Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Seven Stupids of Christmas

It’s that time of year again when everyone goes crazy about Christmas. The economic forecast is good. The environmental forecast is devastating. Women are expected to be working extra shifts. We celebrate as if it is the middle of winter. The biggest loser is logic itself.

            1. December 25 is not Jesus’ birthday

Christians will say that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that celebrating him is the ‘true meaning of Christmas’. This doesn’t hold up to examination. There is no historical evidence to support much of the story of the birth of Jesus, which is fine because the story was not supposed to be interpreted literally. Myth is often based on some fact but then moves on. There is nothing in the gospels about Jesus being born in December. In the early Christian communities the birth of Jesus was not celebrated because the story of Jesus’ birth hadn’t started yet. Emperor Constantine, who declared Christianity the official religion for the Roman Empire, declared in 336 AD that December 25 would be celebrated as the birth of Jesus. This was reinforced by Pope Julius I a few years later. If you don’t believe that a Jewish man of Iron Age Judea is your personal saviour, then it doesn’t matter when he was born, or when his birth is celebrated. The first recorded use of the word Christmas was in Old English in 1038 CE. The words ‘true meaning of Christmas’ were first used on the blurb for Dickens’ book ‘A Christmas Carol’.

2. The celebration has pagan roots, and is about winter

We know that Christmas replaced a winter solstice celebration in the Northern Hemisphere. It makes sense to have a festival when winters are cold and long and people are prone to depression. Bringing the branches of evergreen trees inside and having a special meal would help people through the winter. The early Puritan settlers of America banned the celebration of Christmas because of its pagan roots. Why are we decorating everything in fake snow, eating plum pudding and singing about Jingle Bells? Why do we sing carols by candlelight in a heatwave during daylight savings? Celebrating a winter wonderland doesn’t make sense in Australia, where it is hot and we all go swimming.

3. Santa isn’t real

The conspiracy about Santa is deep and broad. Adults behave as if he exists. They talk to children as if Santa really does know if they have been naughty or nice, and that he will sneak into their house at night and leave presents. Shopping malls and the post office are complicit with the lie.

St Nicholas was a priest, and then Bishop, who lived in Asia Minor about 300 CE. He was kind and generous. In the 17th Century Dutch immigrants brought the story of St Nicholas to America. In 1822 the story ‘The Night Before Christmas’ was written. In the 1920s the image of Santa became a jolly fat man wearing a red suit with a white trim. Coca Cola owns the rights to the image of Santa created for their advertising 1931-1964.

The practice of exchanging gifts began in the late 1800s. Christmas became a national holiday in the US in 1870.

4. Santa is bad for parents

Parents have the power to reward and punish children if they choose. They could accept that power rather than defer it to a fictional middle man. It would be honest and transparent and grow trust. Children would know they are dealing with their parents directly.

5. Christmas is bad for women

Christmas is run by women; they do all the work to keep it going. Women put toys on layby mid-year and keep track of gifts the children might like. They organise the food and do the cooking. They organise the relatives and try to make sure everyone is happy for the big day. Expectations are high. This brings into question the unpaid work women do. This is work women could just stop doing. We could give the work of Christmas to men and be happy with receiving gift cards and having a BBQ for lunch. Or we could scale it all down and eliminate the pressures. We could kill off Santa, let children know that their mothers hold the power, and women could accept the credit for the work they do. It makes no sense for women to do the work of gathering gifts and giving the credit to a fictional fat man. Holding on to the idea of Santa and the expectations on women for Christmas works against the goal of gender equality.

6. Christmas is an economic hoax

In Australia we celebrate Christmas as a festival of excess and shopping. Prices are inflated before 25 December and reduced the next day. If the date is not tied to any specific event, why can’t we celebrate when we please?

7. Christmas is bad for the environment

The way we celebrate Christmas has an enormous environmental impact. We spend time shopping, buying gifts packaged in plastic, then wrap them in paper that is bought especially and used once. We buy gifts for people who need nothing new. We buy gifts for people whose houses are filled with clutter. We wrap the biggest thing we have, our houses, in Christmas lights.

It makes no sense to save energy, to reduce, reuse and recycle for eleven months of the year, and then create enormous amounts of waste in celebrating Christmas. If an evil villain wanted to trick us into destroying the planet, slowly but surely, he would invent Christmas the way we celebrate it now.

We can celebrate when we like and how we like

Christmas today can bee seen as a celebration of friends and family. It can be valued as a time of economic upturn. It can be seen as a festival of excess and waste.

The broader question might be whether Christmas should be a public holiday. To accommodate people of all religious beliefs and none, perhaps we should no longer assume that everyone celebrates Christmas in the traditional way. We could be more flexible in choosing our holidays.
Now that we have critical thinking as a general capability in the National Curriculum, we should expect that our traditions will be challenged. They should be challenged. Is doing something on the basis of tradition a good enough reason? In a hundred years how will people look back on us today and regard our celebration of Christmas? Is our celebration of Christmas something you could explain to an alien and hope to be considered an intelligent being? Christmas does not have one true meaning. The meaning is constructed, contested, and shifting. We should be challenging ourselves to celebrate according to our values, the values we claim to be protecting from terrorists.

Monday, October 05, 2015

A working life

I have been working full time. I’m very fortunate to have been offered a job for a term, which has been extended to two terms. I have ten classes, which means I have about 230 comments to write on reports. I’ve had nineteen sets of class assessments tasks to mark. 

I like teaching. I have realised that I do have a lot to offer, and there is a lot that I know and can share after years of study and workshops and exploring my own interests, although it has been challenging. I’ve been learning about staff and procedures, marking, parent/teacher interviews, writing reports, and working out when to be hard and when to be soft. I’ve come to the conclusion that soft is better. The more I get to know my students, their needs, interests and abilities, the better we all are.

My job is to deliver the programs, facilitate learning and fit in with the culture of the school. That’s what I’m doing. I’m enjoying the content and working. I’m coping, energywise. Although I did get sick and kind of miss the last week of school.

I’m finding a dissonance between what I hoped teaching would be and what it actually is. That’s to be expected. A wise friend told me that I’ve had the freedom to live according to my values for a long time. I haven’t needed to engage in anything terribly compromising. That’s true. There is compromise in any work situation.

I think a lot about my students. Another friend has told me that I could spend all my time working, but I need to set boundaries and know when to take a break. The job could be all consuming, but I can’t let it be.

Even though I’ve been marking and preparing during the holidays, there are still things about next term I haven’t been told yet. I just have to trust that I’ll be able to pull it together quickly as needed. That’s what I did last term. I can do it. I’m hoping this term won’t be as steep a learning curve as last term.

And nobody knows what will happen after this term. I hope to keep working.

This is what I've thinking about learning.
'Critical thinking discourages ideas'

This is what I've been thinking about teaching.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Christian Privilege

As a society we are raising awareness about white privilege, male privilege and the privilege of heteronormative sexuality, and we are challenging these structures. In a structure of power and oppression, it is time to also look at Christian privilege.

Here’s a list of how it works.

  • Christians can expect to have holidays on their holy days. They aren’t expected to justify it.
  • Their celebrations are accepted at a communal level, from foods available in supermarkets to   carols by candlelight. A mass singing in the Domain about Mohammed and Allah would not be televised.
  • People talk about prayers without having to explain what it is or how it might work (or not).
  • Most members of parliament identify with the Christian faith.
  • Christian faith group organisations don’t pay taxes and members’ donations are  tax deductible.
  • People don’t try to convert Christians (generally speaking).
  • Christians can wear a crucifix around their necks without confrontation or explanation.
  • Christian organisations are exempt from discrimination laws.
  • Christians can send their children to faith schools and, often, faith universities.
  • The government outsources services to Christian service providers, who then engage with people of all types, including those of other faiths or none, including those who Christians actively disapprove of. Under government policy people have no recourse but to use the Christian service providers.
  • Celebrities of faith can thank their deity on international broadcasts and not be questioned about it.
  • There is an assumption in our culture that ‘Christian values’, whatever they are, should be everybody’s values.
  • Christianity is considered the norm and the default. A person of unknown faith will be given a Christian burial.
  • Language from Christianity is used in conversation every day - Oh my God!, thank God, I swear to God, God given right, gospel truth, set in stone, cast the first stone, road to Damascus moment, good Samaritan, a cross to bear, forbidden fruit, references to miracles, heaven and hell, etc
  • Popular songs make references to God, Jesus and the church as if these things are part of everybody’s experience.
  • People say ‘that’s not Christian’ as if there is a wrong and right way to be Christian, and as if being Christian means being a good person, or morally sound, and to follow an Iron Age Middle Eastern Jewish prophet whose life was recorded in an ancient book is a rational way to live your life. Christians do not own goodness and morality, or even own Jesus.
  • A Christian church and its leaders are respected, even though for many people who suffered abuse through the church these references would trigger memories of abuse.
    * Theology is categorised as an academic subject, when, being the study of trying to discern the will of god from a series of old, translated, transcribed writings, and the existence of god being unproven, perhaps we could more accurately categorise it with astrology and tarot card reading. 

In the same way that acknowledging white privilege and male privilege is not persecution, acknowledging Christian privilege is not persecution. It will be confronting for those who have it. But it needs to be seen.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Religion in public schools - what are the policies?

Religion in NSW Public Schools

There are a number of ways religion is present in NSW public schools. Here’s a fact sheet.

In primary schools, a unit on Understanding our Communities, which covers religious diversity, can be taught by the class teacher in Human Society and its Environment (HSIE) in Stage 2 (Year 3-4).
In secondary schools, Studies of Religion is a Board developed course for the HSC.  Aspects of religion may also be included in other Board approved HSC courses and Year 7-10 syllabuses (English, History, Society and Culture).
In all of these cases what children learn about religion is the responsibility of qualified teachers working from Board approved materials.

There are three other avenues through which religious belief may be raised in public schools.

The first is through Special Religious Education (SRE), often referred to as Scripture. Scripture is delivered by volunteers in accordance with Department of Education and Communities' Religious Education Implementation Procedures (REIP) and related policy documents. SRE is offered when parents request it and authorised volunteers are available to deliver it at times when the school can timetable it. It is usually timetabled in weekly classes of 30-60 minutes and is limited to forty hours per year.
Volunteer SRE teachers must be the representatives of a religious organisation that is an approved provider. Approved providers use their own materials which don’t need to be approved or vetted by the DEC. SRE boards, associations and incorporations are not approved providers. The list of authorised providers is here:
Students are placed in SRE classes by the school when there is a class available in the religion nominated by their parents/caregivers on their enrolment forms. Parents can make written requests to schools to change a child’s placement.
Students not approved by their parents to attend SRE attend non-scripture, supervised by qualified teachers during Scripture times, but students are not allowed to be taught anything by them.
Some primary schools offer Ethics Classes as an alternative to non-scripture. As with Scripture, Primary Ethics is taught by volunteer visitors to the school. Unlike Scripture, its curriculum is approved by the DEC and its teachers must complete a specified training program.

The Controversial Issues in Schools Policy, which states that visitors to schools are not to recruit students into partisan groups, is suspended during the Scripture timeslot. However, all volunteers must comply with the DEC’s Code of Conduct.

The second avenue is voluntary student gatherings such as lunchtime clubs. REIP (updated 25 March 2015) states: "Voluntary religious activities and prayer groups are not part of special religious education, but may operate under the auspices and supervision of the principal. Scripture Union (NSW) coordinates Interschool Christian Fellowship (ISCF) groups in secondary schools and Scripture Union Primary Age (SUPA) groups in primary schools. Principals in their supervision of voluntary religious activities and prayer groups must ensure that:                   
- parental permission is obtained                   
- appropriate child protection checks and practices in relation to any volunteers coming from outside the school               
- the content of the activities undertaken are monitored                       
- students or members of religious persuasions do not engage in attempts to proselytise or convert non-adherents of their religion to their faith in the course of school authorised activities."

Other programs, such as JOLT (Jesus Over Lunch Time), STIVE (Students Alive), RICE (Renewal & Inter-Church Evangelism), and ones run by Generate Ministries and local churches, may operate. Extra curricular religious groups and clubs may not be run by school staff. Neither may they offer food or other inducements to students to attend nor may they try to persuade other students to adopt their religious beliefs. Principals are to monitor the content and delivery of information for these groups.

The third avenue is the School Chaplaincy Program. The chaplain’s role is to offer pastoral support to students without proselytizing.

There is no other avenue through which religious organisations can access students in public schools. No religious group is authorised to deliver religious instruction during regular class time.

Schools must inform parents and caregivers about all religious activities at school via enrolment forms and by providing information in newsletters and on their school website. No student may be allocated to an SRE class or admitted to a religious club unless informed prior parental/caregiver approval has been given. 

Public schools have policies about inclusion, embracing diversity, and rejecting racism, homophobia and bullying. The core values are integrity, excellence, respect, responsibility, cooperation, participation, care, fairness and democracy. It is unclear whether these policies apply during SRE timeslot.

The Australian curriculum’s general capabilities, which include critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, intercultural understanding and ethical understanding, do not apply to SRE because SRE is not part of the Australian Curriculum.

NSW DEC is currently undertaking a review about Scripture and Ethics in schools. Consultation closes 31 July 2015. Parents are invited to contribute.

You can call the Department of Education and Communities about the SRE policy on 9244 5607.
Under these policies parents have a right to information and have the right to complain to the principal.

If your child’s school is not compliant with DEC policies, speak to your school principal, or raise the matter at your P&C meeting. Principals can terminate agreements with visiting groups if they breach policies. According to the Controversial Issues in Schools Policy  Implementation Procedures: If visiting speakers will not guarantee to respect this policy, access to the students must be declined. [3.32]

Sunday, April 19, 2015

How to end faith in a generation

I’ve been wondering for some time how it would be possible to end faith in a generation, and I’ve found some direction and hope.

I’ve just read Peter Boghossian’s ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’. He is a teacher of philosophy and critical thinking at Portland State University. His approach is one I can learn a lot from.

He defines faith as pretending to know something you don’t know. Faith is a failed epistemology (study of knowledge). An atheist is a person who does not think there is sufficient evidence to warrant a belief in God(s) who would believe if shown sufficient evidence, so does not pretend to know things he doesn’t know with regard to the creation of the universe, the purpose of life and so on. Being atheist is not an identity because if it is, then not believing in flying unicorns, or a teapot orbiting space would also be an identity. He uses Socratic questioning to talk to people of faith. He asks questions such as: what would it take for you to review what you think you know about your faith?+ He is not antagonistic - he is simply helping people to become better thinkers. His aim is not to win debates, but to lead people to question what they believe and why. He is respectful of people, but not of sloppy thinking. Like a parent, you can be respectful of the child, but criticise the child’s behaviour. He says we need to model openness and that it is important to maintain good relationships.

There are lots of issues he raises. For example, the idea of identity politics. Faith is not to be regarded as a point of identity like other factors such as gender and race. He talks about relativism - epistemological (the idea that any way to come to knowledge is as good as any other) and cultural. He takes the academy to task, covering classical and social liberalism, multiculturalism, feminism, tolerance and Islam.

His direction forward is multi pronged. It includes challenging people about their faith wherever possible. We need to call out claims that don’t deserve respect. We need to call out faulty thinking. He wants our culture to include resources for children and adults that send the message that good thinking is a good basis upon which to make decisions and that it is OK to say you don’t know something. We should be comfortable with not knowing rather than believing things we have no evidence for. We need to value reason and rationality. We need to divorce morality from faith. We need to stop pretending people of faith are more moral. We need to stop treating religious groups as special. We need to treat faith claims with the same condemnation we treat racism. People who want to participate in making policy decisions who claim to know things they cannot know don’t deserve a seat at the table. Religious groups need to pay tax like every other group. We need to stop allowing religious groups into schools and running their own ‘educational’ institutions. In Australia we need to stop outsourcing government agencies to church groups - this is my addition. We need to adjust our use of language so that the word ‘faith’ is only used in religious contexts, and not as a synonym for ‘trust’ or ‘hope’. We need to stop using language that elevates faith, such as referring to gospel truth, God bless you, acts of God, thank God, in good faith etc. And we need to  change the Diagnostic and Statistical manual of mental Disorders (DSM), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association, to include religious delusion as a mental illness. At the moment there is an exception for religious faith*. These steps are all possible.

And, of course, many parents are raising their children to use reason rather than pretending to know things they don't know.

Surely this will be a big step towards world peace, gender equality, and basic human rights (so long as we also revise Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights regarding the right to freedom of religion and belief, and the right to manifest that religion and belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance - I’ll ask Peter about this when I meet him).

+For example, what if the bones of Jesus were found? Would that change people’s knowledge that Jesus rose from the dead? (No resurrection = no Christianity) If that is a possibility, how strong can that knowledge be?

And if the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damscus turns out to be caused by a falling meteorite, would that be cause to review belief in Jesus as saviour?

*DSM definition of delusion:
A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (eg, it is not an article of religious faith). When a false belief involves a value judgement, it is regarded as a delusion only when the judgment is so extreme as to defy credibility. (2000, p. 765)  

On Volunteering

I have been a stay at home mum for fifteen years. I have been on P&Cs (my tenth year at primary school), been on the management committee for the local community centre, been on the committee for the preschool and the child care centre, written newsletters, made cookbooks, worked at uniform shop, mended costumes, approached business for donations for a Trivia Night, read with students, taught ethics, helped with school sport and fetes and made crafts, baked, started a local babysitting club, visited a local nursing home, been active in causes I support including being involved in a political party, in contributing to feminist and atheist causes, run bookgroups, and helped organise Mamapalooza festivals (supporting and promoting mothers in the creative arts). Other volunteers run sporting clubs, band committees, charities and campaign for change.

Stay at home mothers volunteer at school and in the community. (Of course, other parents do too - bear with me.) Some do this to boost their resumes. Some do it to take a break from their families. Some do it to socialise. Some do it to be taken seriously amongst adults.

Volunteering can be beneficial to women at home with kids, but it can also turn into a double edged sword. Being away from the family in the evenings may cause resentment amongst the fathers (or co-parent) who don’t want the responsibility of cleaning up after dinner and putting children to bed. Voluntary work can put a strain on family relationships in the same way that paid work does. It means the parent is thinking of other things besides being with children and running the household. I’m not suggesting women should always be thinking about their care work in the home - I’m not. I’m just saying volunteer work is work that takes time and thought. I certainly spent a lot of time on the phone at home when I was president of the local community centre (even though I, and other members of the executive, didn't live in that community).

Part of the problem is that women’s work is not valued. A woman’s voluntary work may be building social capital, but it doesn’t bring in money. When women are doing voluntary work they are giving it away for free. Their skills aren’t acknowledged. They are working in a parallel, alternate economy. Just as child-care workers are underpaid because mothers do similar work for free, so it is in fundraising and organising for social groups.

What does this mean for feminist mothering? It means that women are contributing to the bigger community when they may not otherwise have a voice. But it also means that women, by doing voluntary work, and fulfilling their needs that might otherwise be fulfilled by paid work but without being paid, creates a problem. It has longterm implications for a woman’s lifetime income. It may mean paying rent out of her pension when she is older since she doesn’t earn an income to buy property and hasn’t worked long enough to accumulate superannuation. It means depending on a partner for economic security and, perhaps, compromising personal happiness in her relationship due to economic factors.

What does it mean in terms of feminism and social change? Volunteering has always been the way to make change happen. None of the great change movements would have happened without people volunteering their time and skills to make change happen. But there is a personal cost. It would probably be more effective to make change happen whilst employed and climbing the career ladder to hold positions of authority.

For me, volunteering has meant connection with people in my community. This is something that is important to me for its own sake, but has had unexpected consequences. When I started the babysitting club in 2004 I could not have foreseen how the members of that club would rally around by creating a dinner roster for my family when I was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2012.

Enforced volunteering is still used by government for people who are long term unemployed. What were once government services are now privatised and run by church groups. These church groups enforce the rule that people who have been unemployed for a year need to volunteer for fifteen hours a week in order to stay on Centrelink benefits. Guess where they ask people to volunteer? At their church run charities. Obviously, this is a rort and unethical. Does my fifteen years of volunteering count? No it doesn’t.

When the UK introduced austerity measures a few years ago and shut down community programs for people in need, David Cameron announced that more people would have to do more volunteering the fill the gaps. No.That's too much to ask of people who already carers.

What I’m seeing now is volunteer burnout. Schools and community groups are set up to run on the availability of volunteers. Those volunteers are often no longer available, or, if available, concentrating on one group and not others. You can’t do everything. Just as school canteens were once run by volunteers but are now outsourced to businesses, other services are being outsourced, and maybe they should be. Schools can now employ people to run the uniform shop, or to apply for grants. These are jobs that suit people who would otherwise invest their time and skills without reward. What I’m seeing is the constant call for volunteers in all sorts of community groups. I really can’t do everything, and I don’t want to. I feel like I’ve done plenty of work for free and now I need to be paid.

Wouldn't it be great if everyone was expected to have a separate volunteering resume? Could this be recognised by government and contribute towards superannuation in some way? Wouldn’t it be good if people asked the question ‘where do you volunteer?’ as a matter of course rather than the usual status defining questions. Is there more of a culture of volunteering in countries where
work/life/family balance is more of a given. Wouldn’t it be healthy for everyone to contribute to community efforts. I see an impossible expectation placed on parents of school aged children. Wouldn’t it be good if people without care responsibilities could help out? Wouldn't it be good if volunteering gained credit that counted towards superannuation, or some other system of economics that counts in a capitalist society. Otherwise, we need to just wind everything down.

I’m turning the focus of my voluntary work to bigger issues. If we had proper funding and resourcing of services that matter, we would not need so much volunteering. You might remember the t shirt that went something like  ‘If only the government funded schools properly and had a cake stall to buy fighter jets’.* Well I’m now concentrating on policy and politics. That’s where it’s at. 

I'm certainly not helping raise funds for bands to go on overseas trips.

*tea towel here

Monday, April 06, 2015

Half Baked Ideas after Reading Helen Razor and Bernard Keanes’ 'A Short History of Stupid'

Identity Politics

At a conference I attended last year a guest speaker introduced herself by stating her identifying factors - she was cisgender, temporarily able bodied, mother to a gay son and so on.

This is the thing now, that we must declare ourselves so that we are clear we are only speaking for ourselves and not for anyone else. As a white women I can’t speak on behalf of a black woman. As a Catholic raised atheist I can’t speak on behalf of Muslim women. But our identifying factors can go on forever. Some of my identifying factors might overlap with other people’s. Others won’t.

Is this in any way helpful? Are we doing it to prevent the accusation that as a white feminist, educated, temporarily able-bodied but with a cancer experience, blah blah, I can’t speak for any other type of woman. I can’t speak for transgender women. It also means we need some new words to identify who transgender, intersex, gender fluid people have sex with because homo/hetero/bi isn’t very specific unless you are cigender. And what about asexuals? Do they need to declare themselves? I’m thinking it is all getting so silly we should drop identifying ourselves and just accept people as people and move along. What we want to talk about shouldn’t be defined by our identifying factors, or are our stories about ourselves the core thing about us, rather than what ideas we might have and how we might think?

Which leads into the problem I have with the idea that the personal is political in feminism and women’s studies. Yes, we need to hear women’s stories, but we also want women to think, to contribute, beyond their own experiences. It also ties into my problem with creative non-fiction - that the writer is core to the story. Frankly, I don’t care about Helen Garner’s dreams and what she ate for lunch when she is telling someone else’s story.

Then how do we define our common spaces and common experiences? If I start a Feminist Book Group should it be open to anyone who identifies as feminist, even though we might have different definitions? Are people who trans from female to male rejecting the feminine? Are people who trans from male to female autoeroticising? Are we all just performing our identifying factors because we’ve been socialised to anyway?

I can see it was useful some years ago - identifying which groups were not gaining access to power. Is there any value in this, identity politics, or is it all now wankery?


A little recap on Derrida. He’s the French philosopher and linguist who said ‘There is nothing outside the text’. From this, all meaning is relative so there is no dependable truth, morality or ethics. He invented deconstruction, which enables a reader/viewer to focus on an arbitrary thing, because there is no core meaning to a text and no foundation of meaning. And since language consists of binary opposites, one privileged over the other, to name something is to state what it is not. Something is absent. This provides an opportunity to challenge the assumptions of a text, which, I’ve been trained to think, is worthwhile.

After these ideas school students can study texts which some people, such as Christopher Pyne and Kevin Donnelly, would deem unworthy of serious study. All this has fallen out of favour in recent years, but some basic ideas of Derrida’s survive. I think we now agree that some texts are more meaningful and worthy than others, generally speaking. But, Razor argues, we still try to find meaning where there is none, for example, in pastries created by contestants in cooking shows. And we now have many more texts and fewer shared meanings and ways of knowing what is important and what isn’t.

So what? Well, this brings to mind conversations about studying the bible, a text Christians would say is meaningful and important. They study it as a closed text - there is nothing outside the text. I’ve done this in my studies of literature, which is fine, but it isn’t OK if you don’t talk about the purpose of the text, or if you treat it as an historical document or as an exclusive instruction for how to live. To use it to prove events in history would require corroboration from other sources. What is it? Because, following Derrida, if there is nothing outside the text (the bible) then there is no core meaning (in the bible). The same could be said of any sacred text treated the same way. In my experience it is religious followers, moral absolutists,  who complain about moral relativism. If you read a sacred text as a closed system, you are a relativist.

My other issue is, as a teacher of literature, the syllabus focuses on studying texts within a concept, looking at purpose, context, tone, and literary techniques and how they shape meaning. We still assume there is meaning. I’m trying to encourage students to not just cruise along with the perceived meanings of texts, handed down over time, but to read them for themselves to find their own meanings. For example, on a recent reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I noticed Puck ends the play with a list of birth defects he hopes the lovers’ children won’t have. In terms of Bottoms’ ass-head being central to the play, what could you argue in a reading based on disability? This is how I’ve been trained to read. Such a reading from an HSC student would garner a decent mark, I suspect. But does it really change the meaning of a text, which could also be about the randomness of love, and that we aren’t in control of our own lives? We teach students that they can argue any thesis, the more original the better, so long as the thesis is supported by the text. And the text can be a closed system. Doesn’t mean the text is an instruction on how to live, or it could be, but it doesn’t purport to be an exclusive instruction. Different readings create different meanings. And how does this fit with intertextuality?

And, I’ll add, it irks me that ‘deconstruct’ is now used as a verb synonymous with ‘analyse’ in the English classroom. Confuses me. And will confuse students when they get to university and study critical theory.

Anyone with more time, fewer interruptions or a bigger brain than mine - please help me make sense of all this. Or feel free to advise me to give up on sense and just have fun.

Adventures in War

I’m interested in how the adventure of war will be given meaning for the commemoration of the landing of Gallipoli at a time when were are trying to stop young men from travelling to find adventures in war.

How do we reframe our story of Gallipoli?

In 1824  Lord Byran fought for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire and died. Should Byran have had his passport cancelled before he could fight overseas?

What of the Spanish Civil War, in which, it is estimated, 35,000 foreign volunteers fought? This was a cause supported by many mainstream writers between 1936 and 1939.

When I worked in the public service in 1984-5 I was friends with a man who had fought with the freedom fighters in Afghanistan. A lawyer, he was at the time campaigning for election as a Liberal candidate. I’m thinking this part of his background has since been expunged. He is a barrister.

Schools teach critical thinking (which I like to call ‘thinking’). Schools teach for social justice and encourage students to be active for change, by being good global citizens.

How do these fit with young Australians going off to fight in the Middle East? How do we redirect the energies of potential fighters, who may end up on the wrong side of history?

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Mamapalooza 2015

Here’s what we’re doing for Mamapalooza 2015.

We are hosting an art show at ANU School of Art, called Intertwined, starting Monday 4 May. There are nine exhibiting artists, most of whom will be speaking to their works on Saturday 9 May.

We have a Mama Comedy Night, hosted by Lou Pollard, at Django Bar, Marrickville on Thursday 28 May, 7.30pm. I think I laugh loudest at our Comedy Nights.

And we are endorsing plays about domestic violence, called RHYMES WITH SILENCE A collection of plays about domestic violence. These are produced by Joy Roberts, who put on the Mothers plays last year. The plays are running 15 May - 23 at Project 107 Redfern.

See you there!