An ethical decision or a dumb one?

Linked to this post is a little six-page book, Amy and the green tree frog, which can be read to a child of around two to three years of age. May it give you and others much pleasure.

Two days ago I had hit on the idea of selling it for US$0.99. This was organised through a payment system I had set up on a page called The Ralapiny series, but that page was taken down by me this morning. All money received, I had declared, would be paid into a trust account for my two grandchildren (Amy Jaya and Liora Rose).

Perhaps it was the awkward mix that had bothered me: freely sharing ideas on one part of the site, while introducing a whiff of commerce on the other. Or perhaps it was the sluggish customer demand: during the two-day sale, just one book had been purchased,  by my wife. Either way, and for whatever reason, my short career as a blogmeister bookseller has now come to an end.



Just some dot points for the future …

What follows is the text of an e-mail I sent on March 12, 2013 to a friend and colleague—a devout Muslim woman, mother, scholar, and associate of my wife’s—after Nancy and I had shared a meal with her and her family at their home in Western Sydney:
As we wove effortlessly through Sydney’s congested thoroughfares on our way to Liverpool yesterday, and then from Liverpool to Sydney this morning, the driver and I talked nonstop. Family, Islam, Australia as a great place to live, the extremists who want to import their fanatical doctrines, Apple and Steve Jobs’ tireless pursuit of excellence: those were just some of the themes we explored. The driver, younger than me, was bearded, Lebanese, proudly Muslim, proudly Australian. (My ancestors, from England, Germany and Scotland, had settled in NSW and Victoria in the 1850s and  intermarried–marrying for love across religious boundaries, Catholic and Protestant.) As two males, both interested in working as seamlessly as possible with technological tools, Abdul and I fell easily into techie talk, but at a deeper level there was a shared sense of commonality and values. Although I didn’t put this proposition to him in quite these words, I’m sure he would agree with the sentiment: If we want to make sure that Australia will be a great place for our children and our grandkids to live in, then there are a few things we need to do.

These are just some thoughts I typed into Evernote on my iPhone on the plane on the way back. It is not a political manifesto. Nor is it a call for civic action–just some dot points for the future that I thought were worth recording.
DECENCY This has been a precious Australian asset. One way to refresh Australia’s reserves of decency is to stop taking away the freedom of children who arrive through the back door on boats with their parents.
COMMONSENSE If Australia is to be in a position to feed the growing middle-class populations of Asia, we need to protect and even reclaim our arable land rather than giving it up so freely to developers and drillers.
OPENNESS At every level of our society–from Junior primary to parliament, body corporate and Legacy  club–we need to encourage respectful debate, based on reason and evidence.
OPTIMISM We have a responsibility to plant seeds of hope, not despair, in the young ones. To do otherwise is to fail our ancestors, who would have wanted us to be as strong and adventurous and upbeat as they were when they left their homelands for this country.
Best wishes,

Second post—Identity, language and culture: A more impersonal view

Following on from my previous post, and continuing the same theme, I then sent my colleagues a statement that was deliberately more impersonal and explicitly addressed to students. It is an incomplete draft—after all, this a huge topic—and I know it says too little about language, but I post this second statement here nonetheless and invite further conversation on this theme.

Culture, identity and language: a theme statement

The Master of Education (International) includes core units and project-based alternatives that deal with various aspects of global learning. This raises the question: “What is global learning, and how is it different from any other kind of learning?”

This short position statement attempts a partial answer from the perspective of a particular theme: Culture, identity and language. Some staff in the School of Education at CDU have been grappling with issues that are relevant to this question and theme for most of their working life.

It might be useful at the outset to outline a social constructivist view by asserting that a tertiary education course such as this Masters is a kind of civic space in which principles of respect, freedom and reciprocity are important. Such a course makes possible a time and place where dilemmas, controversies and simplifying, unifying, reductive claims about culture, identity and language can be discussed impartially, analysed and respectfully contested.

The notion of culture originally related to the idea of tending or caring for something, and thus we have permaculture, aquaculture and agriculture. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ‘culture’ took on values associated with bourgeois capitalism (art, opera, salon music and the like). Following the work of anthropologists such as Malinowski and Levi-Strauss culture began to signify the set of social and symbolic practices that influence individual behaviour. Structuralists helped reinforce a belief that cultures and languages are unique, unitary, contrasting systems. A social constructivist would argue though that, while this might seem true, it is an outside view. Viewed from inside, a language or culture appears more indeterminate and is therefore harder to delineate clearly. Many varieties or  hybrids can be distinguished. Some are likely to be socially valued, others to be stigmatised.

From a historical perspectives some societies can appear to be static—think of conservative agricultural communities, medieval Europe, China just before the Boxer Revolution or the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the same time period.

One might imagine that learning in these societies served to equip people for their roles as clerks, imperial officials, rice terrace farmers, or coopers, and so was primarily functional, reinforcing existing social roles and ascribed identities.

At other times societies seem to be in ferment, disrupted by war, radical ideas, invasion, emigration or new technologies. Leading thinkers have begun to advocate changes in the way we think and act because of the threat of environmental catastrophe indicated by bleached coral, warming seas,  the swirling island of plastic rubbish the size of France in the north Pacific near Hawaii. Terrorist acts and frequent, hostile confrontations have become the ugly face of identity politics. Suddenly, it seems, there is a need for students to take on board these global complexities and to begin learning more, and caring more, about sustainability and tolerance.

A new global civilisation is forming, said Vaclav Havel in 1995. He likened it to a single epidermis, or skin, that has formed and now stretches across a teeming multitude of people, cultures, languages, identities, historical backgrounds and religious and non-religious viewpoints. The new global citizens, in a sense, are building on and benefitting from the philosophical achievements of the last few centuries—the universalistic proclamations of the French and American revolutions, and the Enlightenment—every bit as much as the technological revolution that allows them to sit in inner city Starbucks or a Melanesian village, their smart phone and tablet within reach, communicating and learning, no longer conservatively immersed in the particularities of their background, language or culture.

Global learning is exciting, but it comes at a price, and it brings with it a responsibility. To understand the present state of the world should lead to action to improve it. Otherwise, why bother? Professionals who do not contribute to the betterment of society risk becoming mere careerists. Students who do not translate learning into action face a life of irrelevance.

The Master of Education (International) provides an opportunity to explore topics as diverse as the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages, or whether it is educationally useful for three-year-olds to be allowed to spend time on electronic devices if they want to, and as broad as “What contribution can I make, as student and professional, to making this planet a safer, more sustainable and wonderful place to live?”

First post—Identity, language and culture: A personal view

I work at a university which is introducing a new international international Master of Education program. One of the themes associated with that program is “Identity, language and culture”. Several of my colleagues immediately got to work crafting, nicely worded academic statements, but I held back at first, because it seemed to me that the three abstract concepts—Identity, language and culture—were too slippery and elusive to start with. So I decided to tackle my theme statement  in two stages: first by putting forward a personal view then by drafting a more impersonal one addressed to students. What I will do is to post them here, then to invite some comments from colleagues to move the process forward.

Identity, language and culture: A personal view


Brian Devlin

November 12, 2013

If we adopt an international perspective it is readily apparent that language and culture are sometimes skilfully used as soft power instruments to project certain identities and achieve various political, economic and other objectives. The role of Confucius Institutes, the British Council and Americal Consulate libraries are just three examples that come to mind.

From the viewpoint of an individual nation it can sometimes be difficult for primary and secondary schooling systems to accommodate cultural and linguistic pluralism, given the pressing need for educational accountability, so pluralism may give way to assimilation; bilingual education may become a contested issue.

In rural remote areas where Aboriginal groups still have access to distinctive vernacular languages and cultures there may be a conflict between what local people value and what the schooling system requires (Devlin, 2009). Passive resistance, poor attendance and low rates of achievement could be linked to this dilemma, although there are many other medical, socio-economic, historical and other factors that undoubtedly play a part. Unacceptably high rates of youth suicide in this areas certainly suggest troubling identity questions.

As an individual brought up in an English-speaking Australian household, one of the most meaningful adventures I have ever embarked on is the one that started when I was 13: to learn a few of the languages of the word, to travel widely and to immerse myself in lots of different cultures. To detail the twists and turns of that journey is beyond the scope of this short paper, but I’ll just say that it has lead to many wonderful cross-cultural encounters and immersion experiences, which continue to remind me of how rich, meaningful and abundant life can be.