Friday, 10 August 2012

Theatre Of The Absurd

Whose Hands? It's not what's happening out on the political stage that we should worry about, but who is directing this theatre of the absurd from behind the scenes.

“THE WORLD”, said Benjamin Disraeli, “is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.” Just as well. Because the poor players currently strutting and fretting their hour upon New Zealand’s political stage clearly learned their craft in the Theatre of the Absurd. Incoherent and disconnected posturing may now be de rigueur, but even the most sophisticated audience grows weary of a play without a plot.

If the players and the play are mere distractions, however, and Mr Disraeli’s unseen personages, operating behind the scenes, do truly govern the world; then this theatrical, National-led government’s failure to develop either plot or character is of no real consequence.

In fact, to discover that there is nothing remotely resembling logic underpinning the Government’s public statements comes as a huge relief. Some of us were developing the most acute headaches trying to reconcile Education Minister, Hekia Parata’s, unwavering commitment to placing teachers of the highest possible quality, possessing all relevant qualifications, in every one of the nation’s public classrooms, with her Associate Education Minister, John Banks’, advocacy of privately run “Partnership Schools” staffed by unregistered teachers lacking even the rudiments of professional training. Now that we know the Government’s education policy is supposed to be absurd, incoherent and posturing, the pain grows less.

Behind the scenes, of course, the personages who really call the shots are gearing up for the incremental privatisation of New Zealand’s education system. Their logic is impeccable. First: Make it easy for middle class people, with money, to identify the public schools that are failing, so they can send their children somewhere else. Second: Set up “Partnership Schools” next to these failing schools and fill them up with the best and brightest children from the surrounding neighbourhoods. Third: Expand the network of “Independent” schools to take advantage of middle-class parents’ headlong flight from what they now regard as a fatally compromised public system.

Not only do the Personages get to clip the ticket all the way down the line, from the humblest early-childhood education centre to the flashest secondary school, but they also achieve their much larger purpose. The egalitarian and meritocratic public education system, built up over more than a century by the parties of the Left, can now be replaced with the sort of privately run, socially exclusive and unashamedly elitist system New Zealand’s deeply unequal society so obviously craves.

National Standards, League Tables, Partnership Schools, Public-Private Partnerships. It seemed to be nothing more than the politicians’ sound and fury. Now it all makes perfect sense.

The Afghanistan War’s sound and fury burst on to the stage last weekend in the most tragic fashion. And, once again, there was no sense to be made of the on-stage dialogue. The absurdity of the politicians was only matched by the opacity of the Army’s top brass.

In each of the nearly ten years New Zealand troops have been stationed in Afghanistan we have been told that their only purpose was to help the Afghan people to help themselves. In Bamiyan Province that involved Kiwis helping the local tribesmen to build schools and medical clinics. Our Provincial Reconstruction Team was lucky in its mission, we were told, because Bamiyan was one of the safest places in that unhappy country.

Why then are our soldiers dying? If, by our presence, we were supposed to make the country safer, why has it become more dangerous?

Now that our troops have become targets for Taliban forces supposedly reeling before the American “surge”. Now our “reconstruction team” is expected to confront an enemy capable of fighting highly-trained Kiwi infantry to a standstill. What purpose is served by remaining?

The Prime Minister and his Minister of Defence speak confidently about “restoring stability” to a country that grows more unstable by the day. But, like that other tragic military theatre of the absurd, the Western Front, no politician’s answer makes the slightest sense. Back then, the Diggers sang: “We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here.” The explanation for New Zealand’s presence in Afghanistan seems to boil down to: “We’re there because we’re there, because we’re there, because we’re there.”

“Oh, and to keep our American and Australian friends happy”, add Mr Disraeli’s  “very different personages’, in a loud stage whisper, from behind the scenes.

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 August 2012.


Adolf Fiinkensein said...

A brilliantly written thesis, Mr Trotter.

Pity about the timing though.

National climbs in the opinion polls while Labour tears its heart out.

CnrJoe said...

Top class analysis Chris.
Its quite a ride this surreal trip.

Dazed and Confused said...

Has no one noticed that university lecturers have no no formal teaching training yet these people are largely the ones training the teachers. So how is it that teachers trained by non teaching professionals somehow magically become the only ones qualified to teach.

Tim G. said...

After reading your post, I'm struggling to remember the legitimate explanations for both:
a) educational reform (convincing dot-joining btw); and
b) the ongoing commitment of our soldiers to Afghanistan.

Pity in regard to Afghanistan we are again hearing nothing different from the NZLP.

By the way, another great painting to accompany your post. Where do you find the dark/suggestive/surreal images?

Mark Wilson said...

The problems with the education system are the fault of the teacher unions. The moment they were able to do away with independently marked exams the system lost all credibility. The system now relies on schools and teachers to honestly mark their own performance so naturally all bad schools and bad teachers cheat.
There is no one out there except left wing nutters who believe exam results have any integrity at all.
And as usual courtesy of the law of unintended consequences the resulting flight to quality has isolated the offspring of the poor and the brown in ghetto schools.
Another stunning win for the teacher unions drive to protect the incompetent amongst their members at the expense of children.

Tim G. said...

@Mark Wilson - yep, you're right. Completely unqualified teachers in charter schools should be marking the exams instead.

guerilla surgeon said...

Oh god, here we go again with the teacher unions. I suppose I should be grateful that the teachers were referred to as sheep being led by the nose by those at the top. You know nothing. When we did have independently marked exams, which we still have by the way, it was the good schools who managed to cheat, by "suggesting" that certain students not sit – thereby massaging their statistics. I taught in low decile schools for years, never came across one that didn't let ANY student sit the exam. In some schools, the aspiration was simply to sit the exam rather than pass. That at least, was honest. Those so-called top schools were flagrantly dishonest. The flight to so-called good schools, came largely as a result of a perception established by right-wing nutters, but also because parents were often racist to the extent that they didn't want their kids mixing with nasty rough kids, particularly nasty rough brown kids. I was told this on several occasions just straight out – no shame. Funny how low decile supposedly failing schools are often criticised by people who wouldn't last two seconds in front of 4 Engineering ii. The right is so full of shit on education. If the economy worked as well as the education system we'd all be a lot better off, it would be really nice if they concentrated on that.

guerilla surgeon said...


Anonymous said...

Mark Wilson - get back under your bridge please, your evidence-free 'insights' are not needed here.

Anonymous said...

Liberating education from the death grip of the Trade Unions is the laudable goal.

Two years ago, tens of thousands of decent Kiwis took to the streets on Mayday, off all days, to protest against the Trade Unions' attempt to destroy the multi-billion dollar Kiwi film industry.

And the National government, listened.

Decent Kiwis demanded quality education for our children.

The National government, listened. They tried to work with the stakeholders in education and got precisely nowhere.

The Trade Unions in education refused to compromise. Intent upon contributing to the Labour Party's goal of imposing a peasant/worker collectivism upon New Zealand, the Trade Unions persisted with the dismantling of education.

The National government took note, and began circumventing them.

And decent Kiwis rejoiced. Good teachers, good schools and all students are being liberated from Trade Unionism.

Education triumphs over indoctrination.

Chris Trotter said...

Re: Anonymous@3:44PM

Would usually delete this sort of nonsense - but this example is so near a perfect expression of right-wing paranoia and ignorance that I thought Bowalley Road's readers might get a kick out of reading it.

Kat said...

Yep, anonymous@3:44pm is just another National Party Troll hitching a ride on current anti Labour leadership family feet shooting. The more the dirty laundry is aired the more the Nat Trolls are attracted. Keep it up guys, great smokescreen.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris ,
I wonder if you have given much thought to commemoration?

I was appalled that John Key was cheerfully explaining that the government were going to pass law to speed up spending $75M on the National War Memorial Park. In commemoration of the 300 000 New Zealanders who have served their country.

Is it bad taste to question this in the week that two soldiers were killed in Afghanistan?

I’m from Southland and now live just outside Christchurch, so I’m not familiar with what was done after the Maori Wars, I know that after the Great War every hamlet, village and town erected phallus monuments in small parks all over the country. I also know that huge sums of money were raised by the locals to make this possible, and that after WWII there was strong opposition to repeating this pointless waste of money. After WWII the hamlets, villages and towns erected memorial community halls, dance halls, public swimming pools, sports pavilions and parks.

I think after 1945, people thought that commemorating soldiering was stupid sentimentality. There were plenty of war memorials around to add more names to, the families remembered the dead and the RSA remembered for everyone else each Anzac day. What mattered was having not died. Being alive, celebrating that fact and trying to get back to normal again.

War is not good.

We have a national war memorial.

We keep getting told there is no money.

Let’s follow the leadership of a previous generation and instead of an underpass to achieve a silence never heard on a battlefield, spend the $75M on memorial classrooms for at risk youth at The LegUp Trust, memorial respite housing for The Monte Cecilia Trust, Memorial university scholarships for decile 1-4 high school kids. Memorial investment in youth and community.

It’s a mockery really: Lest we forget? We’ve already forgotten. We are trotting out with sentimental wistfulness Wilfred Owen’s condemnatory last line to that paen to the stupidity of war ‘Dulce and decorum est’ (pro patria mori). Christchurch Boy’s High has/had a war memorial with that latin over the arch. It means it is noble and good to die for one’s country. What is the good of dead soldiers? The writer S Tepper took a whole novel to conclude that it was good they couldn’t fight anymore.

Sorry to resort to quoting better minds than mine, but I thought Theodore Dalrymple (‘Spoilt Rotten: the toxic cult of sentimentalism’) would recognise this situation:
“Sentimentalists try to make up for a lack of feeling by emotional exhibitionism. Men who feel little for women or children often have their names tattooed on their arms; the tattoo says, in effect, "Look what I am prepared to do for you." This is all too often a prelude to abandonment; the man is prepared to have himself tattooed, but not prepared for the slow grind of lasting support, which requires genuine feeling.
But it is not only in the lower depths of society that sentimentality poisons British life. No one is more sentimental than our intelligentsia, at the root of most of whose ideologies is a sentimental disregard of the most obvious realities, in favour of absurdities they would prefer to be true.”
$75M for an underpass to make a memorial park is bullshit! It’s emotional exhibitionism. In the current climate, who dares object? But it’s buying the most expensive McDonald’s meal for the kids because you want to play golf all Saturday. Its building a new sports stadium in CHCH so no one will notice local decisions are made by CERA bureaucrats or that EQC is incompetent.
I think this is what bread and circuses look like this particular century.
Some people notice. I was hoping you might be one?

Clare Ryan

schultzie said...

Dazed and Confused said "Has no one noticed that university lecturers have no no formal teaching training yet these people are largely the ones training the teachers."

Actually most, if not all, of the lecturers teaching the graduate secondary teaching diploma intake when I did it about 8 years ago were ex-secondary school teachers and qualified both in their knowledge of the subject matter and their knowledge and experience of teaching in front of a class of teenagers.

As for Mark Wilson, he obviously has little understanding of how NCEA works. It does have external exams, marked externally just like the previous system (and the previous system had already evolved into a part internal-part external assessment system). The crux of the change was not a change to internal but a change from norm-based to standard-based assessment. That is, instead of ranking students against their peers (which is what the old School Cert and Bursary exams were designed to do), it is meant to test the student against an objective standard (ie can they do something). And this was driven by the Ministry of Education, not the unions or the schools (though unions accepted it as the right direction - ironically because it was thought to better serve those students who would enter the workforce straight from high school by showing what they could actually do - which was also what employers claimed to want to know).

The gripe of most employers seems to be that the claim a student can do something - which is what Unit and Achievement Standard passes are - is based on a student having done this once or twice in a controlled situation and does not guarantee that they can do it again months later. This wasn't an issue under the old system which just ranked students against their peers - a 35% in School Cert maths meant that you answered one or two more questions correctly than someone who got 32%, but it tells you nothing about what those questions were or whether you could repeat it. Hence, the real problem with NCEA is that it provides more detailed information on assessment and thereby shows just how unreliable assessment information is - if employers had had that level of detail under School Cert it would have undermined that as well.

Enough of my rant for today.

Jigsaw said...

Nothing like a good amount of exaggeration eh Chris? There are only going to be a few 'charter' schools and they would only be able to have a small percentage of unqualified teachers anyway. Besides when schools had unqualified teachers of Maori it was some how quite ok and in fact Peter Sharples told the ERO to go away and not to inspect the schools as they knew nothing about teaching Maori. What frightens the teacher unions so much is to lose power and influence.
Much more important than any unqualified teachers is the number of hugely ineffective and downright hopeless teachers that there are in the system at present and the huge problem in getting rid of them. Compared with Ontario, Canada for example our schools are more like charter schools-their system is centralised and bureaucratic in the extreme. No education system should be afraid of some experimental schools nor claim to be beyond improvement.

Anonymous said...

schultzie - good to see you support throwing away that horrendous thing called NCEA and returning to a much more useful system like School Certificate. Just like all of those engineers working in Chris's railway workshop would have had to pass.

But the problem is tht the old system supported focussing on less "important" thing such as Maths, science and English. And that is just not The done thing these days. Now it's much more important to be progressive and learn things like enviro and kapa haka,and other "fun" stuff.

Too bad if one potential employer after another ( and universities) complains that school leavers these days don't seem to know what day it is or how to think. What would they know.

Nb Chris, I think I must be a robot as I struggle to prove that I am not