When the Europeans arrived in the Sydney region, writes Aboriginal activist and elder Burnum Burnum, ‘they landed in the middle of a huge art gallery’. On the shorelines today, in the national parks and reserves, and even silently underlying suburbia, are more than 10 000 artworks, carved or painted on stone. Sydney is the world’s largest outdoor museum of Indigenous art.
I read The Colony: A History of Early Sydney by Grace Karskens on the strength of Tom Griffiths’ recommendation. Karskens describes the early years of European settlement enabling one to read history forwards, rather than backwards. Never before have I had the thought that Governor Arthur Phillip landed at the largest outdoor art gallery known in history but this idea, coupled with my existing knowledge of the early years of the colony and her portrayal of the development of agriculture and building, has helped me to visualise the settlement more effectively than ever before.
Karskens is able to communicate the social history that many Australians know well with new insight. She helps construct the world of Sydney Town and other regions, especially along the Hawkesbury, with new eyes. Her analysis of the impact of social background on the economic and farming systems that emerged in the colony is fascinating. The development of markets in The Rocks and how trade, and the human need for food and communal relationships, is nicely surveyed. The way of life that has developed in Australia was shaped in these early years in many ways that were not planned by the architects of the colony who wanted it to be a place of fear and loathing, an effective deterrent for the criminal classes in Great Britain. The following quotes illuminate the above points:
These officers, civil and military, created something more than real estate, however. They also aspired to the lifestyle of eighteenth-century country gentlemen, and many of them achieved it. This was not the polite, self-improving, Protestant culture of the nineteenth-century genteel classes, obsessed with status and breeding, but an older, more rambunctious male culture of ‘patriarchy and paternalism, risk and style, coolness and courage’. As Richard Waterhouse reminds us, men like John Piper, John Jamison, Thomas Rowley, D’Arcy Wentworth and his son William Charles after him were enthusiastic patrons of rough plebeian sports and amusements. They demonstrated elite social and cultural standing by organising the cockfights, bare-knuckle prize-fights and horse races—so not all the bettors and spectators at the races and fights at the Green Hills were emancipists and convicts. Some of those who decided to live on their rural properties even established the old tradition of the Harvest Home, when all the local workers and tenants were invited to the Big House after the harvest to feast and drink, and enjoy the paternalistic largesse of those who were, undeniably, their superiors.
In fact after that first burst of enthusiasm in 1793, the officers quickly lost interest in grain production on a large scale. It was a mug’s game. The cost of labour was high, the market small, and in any case grain-growing was associated with the deeply inferior, poverty-stricken emancipist settlers. Grazing cattle and sheep was a much more appropriately genteel pursuit. It ‘fitted better with their duties’, was less labour intensive and, in those early years at least, the quality of the soils did not matter so much.
Settlers were supposed to closely supervise their workers and control their movements, but as they did not live on their farms, their convict labourers were free to go into the towns and to commit robberies.
The original absence of a money supply and of financial institutions had ironic outcomes. Since people wanted to acquire goods and services in Sydney, an extraordinarily intricate system soon emerged, combining barter, a riotous variety of specie brought privately in pockets and purses and on ships, credit, and promissory notes. Phillip recognised this unruly, hidden internal trade only gradually, and eventually tried to regulate it (as well as the lively trade in stolen goods, of course) by establishing public markets where ‘anyone, including convicts was permitted to trade in articles and produce legitimately owned’.
But by the time the Sydney Gazette first appeared, distinctions between urban and rural people in the Sydney region had already emerged. There were deep social and economic differences among the settlers, as we have seen—between officers, free settlers and emancipists; within the ranks of the emancipists; and, to varying degrees, between small landholders and the landless convicts. Now there were differences between town and country folk as well.
…travellers noticed that the manners of the colonists shifted from polished politeness to rustic intimacy. In Sydney one was welcomed with ‘ceremonial politeness’, at Parramatta ‘with friendly affability’, while at the Hawkesbury visitors were embraced ‘as one of the family’. Christmas well-wishes varied according to the urban/rural divide too: for the settlers at Parramatta and the Hawkesbury, there were hopes for agricultural plenty; for Sydney people, ‘all concerned in trade and commerce’ were wished success.
Women learned how to collect and cook native foods and were still doing so in the 1940s. The Hawkesbury families intermarried, making a labyrinth of relationships spread out along the snaking reaches and tributaries; some families intermingled with local Aboriginal people too. Early Australia had been a partly literate society, just as England was, and for some, education and literacy remained in the realm of the non-essential. They knew the ways of their own world.
Karskens does a good job showing contemporary attitudes to the colony and why we have developed particular mythologies about life in that period. There are many examples of Karskens’ measured debunking of simplistic beliefs about our history and the way large blocks of time have been amalgamated into one limited, shallow perspective of the past. Her point, that our contemporary, unexamined beliefs are sometimes based on the viewpoints of just a few influential people, at a particular point in time, is well born out in the following passage:
Historian Eric Rolls thinks we must have projected the gloomy bush literature of Henry Lawson and Adam Lindsay Gordon backwards onto early Sydney. The disasters and tragedies of selection and small-farming over the nineteenth century overspread the preceding period. Seeing the nineteenth century like this, ahistorically, as a single block, is a mistake. We cannot project the responses of one generation backwards or forwards upon the whole; we cannot assume what happened later must have characterised earlier experience. Present preoccupations with alienated white settlers in the ‘weird’ Australian bush, and with the landscape’s ‘absence of ghosts’, also shape assumptions of how it must have been. Another explanation is that the idea of the brutal ‘gaol colony’ looms so large.
Karskens challenges the image of the alienated, fearful, indoor-dwelling, bush-hating European settler with evidence that the warm climate led to better health, massively reduced infant mortality rates compared with Europe and a greater sense of overall wellbeing. She quotes from a range of sources, including letters from the colony:
‘My greatest diversion is to run among the woods and rocks; and also go a fishing with lines and a net, at which we have the greatest sport, catching great numbers of the most curious fish’. Men such as these obviously relished the environment, and probably never forgot the sensory experiences of the bush—the scents, the breezes, the sun on one’s back, the sounds of the bush at night, the sight of moonrise over water and the lagoons and rivers alive with fish and birds. In the 1830s a travelling ‘Gentleman’ wrote of his deep sense of well-being in the Australian climate. He declared simply, ‘In England we exist, here we feel we are alive’.
I know the period when Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived until the Bigge Report that ruined his reputation reasonably well. Karskens does a particularly good job summarising this era and how it has been portrayed. It never occurred to me Macquarie’s building spree was not really viewed positively until the 1970s:
Although the ‘Age of Macquarie’ is associated with enlightened social attitudes, improved morals and economic expansion, it is building—bricks and mortar—which lies at the heart of this nationalist recasting of Macquarie as the heroic figure who transformed the colony ‘from a penal camp to a young nation of the future’. He is said to have taken a mean, ramshackle, disorderly camp and transformed it into an orderly town, a town endowed with fine, worthy buildings which lent permanence, confidence and purpose.
I also wish I’d known that Macquarie is buried on the Isle of Mull with the epitaph ‘The Father of Australia’ on his headstone when I visited the island.
Karsken’s book deserves a wide readership. Highly recommended.
So should Ellie learn cursive? Probably not. It will only really prepare Ellie for third grade, not life.
I feel for any student assessed on his intelligence based on the quality of his penmanship. Most of my family is penmanship challenged, being a strong line of left-handers, and like many lefties I have always had poor handwriting. I don’t have many vivid memories of my earliest years, but I do have a very distinct recollection of receiving an “NI,” “Needs improvement,” on my second-grade report card. I know well what it is like to be taught by people who, as one second-grade teacher told me, believe that “it makes people seem more intelligent if they can write clearly.”
As a child suffering the unkindness of primary school teachers who associated moral, rather than merely educational outcomes, with good penmanship (and you can read into that it took me a long time to get my pen license) I read The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek with great interest.
Students have been taught to write for over six thousand years and the current controversies about what is best for a new generation are familiar, rather than new challenges to be resolved, in the evolution of writing. She explores the work of the scribe in long ago Sumer and Egypt but also in the early christian monasteries. More modern scribes, authors like Mark Twain and Henry James, decided to bang away on typewriters in the late 19th century rather than use a quill or pen are also discussed. Her insight into the impact of social convention and moral codes on this topic is of ongoing relevance to us today.
A Catholic school advertises for students by describing its advantages over public schools: a dress code, teaching of moral values, and cursive writing
National Handwriting Day is the brainchild of the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association (WIMA) representing the $4.8 billion industry of pen, pencil, and marker manufacturers. A lobby located about a block away from the White House, WIMA was formed in 1943 “to bring together pen, marker and mechanical pencil industries.” In 1994, in a moment of conglomeration, it merged with the Pencil Makers Association. They sponsor the national day, created in 1977, to celebrate handwriting’s “purity.”
Trubek tells us that clay tablets were so important to cuneiform they became part of one Sumerian word for “writer,” dubsar, which combined the word for “tablet,” dub, with sar, from the verb for “writing,” which means to go fast and straight. A dubsar was a writer or scribe who could write quickly and in a straight line on a tablet. Many readers may be surprised that clay, the medium favoured by the Sumerians, not vellum, parchment, papyrus, and paper has proven to be the most durable, and perhaps most sustainable, writing surface humanity has ever employed:
…many more examples of Sumerian writing have survived than more recent writing done by ancient Greeks, Romans, medieval Europeans, and even, proportionately, writing done after the invention of the printing press. If the Greeks had written on clay, the Library of Alexandria would have survived the flames.
While her survey of history is fascinating and thoughtful, what many readers and educators will take from this book is the idea that “the key neurological function that we want to bolt into children’s brains is “cognitive automaticity”, the ability to write without consciously being aware one is doing it. When the brain has automatised the slopes of letters or their place on a keyboard, it is freed from low-level demands”. Never a truer word has been spoken, or written. Trubek is clearly a pluralist believing that handwriting will be around for a long time and makes it clear that what matters is that a child can “achieve cognitive automaticity” by the age of 10. In other words, as long as they can write fluently, regardless of the tool, all will be educationally well:
Psychology professor Ronald T. Kellogg, in The Psychology of Writing, states that “the tool choice makes no difference in determining how well a writer composes.” Nor do people think better with a pen than on a keyboard: “This may be true for some writers at inspired moments or for those using a free-writing strategy, but as a general rule, it seems highly suspect. Planning and translating are generally highly effortful, controlled operations that proceed too slowly in general, not too rapidly, for the pen to match the pace.”
“By fourth grade, Ellie will likely achieve cognitive automaticity whether she is using a pen or a keyboard. If she is typical, cursive will be her toughest challenge, and if she does not master cursive by fourth grade because of fine motor skills or other issues, she will continue to struggle with it—and never achieve cognitive automaticity in cursive—for the rest of her life.”
“There is no science that proves handwriting makes students smarter; further, typing clearly has a democratizing effect, removing unconscious bias against students with poor handwriting, and leveling the look of prose to allow expression of ideas, not the rendering of letters, to take center stage. Everyone is graded on the same curve. Odds are Ellie will be faster at typing than at writing by hand by the fourth grade, and she will rarely need to handwrite in school and work as she grows up. But she might choose to anyway.”
Even though there is no science that proves handwriting makes students smarter, Trubek’s experience tells her that most college students and adults resist any curriculum change that devalues handwriting instruction as “they were raised in a culture that connected handwriting to individual expression and personality, and it forms some of their earliest memories of schooling.” This is my own professional and personal experience too.
My take home message is that if we do not have students who are writing or typing fluently “cognitive automaticity” by the time they are in 5th class their chances of being truly literate are slim. That’s what really matters, not what tools they use. Handwriting is not used anywhere much, outside of school.
One argument for continuing instruction is that students will need to write for examinations. I hate this notion. Education needs to make sense for a contemporary world and handwriting, like candlelight, will continue on in our society but one must question its place in the school curriculum.
“I had reached a point where I would be able to get all my work done if the kids didn’t come to school.” GJ Stroud
I purchased the Griffith Review 51: Fixing the System for one essay on education but found the rest of the collection excellent. Many topics about how our “system” – the government, society and economy function – are explored effectively but perhaps one could argue there were limited solutions explored. The basic theme for many of the essays is articulated well in the following passage:
The bureaucracy – once the stalwart of crafting and articulating public policy direction – has become the beleaguered home of this state of stagnation, taking on most obviously this sensibility of intellectual lethargy. Inheriting the very worst of the Weberian nightmare, the bureaucracy has struggled with, if not abdicated, its role in policy innovation. Chained by its past, limited by its routine and constraining of the individual, the bureaucracy has become paralysed at the level of ideas. Its youth are left uninspired. Its great thinkers, co-opted into executive layers of management, become hall monitors rather than protagonists in the great drama of public ideas.
The article I mentioned wanting to read was GJ Stroud‘s Walkley Award nominated, “Teaching Australia”. Gabbie was a teacher in Merimbula, NSW who resigned after 15 years service. I think that reading my clipped highlights from her essay is better than my commentary about what has happened to many teachers and students in Australia during this managerial age:
There’s something sinister happening to this profession that I loved.
I’m an excellent teacher. I know how to bring them together. I am able to create a feeling of family and safety and security. In my classroom they know they can take risks and try new things and experience failure while being supported by me and by each other. We feast on stories together, devouring Where The Wild Things Are and savouring There’s a Hippopotamus On Our Roof Eating Cake. They come to love the taste of reading, the flavour it adds to their life. In small, bite-size pieces I show them how it’s done – how they can make meaning from the words. Their eyes sparkle when they realise they can read, when they realise they can nourish themselves.
There is something about giving the gift of reading that creates trust. These little ones believe me when I tell them they are writers. We put a sign on our door: SSSHH! Writers at Work Our room comes alive with a hushed concentration. I join them in the writing process, my texta scratching onto butcher’s paper, modelling my love of writing. I field the occasional question: How do you spell unicorn? Does motorbike have a ‘a’ in it? Can we put ‘crocodile’ on the word wall?
My career has not been long but in that time I have endured the imposition of initiatives such as A-E reporting, naplan, My School, Professional Standards for Teachers, Quality Teaching Frameworks and a national curriculum. I have become morally and ethically conflicted as I am drawn away from my students and their needs and drawn toward checklists and continuums.
The assistant principal. ‘I need your assessment results. Canberra just rang asking why our data isn’t entered.’ It was a desperate feeling. A realisation. I was trying to do the impossible. I was destined to fail. There was pain in my chest, my heart clenching and screaming LET ME OUT. A cold sweat shivered on my skin. This is it, I thought. This isn’t teaching. I’m not a teacher anymore.
TWELVE MONTHS LATER I’m still turning that experience over in my mind. My fire has turned to ash, burnt out from relentlessly keeping account when I should have been teaching, reporting when I should have been listening, making standard when I should have been making a difference. How did I get here? I was burnt out because successive Australian governments – both left and right – have locked Australian education into the original model of schooling first established during the industrial revolution. Each decision made keeps us stuck in an archaic learn-to-work model, now complete with ongoing mandatory assessment of our student’s likely productivity and economic
Fundamental to this model is the idea of standardising. Standards, standardising and standardisation. Making every kid the same. Making every teacher the same. If I was successful in my job, that’s what would happen. Based on that, I don’t want the job any more. My story isn’t special. My class roll wasn’t disproportionate in the number of students with particular needs. Every primary teacher, regardless of their location, has a roll similar to mine. The names might vary, the ages and issues too, but ultimately every class roll is a story, if someone would just care to listen.
And with each new agenda comes paperwork, so much of the stuff that it piles up on my desk and crowds out the note from Donna’s mum about her asthma and the book I wanted to share with Toby and the picture Kalindah has drawn for me. It’s happening everywhere, people tell me. The red tape is horrendous. Every business is the same. But schools are not businesses. They’re not industries. Schools should not be framed by business models. They should not be viewed in terms of academic results based on productivity. When we look at schools in this way we lose sight of what matters. We lose sight of students.
TEACHING – GOOD TEACHING – is both a science and an art. Yet in Australia today this incredible and important profession is being reduced to the sum of its parts. It is considered something purely technical and methodical that can be rationalised and weighed. But quality teaching isn’t borne of tiered ‘professional standards’. It cannot be reduced to a formula or discrete parts. It cannot be compartmentalised into boxes and ‘checked off’. Good teaching comes from professionals who are valued. It comes from teachers who know their students, who build relationships, who meet learners at their point of need and who recognise that there’s nothing standard about the journey of learning. We cannot forget the art of teaching – without it, schools become factories, students become products and teachers: nothing more than machinery.
What if I could teach Australia to think for herself?
You can listen to Gabbie talking with Richard Vidler here.
…every picture – good or bad, and even if it does not seem so – presents a personal angle on reality.
A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen by David Hockney and Martin Gayford is a beautiful, albeit heavy book to hold. The words are written in the form of transcript. It is a long conversation about representation and art between the authors and I really wanted to underline the numerous quotable quote, dog-ear and scribble notes on page after page – but could not bring myself to do it. The book is more of a history of representation than a history of pictures and I found their insights sagacious.
Hockney has always been more than willing to try new tools. He is well-known for his recent artistic endeavours with an iPad and iPhone but he also made art using a fax machine when this was a new technology. Regardless of the technology employed the same artistic challenges of representation exist. How does one turn what we see into a 2D image? How does one get the light right? How does one make marks on a surface represent reality?
I spent a long time with Picasso’s Owl of death and Rembrandt’s A child being taught to walk. Hockney and Gayford made me look much deeper than I would have expected into both with their ruminations on both artists’ testimony, of a particular creature or scene and how each generation sees it anew. How, with just a few brush strokes, does the artist create such focus on the child within the scene? Why does that pail looks so heavy?
I particularly enjoyed the chapters on photography and painting with lenses. As a result of reading this book, I ordered Hockney’s, Secret Knowledge which further explores the use of optics and mirrors to create realistic representations in painting. I had not known of this technique previously but it really makes sense when one looks at the incredible sagacity with which reality is portrayed by our most masterful artists.
This is a magnificent hardback to own and I am sure it will be re-read and consulted for many years to come. Highly recommended.
A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes by Adam Rutherford is yet another popular science book exploring genetics. It is accessible and readable. The author’s style is more chatty than I’d usually like but this did not detract from it all that much. He does a good job explaining challenging concepts and the following explanation of the challenges of classification is clever:
We often rely on language as a metaphor for explaining genetics, and I’m going to attempt to use it here too. Imagine all the books currently in print in the world. To simplify, let us just refer to those written in English, and non-fiction. Publishers and bookshops like to categorise them in order to help promotion, to push sales and to help the reader get an idea of what it is that they are buying. You’re holding a science book, though it has plenty of history in it, and it’s primarily a biology book. My last book, which was about the origin of life, was also science with plenty of history, but while it had plenty of biology, it also featured physics, astrophysics, geology and chemistry, as befits the study of the transition from inanimate chemicals to living systems on the young Earth.
He makes good commentary about some of the dicey commercial ancestry products that have become so popular:
You are of royal descent, because everyone is. You are of Viking descent, because everyone is. You are of Saracen, Roman, Goth, Hun, Jewish descent, because, well you get the idea. All Europeans are descended from exactly the same people, and not that long ago. Everyone alive in the tenth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, and his children Drogo, Pippin and, of course, not forgetting Hugh. If you’re broadly eastern Asian, you’re almost certain to have Genghis Kahn sitting atop your tree somewhere in the same manner, as is often claimed. If you’re a human being on Earth, you almost certainly have Nefertiti, Confucius or anyone we can actually name from ancient history in your tree, if they left children. The further back we go, the more the certainty of ancestry increases, though the knowledge of our ancestors decreases. It is simultaneously wonderful, trivial, meaningless and fun.
Rutherford is another in a long line of historians to challenge popular notions of Celtic identity but does so using the science of genetics. That concept is a modern invention of a presumed people that isn’t reflected in Britain’s DNA. There wasn’t a point where a group of genetically similar people spread throughout the British Isles and settled into a culture that was Celtic.
This is not a great book (in an increasingly crowded market) but it mostly held my attention. It does show, once again, that a good title can help sales though.
“That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”
“Like Nazis at a Ku Klux Klan rally, they were comfortable ideologically, but not in terms of corporate culture.”
The Sellout by Paul Beatty is a most amusing and subversive read. Considering he has just won the Man Booker Prize for 2016 another review is not really needed but nevertheless I will make a few points without bothering too much about discussing the novel’s context.
In many ways, like Michel Houellebecq, Beatty is interesting as he says things about race, culture and contemporary society most authors would not poke with any length stick. There are many one-liners that make one laugh aloud. Sentence after sentence is intelligent and very wickedly witty. Like Houellebecq, you laugh more than just a little guiltily. I love how his outrageous rants are often little “essays passing for fiction”. There is wisdom and some pretty terrible, or terribly insightful, things said:
“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”
The eponymous, yet unnamed black narrator, grows up as the subject of his father’s psychological experiments. This proves to be a great device for exploring and commenting on many aspects of late 20th century American society. “The Sellout” – and we do know that his surname is Me – has a uniquely challenging childhood not just due to these experiments but because his father’s “nigger whispering” to dissuade suicidal locals from ending it all when high on drugs or drunk (I noted that Beatty graduated with a degree in psychology).
The meetings of the club his father founded, the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, are among the funniest in the book. The rewriting of great works af American literature, including The Great Blacksby and Mark Twain’s great novel, is a highlight. Here’s a passage:
“I tried to read this book, Huckleberry Finn, to my grandchildren, but I couldn’t get past page six because the book is fraught with the ‘n-word.’…That’s why I took the liberty to rewrite Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Where the repugnant ‘n-word’ occurs, I replaced it with ‘warrior’ and the word ‘slave’ with ‘dark-skinned volunteer.’ ” “That’s right!” shouted the crowd. “I also improved Jim’s diction, rejiggered the plotline a bit, and retitled the book The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.”
He makes a number of other points about the representation of colour in literature:
“The Color of Burnt Toast,” I said, naming the bestselling memoir about the guy from Detroit with a “crazy” white mother who didn’t want her biracial children to be traumatized by the word “black,” so she raised them as brown, called them beigeoloids, celebrated Brown History Month, and, until he was ten years old, grew up believing that the reason he was so dark was because his absentee father was the lightning-scorched magnolia tree in the housing project courtyard.
‘I’m so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?
One of Beatty’s insights seems to be that history cannot be erased allowing progress towards a fair, just and equitable society by just forgetting what has happened. Reinstitution of segregation in Dickens is as subversive a plot line as one can imagine. No wonder the novel open and closes in the supreme court.
You really should read this one.