Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Friday, 18 September 2009

Small is Good

This article in this morning’s Courier Mail caught my eye.

If you can cut through the usual emotive codswallop that characterises the Courier, some of it is significant in that it captures what I consider an important issue regarding the delivery of educational services to bush kids.

Education Queensland (along with all other state education authorities) is keen to close small schools, because they are deemed “inefficient”. This has nothing to do with education, and everything to n do with corporate managerialism. The industrial model of schooling places output for dollar above all else.

Government (or at least the politicians who form government) can’t measure educational outcomes. NAPLAN testing is a lame attempt at measurement, politically driven, and without any sound research backing. Interestingly enough, however, small schools continue to do well in their NAPLAN results, although in many cases these same results can’t be published because of the risk to privacy generated by situations in which the whole school population may belong to two or three families. Those wanting to close small schools are probably grateful for this phenomenon.

What isn’t measured is the resourcefulness, resilience, flexibility and independence generated in a small school situation. In a setting where one teacher (and one or two teacher aides) deliver all programmes across all age levels. These kids learn to organise themselves, are supported by their peers, learn to become both interdependent and independent, and develop a strong sense of cohesion.

I’ve know for a long time that kids with disabilities generally thrive in these situations because they are accepted and supported. It’s a bit difficult to exclude someone who is your neighbour or your sibling in the 18 hours a day when they’re not at school.

I was schooled in a series of bush schools. On one occasion, the principal (who also happened to be my father) broke his ankle, and was laid up for a few days. School continued, managed by the older kids. I’m talking 1950s, of course – it wouldn’t be possible now. There are too many plaintiff lawyers, and modern kids as a rule wouldn’t have the gumption to mange this kind of challenge at primary school age.

So, over time, more of these dynamic little centres of learning will close, and the communities they anchor will be the poorer for it. It will no doubt keep the bean counters handy – but more efficiency? – I don’t think so.

As Albert Einstein was fond of saying –

Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Where was Kilcullen when we needed him?

I have kept all the letters I wrote in Vietnam. My mother gave them to me on RTA saying "These might be interesting in the future".

My mum was a very wise woman, and right about most things.

It’s interesting to go through these letters now with modern considerations of counter-insurgency warfare in mind. Thanks mum.

Quite often, I wrote to my parents bemoaning the fact that we were tromping around the jungle looking for “outlaws and delinquents” when we could have been more productively occupied working on civil aid projects in the villages, or at least doing our best to secure those villages, or training the ARVN to do just that.

This may, of course, have been prompted by my dislike of this actual tromping, particularly when it involved carrying the best part of my own body weight in assorted gear, and knowing that the next step might be complicated by an M-16, even though we were luckier than some and in my time operated predominately in the north-west of Phuoc Tuy where mines were rare.

Unfortunately, much of what is written about Vietnam these days elicits more heat than light. It doesn’t seem to be a topic that invites quiet reflection. Instead, writers are stuck on a few memes, including “the war was lost by the politicians”, or “we were winning when we left”, or (the more gung-ho) “we should have nuked them”.

In the light of more recent history, particularly in Iraq, it’s interesting to conjecture what might have been - if some of the thought which changed for the better the way the Coalition was operating had been around in the sixties and applied to Vietnam.


What if a group of dissidents, opposing the conventional strategic thought, had been around in those days? What if the commanders at the time had listened to them?

Where were people like Kilcullen – people who needed to be saying things like body counts were irrelevant, that the war needed to be fought politically as well as militarily, and that we needed to be providing security to allow the locals to assume responsibility, rather than taking that responsibility from them, and blaming them when it wasn’t working?

Instead, we had commanders who not only didn’t fully understand the security environment, but were completely inept at managing the both the politics and the media. Back then the US military wasn’t listening to anyone.

Perhaps one of the few good things that came out of Vietnam was the understanding that modern counter-insurgency warfare is complex and that patience could be a virtue. The “up-the-guts” tendency of the senior US commanders at the time was revealed as the madness that it was, and at last arrogance has taken a back seat to common sense.

We will need to wait for history to deliver a verdict on both Iraq and Afghanistan. The terms “won” or “lost” are irrelevant when applied to insurgency, a point that seems to be well lost on most media and politicians.

We don’t know what’s over the horizon, but I, for one, feel a lot more optimistic than I did a few years ago. This interview gives me hope.
Check it out.

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