Category Archives: Community

Trump and Public Discourse

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller

Like an awful lot of people, I woke up on Wednesday morning to a sense of shock and disbelief.  Donald Trump had won the US election, and I just couldn’t believe it.

It was hard to stomach, because, on the face of it Trump espoused values that we have seen as being abhorrent, malign, vicious, cruel and petty.

Wednesday was a day spent in a daze, trolling through social media looking for some release of emotion – and there was plenty of emotion there.  Fear, mostly; and shock that over 60 MILLION people voted for him.

So, to put a shape on my thought: What has he said, what will he be like in power, what are the likely repercussions, and what will my reaction be?

What Has He Said?

Over the course of the campaign Trump has been a bruising fighter.  He has displayed an absolute ruthlessness in how he deals with anyone with the misfortune to cross his sights:

  • He has mocked a disabled reporter
  • He has referred to Mexicans in America as rapists and criminals (but he thinks that some are probably ok)
  • He has boasted about sexually assaulting women (and then dismissed it as locker room talk)
  • He has said if Ivanka weren’t his daughter, he could be dating her (!)
  • He tried to deny Obama’s citizenship
  • He tried to promote violence against protesters in his rallies “I’ll pay the legal fees”
  • He wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States

What Will He Be Like In Power?

The simple fact is that we don’t know what he will actually be like in power.  For the very good reason that the American system has checks and balances.  There is the Senate and there is the House of Representatives.  The politicians here all care about being re-elected, and some may have their eyes on a larger prize.  I REALLY hope that they will be able to put the brakes on some of his excesses.

However, some of the signs aren’t good: his Vice President is a right wing Christian who thinks members of the LGBT community can be ‘cured’ by conversion therapy.  Hmmm.  Not to be underestimated is the sinister nature of an advisor who wants to start a register of all Muslims in America.

Public Discourse

Let’s take the idea (possible fairytale) that the checks and balances work, and that Trump doesn’t get to exert the xenophobic, homophobic, islamophobic, misogynistic ideas that he appears to treasure.

No. Even if Trump is kept in check, he has still done an untold amount of damage to Public Discourse.

You see, even if he is kept in check, his words have been uttered.  He has spoken, and he has been repeated, quoted, and (God help us) admired.

There is a trickle down (or flash flood) effect from his words.  When the head of state speaks as if misogyny, racism, discrimination and hatred are normal – then it’s fair to assume a number of citizens will take that lead.

His words alone won’t create racists – but they do give freedom to any racist to express their repugnant views.  Already, there is a lot of evidence of an increase of racism.

So, there is a lot to fear.  Will the next 4 years see the dismantling of civil society?  Will we see a rampant increase in hate crime; in sexual assault; in intolerance?

The fact that the Ku Klux Klan can announce a parade to celebrate Trump’s election means I’m not optimistic.  In other news, one Southern University had posters put up warning white women not to date black men.

My (Our) Response?

As a people, we can’t allow hatred to win.

In a number of American cities there are ongoing protests against Trump’s victory, and against the policies he as spewed.  This is partly heartening, but partly disheartening as some of the protests have turned violent (the very antithesis of what the protests were intended for)

However, correcting a slide in civic discourse is a task that falls to all of us.

How often have any of us:

  • heard racist language against someone in our presence?
  • seen a person with disability overlooked or belittled?
  • tolerated institutional racism in our own country? (Direct Provision in Ireland, anyone?)
  • seen discrimination of women?

It is the task of all of us to stand up to discrimination and hatred in all its forms.  And this only works in a spirit of nonviolence.  Look to the heroes of the 20th century – people like Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King.

This kind of thing isn’t easy.  The good stuff never comes easy, but is worthwhile.  We need to speak out. We need to speak out for the socialists, the Trade Unionists, the Jews.  And yes, we need to speak out for the Muslims, for the members of the LGBT community, for the poor, in fact for any minority who’s Human Rights are being undermined.

There has been huge progress in civil rights over the past century, let’s not let the next four years undermine all of that.

And for any Americans out there – look to the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

statue-of-liberty-writing

 

Fair and Equitable?

If one is to believe his appearances on news programmes recently, Our Dear Leader is a champion of all things ‘Fair and Equitable’.  In the government’s current spat with the ASTI Enda Kenny has resorted to a regular set of phrases designed to make the ASTI position appear to be, simply unfair (and possibly inequitable).

It really is a genius piece of spin.  Had we stayed within Lansdowne Road then younger members would benefit financially.  However, this is “contingent on the introduction of certain reform measures”  (have a look, paragraph 2 of the press release).  This all glosses over the simple fact that even with this increase, new teachers (within Lansdowne Road) are still paid a substandard starting salary in comparison to their pre-2011 counterparts.

The government is excellent at trumpeting good news in a manner to hide underlying facts.  The recent announcement regarding extra SNAs is really just a Cup and Ball Trick.

But I digress – Enda’s language got me thinking that if Fine Gael really is the arbiter of what’s fair and equitable in Education, then maybe FG policy is a shining example of how to treat the Education Sector with fairness.  So let’s have a quick recap of FG policies in relation to Education:

Repeated cuts in School Capitation

Capitation is the basis for a school budget.  Each school depends on capitation to pay the bills, hire the busses, get the books, repair the leaks, etc.  While all schools have had their capitation cut – this is inequitable.  Schools with a wealthier catchment area can rely on parents to subsidise some of the expenses.  Schools in a disadvantaged simply don’t have this option.

Increase the Pupil Teacher Ratio

In a larger classroom students don’t get the same level of attention.  It’s that simple.  Anyone who is claiming that a larger P/T ratio does not affect students is either untruthful or deluded.  Students benefit when their teacher can pay attention.

Get rid of Guidance Counsellors

It’s not easy to discern what you want to do with your life, and how to pick the best subjects and college courses for you.  That’s the job of guidance counsellors, and apparently one that the Government thinks we can do without.  Sure, they’ll argue that schools can now allocate resources as they see fit.  Really?  The choice is no guidance counsellor or yet larger class sizes.  Unless the school has the wealthier catchment area, in which case it may have the resources to fund a guidance counsellor.

Reduce supports for students with Special Education Needs

Fewer SNAs, fewer resource teachers. Think about this one – the group of students with the greatest challenges in school have had their supports cut.  How about that for fairness?

Strip resources for the National Educational Psychological Service (via the moratorium on employment)

NEPS provides huge support to schools.  One facet of this support is assessment – schools get access to a NEPS psychologist, and can provide some assessments during the year.  (Well, since the cuts, that now means ONE assessment for many schools).  Again, this is inequitable – some families can afford private assessments, some cannot.

Removal of middle management posts (Assistant Principal and Special Duties)

In any career people like to have the option of professional progression.  The removal of posts has removed that option for the vast majority of teachers.  Schools now depend on goodwill to get a number of jobs done – and this is putting more stress on principals and existing post holders.

Cut Teachers’ pay (in a number of ways – USC, Pension Related Deduction, Freeze increments)

Any teacher can look at his or her payslip and see all the extra deductions that are there.  The PRD grates as we have always paid into our pension, and have viewed a pension as ‘deferred pay’.  All workers suffer under the USC.  For a number of years we have had increments frozen.  The net affect of all of this is that teachers are still being paid less now than they were in 2007.

Cut Pay for the youngest teachers

I honestly don’t know exactly how this one happened.  Some say that the unions sold out the younger workers, and others say that this cut was done under FEMPI, beyond the control of the unions.  Maybe the unions were simply out-manoeuvred.  The simple fact is that our younger colleagues are on an inferior scale, and our government is unwilling to accept the principle that NQTs are entitled to equal pay for equal work.

Cut the rates and allowances for working for the State Examinations Commission

Just about every teacher has worked for a while correcting exams.  My first time doing it I was told I was about to undertake ‘the best inservice training ever’.  And it was.  The money was also pretty good.  However that has all been cut -and a number of experienced teachers have given up.  Come June and you will find the SEC posting ads for some positions that have not yet been filled.

Cut mileage and conference allocations

Attending conferences is good for professional development.  However, new rules mean that many of these conferences now take place on weekends, and any allowances for getting there are cut.  The fact that the conferences are still taking place is a testament to the professionalism of teachers who are giving up free time to improve their professional practice.

Change the sick pay entitlements

Nobody wants to get sick – but it is nice to know that if you get sick then there is a safety net to help. However the length of time this support is in place for has been cut.  Something that adds to the worry and stress of any teacher facing a serious illness.

 

Add to all of this we have a Taoiseach who has repeatedly been unwilling to give a straight answer to the question if he would be prepared to accept the principle of equal pay.

So, it’s a bit rich when Enda talks about his government working constantly for what’s ‘Fair and Equitable’.  His policies speak far louder than his words.  Fine Gael has overseen years of cuts in education and appears to have no intention to reverse these cuts.  Fairness and Equality have nothing to do with their policies.  The only thing that seems to matter is to balance a budget.

Senior Cycle Debates

Today I was teaching Religion with a group of of Senior Cycle students, and we were looking at ‘The Search For Meaning & Values’.

I’d stumbled on the following interview with Kurt Cobain.  At one point he talks about his friendships with women, and how he felt that women were oppressed. (The clip is only 5 minutes long – and worth watching)

As a group we then started debating more about whether the group felt that women were actually oppressed in the modern world.

Unsurprisingly, the girls in the class all said ‘yes’ that women are oppressed.  Interestingly for me, they focused on the idea of women being expected to stay at home to cook and clean.  The guys felt that women were not oppressed.    And chaos ensued for the next few minutes!

The idea that women are not treated as equal was new (and news) for some of the lads gathered.  But, fair play to them, they were willing to listen and consider the implications.

I added the idea that oppression becomes apparent when women are excluded from top jobs in some companies.  But what really opened up the discussion was when we spoke about the Stanford Rape Case.  I brought up some sections of the victim’s letter (The full version is here), and it really brought up a good discussion among the students.  (Students?  They are young adults.  Some of the class are 18 years, and all have a maturity way beyond that which I possessed when I was their age).

What becomes tricky is how to handle such a debate when you have a group of young adults.  I have a particular set of values – and no guarantee that the students share them with me.  Of far more importance is the fact that students could be affected by what we were discussing.  When guiding such a debate you need to be familiar with your group.  The debate may not be appropriate or possible depending on who’s sitting in front of you.

I was so impressed by the quality of thought process of the students.  And of the basic goodness of many of them.  They dealt with many of the issues brought up by the letter in such a mature manner.

It’s a good start to the year with them, and I’m looking forward to many more debates.  Hopefully they will examine their own values in a conscious manner, and actively take part in developing their own sense of Meaning and Values.

Voting Yes

With just over two weeks to go until the Marriage Referendum, things have begun to get ugly in the debates (arguments) between the two camps.

This is perfectly understandable.  Many of us hold quite strong views on marriage, and what it stands for.  The problem is that marriage is not something that is tied down to a simple definition or set of beliefs.  There are as many views on what marriage is as there are married people.  We all hold some kind of opinion of what our own marriage is about – or what we think marriage should be about.  Most of us are in one of two camps.

As you may guess from the title, I’m in the ‘Yes’ camp.

Underpinning many of the arguments of the ‘No’ camp is a set of beliefs based on, well, belief.  Based on faith, and on the doctrine of the Catholic Church, a church of which I’m a member.

One part of Catholic faith that is not pursued in either camp is the idea of an informed conscience.  We each have a conscience and can make choices in our lives, so long as we inform ourselves as to what the choices and consequences are.  For me this means going beyond the headlines of the poster campaigns, and actually thinking about what the referendum means for our country, and for the thousands of people who will be directly affected by our vote on Friday 22nd.

I have written before about some of the main reasons for the ‘No’ vote and why I don’t agree with them.  So I’ll try not to repeat myself here.

Really, it’s this simple:  What is the referendum about?

Forget all the posters, forget all the fancy slogans.  Think – what does this referendum mean for you, for your understanding of marriage, for your understanding of family.

If you believe that marriage is about love, then vote yes to allow those who love each other the chance to proclaim their love in front of friends and family.

If you believe that your faith speaks against this referendum, then consider this.  Not all bishops agree with the Irish Hierarchy.  Recently  German Bishops voted to allow same-sex couples to keep their jobs in the Church.  (In Ireland a teacher can lose their job in a Church funded school if they come out as being Gay.  Apparently we have a long way to go)

For me a faith based argument against the referendum is based on a tenuous premise.  Not everyone in Ireland is Catholic, and of those who are, not everyone agrees with some of the rules of the Church.

And, apart from any of this, I base a lot of my faith on the sayings and actions of Jesus.  He was there for people who were excluded, He was there for those who needed a voice, those who needed love.

Based on this alone, I am voting yes.

Voting Yes

On May 22nd in Ireland we will be asked to vote on  whether to add to the Constitution that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”

And this is causing something of a fuss.  A lot of groups are having a say in this, with some coming out (sorry) in favour of a ‘yes’ vote, and some promoting a ‘no’ vote.

The ‘No’ camp have a number of arguments that they feel are compelling:

 

Every Child Is Entitled To A Mother And A Father

On the face of it, this can look lovely.  An idyllic world where we all have a mum and dad.

Of course it does tend to gloss over a few uncomfortable facts of life.  Men and women can be cruel, spiteful people.  Some are incompetent, and some should never have become parents. Sometimes children are better off without said mother (or father).

So, while they may cry that somebody should ‘think of the children’, a bit more thinking could change their point of view.

 

This Will Undermine Marriage

As I see it, I married for love.  Pretty sure my wife is of the same opinion.  Marriage is a bond between two people who love each other.  Two people who love each other.  Simple as that.

The argument sounds familiar.  Could this be because we heard the same thing when divorce was leglaised in 1996?  And yet, marriage still seems to be a choice for a lot of adults.  Not undermined yet.

 

This Will Promote a Homosexual Lifestyle

Oh we could have so much fun with stereotypes here.  Will Irish men be forced to become better groomed?

Really, this argument displays an incredible ignorance of the nature of sexuality.  Some people are hetero, some are gay.  Most of us would agree with the concept that sexuality is not based on choice.  If I spend time talking to a gay friend, then I don’t think that time spent will end up in my going… “hmmm, I wonder if…”

If the referendum passes, I don’t think that we’re going to be faced with gay peoples canvassing straight couples (or singles) trying to get them to shift camp (sorry again)

 

Marriage Is About Having Children

For many people this is true.  Lots of people get married and want to go on to have children.  Relatively few decide to go through life without ever having children.  And yet this happens.  Not having children is an incredible burden on those who would love to be parents.  Again, the ideal world does not match the reality of the world in which we live.

Denying marriage to a couple simply because they will not conceive together is unjust.

On that.  Gay couples are recognised by Tusla (the child protection agency) as being potentially good foster parents.

 

It Offends God

The bible is a pretty big book.  And, if you read it, there is a lot to be learned and valued there.  Lots of stuff about loving neighbours, looking after people on the edges of society, forgiveness.

Not so much stuff in there about the evils of homosexuality.

 

It’s Against My Faith

Ok.  That I can go with.  Many of us have our own religious beliefs.  Many of us try to live our lives by a moral code that has been informed by our faith.

But, I need to recognise that many Irish people are not Catholic, or Christian for that matter.  Should I be forcing my beliefs upon them?

Just what are schools for?

It’s the kind of question that can get you thinking.

Depending on who’s standing on a soapbox, you could be led to think that schools are responsible for any number of different, and possibly contradictory, functions.

  • Schools should prepare students for science
  • Schools should prepare students for business
  • Schools should prepare students for the world of work
  • Schools should prepare students for the arts

and so on.

In the midst of all of this there is the juggernaut of assessment.  The cycle of PISA brings panic and hysteria to departments and newsrooms as whole countries try to reassess how they are doing in competition with their neighbours.

I have previously stated my reservations around the Narrow Focus on Assessment, but for a better reply to PISA than I could ever write, have a look at this piece written in the Guardian.

But schools are, I  believe, more than just about turning out utilitarian units destined to be productive members of the business community or of industry.

I think that the piece of Irish Legislation dealing with the running of schools (The Education Act, 1998) actually gives a good idea of what schools can be.  In Section 9, (d) the Act states that schools shall “promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students, and provide health education for them

That really opens it up.

The children we take into schools will one day leave as adults ready to take their place in the world.

Yes, some will go on to be business leaders, and yes, some will go on to be innovators, entrepreneurs, productive employees.

But not all of them.

There will also students who will not find a job, there will be the students who may be too ill, or have too great a disability to work.

The students who leave our schools will go on to become parents, friends and neighbours.  They will be members of communities and clubs, they will be a part of society.  And how do our schools serve them?

Schools are not something that are separate, where students are trained.  Schools are a part of society.  They are places that children grow and develop.  They are messy complicated places full of little (and large) dramas.  Schools have got ranges of students of differing abilities, and differing personalities.  Schools are full of students fighting their own battles and still trying to do their best.

We already know this.  But in the face of the constant pressure of assessment, we sometimes forget it.

There is a great line in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’.  In a scene where a library is burning, some characters argue over which books to save.  As one fights for scrolls on maths and engineering, another fights for literature and philosophy “these teach us how to be human!” he cries.

I like that.

Schools are places full of humanity, and places where we learn to be human.

Maybe, ultimately, this is what schools are for.  Places where we learn to become human.

Defensores Fidei, and why so many have missed the point

This has been a bad week for a lot of people.

One wit on twitter said it was a bad week for organised religion after the discovery that approximately 800 babies and small children had been disposed of (Not even buried) in what appears to be a septic tank. In other news a woman was killed by her family outside of a court in Pakistan for marrying for love, and in Sudan a woman was given the death penalty for changing her religion.  The wit missed the point.  It was a bad week for women.

A local historian by the name of Catherine Corless went through records and discovered the identities of 796 children who died while their mothers were incarcerated in ‘The Home’ a place for women who had become pregnant outside of marriage.  You can read a full article here.

My friend, Donal O’Keeffe wrote about it here and was published in the Journal here, and brilliantly draws on our humanity, and comes to the depressing conclusion that, as a nation, we simply didn’t care.  And in this I think even Donie missed the point a bit.  People did care, but they cared about the wrong things.

This comes out mostly in the commentary that you can follow online if you look at the attacks on Donal over on the tweet machine, or following his article in the Journal.  Plenty of people seem to care a lot, all right, but they care about protecting an institution.  They are more worried about a perceived attack on the Church rather than on the horrific tragedy of what happened to so many children.

And that is where we lose humanity.

Here’s my messed up theological version of events:

The Catholic Church in the 20th century was resurgent in a new republic after a few centuries of repression.  Suddenly it was the official church, and its leaders were afforded an elevation and power that they were simply not suited for.

The Church as institution became all too powerful, to the extent that people believed more in the Church itself rather than the deity that the Church is supposed to guide people towards.

I believe in God, and I believe that Jesus walked and lived on Earth and taught us a lot of things, and that what he taught us boils down to two ideas – how we should relate to each other and how we should relate to God.

Safe to say that many of the things that happened in the name of the Church during the 20th century are wildly off the mark of how Jesus wanted us to live.  Whatever happened to ‘Love your neighbour’, the lessons of the ‘Good Samaritan’ or ‘the Woman caught in sin’?

After the brutal exposure of so much child abuse you would have hoped that we learned lessons.  That hurts need to be exposed.  That we need to think more of the victims.  That nobody is served when we focus on protecting an institution.

The people on the attack over the past week, the people who think they are protecting the Church, they have missed the point.  The core of this story is the hurt that was endured by hundreds of young mothers and their babies.  The Christ I believe in would not lose that focus.  He would not be involved in attacks on those who have done so much to bring this story to light.

Some Notes:

  • If you want to follow Donal O’Keeffe on Twitter, he’s @Donal_OKeeffe
  • ‘Defensores Fidei’ means ‘defenders of the faith’ Just in case you can’t be bothered going to Google Translate!
  • To whoever wrote the comment ‘it’s been a bad week for organised religion’. Apologies for not referencing you.  I couldn’t re-trace where I’d seen your line originally.