Are all cultures reflective of a religion?

The brutal slicing out of the clitoris – we know what it is, where it is, and what it can do – of girls and young women has been claimed to reflect a cultural tradition. Was this practice derived from a major accepted religion?

The marrying off of a daughter as soon as she reaches puberty, reportedly to a much older man, has been claimed to reflect another cultural tradition. Which religion recommends or endorses this practice involving child-brides?

In another culture, a woman’s feet are bound, thus keeping them small and not particularly reliable for walking. (I have seen such women travelling by rickshaw in British Malaya.) Which religion endorses this cultural practice?

In an old culture, a widow is reportedly induced to throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre by her relatives. Which religion’s doctrine requires this practice?

In Australia, I have seen a figure walk down a street covered from head to feet in what I think of as a walking tent. The gender of the occupant of the ‘tent’ was not clearly discernible. I have read in our media that some such persons have sought the right to drive a car along extremely busy streets, in spite of the probability that lateral vision may be compromised by the face covering. Which religion requires this practice of covering the whole body?

A focus by a religious sect on the ‘netherlands’ of women has resulted, in a secular nation, in a doctrine banning contraception and abortion. Is this cultural stance reflected in the doctrines of other sects of this religion?

In another nation, one’s caste (defined by one’s occupation) allegedly over-rides class. This means that, while one may be able to rise up the class structure, all the descendants of any one caste are traditionally required to be defined and treated as members of that caste. Is this cultural tradition supported by any version of Hinduism?

A culture defines the way things are done, by how they live, by members of a community. These ways do change, just as the underpinning values change through the generations. Immigrants know how cultures evolve in the nations they left behind, even as they seek to retain the cultures they brought with them.

The leaders of an ethno-cultural community may claim the primacy of their cultural practices in a multicultural nation, by seeking the legitimacy hopefully available within their religion. Regrettably, religion’s foundation (or core) beliefs may not sanctify all the diverse cultural practices of its followers.

What society is then left with are not only competitive religious sects and religions, but also ego-related competitive cultural practices. How then about adopting this principle – horses for courses?

This would mean that, in suburban Australia, where there is no risk of a storm involving a horizontal wall of sand many feet high cutting its way through (I have experienced such a storm well away from human settlements), there is really no need to cover one’s hair, face and body as if one is living in a desert.

We do not need child-brides, and such other ‘traditional’ cultures transplanted into this emerging cosmopolitan polity. In time we will rid ourselves of religious edicts imposed by historical controllers of humanity.

Revised cultural traditions will also enable a swifter tribo-cultural integration into (urban) Australia.


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)


Tolerance of failure

‘Tolerance of failure’ behind declining results

Following my previous posts on matters educational, especially in a competitive global milieu, here are extracts from an article which brings out the issues. The contents of this article are consistent with previous news reports on Australia’s ranking on a global scale.

These who make counter-arguments claiming that Australian students are better ‘rounded’ than their counterparts overseas or their Asian-Australian cohorts, because the typical Aussie is more involved in sport, appear incredible. Equally questionable are claims in the local media that regular tests and exams are stressful. Could normal life be expected to be stress-free?

The article is by Pallavi Singhal in the Sydney Morning Herald of 29 Sept. 2017.

“The co-ordinator of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has linked Australia’s steady decline in all three test areas of maths, reading and science to the country’s “tolerance of failure” in schools.

Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD’s education directorate, said “It is perhaps too easy to do well in Australia” and that the country tends to accept that “some students will come out less well.”

“We asked students what makes you successful in maths, and many students in Australia said that it’s about talent, but if you asked students in China or Singapore the same question, you had the vast majority saying, ‘I can be succeed if I try very hard and my teachers support me’,” Mr. Schleicher said.

“In other countries, there is a belief that the education system is just not sorting them but that it can make a difference. There would be a much greater tendency for teachers to redouble their efforts for students who are struggling.”

The latest PISA results from last year showed that Australian 15-year olds are declining in both absolute terms and relative to their international peers. … …

“Australia used to be very good at the high end of the skill level but there’s been a gradual slide over the last 15 years,” said Mr. Schleicher. He said that the countries performing best “pay more attention to how they develop and retain the best teachers”. … …

“Australia needs to make teaching intellectually more attractive and provide better support and opportunities for the profession. … … “

Comment (based on nearly 70 years’ residence in Australia as an adult): The ‘near enough is good enough’ attitude held by many in the formerly closed and protective Australia is no more. Multiculturalism and globalisation require better planning and performance for survival.


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.

Do universities meet the needs of society?

Here is the view of an eminent historian. “… the historian of the 20C notes the love of the conglomerate. Originally used for business, the word denotes here the wish to mix pleasures, activities, and other goods so as to find them in one place.” … …

“The conglomerate that best fulfilled the idea of the time was the course offering of the large colleges and universities. It had ceased to be a curriculum, of which the dictionary definition is: ‘a fixed series of courses required for graduation.’

Qualified judges called the (current) catalogue listings a smorgasbord and not a balanced meal. And large parts of it were hardly nourishing. The number of subjects had kept increasing, in the belief that any human occupation, interest, hobby, or predicament could furnish the substance of an academic course.

It must therefore be available to young and old in higher learning. From photography to playing the trombone and from marriage to hotel management, a multitude of respectable vocations had a program that led to a degree. On many a campus one might meet a student who disliked reading and had ‘gone visual,’ or be introduced to an assistant professor of family living.”

‘Fifty-some majors, thirty-some concentrations, and hundreds of electives.’ – The Dean of an Ivy League College to arriving students.

‘A university that offers a doctorate in sensibility, including courses in “niceness and meanness” and “mutual pleasurable stimulations of the human nervous system” was (well described) in 1992 as “an academy of carnal knowledge.” – New York Times (1996)
(These are extracts from ‘From Dawn to Decadence – 1500 to the present’ by historian Jacques Barzun. He has published more than a dozen books, and been described ‘As one of the great one-man shows of Western letters.’

One might ask, in the context of the Australian Government’s subsidy to our universities (based on enrolments rather than graduation, or on the utility of the content of courses,) about the taxpayer cost of university courses which do not provide usable skills. Of course, those who seek other kinds of courses can pay for these courses themselves.)


Delaying learning through fads in education

Teaching a young child (say, 3 to 5 years old) or adults learning a new language has been successful through the phonics method. I learned my mother tongue, Tamil, as a 4-year old, and English as my second language from age 7 in British Malaya, through phonics. As an adult, I taught Indian shopkeepers in Singapore necessary English through phonics. Before that, I taught Chinese high school students basic English through phonics.

hen the pronunciation varied from the norm, all of us accepted the variations through memory. Yes, bough/ bought/rough/cough, row/row, and similar temporarily confusing sounds were memorised as idiosyncrasies in a slightly confusing foreign language. That the letter ‘a’ has a variety of sounds was no problem to me or to those I taught.

My wife and I taught our 3-year olds to read without difficulty in distinguishing between ‘sight’ words and ‘memory’ words. There are not that many ‘memory’ words in the English language of common usage. One can learn these without recourse to semantically unclear and confusing jargon phrases. I once read a short paper by a professor in education whose phrases were so abstract that a barrage of anvils was needed to be attached to them to obtain any operational meaning.

Then, when I found that my granddaughter could not read, even near the end of her second year at school (Year 1), I admit to having been disgusted. She had been taught by the whole-of-word method for 2 years, and could not work out the word ‘kingfisher’. I put her on the right track to reading, learning and enjoying books in two 20-minute sessions. How could a school hold back any child because of a sacred fad?

This bright child had been held back by a fad – which had been inflicted on little children for about 25 years, with the teachers bound by the edicts of their trade union, academics in education, and a certain arrogance by some teachers, when the right of teachers to decide how our children are taught had never, to my knowledge, been challenged. This arrogance did lead to a claim by some teachers that they should be free to decide what is taught. What arrogance! How would they know about the nature and needs of the society into which our children grow; and how our youth are enabled to fit into this future society?

We live in a global and competitive environment. Our children need to be as educated and as prepared for the real world as will be children from other nations, and who will be fluent in English. I do not detect that emphasis on excellence which is required to equip our youth for the real world, although a few educators and some politicians do their best.