Personal Reflections

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The return of the autodidact

Autodidact - a self-taught person. Australian Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley  was an example, another was steel magnate Andrew Carnegie
The second half of the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth has sometimes been called the age of the autodidact or self-taught man.

Educational opportunities were more limited, while our obsession with credentials still lay in the future.Outside certain of the professions or the church which required a basic degree, most training was craft based. The period was one of scientific advance, great curiosity and a belief in human advancement. There was a great thirst for knowledge:  Many read widely and took part in self-improvement activities through bodies such as mechanics institutes.

Both my grandfathers were autodidacts. Both left school at an early age. Both became actively involved in politics, if on different sides. Both were religious. One became a Primitive Methodist Home Missionary. Even in that church, you required a university degree to become a full minister. The second became a long standing Minister for Education in NSW and wrote quite extensively on historical, political and educational topics.

The rise of formal education and the increasing requirement for formal credentials over the second half of the twentieth century effectively stamped the breed out.  The dominance of formal ever cascading credentials introduced increasing increasing rigidities into every aspect of life. It meant that people had less time for thought, less time for reflection. less time for free choice in what to study, were reduced in what they could do without the obligatory ticks. Autodidacts still existed, but were marginalised, forced to the periphery..

There was a time in the 1980s when I believed that the rise of competency based approaches with their stated emphasis on the capacity to do regardless of how that capacity was acquired might free the system up, break the hold of the credentialers, encourage the return of the autodidact. By 1992 I knew that that was not going to happen as the professions, the officials and the education system asserted control over what had to be learned, how it was to be learned, how it was to be measured.  .

I had thought that the internet might break the cycle by giving people access to a broader range of knowledge, greater freedom. At first, things seemed promising.

The acronym MOOC for massive open online course was coined in 2008. MOOCs are online courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. They are generally provided for free, although fees may apply if you wish to get a formal tick for the course. By 2010,  MOOCs were seen as the wave of the future, something that would open further study to all of their own choice and at their own pace. By 2012 universities and other providers were rushing to role-out MOOCs.

August 2012. University of New England (UNE) Sydney alumni challenge then VC Jim Barber on his vision for the University's future. 
In August 2012 I attended a UNE alumni dinner. There I heard VC Jim Barber  start by talking about the university as a business, about the on-line revolution, about the need to deliver a low cost product. UNE, he seemed to be saying, had to survive by delivering a mass, cheap, on-line product.

There was not a single word in the first five minutes of business/CEO speak that explained to me why I or other alumni should continue to support UNE. Under persistent attack, Jim refined his position, setting out a broader view, but it was an example of the effects of managerial speak and of the obsession with new technology seen in terms of delivery platforms by existing institutions.

By 2016 MOOCs were past their peak. Jim Barber had resigned in 2014, replaced by Annabel Duncan. In 2016 as I completed the latest on-line work  place health and safety obligatory course I realised that I had become jaundiced here too. Don't get me wrong, I think workplace safety is important, but so much of this stuff is really teaching people to comply with the rules. Internet based systems have become the weapon of choice in delivering stuff within the bounds set by existing rules and approaches.

I began blogging in March 2006. By 2008, I saw blogging as a key platform for learning, for open conversation, for discourse outside the academy. Google blog search became a key search tool. It was, if you like, a good platform for the autodidact!

Facebook was founded in 2004 and then began to expand from 2006. Twitter was established in 2006. By 2009, many bloggers had migrated to these new platforms, replacing analysis with short form repeats and comments. The echo chamber had been born.

Apart from missing their previous contributions, I found much of the new material boring and repetitive. I already knew their views and really didn't take well to constant re-tweets limited to stuff that I knew that they supported. There was another problem, for I found myself experimenting with the platforms themselves. So if I wrote a post, I would then FB it and tweet it as well, adding to the time involved. I also found myself pulled by a key question: to what degree should I become involved with the new platforms that kept emerging? How many new platforms could or should I add? How did I balance all this?

By 2018 I found myself weary. I was trying to do my own original writing. I was trying to use my various platforms to educate and discuss, but I seemed to be getting no where. Or, at least, not making much progress. Then I realised that I was missing the point.

Outside the bounds of the increasingly complex education and training system with its multiple layers of credentials, outside the still increasing requirements for mandated ticks, a quiet revolution has been underway.

We have, in fact, seen the return of the autodidact. I am proud to be one in the sense that I pursue my curiosity, seek to learn and to share. Here we have more opportunities open to us than at any time in human history. I am not talking about "self-directed learning" with its connotations that one is studying for a career purpose, but the seeking of education, knowledge and understanding for our own purposes including sheer curiosity.

I am sure that this will not come as a surprise to you. It's just that my own sense of weariness has stood in the way, has blinded me to the scale of the revolution of which I am a small part. I talk about myself as a public historian, I have tried to articulate my role there, but I'm not sure that I have really come to grips with what that means. Part of the problem is that I am still too locked into formal structures, into requirements mandated by others.

In history, for example, for every person studying or teaching history at school or university, there are probably 50 interested for their own purposes.The number could be far higher. I haven't worked out how to calculate it properly. More broadly, I haven't worked out a framework to help me analyse the ever-growing informal sector.

The existing education and training sector itself is starting to crumble under its own weight. You can only mandate so many qualifications, impose so many costs, extend study time horizons so far, before people stop playing, start looking for alternatives.

I think that this is already happening, in part because of the constant repetition about multiple careers, about the need for flexible education, about the need for constant re-education.. Why commit to a long course of study to get a particular ticket for career purposes when faced with a constant shortening half-life for that course of study? Surely better to do the absolute minimum now and then top up as required?

Again, I haven't thought this through properly. I think that it has quite profound implications for the structure of education. In some limited areas such as medical specialties where you have rigid mandated requirements, significant income advantages and a continuing expectation of life-long careers the status quo may survive. Elsewhere I think that the first part of a revolution may be well underway.  

Monday, July 09, 2018

Monday Forum - mainstreaming and the fallacy of universal standards

Today's Forum sets up two linked assertions for discussion.

The first is that mainstreaming makes no automatic sense. The second is is that universal, state or national, standards make no automatic sense.

Mainstreaming refers to a process by which tailored programs delivered by special purpose organisations targeted to particular groups are absorbed into universal or mainstream services delivered to the population as a whole. Universal standards refer to the way in which the application of common standards to  particular government areas, state or nation, has become automatically seen as making good sense.

I think both views are wrong. What do you think?.  

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Saturday Morning Musings - memories of Klaus Loewald, a Dunera Boy

Historian and former diplomat Klaus Loewald (right), shown here with fellow Dunera internee Hans Marcus on the fiftieth anniversary of the vessel’s arrival. Rebecca Silk
There has been a real rush of new material on the now famous story of the Dunera Boys, the group of mainly German and Austrian Jewish refugees forcibly deported to Australia on the Dunera in July 1940. Upon arrival, they were interned at Hay. From that group came many who would become leading Australian intellectuals.  

On 19 June 2018, Nicholas Gruen posted A lucky boy from a golden age of economics, a summary of the speech he gave at the launch of economist Max Corden's memoirs, Lucky boy in the lucky country. Corden was a Dunera Boy as was Fred Gruen, Nicholas's father and another leading Australian economist. My attention was caught in part because I'm interested in the Dunera Boys, in part because of the discussion on the changing nature of economics.

Nicholas's reflections triggered  a part completed post drawing from his thoughts but also my own reflections on and experience with the changing nature of economics. I paused in writing because I realised how little I actually knew in some areas.

I will complete that post, but in the meantime my attention was caught by the publicity surrounding a new book by Ken Inglis, Seumas Spark and Jay Winter with Carol Bunyan, Dunera Lives: A Visual History. This included a radio discussion between the ABC's Phillip Adams and Jay Winter on the book. Then, digging around, I found this 12 December 2016 piece by Seumas Sparke in Inside Story,  "Ken Inglis and the Dunera: a seventy-year history", telling a little of the history of the book. My attention was caught by this paragraph:
Loewald’s story is remarkable. Born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1920, he escaped the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 by staying on the move, resting at night on trains rather than at home. In London he worked in a factory job before his arrest and deportation to Australia. Released from internment in 1942, he served in the 8th Employment Company of the Australian army alongside other former Dunera internees. He returned to London in 1945 and emigrated to the United States the following year; there, he took American citizenship and built an academic career. In 1962 he left Berkeley for Saigon to teach American politics and history at the university and to serve as American cultural attaché. He resigned from the US diplomatic service in 1970 in protest against the Vietnam war and Nixon’s presidency, moved to Australia with his wife, and joined the history department of the University of New England. He died in 2004 without having travelled to Hay with Ken, a trip Loewald had suggested they make.
In 1981 I returned to University of New England to work full time on my PhD. This was a happy time in my life. I was without real care, I had enough money for little luxuries, friends to do things with and I was back in an academic environment, able to dive down all sorts of rabbit holes not always directly connected with my main topic.

Over 1981 and 1982 I often sat next to Klaus in the tea room or at our various social functions. He was an kind and urbane man, an interesting man, who was interested in many of the things I was interested in. I had come back into an academic environment after 14 years in the public service, including several at senior level. I found that I did not have to explain things to him, that he understood.

We were then in the first or second stages of the specialisation and fragmentation that has come to mark so many disciplines.  I found that this had led to a narrowing of focus, a shallowing of thought, an increased unwillingness to discuss broader issues including the methods and philosophical underpinnings on which various disciplines rested.  Credentialism had also increased, something that I was coming to detest.

I suppose that I was especially conscious of these things because I was coming back into a university that I had known well, not just as a student but also from growing up in an academic household. So I was comparing a now with a past that, arguably,  had already become wrapped in a degree of golden nostalgia. Still, and more broadly, I do remember saying to Klaus in frustration one day after a seminar, how on earth can they seriously hope to research that if they have no idea how organisations or systems work?

Klaus and I talked a little about his past. I clearly remember his description of the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 which he escaped by staying on the move, resting at night on trains rather than at home.I remember the descriptions of broken windows, of glass crunching under foot. However, I really had no idea of his background, his broader experience, and greatly regret now that I did not pursue further when I had the chance.

Perhaps I should record at some point what I have now discovered as a short memoir. The time Klaus and his second wife Do Thi Uyen Nhu, herself a remarkable woman, spent in Armidale was only a small part of their very varied lives. It was, relatively, a bigger part of mine, sufficient that he remains fixed in my memory, saying hello as I come into the tearoom, waving at me to sit down with him.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Preserving the integrity of historical records in the age of cultural sensitivities

Aboriginal camp near Armidale. Taken by C Brown Photographer who was working in Armidale in 1892.
Seventy years ago, convict records risked desecration by people who wanted to conceal the convict stain on their ancestry. Today, their children or grandchildren seek to discover such ancestry.

Seventy years ago, having aboriginal ancestry was a matter of shame for some. I am a member of a number of discussion groups concerned with family history. Now there are regular requests from people seeking to establish Aboriginal ancestry. These requests come from Aboriginal people wishing to establish their own family tree and from people who have discovered that they had an Aboriginal grand or great-grand parent and wish to know more. A friend, Caroline Chapman, has established a website and a Facebook group to assist those with connections to the New England Tablelands.

The language used in official  and other records reflects views at the time. Caroline notes:: "Some of the language used in the historical documents cited is now seen as inappropriate by today's standards.
This language has been included for historical accuracy and is often written in quotation marks."

I mention all this because in May The ABC carried a story,  'Aboriginal' redacted from birth, death, marriage certificates after being deemed an offensive term,  about an Aboriginal man who sought a birth certificate for a member of his family only to find that the term "Aboriginal" had been whited out on the grounds that it might be deemed offensive, This decision created outrage among historians.

In this case, the original record was not altered, just a decision made to exclude information from the copy of the record supplied. That's bad enough. The difficulty is that it's actually not a big step from there to a decision to alter the record itself. This has,I think, become easier now that so many records  are digitised.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

What is a literary historian?

In a brief discussion in comments on Tony Hughes-D'Aeth and Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture: a response (17 June 2018), marcellous talked about Tony D'Aeth as a literary historian. He is formally described in this way in The Conversation:
Tony Hughes-d'Aeth is a lecturer in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia, where he teaches and researches in the fields of Australian literary studies and cultural history, and contemporary and world literature. His latest book is Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt (UWAP, 2017).
Both my piece and the discussion continue to raise issues in my mind that relate to my primary writing task, a history of New England. I will deal with those in a post on my history blog. Here I briefly want to expose a confusion in my own mind that can be presented in this way: what, exactly, is a literary historian?

I had thought that a literary historian was one who studied the history of literature. This included studies of literature about a particular topic. So a literary history of the Western Australian wheatbelt was a study of literature about or in some way linked to the wheat belt. I now realised that in thinking about this there was already a confusion in my mind between the use of literary sources to study the history of the wheatbelt as compared to a study of literature about or connected in some way with the wheatbelt. These are two very different things.

I can illustrate this further using a current writing task as an example, one I referred to in an earlier post, Bogged down in growing up in New England..This story describes growing up on the New England Tablelands in the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of five people, four of whom described their experiences in book form, the fifth had his experiences recorded by others. Is this story a study of childhood, a literary history, a cultural history or some combination of the three? I am struggling to strike the right balance.

Tony introduces a third variable into the mix, that of the environment as occupying centre stage in historiography. This introduces a new complexity, for it gives us multiple dimensions: history of area as evidenced by literature, the literary history of regions, the history of changing attitudes to the environment as evidenced through literature and the literary history of certain types of writing. These things overlap, but are not quite the same.

Marcellous introduced a further element by suggesting that Tony was a bit of a post-modernist type. As I confessed to marcellous, I had to look post-modernist up to refresh my memory for it largely passed me by. This led me to this abstract of chapter 2 of Jonathan Culler's Barthes: A Very Short Introduction entitled literary historian. Barthes was an eminent French scholar.
‘Literary historian’ explores why Barthes was interested in history. By showing when and how various practices came into being, historical study works to demystify the ideology of a culture, exposing its assumptions as ideology. Barthes values history for the strangeness of other epochs and what they can teach us about the present. Moreover, history is useful because it can provide a story for making the present intelligible. All writing contains signs that indicate a social mode, a relation to society, and Barthes's first book Le Degré zéro is a brief history of these ‘signs of literature’.
Digging a little further, I found myself in the world of cultural studies and literary theory. I was reminded of my time back full time at University in 1981 and 1982  when I felt that I should refresh myself on the changes that had taken place in the study of history and also sociology. For two weeks I sat there and just sped read. I found some useful stuff - semiotics is an example, something that actually links to yesterday's post -  but at the end of two weeks I felt that if I met one more theorist I might do serious damage. In retrospect, that was probably a most efficacious inoculation against post-modernism!

Writing in 1994, Wendell Harris asked "What is 'Literary' History?" His core point was that the term had acquired so many meanings that clarity required that the meaning being applied should always be avoid confusion. I can see his point.  

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The need for a pause in an age of change

Earlier in June I mentioned (Monday Forum - fin de siècle, the decadents and other such matters) that my train reading  was Holbrook Jackson's The Eighteen Nineties. First printed in 1913 and then reprinted multiple times, the book explores art and literature at the climax of the Victorian period in England.

In the weeks since I have kept reading, but it's been slow progress. That's partly because I have been working from home trying to focus on my my writing so don't have those blocks of travel time with their reduced distractions. At home, I constantly feel that I should be doing something on my main writing projects even though I know that feeling is unproductive. But  I am also out of sympathy with many of those he is writing about. I end by reading in bed before I go to sleep; a few pages puts me to sleep quite effectively.

Holbrook Jackson is part bibliophile, part literary historian, part literary critic. As a bibliophile who knew many if not all the people he writes about, he is clearly well informed. As a literary critic, he is highly opinionated. Some of his best writing comes when he lets lose crescendos, piling phrase on phrase towards a climax. This is also the area where he is most clearly wrong as seen from one hundred years later. Some of those he considers best, the new wave who will become appreciated with time, have vanished almost without trace into the dusty shelves of the diminishing number of second hand book shops.

Rober Hughes coined the phrase the shock of the new to title his 1980 TV series on the history of modern art. Jackson is also concerned with that shock, although he complains frequently at the way the English public, really the London public, are resistant to and fail to recognise the value of the offerings placed before them.

I have increasing sympathy with the English public. Perhaps I am becoming old and increasingly jaundiced, but as someone who writes across a variety of topics from present to past I find myself increasingly resistant to the idea that I should accept change simply because change is seen as a good thing.

In his 1970 best seller Future Shock, Ivan Toffler pointed out that each of us makes thousands of decisions each day. Most are minor decisions made within established patterns and pass without real thought or tension.  Some decisions require thought, create tensions. Toffler and his wife suggested that the normal person could make only so many such decisions before becoming overwhelmed. They went on to argue that the pace of change had become such that more and more people were in this condition. The accelerated rate of technological and social change had left people disconnected and suffering from "shattering stress and disorientation"—future shocked. The Tofflers believed that the majority of social problems were symptoms of future shock. In their discussion they popularized the term "information overload."  

Fourteen years earlier (1956), the economist Kenneth Boulding published a seminal work, The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society. The book explores the way humans use images - what I often call mental mud maps - to simplify and impose patterns on a complex and sometimes chaotic world. These images, symbols, are very powerful and are resistant to change even where external reality and the personal mud-maps diverge. If that divergence become too great, as at a time of major change, people can react very strongly.

Earlier, I quoted Hughes' phrase the shock of the new. Hughes was referring to major movements, major challenges. I would argue that today we have a further and different problem, the shock of change that is not really new beyond being change, of a continuing and growing instability in public and private life.

I was thinking around this in the context of recent debates about policy and government stability in Australia and indeed elsewhere in the world. This is often expressed in terms of the rise of populism and minor parties. I would argue that there is a different and more fundamental problem, and that is policy instability. Does that sound extreme, overstated? Let me explain. .

Government has many roles which can be carried out in different ways. However, one key element is a desire for stability, for continuity that allows citizens to get on with their lives. This is not an argument for stasis, for an absence of change. There have been many major changes over the last two centuries that were resisted at the time but then became institutionalised, part of the status quo. But what happens when Government .itself become part of the instability, something that cannot be relied upon?

Consider, for a moment, the current Australian debate about taxation. Wearing my policy hat, I might argue that both Government and Opposition approaches have problems, but does it matter? Does anybody actually believe that what is being proposed will be what actually happen, that there won't be major changes in the next few years regardless of current views?

This type of uncertainty, of constant change in the stated name of reform, is replicated across all policy and program areas and all levels of government.

If you are about to become parents you don't know what child care or school arrangements will be like three or five years out. If your children are at school you don't know what the university arrangements will be when they are ready to go. If your children are at university, you don't know what future funding changes might affect current arrangements and loans.

As a family, you don't know what medical system and associated costs might be in place in a few years' time. If you are a pensioner, you can't be sure that your pension will survive and if so on what terms. If you are covered by the National Disability Insurance Scheme you don't know what that might look like in a few years' time or even if it can survive.

If you have a child overseas who has an overseas partner, you don't know what might happen if they want to return to Australia in a few years' time. You don't know what financial changes might be made in taxation or other arrangements that will affect them.

These type of uncertainties roll across every aspect of society. The only thing that you can be sure of is that what is in place now is unlikely to be in place in three years, still less likely in five years. I tried to calculate once what the average life expectancy was of any Government policy or program before it was subject to significant change. My impression was that it was now about eighteen months. It makes planning difficult and adds to the pervading feeling of insecurity.

If. as Toffler suggests, people were suffering from future shock in 1970, the position is worse today. If we follow Boulding, increasing groups in society find themselves in the position of growing divergence between their images, the mental mudmaps they use to make sense of the world, and external reality. They have not yet absorbed, internalised one change before the next is upon them. These groups are ready audiences for politicians who play to the increasing gap between the external world and those group images.

My argument in this post is that governments themselves have become a growing part of the problem. Now I find myself wanting to say stop, give over, leave it alone.

Take education. Does it really matter if Australia does not measure up to certain narrowly defined global standards in educational performance? Surely it matters more that in our search for "improvement" we have subjected our educational system to constant change without achieving even the narrowly defined performance improvement we sought, adding stress to parents and students without result beyond added stress?  .  .

I have been a reasonably successful change agent as both manager and consultant. In that process I learned that change brings pain before gain flows. If you bring in another major round of changes before the gains, performance does not improve, it deteriorates. We are in that position today in Government.

There is a tendency among Australia's political elites to blame poor performance, the inability to bring about effective change, on the three year electoral cycle. To my mind, that is absolute rubbish. We have had three year cycles for a long time. There is no evidence that I know that countries with longer cycles actually perform better. The problem lies in the way the task is approached.

Could we call stop to the current process? I think that we could, but it would require a very different mind set. In education, for example, the NSW Government could say that our school system has been subject to constant change over a long period. It is not clear that those changes have actually improved performance.We are therefore going to freeze the current system for three years (I would like to say five years) only making minor changes at the margin where the possibility of demonstrable improvement can be established. This may require the state to reject Commonwealth initiatives unless they can be shown to improve performance.

I accept that this would be difficult in part because of money. Compromises may be required. But it would give all of us a chance to gather our breath.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Ramana on Hinglish and Indian languages

It's been a while, well a very long while, since I did one of my wanders around the blogosphere. My focuses have taken me in a different directions. It's time to resume. I did enjoy those wanders and the way they sparked new thoughts and now I'm feeling a little stale. Sort of like a Sao that's gone off! You know, or at least Australians would, a bit soggy and not very tasty!

Today's post is triggered by a post by Ramana, Language In India that looks at the complexities in countries with multiple languages including the rise of .Hinglish, a combination of Hindi and English. "You can also have Tamlish for Tamil and English, Maratish for Marathi and English and so on and so forth." So on and so forth is very Indian English, by the way.

I had forgotten how complex the Indian language scene is.with so many major local languages. Ramana talks about the difficulties of communication within a firm and between the field when the official language is English. I imagine similar problems would arise with other languages unless the firm dealt just with one language area. English has, I think, survived as an official language because other language groups are so fearful of Hindi language domination. The number of English first language speakers is small, but in terms of total speakers English is second after Hindi.

Language is a funny thing because its so associated with identity and culture. Eldest works for a large Danish multinational, the biggest company in Denmark. The official internal language is English. Most Danes speak English. I think that it's compulsory at school, yet if you want to become a Danish citizen you have to be able to speak Danish. Australia is going down the same route in a way that makes many of us uncomfortable.    

Ramana is sensibly relaxed and practical on these issues as am I.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Blaxland’s Flat Girl – a tale from Aboriginal New England

I have chosen this short piece written in 2012 to introduce my section on Aboriginal New England because it is an attempt to bring alive, to personalise, an element In the history of Aboriginal New England.  
For much of the 32,000 or so years since Aboriginal peoples first settled in New England we have only  the archaeological record. It is easy to forget that those material remains represent people. That stone tool is not just an artefact used to do things, not just an example of a type, but something that someone made and left behind. That charcoal is not just fire remains that may be dated, but a place at which real people gathered around. Those food remains were actually eaten by someone. 
There is debate about the extent to which we can or should go beyond the material remains to infer, to imagine, the individuals themselves since we cannot know. Such imaginings may start from facts but then become fiction and may actually mislead, becoming embedded in cultural memory as facts, thus acquiring an evolving life of their own. I accept that this is a danger, but would argue as a story teller as well as historian that the best history comes from the effective application of imagination. It is then up to others and later work to challenge. 
Some of my Aboriginal friends may challenge my title, the application of a geographical name created by European occupation. Surely, they might argue, she should be called Gumbaynggirr Girl after the Aboriginal language group that occupied territory from the southern edge of the Clarence River south to the start of the McLeay Valley? 
To them I would say, simply, that there are no perfect answers here. my objective is to create a character that will bring an element of Aboriginal history alive. To call her Gumbaynggirr Girl is to give her a name that sounds like a song title, that submerges her into a broader whole, that reduces her unique character. At this point, I think that Blaxland’s Flat Girl works. 

Some eight hundred years ago a girl died in the area that would be later called New England.

Her family was camping in a place now known as Blaxland’s Flat some 15 miles south west of modern Grafton. This is hilly country with long deep narrow valleys running north-south between sandstone ridges down which rush creeks often turbulent after heavy rain ending in the Orara River. It was also country with a high sacred value to the people of that time.

Six miles to the north are a series of stone arrangements on the western side of Skinner’s Swamp. Nearby are artworks including a three foot long fish like figure and a large goanna. A mile to the north east, we enter rougher country. Here in the many rock shelters we find one of the largest concentrations of Aboriginal art in the Northern Rivers.

While the evidence is still uncertain, all these sites appear to belong to the same period, the centuries surrounding the death of Blaxland’s Flat girl.

We do not know why she died, although there is no evidence of foul play. We do know that she was loved. On her death, her family cut a shroud from the bark of a bloodwood tree and wrapped her in it. They then carried her to what could well have been the family deposition site.

Aboriginal people interred their dead at different ways at different times over the millennia. Sometimes, bodies were placed in trees to allow the flesh to rot for later burial. Sometimes, bodies were cremated and the bones then broken and deposited. At other times, the dead were tied up in sitting positions with their legs bent so that they could leap to the future chase. They were then buried in shallow graves, covered by brush.

In Blaxland’s Flat girl’s case, they carried her from the camp to a low hung rock shelter set back in a cliff a bit under eight feet from the ground. This height was probably intended to protect the site from predators. There they deposited her body, protected at some point by a sandstone wall.

I say that we know that this was probably a family site, for at least fifteen people were deposited there.

Blaxland’s Flat Girl rested for the next eight hundred years, although family hopes about disturbance proved illusory. It is clear that that the site was visited, probably by one of the large tree goannas found in the area. These tear the flesh with long claws, feeding on the remains. They could certainly have entered the site.

Late in 1963, dingo hunters found the site. This was reported to Isabel McBryde at the University of New England who mounted a carefully planned rescue dig. After eight hundred years, Blaxland’s Flat girl returned to the public gaze. Now after meticulous scientific research, we have a human being to fit into the often dry record revealed by archaeological remains.
Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am bringing up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later. This chapter is the start of a bigger section on Aboriginal New England. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Tony Hughes-D'Aeth and Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture: a response

Dialogue Boxes, New England's Western Slopes Harry Pidgeon is one of a number of artists seeking to capture life and landscape in different parts of New England

My attention was drawn Tony Hughes-D'Aeth piece in The Conversation Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture by a tweet from  @billy_griffiths  "Nice piece by Tony Hughes-D'Aeth on the Australian environment as an actor rather than a stage".

I referred to Tony and his new book,  Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt in a piece I wrote (Musing on Geraldine Doogue's new RN radio program on new genres in Australian history) back in March.

I had not yet read the book, I still have to do that, but based on the interview I liked his approach. I also liked the idea of Geraldine's radio series itself as described::
Saturday Extra brings you in the month of March emerging and established historians who are embarking on studies of particular regions in Australia and using different means to trace the history such as literature and the environment. Eminent historian Tom Griffiths provides his take on this new genre.
I wasn't convinced about the the new genres part, but was pleased to see a renewed interest in regional history as well as a focus on using different sources to explore different aspects of life. In a comment on the program website, I expressed the hope that there would be some New England material given the long intellectual tradition in that area. In the end there was not nor was there much really on regional history itself, although the segments were quite interesting.

Oxley Highway, Julia Griffin, another of the artists seeking to capture life and landscape in different parts of New England

Following Billy's tweet, I read Tony's Conversation piece  I tweeted back: "There is a danger of a new urban theology here, Billy. The discussion is much older and deeper than is allowed at least in Northern NSW, the area I focus on. Rolls was not an accident nor, for that matter, was Isabel (McBryde). They form part of a tradition."  I then sketched some history in a subsequent set of responses. Given my reaction to Geraldine's program, I was a bit miffed that  all the back history was still being ignored.

Reading Tony's article a little later, I realised that there was less history and far more theology than I had first thought, a view confirmed by the commentary stream. It is this element that I wish to address. I will bring up more detailed historical material in a post on my history blog.

Because I am about to be very critical, I repeat the link to Tony's piece so that you can check my arguments against his. I note that Australia is a varied place and that  that I am writing especially about an area that I know very well. Experience in other areas such as the WA wheat belt may be very different. I note, too, that I am not an urbanist. In Australian parlance, I am a townie with country links who has written on and shares at least some of the ethos of the various country movements, including opposition to metro dominance whether economic. political or cultural. All this will be clear to anyone who reads my blogs and other writing.

The Theology of  Tony Hughes-D'Aeth 
Herding sheep near Armidale when Australia still rode on the sheep's back. "it (agriculture) is as much religion as it is an industry" 
Tony adopts a religious tone early on. "What if Australia were to stop farming?" he asks. There would be a big economic hit. towns that are dying would collapse, jobs would go:
 But really the scandal of this thought goes beyond economics and into the very soul of the nation. The crucial insight to emerge from such a thought-experiment is that agriculture in Australia is a religion — it is as much a religion as it is an industry. 
Hughes-D'Aeth The powerful ideological connection between Australia and agriculture, Tony suggests,  is being increasingly and diversely scrutinised and comes to the fore in Charles Massy’s iconoclastic epic, Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth (2017. This throws into question 200 years of assumptions about what it means to graze animals in Australia.
Massy’s joins a spate of recent books that seek to recast the basic assumptions on which Australian agriculture was built. They include Don Watson’s The Bush (2016), Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014) (which has recently been turned into dance by Bangarra) and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2012). If agriculture is a religion in Australia, these writers are its heresiarchs. . .
The idea of the heresiarch, the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect, is deeply embedded in Tony's thought. I don't think it unfair to say that he see himself in this role.

He suggests that it is a "truism that Australia, overwhelmingly urban for most of its modern history, draws its identity disproportionately from “the land”" as evidenced in the Qantas ads.
 In this sense, Australia (the continent, the land, the soil, the bush) is imagined as a metaphysical substance which gives unity, meaning and destiny to what might otherwise seem like a collection of recently federated settler colonies, formed to extract resources for the benefit of a once powerful European nation state. The practice of agriculture is central to the belief that Australians as a people are expressive of Australia, the metaphysical ideal. Without this connection between agriculture and Australianness, we couldn’t make sense of such fashion icons as Akubra, Blundstone, Driza-Bone and R.M. Williams.. 
He goes on to state that serious questions about the way that Australia sustains people through the plants and animals that are husbanded on its ancient soils are not, of course, confined to the past several years.
The revision might be traced to Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters (1994), or even earlier to such seminal works of environmental history as Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres (1981), W.K. Hancock’s Discovering Monaro (1972), and Barbara York Main’s Between Wodjil and Tor (1967) and Twice Trodden Ground (1971).
What each of these writers did, Tony argues, was to make the Australian environment, or some part of it, an actor rather than a stage.Ffor these writers the environment  was not some broadly passive, albeit resistant, thing out there that needed to be overcome, battled, tamed, brought into submission — it was a dynamic system of interrelated parts, where every action had cascading consequences and complex repercussions.
At the centre of, or just beneath, all of these books is the attempt to try and locate some kind of basic environmental baseline. There seems to be no dispute about the fact that the agricultural colonisation of Australia by Europeans has had far reaching consequences for the organisation of the continent’s biota.
Tony then briefly discusses the adverse effects of agriculture in terms of species loss, the impact of hard-hooved animals, new predators and vegetation loss. He contrasts this with Aboriginal management of the land before returning to his theme: 
What all of these books are saying, and why they are in fact getting traction now, is that something is broken. These books are not announcing that the environment is broken — they merely mention this in passing, regarding this as beyond any reasonable doubt. Instead, what these books are announcing is that agriculture is broken. 
This, in the context of our self-image, is something that is much more terrifying and it will be savagely resisted. But each book is also hopeful in its way. None more than Charles Massy, whose book’s subtitle “A New Agriculture, A New Earth” is openly salvationist and The Call of the Reed Warbler is a detailed plan for the regeneration of degraded pastoral country that allows for both agricultural production and environmental recovery.
To Tony, all these books are an attempt to remedy current blindness. 


In responding to Tony's article, I want to focus on adding a little historical depth rather than getting caught in the more theological or ideological elements.

The Aboriginal Period

Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps. As the environment stabilised at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and populations increased, the Aboriginal peoples invested in new structures and developed a sophisticated land management system  

In recent works, both Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia) talk about Aboriginal land management. There are some problems with both books, but I don't think that anybody would challenge that the Aborigines had modified and managed their environment to meet their needs. They had also introduced Australia's first known feral pest, the dingo.

The fact that the Aboriginal peoples had sophisticated economic structures and modified their environment has been known for some time. Because memory is an imperfect beast, I went back and checked my 1966 UNE honours thesis on the economic structure of Aboriginal life in Northern NSW in the Nineteenth century. This was an ethnohistorical study attempting to analyse Aboriginal economic life at the time of European invasion.. Topics covered included the natural environment; population distribution; patterns of seasonal movement and the degree of settled life in terms of "Nomadic" society (the italics are in the original); division of labour, specialisation and and cooperation; property; trade contact and the distribution of goods; capital formation and industrial development; food production including farming and the extent to which the Aborigines were changing their environment.

While I'm quite proud that I did pick up issues that would later be important, some of my conclusions still stand, the thesis does have obvious weaknesses. However, it provides a snapshot of knowledge at the time.

The Pilliga Scrub. As Eric Rolls describes, the forest now known as the Pilliga Scrub did not exist in Aboriginal times because burning kept the country open. 
In 1966, the extent to which the Aborigines modified their environment especially by use of fire was still open to some dispute, although the general use of fire was well documented. Looking at the evidence that was available that showed that fire had considerable impact and that by 1892 some previously open areas were being claimed by vegetation, I concluded that fire kept the country open and that non-fire resistant vegetation died out to some extent.

Since then, of course, so much additional knowledge has emerged. By the late sixties or early 1970s (I can't find the exact reference) the idea that the Aborigines deliberately burnt the Liverpool Plains, for example, to maximise productivity was being argued in the UNE Botany Department. Then we have Eric Roll's detailed 1981 study of the Pilliga. Since then, knowledge has continued to accumulate.

The difficulty that arises, though, is to know just what conclusion to draw from a comparison of now with the Aboriginal period recognising variety across the country including issues associated with the rolling date of European occupation. On the surface, for example, the creation of national parks intended to preserve the natural environment was in fact creating a new environment different from that which applied at the time of European occupation. This doesn't make them wrong, just indicates a need for care in drawing conclusions.

One recent development here has been the attempt to reintroduce traditional Aboriginal burning practices. A New England example can be found in the work being done by a UNE postgraduate student and the Bainbai people.

More broadly, if we assume that Aboriginal society in 1788 was at a point of balance with the environment they had created, and this is an assumption although its one I would broadly accept, then how should this actually inform the present?

The European Period

European occupation involved two broad types of environmental changes. One was the impact of the removal of  Aboriginal land management practices, the second the impact on the environment of European land management techniques. I really struggled in this area because I thought that Tony's arguments lacked historical context. The remarks that follow focus on the broader New England because that's the area I know. They are also partial because this is an area that I am still researching.  

Poet and environmentalist Judith Wright. He love of the land and support for environment causes was strongly influence by her her father P A Wright and her life on the family property Wallamumbi.
Tony starts his story in a sense with Tim Flannery's 1994 work The Future Eaters although he then cites earlier references going back as far as 1967. The story goes back much further than that and involves many more people. It's a long and complicated story that I can only roughly sketch.

By the 1920s, there was awareness in the broader New England of the affects of erosion and declining productivity. There was also interest in the application of science to agriculture. This led to initial attempts at conservation and soil improvement.  In his Mother's Country (1988), Maslyn Williams describes concerns and conservation efforts during the 1920s on the property outside Tenterfield where he was working as a young jackaroo.. They have a very current ring.

A number of people were involved in the attempts to improve land management practices. These included P A Wright, Judith's father, and Roy Vincent. In addition to his community and agricultural activities, Wright loved the Falls country east of Armidale and pushed for the creation of a national park to protect the area.The initial park, the New England  National Park, was gazetted in 1934. For his part, Vincent was responsible (among other things) for the creation of the NSW soil conservation service and for the creation of what is now the Dorrigo National Park.  .

In 1939, Wadham and Wood published a widely read book on land utilisation that that described (among other things) the interaction between agriculture and land degradation and fed into discussion. The year before, the campaign to establish a Northern university had achieved initial success with the establishment of the New England University College.

From the beginning, its proponents wanted the College to play an active role in agricultural research as part of its broader role. This was to take time, but they had more success in encouraging an interdisciplinary approach focused on the resolution of Northern problems. By the 1960s, NEUC/UNE had generated a considerable body of work across zoology, botany, geology, geography, soil science, history, agriculture and regional studies
Colonel Harold White, Bald Blair, one of the founders of organic agriculture in Australia
Another member of this New England group was.Colonel Harold White from Bald Blair Station. 

White experimented with the application of fertiliser to pastures. This gave great initial yields which then diminished despite increased application of fertiliser. White concluded that much farming was soil mining, that healthy food required healthy soil, that monoculture was part of the problem. To his mind, action to increase the humus content in soils was central to sustainable agriculture.

White began to experiment with various techniques that might increase the humus content. This focus on practical experimentation was one of the features of the New England group as a whole.

The term organic farming was coined by Lord Northbourne, appearing first in Northbourne’s manifesto on organic farming, Look to the Land, published in London in May 1940. The book reached Australia quite quickly, and was widely and favourably reviewed. White became actively involved in the formation  of the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society and was a prolific contributor to its journal. In 1953, he joined with Professor C Stanton Hicks to write and publish Life from the Soil setting out his ideas in some detail. The book was a considerable success, going through three editions. 

Another in this group was Don Shand, the founder of East West Airlines, who was involved in the development of aerial crops-dusting and of hybrid seeds. The first aerial aerial spreading of super in Australia took place at Walcha using a modified tiger moth.

Just from this brief sketch, you can see the spread of interests, as well as the desire to experiment. You can also see a divergence between some of White's views and say those of Don Shand.

 The combination of pasture improvement with fertiliser led to a dramatic increase in productivity, with carrying capacity increasing in some cases from one to three plus sheep equivalents per acre, something that was critical at a time of falling prices and rising costs. However, that plus previous  tree clearing contributed to the emergence of dieback in the 1970s, a problem that would emerge in other areas a little later. Again the result was a period of research and experimentation that led to new approaches.One result, for example, was the spread of Landcare groups, an organisation that had begun in Victoria in 1986.

More recently, the broader New England has been the battlefield for a number of environmental wars, this time focused especially on the conflict between agriculture and resource development from the Northern Rivers to the Mid North Coast up the Hunter Valley and onto the Liverpool Plains.

These are outside my immediate purpose for the purposes of this post. They form part of a later story that includes the further development of sustainable agriculture as well as fights over water. For the present, I simply wanted to provide a broader context to the arguments mounted by Tony in his article, placing the issues in a broader historical context focused on the area I know best.   

Thursday, June 14, 2018

North Korea, President Trump and the Mouse that Roared

Almost five months since I last said anything on President Trump. Now we have the tentative agreement with North Korea. As Neil said, That was quite a show!

In my last comment I said that the two things that I was watching most closely now in regard to President Trump were trade and foreign policy.

On the trade side, the question was the impact of Mr Trump's approaches on free trade and on globalisation. I said in comments:
It will be clear from the way that I framed the context that I see this as a significant threat. Here I am taking the common threads in Mr Trump's remarks from the campaign through to the present, taking man as he says.
Since then we have had the US tariff actions and the emerging response including the G7 outcomes.

On the foreign policy side my focus was on global insecurity, the reshaping of the US's international role and the impact of the stances it has been adopting. There I said in part:
"For much of the time since the Second World War, Australia has operated within a relatively stable international relations and security framework. The American Alliance has been central to that. New developments such as the rise of China posed a challenge to that framework, but few Australians (me included) expected a situation where instability and uncertainty in US foreign policy itself would become a significant challenge.What do Australia and all US allies do now?"
In  comments, I noted that I ddidn't see this as necessarily a bad thing, but it was unsettling. I thought that it was  unsettling for the US too in ways that I wasn't sure were properly recognised there as yet. The US is used to doing its own thing, used to being in the lead with others following. As the US withdraws from certain activities such as the agreement on climate change or the TPP, other countries step up.

I went on that I did think that the international policy of the Trump administration had been less isolationist, more in tune with the past, than was feared. However, the pattern was still uncertain. Some of the local effects were captured in the title of Hugh White's recent Quarterly essay, "Without America: Australia in the new Asia."

Like most, I have no idea what the North Korea deal really means. Like most, I hope that it works. A lot of the commentary on social media in particular has not been especially helpful because it is so set within existing perceptions of Mr Trump. I suppose that I would say two things in response.

First, the question of whether North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un is a brutal dictator is neither here nor there in a world where realpolitik dominates. President Trump has certain objectives based on his perception of US interests and is prepared to go to some lengths to achieve them. In threatening the US mainland Kim Jong-un forced a response from a President who appeared actually prepared to use force. The result gives the North Korean regime much of what they had been seeking.

I am not the first to notice the resemblance to that classic book and film, the Mouse that Roared.

Secondly and more importantly, I think that the episode may shows not so much a US withdrawal for the Pacific but a redrawing of the lines based on new perceptions of US strategic interests.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bogged down in growing up in New England

This is your life, Channel 9, 1977. Peter Allen, Peter's Aunt Nancy, Clare Napier-McCann, Roger Climpson
Some years ago my old  friend and blogging colleague Neil Whitfield commented that he and I seem to have grown up in different Australia’s. The trigger for the comment lay in an exchange of experiences relating (among other things) to first exposure to things Asian.

Neil was right, of course. Australia is not and never has been uniform. There are many different stories depending on location, time, ancestry and family circumstances.  I mention this now because I have been bogged down in New England Travels. The current chapter, Growing up on the New England Tablelands is due for posting here tomorrow. I doubt that I will make it.

The piece was triggered by four autobiographical books that I had been re-reading, all set on the Northern Tablelands. The age of the writers vary, although all were born before the Second World War: Maslyn Williams was born in 1911, Judith Wright in 1915  Binks Turnbull Dowling in 1923, Judith Wallace in 1932. Three of the four became writers. The fourth, Binks Turnbull Dowling, was the daughter of a writer.

Each book describes different aspects of life during formative periods in the writer’s life. They are very different, but each tells stories of personal and family change set against a backdrop of major historical change. I thought that the piece would be doable, but then I added Peter Woolnough to the mix. Peter is better known as Peter Allen, the name he would adopt.

Peter was born in Tenterfield on 10 February 1944, but moved to Armidale with his parents soon after his birth. He lived there until his father suicided in 1958, after which his mother moved to Lismore. I did not know Peter, although he was only a year ahead of me at primary school. Now, digging down, I have found some wonderful stuff. But, oh, what to do?!.

I do need to finish what I'm doing at the moment, at least in working draft so I'm sticking to target. That has to be my priority. But then I feel another series coming on!


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Karl Rove and the rejection of discernible reality

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." Remarks later attributed to US Presidential Adviser Karl Rove, North American Summer, 2002. 
The excerpt is from a New York Times Magazine piece by Ron Suskind, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, 17 October 2004. It came to me via a comment from Johnb on a post on my history blog, .Is technology bringing history to life or distorting it? .I found it quite chilling.

 The comment was made at a time when many in the US did believe that US power was such that they could control events and thus results. We now know that discernible reality was such and should have been seen to be such to indicate the limits of US power. It is certainly true, however, that the actions of the time taken independent of discernible reality created a new discernible reality, one that we are all trying to manage today.  

I think that is true that many of those in power and not just in the US still believe that they can and should be able to control events, to do things, independent of practical limits to their power. I suspect, too, that they believe that they can in fact substitute a new discernible reality along their desired lines.not recognising that their actions will create a new reality that they might not like.

 In his interview,  Mr Suskind refers to enlightenment principles and empiricism. I fear that both are in sad decline, their value rejected on all sides. I am not blind to the underlying difficulties of the very concept of discernible reality.

By its nature, discernible reality deals with the position at a point as seen at that point. It becomes a constraint as exemplified in the words "the reality is". Many of the best things in history as well as the worst   have come about because people have rejected an existing discernible reality and sought to create something different.

Slavery was a discernible reality. Part of that reality was that slavery had been a feature of human societies for a very long time, was indeed seen as part of the natural order of things. That is still the case in some parts of the world even today. Some of the then European colonial powers had benefited greatly from slavery. It was built into the structures of empire. And yet, reformers in the British Parliament were able to begin a process that led to the progressive abolition of slavery in the British Empire that then flowed on. It took time and sometimes violence including a bloody civil war in the United States, but the end result was freedom for many.

Unlike Mr Rove, the anti-slavery movement did not and could not ignore the the existing discernible reality. They did not control the levers of power. They recognised a reality and sought to change it using the constitutional mechanisms open to them. Their success created a new reality, one that the anti-slavery campaigners of today seek to build on. Progress comes from recognising a discernible reality and seeking change, not from denying the presence of the reality in the first place.