bond. The compensation is that the extended family is always there, and could be relied upon.

Through that early bonding, each of our babies grew up into adulthood with confidence; so I believe.

Periodic tests or continuous tracking?

“Focusing solely on academic achievement as measured by final results reveals little about how much a student has actually learnt during the year. Tracking academic progress, on the other hand, paints a much clearer picture.” Peter Goss and Jordana Hunter (Sydney Morning Herald)

“Academic achievement is influenced by many factors, including prior achievement and socio-economic background. By contrast, academic progress, while not perfect, provides a better indication of how much students have actually learnt.”

“Our focus should be on the academic progress we want students to make, rather than the final mark.”

“Great teachers use high-quality student assessments to identify where each student is starting from. They teach based on what students are ready to learn next. They monitor progress over time and adjust their teaching strategies along the way. This approach needs to become systematic, including being embedded in teacher training courses.

Growing numbers of schools analyse student progress over time to identify and fix problems individual teachers might miss. A few schools are increasingly clear-eyed about their challenge and target two years of learning in one. They know exactly where each student is at, and track progress relentlessly to stay on target.”

“Tracking academic progress is vital. It tells teachers and schools when their approach is working. Recognising and celebrating great progress helps sustain motivation.”

(These are extracts from the SMH article.)

Comment: Successful continuous tracking should remove the fear of tests. To avoid misleading our youth about their viability in a globalised community, teachers would surely want to ensure that school leavers have achieved the requisite level of competencies. Hence the need for nationwide tests.

Why is periodic testing in schools being decried? Obviously, students, teachers, and policy makers in the education system would have a spotlight shone on them. Effective effort should be a basal requirement for all participants in the education process.

Thus, a casual assessment of entrants to a kinder class would identify the approach to be taken. Those who complain loudly about this may need to be asked “Is kinder a parent-free playground?”

Those who complain about the periodic testing of competence at various points during school will want to ensure that continuous tracking occurs in their school, and that the competence levels to be achieved each year have been met.


Delaying job-seeking by degree?

I observed, in my early years in Australia, that some young boys would leave school at about age 15, or at the completion of Year 10, to find physical work. When able-bodied European immigrants obtained work, mainly in building up Australia’s infrastructure, did that reduce the jobs available to 15-year old Anglo-Aussies?

There were also fewer jobs available to these youths as manufacturing began progressively to shrink. Was that why completion of Year 12 became compulsory? Were those interested in working with their hands then enabled to obtain relevant practical training? Indeed, were apprenticeships as tradesmen being diminished as well?

This situation may explain the quaint policy of expecting 45% of youths up to their mid-twenties to obtain tertiary qualifications. Was this not just delaying job seeking? Why 45%? What skills are needed in the economy which requires a university degree?

As well, the many colleges of advanced education (CAEs), which offered vocational training, were converted to universities. For whose benefit? As I observed, the curriculum offered by them was not like the progressively deepening learning offered by the traditional universities. (Refer historian Jacques Barzun in my post “Do universities meet the needs of society?”)

In one example of a re-labelled CAE, for a 4-year teaching degree, the second major was Sociology. No methodology was taught. Of what use is sociology in training a teacher? The content could have been learnt in high school or in the new colleges covering only Years 11 and 12. These colleges offered imitations of university experience.

That is what I was told when I was invited to join the School Board of one of these colleges. I had previously been chairman of a primary school board, a representative of the A.C.T. Schools Authority on another school board, and the president of a high school Parents & Citizens Committee. That is, I have had years of experience with the education of our youth, apart of having been a school teacher in British Malaya.

I then discovered that students could matriculate with limited academic learning. They would be comparable (to some extent) to some students who had completed Year 12 not being able to solve simple problems in arithmetic, or to write clearly (because also of their poor spelling). I write all this from personal knowledge.

Now universities have remedial courses for those deficient in the basics of written communication, and for survival in a numerical transactional milieu, before commencing their course of study. My experience in interviewing candidates for promotion (through Promotion Appeals Committees) in the federal public service led me to question the benefits of some degrees issued by some former CAEs. When a student with a pass mark below 50% is accepted for a university course … … !

Having kept our youth out of the workforce as long as possible, while they acquire a degree and a significant debt to the government for their fees, what sort of jobs are available to them where their degree is relevant? In an economy increasingly based on the service industries, isn’t work-skill training more important than a university degree for many jobs?

But then, could a nation rely upon market forces to produce private tertiary colleges of competence, quality, and relevance? Do we have bureaucracies competent to assess intended establishment, and then to monitor the operation, of private colleges? News reports seem to suggest otherwise.

What seems to be missing in the educational sector is quality control. Process does not equate to desired or needed outcomes.