Remembering The Little Red School Book

While spending the weekend staying with friends in Canberra, I visited exhibitions at Old Parliament House and the National Archive. Among the National Archive's current featured exhibits are documents related to The Little Red School Book.

Publication of this book was the subject of intense debate in Australia in 1972. It was banned in several countries but the Federal Minister for Customs and Excise Don Chipp eventually allowed its publication here.

The Little Red School Book

The book's Danish authors encouraged school students to use their initiative against what they portrayed as the authoritarianism of the time. School teachers and other adults needed to be regarded as 'paper tigers' who 'can never control you completely'.

Discussing school education, the authors criticised the majority of teachers who 'think it's unnecessary to explain to their pupils why they must learn certain things'. With regard to sex and drugs, the issue in the minds of the authors was safety, not morality (i.e. harm minimisation). They emphasise technical explanations and advice about the risks of drug addiction and STDs.

Documents in the National Archive exhibit include a protest letter from the president of an Adelaide branch of the Presbyterian Women's Association, who wrote that she was 'appalled by the polution of the mind' represented by publication of the book.

Another correspondent, from South Yarra in Melbourne, commended the Minister for resisting the protestors, who'd sent 'unsigned filthy notes ... worse than the publication that they are complaining about'.

Presbyterian Womens Association

I was drawn to the exhibit by a recollection from when I was in Year 7 at high school. It was 1972 and there was a rare non-conformist Christian Brother who quietly lent me the copy of the book that he'd managed to source.

As a 12 year old, much of it went over my head. But I remember perusing its content and writing a review to enter in a book review competition being organised by the school librarian. I won the competition because mine was the only entry. I'm not sure how the librarian managed to avoid censure from the principal, but that wasn't my concern.

Now when I think of the furore over The Little Red School Book in 1972, I'm inclined to compare it to the recent debate over the controversial Safe Schools Program, which in its own way is also designed to foster student responsibility and to avoid conflating safety with morality.

In contrast to their Coalition forbears who debated and approved The Little Red Schoolbook 45 years ago, it seems that members of today's Federal Government have shown a conspicuous lack of backbone in yielding to pressure from the right wing and acting to gut the Safe Schools Program.

Bond University: What's in a name?

At the weekend, when I stayed with my aunt and uncle at Robina on the Gold Coast, I was within ten minutes walk of Bond University.

Walking through a university campus has long been part of my lifestyle, having lived within ten minutes walk of Sydney University for almost 24 years. I have welcomed the proximity as if, through some process of osmosis, it conditions me to be a more questioning, reflective and ethical person.

But with Bond University, the feeling is more ambiguous.

It is certainly one of the most beautiful modern university campuses I have walked around, and I have noted that the privately owned not-for-profit institution is one of Australia's best performing universities.

But I can't quite get over the reality - for me at least - that the university is a gigantic monument to one of Australia's most notoriously dishonourable businessmen, Alan Bond.

In Australia, Bond was synonymous with the corporate excess of the 1980s. He was one of the central figures in the WA Inc scandals of the time. A few years later he was declared bankrupt, with personal debts approaching $2 billion. Then he was jailed after being convicted of fraudulently appropriating $1.2 billion.

It's a long time since Bond University severed links with Bond and Bond Corporation. But it is perverse that it appears to have the discipline of business administration at its core, with the Bond Business School one of the university's more prominent and successful entities.

The obvious question is what kind of implicit or explicit inspiration does the School take from Alan Bond the man of business. Is it at all proud of Bond's legacy in business? What kind of business ethics does it teach?

Try putting bond business school business ethics into Google and the search result will point to the 'truly personalised educational experience' and - almost comically - end with the search engine indicator: 'Missing: ethics'.

I would guess that this gives a wrong and unfair impression. But so does the university's name. In recent days, I've read with interest about Yale University's decision to rename one of its undergraduate colleges because its name has honoured the white supremicist and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.

The Yale University statement said that having one of its colleges named in honour of such a person 'fundamentally conflicts with Yale's mission and values'.

Yale's action could be a trigger for Bond University to examine how its name sits with its mission and values.

The blessed duality of the Catholic Church

Yesterday Fairfax published an unlikely article by columnist and occasional Catholic Joel Meares. It was titled 'Growing up gay, Catholic school was a haven for me'.

He was thanking the lay teachers at his Catholic school for 'nurturing [his] difference'.

He said: 'These people put into quiet practice so much of what is beautiful about the religion, and did very little preaching as they went.'

With some degree of understatement, he then acknowledged that his story was not everybody's story.

This reminded me of the blog I wrote last month in which I mentioned my personal recollection from 1980s of 'a retired Jesuit preparatory school principal boasting of "sending out" his students to bully peers who were homosexual'.

I put that in the context of a Fairfax report from 2015 that revealed the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart had buried a 2007 report aimed at protecting LGBTQI students in Catholic schools from homophobic bullying.

I don't live in Melbourne and I've only met Archbishop Hart once or twice, but I've heard him characterised as a doctrinal hardliner who is capable of empathy with marginal Catholics.

This is obviously not true of all clerics. Fairly or unfairly, Hart's erstwhile colleague Cardinal George Pell is often regarded as a narcissistic hardliner not capable of showing empathy to marginal Catholics.

Pope Francis has famously shown signs that he wants to 'include' LGBTIQ and other marginal Catholics in the life of the Church. That's what he was about when he proclaimed 2016 the 'Year of Mercy'. But he's also made it plain that he does not intend to change the doctrine.

In other words, the lives of LGBTIQ Catholics will still be 'objectively disordered' in the eyes of Catholic doctrine. But in practice, he wants LGBTIQ Catholics to be encouraged and affirmed, as Joel Meares was in his Catholic school.

Understandably many angry LGBTIQ ex-Catholics are not impressed by this wondrous contradiction. They ask why the Church's doctrine cannot be brought into line with its pastoral practice. They will have nothing to do with the Church until it is, and they will be waiting a long time.

My answer to them is that they should allow themselves to enjoy the blessed duality that is the Catholic Church. The supportive 'haven' Meares' Catholic school was for him as he grew up. Let the actions of the Church's quiet pastoral achievers hold sway over its loud clerics and the declining relevance of particular sections of doctrine.

The fragmentation of our attention since 1983

I recall attending a late afternoon history lecture in one of the large theatres at Melbourne University. It was 1983 and the lecturer Dr Donna Merwick interrupted her delivery and glared at a student sitting in one of the tiered rows towards the back of the room.

He was indiscreetly holding up and reading the afternoon broadsheet newspaper The Herald while listening to her lecture in the background. She asked him for his undivided attention and quickly got it.

In 2010 I was doing sessional teaching at Sydney University and faced a similar, but by then impossible, battle for the undivided attention of my students.

Most of them had their laptops open, ostensibly taking notes. But it was obvious that they were listening to me in the background while focusing on whatever online activities they would be engaged in if they were somewhere other than in this room attending a compulsory class.

Short of having mirrors installed on the wall behind them, there was not a lot that I could do about it. And in any case, it was the age of multitasking, and it had become normal for anybody - not just students - to focus their attention on several activities at any given time. What was regarded as insolence in 1983 had become de rigeur by 2010.

I am thinking about divided attention in the context of hyperlinks on web pages. Earlier this week I wrote a piece that referred to an online article in The Guardian. I linked to that article in my first paragraph. One of my readers told me that he didn't get beyond my first paragraph because he clicked on the link and read the Guardian article instead.

The next day - yesterday - I also referred to an article online. But I didn't link to it, instead including enough information about it to make it easy to Google. The reader suggested that I should have provided a link to the article, but I was unmoved. 

In fact I will isolate myself from the flow of information around the web if I don't provide links. This is because Google rewards links with higher rankings in search results with its increasingly sophisticated search algorithms. This has led to the fragmentation of our attention on an industrial scale. Back in 1983, the idea of linking was more or less confined to footnotes in academic articles. Even with footnotes, it was necessary to go to the trouble of consulting the card or microfiche catalogue in the library before your attention was diverted.

Lack of focus is a major explanation for why governments can no longer do anything substantial. With the release of Keating era Cabinet papers at New Year, we were reminded of Paul Keating's ability to command attention and how this made him able to achieve significant economic and other reform.

Certainly Keating's magnetic personality had a lot to do with it, but the real reason it could be done then and not now is that 1992 was several years before widespread use of the Internet arrived and changed everything.

Teaching the rules of English Grammar

When I was in my first year of secondary school, my mother was unimpressed with the quality of the education I was getting from the Christian Brothers.

She wasn't alone. Other parents were pulling their sons out of that school and sending them to one of the government high schools, where the education was believed to be better. She went further, and sent me to the city to boarding school. To the Catholic school with the best reputation for academic excellence.

She didn't like it that almost all schools in regional areas had given up teaching the structure and rules of English Grammar. She wanted me to be taught English Grammar. In addition, there would be Latin, and - if I ended up in the top stream - Ancient Greek. It was a matter of pride that my school was one of two schools in the state that still taught Ancient Greek.

I remember learning the rules of English Grammar in Year 8, in a very methodical manner from a teacher named Mr Harrison. He taught us how to write and structure the Queen's English but definitely not how to speak it. Behind his back we mimicked him giving us the instruction 'Get out your Pendlebury' in his very broad Australian accent. Our 'Pendlebury' was the class text, A Grammar School English Course by B.J. Pendlebury.

I never completely understood why some schools taught English Grammar and others didn't, until the other day when I read an article in The Conversation titled 'Things you were taught at school that are wrong'.

It's quite a good article, more balanced than the clickbait title suggests. It talks about the prescriptivists, who wrote rules prescribing how sentences must be structured, and the descriptivists who compiled guides describing how English was used by different people for various purposes.

Now I know that, in 1972, my mother was taking me out of the hands of the descriptivists and entrusting me to the prescriptivists.

The writer Misty Adoniou makes the not entirely tongue in cheek suggestion that the prescriptivists made up rules to ensure that literacy stayed out of reach of the working classes.

This is beyond the scope of the article, but it seems to me that the teaching and enforcing of language rules and exclusions has proved to one of the most effective tools of social engineering. In particular the assimilation of indigenous and migrant populations into the dominant culture.

But I can't agree with Adoniou's easy dismissal of the prescriptivists, and, in the end, I think the article is misleading and wrong. That is because teaching grammar has a lot to do with educating us to think logically and argue rationally. I know that this would have been my mother's motivation. She was definitely not a class snob.

I remember being taught not to begin a sentence with 'and', 'but', 'or' or 'for'. Now I do not hesitate to do that if it adds to the effect of what I'm writing.

Aside from its help in faciliating clear thinking and rational argument, I'm pleased that I was taught the rules of grammar so that I can pick and choose which ones to accept and ignore. It's a lot like being taught religious doctrine using a catechism. Or studying comparative religion. You're equipped to make informed and rationally argued choices.