Sunday 24 February 2008

Sorry, now what? Addressing educational inequity

On Wednesday 13th February the Australian Parliament finally offered an apology to Indigenous Australians (HT to Jason Goroncy for posting the full text of the apology and speech by the Prime Minister). Prime Minister Rudd's delivery of the apology to the Australian Parliament can be viewed here.

This simple action is seen by many as an important first step in reconciliation and the addressing of inequities faced by Indigenous Australians. My personal hope is that this apology by the parliament will be shared by many Australians, and will lead to positive action that will make a difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians.

Much has written about the reasons for this apology, especially the Stolen Generation. Non-Australians readers of this blog can find out more about this by reading the Bringing them Home report which was the result of a national inquiry into the practice initiated by the Australian government to remove many young Aboriginal children from their families between 1910 and 1970. Now that the long awaited apology has been delivered, it is time for action. It is encouraging that the Federal government has already flagged housing, education and health as critical areas for action. As an educator let me share some thoughts about educational inequity in this country.

In a major OECD assessment project Australia has been ranked equal-sixth in reading. The assessment project is called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It is an internationally standardised assessment that is administered to 15-year-olds in schools.
The survey has been conducted in 2000, 2003, 2006 and will be conducted again in 2009. A total of 57 countries participated in 2006 and 62 will take part in the survey in 2009. I have been a member of the national advisory committee since its inception. The tests are typically administered to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each country.

Dr Sue Thomson is the national project manager for PISA in Australia and recently offered the following comments on the performance of Indigenous Australian students in the Age Newspaper:

"Australia's lowest-performing students are most likely to come from indigenous communities, geographically remote areas and poor socioeconomic backgrounds. About 40% of indigenous students, 23% of students from the lowest category of socioeconomic status, and 27% of students from remote schools are not meeting a proficiency level in science that the OECD deems necessary to participate fully in a 21st-century workforce and society."

In relation to literacy and numeracy, the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy published in 2000 by the Commonwealth Department of Education Science and Training concluded that:

"Seven out of every ten Indigenous students in Year 3 are below the national literacy standard, compared to just three out of ten for other Australians. On average, Indigenous students miss out on up to one day of schooling every week, compared to around just three days every term for other Australian students. This means Indigenous students are, on average, missing out on more than a year of primary school and more than a year of secondary school. It is not surprising then that some 18% of Australia’s ‘at risk’ youth are Indigenous. Improving the educational opportunities and achievements of Indigenous Australians is an urgent national priority."

Little has changed in the last 8 years. Something to note from the above quote is the mention of school attendance. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that literacy assessments like PISA and State based basic skills tests largely test school literacy. We shouldn't be surprised when students who miss lots of school don't do well. Of course this is not the whole answer, it is clear that you cannot separate underachievement at school from issues of health, housing and family breakdown and crisis (see my previous post on Indigenous issues).

I wrote in a my previous post that a number of Christian organizations and many individuals have been working in Indigenous communities for decades. I cited the work of the Parent Controlled Christian Schools organization that has established a Christian boarding school for young Indigenous women in remote Arnhem Land. This school has made a difference to the young people who live at this school, and it has had an impact on their families.

St Andrew's School has also been responsible for establishing a special campus in Redfern that is tackling Indigenous educational needs head on. Gawura is small community based school of about 25 children in mixed staged classes from Kindergarten to Year 6 is focussed on the teaching of literacy, numeracy and elements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and tradition. This is another good initiative but it will require many more initiatives of this kind if we are to make a difference. We need more of these wonderful examples of individual and collective Christian action, as well as coordinated action from all levels of government and goodwill and cooperation between interest groups seeking justice for Indigenous people.

My hope is that we won't be reading 2008 reports in 2010 that have not been activated, nor should we able to read them in 2013 and say little has changed.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

The best sex you'll ever have!

The big breaking news story today (well the one that will top the 'most clicked' story online) is the seminar series being run by the pastor of Riverside Church pastor Andrew Newbold and his wife Megan. This Melbourne church is running a series titled "The best sex you'll ever have". It will be run over four nights.

I'm not sure exactly what the content will be the Melbourne Age reports suggests that it might well cover the importance of sex as part of a marriage between a man and woman, that pornography is sinful and wrong and should be avoided. Not surprising if you're a Christian, we know that sex was God's idea and that it was to be enjoyed as part of marriage; John Piper has a good sermon on this topic that you can download or listen to.

While I'm a little uncomfortable about a church doing what the rest of the world does all the time - using sex to sell(!) - I haven't posted this to do a critique of the church. What I wanted to comment on is the reaction of non-Christians. Here are just three:

* amazement that the church would see sex as part of life - messages here for us about getting the message out about the proper place of sex as part of marriage (which I assume is what the church is doing);
* a sex therapist who is questioning the content and arguing that the church will need to ensure that they include same sex as an option ("I'm not a religious person but......");
* arguments being made in favour of the right to choose pornography.

Now it seems that some see the church as having no right to teach what the Bible says even within the church!

I'd appreciate your thoughts and any observations you have of people's reactions, as well as any comments and suggestions for apologetic opportunities.

Sunday 10 February 2008

Juno – an unexpected pro-life message

I went to see the much talked about low budget movie “Juno” this week and came away touched by the story and encouraged that Hollywood has produced a movie that at least implicitly is pro-life. Sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff (played by Ellen Page) is a geeky, funny and unusual teenager who has one-off sex with an equally geeky boy, Paulie Bleeker (played by Michael Cera), and the outcome is an unwanted pregnancy.

Her first reaction and the expectation of most people around her is that a termination is the only answer. She looks for an appropriate abortion clinic and sets out alone to terminate her pregnancy at 12 weeks. At the door she finds a Christian classmate acting as a lone picket at the clinic. Su-Chin (played by Valerie Tian) is standing with a placard proclaiming “All babies want to get borned” (sic). A lone Christian chanting to anyone who would listen that abortion is wrong. Juno speaks to her and tries to work her way past hoping her classmate might not realise why she’s there. As she slips by her classmate blurts out somewhat incoherently that her child would have a heartbeat and fingernails. “It has fingernails?” Juno replies, hesitates, and then walks in.

The abortion clinic is almost a caricature with a zany teenager at reception offering her forms to fill out and some free condoms. After an awkward exchange Juno leaves the clinic and returns home having decided that she couldn’t go through with the abortion.

The rest of the movie revolves around Juno working through the news that she is to have a baby with her friends, family and school-mates, and her efforts to choose suitable parents to adopt her child.

Many Christians will find things in this movie that that they don’t like. Like the language so typical of teenage life. Juno won’t be seen as the ideal role model for most Christian parents, but her recognition that she needs to live with the consequences of her actions, that she is unsuitable as a parent, and that her child should be placed in the hands of a couple able to take good care of him or her, is all positive. The wonderful character of Juno created by Ellen Page is the real strength of this movie, but it is also a wonderful screenplay that is well acted by all and well directed.

This is the fourth in a series of four hollywood movies in the last year that have had an implicitly pro-life message - “Waitress”, “Knocked up”, “Bella” and now “Juno”. In the three previous movies a married woman chooses to keep the child of an unwanted pregnancy with an abusive husband, a 20 year old decides to reject her mother’s advice to “take care of it”, and a single woman who is finding life tough decides against termination when a friend offers to help her. While none of these movies have been anti abortion, they have all had women who have decided against abortion and value the life of the unborn child above their own circumstances.

In the case of Juno, we see a young woman facing up to her responsibilities after having been confronted by the simple truth that her unborn child had fingernails and a heart beat at 12 weeks. The Pro-life movement has always argued that when woman are confronted with the facts concerning the unborn child as well as well as the details of what happens with an abortion, that there is a chance that they will be challenged to reconsider. It is refreshing to have a movie that subtly celebrates life, rather than the more common practice of promoting the right of women to choose what is done with their bodies, with no consideration of the unborn child. If you’re not sure whether this is for you have a look at the movie trailer first, but I’d recommend it as a movie that is memorable at multiple levels.

Sunday 3 February 2008

The pursuit of happiness

We’ve decided to base our next issue of Case magazine on the theme "happiness". Why? Well first of all because it seems everyone wants to be happy, and there is a heightened interest right now in the secret (no pun intended) of happiness. Obviously it’s not a new topic; there have always been opinions on how you gain happiness (although Kel Richards tells us in his contribution that the word isn’t as old as you might think). But for the last 12 months interest in exploring how we become happy has been growing in popularity. The books and the video of The Secret have, much to my surprise, gained more attention than they deserve. There has also been strong media interest in the topic (see for example the major feature article in the Sydney Morning Herald of August 11th 2007 by Peter Hartcher or D.T. Max's similar effort in the New York Times on 7th January 2007). There are now numerous self-help books that seek to show people how they can learn to be happy. In fact, as Hartcher reports, many universities (mainly in the USA) now offer subjects in positive psychology. This is a relatively new branch of psychology that considers topics such as wellbeing and the “scientific pursuit of happiness”. Positive psychology focuses on emotions like happiness, wellbeing, and pleasure in the same way that clinical psychology has focused on more negative human experiences such as anger, depression and loneliness. A key driver of this academic movement has been Professor Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania whose book Authentic Happiness (2002) has given direction to the field of positive psychology.

Academic conferences on positive psychology now draw large audiences in the USA, Britain and even Australia. In June 2007 a major conference focusing on the pursuit of happiness was held in Sydney titled “Happiness & its causes”. This international conference drew a large audience made up academics, psychiatrists, therapists, psychologists, educators, leading policy makers (e.g. Pru Goward, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner), doctors, a few clergy (e.g. Father Chris Riley), politicians (e.g. Linda Burney and Malcolm Turnbull) and journalists across various interest areas, including Sydney Morning Herald Economics Editor Ross Gittins and ABC’s Geraldine Doogue. The Dalai Lama was also a special guest speaker. High profile author Stephanie Dowrick was also there as both an “Interfaith Minister” and author of a number of bestsellers, including “Forgiveness and other acts of love” and “Choosing happiness: Life and soul essentials” (I will review the latter in the next edition of Case).

The preoccupation with studying, talking about and teaching happiness has moved beyond psychologists to teachers, health professionals, life coaches, social policy makers and even economists. The latter have begun to research the relationship between perceptions of happiness and economics.

Now there seems something strange about this sudden interest in happiness. We could explore why this might be occurring at this time. Some speculated about the relationship between the phenomenon and the economy in the run up to the last Australian election. Others have looked for a relationship between the pressures of life and the seeming time poor nature of people in developed countries like Australia.

From a biblical perspective there is something upside down about focussing on happiness, with its focus typically on external circumstances, success, pleasure, wellbeing and so on. The Bible says little about seeking happiness but says much more about eternal blessings. In Jesus’ first major teaching event (Matthew 5:3-12) he makes it clear that those who mourn, the persecuted, the hungry and so on can have more than happiness; we can be blessed with membership of the Kingdom of God. Both the Old and New Testaments suggests that we are first to seek the Kingdom of God.

Rather than focusing on external circumstances, pleasure, wellbeing, positive thinking etc, the real secret (yes pun intended) to life, is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). If we are right with God our needs for food, shelter, physical wellbeing, clothing etc will be taken care of and will seem of less significance. Jesus did not promise that life will be happy if we follow him. He urged his disciples to have right priorities in life; the first priority being to follow him.

There are many things in this world that can bring us temporary happiness – money, good health, success, people who love you and so on. But the things of this world cannot ensure ongoing happiness.

Jesus taught, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?

There are bigger stakes than temporal happiness; there is eternal membership of God’s family through Christ, which leaves the search for happiness in this life in its wake. We are to seek an “everlasting kingdom” (Psalm 145: 13), as well as seeking to be right with God by accepting the free gift of grace that Jesus death offers us.

In issue 14 of the Case magazine we will have pieces on Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and happiness (Mike Wilson), the Pursuit of happiness through economic growth (Ben Cooper), a word study on happiness by Kel Richards and reviews of two influential books on happiness y Roberta Kwan and me. There will be other contributions as well. Subscribers should have the magazine in their mailboxes by early March. If you’re not a subscriber you can buy single issues for $10 AUS or receive quarterly editions of Case for just $55 AUS per year. You can sample some of the content of past issues on the CASE website.