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Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition - 11th October

Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition

11th October 2001

In this edition

Upton-on-line reflects on the sudden rash of musings by Islamic experts in the media, reports direct from the chalk face of contemporary French education, and passes on some mouth watering details of just some of the goodies that French political trotters can hope to dredge from the political trough. But first, the leadership change in New Zealand’s National Party.

A potential Prime Minister in waiting

Since forsaking political life, upton-on-line has been scrupulously careful to avoid party political engagements. But the election of Bill English as leader of the National Party occasions an exception. What follows is a frank, personal assessment of someone upton-on-line has known, and admired, for some considerable time.

From the moment he arrived in the National caucus in 1990, Bill English established himself as by far the most substantial person of his year. Unusually, that was achieved not by spectacular debating skills, a larger-than-life media or having a quick-fire view on everything. He just presented as someone who did his homework, kept his own counsel and stuck with his judgements. These are not qualities that mark those anxious for rapid fame. In other words, he rang true.

He was the only backbencher who bothered to grapple with some of the awesome details of social policy reform, health in particular. As a result he was an obvious promotion by Jim Bolger although Bolger’s conservatism held him out of the Executive longer than was necessary. He wasn’t Finance Minister long enough to make a difference so it is to his time as Health Minister that one must go judge his qualities. As a former Health Minister, acutely aware of what the job entails, upton-on-line considers he did an outstanding job. True, some of us had walked over much of the broken glass ahead of him and identified the worst minefields. But even on fine day with a budget surplus it is a portfolio from purgatory and it rarely goes smoothly.

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English’s stewardship was exemplary. He simply didn’t let the temperature rise. He didn’t spend time trying to explain the theory. He simply got on with allowing some important dynamics to engage and had he stayed there five years (an unheard of tenure) I believe he would have given the sector the stability and confidence it still lacks.

There are those who find English’s diffident and somewhat laconic approach to be evidence that he lacks the killer instinct. That would be a serious misjudgment. The way he dispatched Neil Curtin is one of the most incredibly ruthless and single-minded acts of political nerve I have ever witnessed. I can recall listening to Kim Hill interviewing him with a growing sense of awe that anyone could take the risks with coalition stability that he was. He did so in an absolutely sure-footed way that again, to my mind, marked him out as someone who could be a lethal foe.

But that is not how he chooses to do business and he is not a naturally destructive person. And herein lies his biggest problem: he is, in truth, much better cut out to be a Prime Minister than a Leader of the Opposition. If he tries to assume an oppositional persona that does not fit he could end up in real trouble. It shouldn’t be a fatal problem. After all, Helen Clark is in this respect (alone) cut from the same cloth. She is not a naturally destructive person and she has proved to be a much more effective Prime Minister than she ever was a Leader of the Opposition. She may not admit it, but I suspect she respects English in a way she never respected Shipley and that in itself will play to English’s advantage.

But he is a long way from putting a government together. The left’s polling is stronger than it has been for a long time. Having got through the danger period of the first 12 – 14 months, the Government looks to be in charge and incumbents that look settled and secure have a hugely powerful base from which to operate. And for the first time in his career English has to lead from the front. It would be fair to say that, up to now, he has had a fairly charmed existence with no shortage of people prepared to proselytise for him. Now he has to do it for himself.

His first priority is to secure a really constructive – and enjoyable – working environment in the caucus. That has been lacking for a long time. He has the personal qualities to do that. He has to inspire the National Party membership. Again, he should be able to do that in part because the Party finally has a President who knows what politics is all about. But he has also to put together the building blocks of a coalition with forces outside the party over whom he has much less leverage.

It is a formidable task and it is all against the backdrop of the perennial political adage that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. Oppositions can of course help governments to lose elections (the last opposition did a superb job). But this government for the time being looks purposeful and, whatever its internal frailties, still enjoys being in office and wants to stay there.

Bill English’s leadership will be shrewd rather than shrill. He is the best person and the best chance National has. The party must not squander the opportunity he provides and that means starting from realistic expectations about what is possible. It must be prepared to take a long-term view of his potential. If that can be realised in the shorter term – and a week is truly a long time in politics - so much the better.

And Jenny Shipley?

It is impossible not to feel sadness for a leader who does not go on her own terms, and when that person is also a friend it is that much more difficult. No-one can take away from her, her place as New Zealand’s first woman Prime Minister. More importantly, she showed remarkable steel in breaking with Winston Peters without bringing the Government down. Hindsight suggests she should have gone immediately to the people but being wise after the event is not a luxury available to political leaders. She is a terrific New Zealander and a very positive individual. Upton-on-line can assure her there is life after politics.

Apocalypse, the end of time and other things we aren’t used to talking about

It was Bill English who commented, in response to upton-on-line, that the attacks of 11th September were likely to lead to a rash of commentary by instant experts on Islam. Fear of just that has kept upton-on-line in the camp of the reticent. And living in a country that considers itself to be especially well informed about the cultures and politics of the Arab world (and, of course, home to a significant Islamic minority from the Middle East and North Africa) has made this writer profoundly aware of just how perilous cultural debate can be.

Those disclaimers notwithstanding, it has been fascinating to detect a recurring insistence on the part of many commentators that the current conflict cannot simply be described in terms of terrorism or political conflict. It is the religious dimension of events that has been repeatedly emphasised. And that brings with it, an engagement in theological matters that the secular, post-Christian West finds difficult to deal with.

For as one savant insisted in a recent commentary, one cannot ignore the eschatological dimension at the heart of an Islamic view of the western world: matters of Good and Evil, of the end of time, the raising up of the virtuous and the condemnation of the damned. For many Islamic people, the West has become – in its post-Christian form – a source of paganism, materialism, and debauched values. The pervasiveness of global communications have made those values a direct threat to Islamic values even at a distance.

This is not comfortable territory for many people. Because, as several commentators have pointed out, the eschatological perspective is not without resonance in European civilisation. It was real religious fervour that unleashed a series of bloody crusades to the holy sites of Christendom, not to mention repeated descent into civil war on religious grounds.

That Christianity supported the emergence of a non-theologically determined civil space is an achievement that sets it apart from Islam. As one of upton-on-line’s more thoughtful correspondents has noted, Christianity (unlike Islam) developed an autonomous philosophical discussion that sustained a much wider body of thinking than simply theology. Notwithstanding the flowering of Islamic culture in the 11th and 12 centuries, it has remained firmly anchored in revelation through scripture – hence the threat that the solvent of modernity poses.

But none of that makes the challenge of militant Islam any easier in societies like ours. It is much easier to attack (or dismiss) something of which we know nothing than a force that – however far removed it has become – shares a religious and eschatological resonance with our own civilisation.

We are not all Pakistanis

Perhaps that cultural-religious dissonance accounts for the surprisingly sharp reaction from some unexpected quarters. One such, in Le Figaro of 27th September, was from Brice Lalonde head of the Ecology Party and a former Environment Minister (who accompanied Premier Rocard to New Zealand in early 1991). Writing before the commencement of hostilities, Lalonde is among those who are adamant that the Islamic nature of the conflict should not be euphemistically camouflaged by reference to frenzied fanatics or fringe extremists. Writing under the heading ‘We are not all Pakistanis’ (an allusion to Le Monde’s “We are all Americans of the previous week), Lalonde rounded on those who (in his terms) avoid characterising the religious side of the clash. Here are some key extracts:

“ In truth, the attacks are not just undercover, sporadic acts which lend themselves to police action. They are a manifestation of a much more disturbing phenomenon: the emergence of a neo-fascism that seeks to seize power across the Muslim world. Far from being a war of the rich against the poor, it is the long march of the sons of the desert, rich and well-educated, convinced of the glorious destiny of the Arab peoples whom they judge to superior to all others …

“ Pakistan, a fragile state, was allied to the United States during the days of the Soviet Union. The British trained her leaders. But the crowds are on the side of the Taliban. A million of her young people graduate each year from Khoranic schools. In the stalls, kalashnikovs are on sale beside Ben Laden t-shirts …

“ And all Muslim countries are in more or less the same situation. To prevent the fundamentalists from taking power they have pandered to the religious hierarchy, the Khoranic schools and the hard core faithful. They have indulged anti-Americanism and the demonisation of Israel. With the heroes of decolonisation having departed from the scene, what are Muslim leaders going to do with the next generation? …

“ After Munich, Churchill said: “They have chosen dishonour to avoid war. They will get both dishonour and war.” Let us not re-live that. Europe was born out of the battle against nazi fascism. It will be strengthened in opposing Islamic fascism. It is the struggle of our generation, the time to help the democracies of the Muslim world to sweep it away and the time in our own countries to end the era of reliance on oil. But there can be no equivocation. To fight against fascism is not to tolerate the little weekend massacres that occur, the book burnings, the propaganda, the restrictions on human rights, the subjection of women … It’s about being proud of our own-civilisation of human progress and the Enlightenment.”

This is not Berlusconi. This is the leader of a niche green party. Whatever you may think of the analysis (it struck upton-on-line as somewhat shrill) it is symptomatic of a wider sense of civilisational alarm than a mere war on terrorism would suggest. In the past it has been a specifically Christian West that has pitted itself against the Muslim world. Lalonde’s rhetoric is a claim that the post-Enlightenment secular world can (and should) respond with equal vigour. It will be interesting to see whether the forces of secular modernity display the sort of singleness of purpose that Lalonde calls for.

Are we just talking about a secular Enlightenment version of an old civilisational response? Or is there more to it than that? For one irony that seems to have escaped many commentators is that, in attacking America as the Great Satan of modern materialist corruption, Ben Laden and his associates have chosen the most avowedly and self-consciously Christian country in the western world.

Getting in a tizz about education

One thing at least is clear: the French would never have to go and organise a knowledge-wave conference to convince themselves that educational success is a big deal. Having smiled ever so drolly at the way in which the end of the school year in May/June was attended by a rising wave of long weekends and short weeks to be followed by a breathtakingly long ten week summer recess, upton-on-line has now to admit that he only understood half the story. In short, the French spend the academic year recovering from launching it.

And it is a magnificent business. La rentrée, as it is called, brings to an abrupt and painful closure the summer torpor that brings the nation to a near stand-still in August. It is designed to cause massive amounts of stress to parents, large surges of adrenalin on the part of educational leaders, special ministerial communiqués, outpourings of grave pedagogical speculation on the part of yet another tribe of ‘experts’ (which the French famously nurture so as always to have a pronouncement from on high to hand) and (to cap things off nicely for the retail sector) an orgy of spending by harried parents terrified that Nicole or Jean-Pierre will not have the mandated school bag or plastic cahier covers.

There is simply no possibility that anyone, no matter how disinterested they might be in education, could fail to be aware that the entire country had been placed, once again, on a high educational alert and that teaching shock troops were being rushed to command centres around the country.

In the front line

At this point, upton-on-line must make a clean breast of things. After several years of flirting with the liberal decadence of education in Anglo-Saxon climes, he has joined the jihad against wooly outcomes and individualised learning. Geoffrey (coming-on-line-) Upton has been dispatched to the local state sponsored training camp and is grappling with the ideological imperative of preserving the phonétique and the holy sites of French grammar.

And, in a word, upton-on-line is mightily impressed with the way it’s all done.

Leaving nothing to chance

The English-speaking world believes that a fonctionnaire in a secret control room in the Ministry of Education runs the school system a bit like the Battle of Britain except that the young ladies moving the chips on the chequerboard theatre of war are shifting millions of young Gauls from mathematics to physics or literature.
Nothing upton-on-line has seen would undermine this myth. Things are run with military precision.

Geoffrey’s first day at school was conducted with all the formality of an induction ceremony for freshmen paratroopers. Sentiment is not permitted to cloud the young recruits’ opening moments. Children are to be delivered (as they are every morning) within a narrow ten minute window: doors open at 8.20 am and close at 8.30 am. Don’t bother after that – save the explanation for the next morning. There is no opportunity for coddling parents to accompany children to the classroom or shed tears in the cloakroom – parental emotions must be expended in the street.

But the first real whiff of the battlefield is the list of required materials with which children return home at the end of their first day. Geoffrey’s was mind-bending. Writing materials in pencil cases of specified dimensions including a pencil (black, H.B. and “always well sharpened”), coloured pencils (or felts on condition that they are regularly renewed), scissors with rounded ends (“of good quality”) and a pencil sharpener with shavings reservoir. The same went for the exercise books (again of fearsomely precise dimensions) covered in a particular way and marked: Vocabulaire, Grammaire, Conjugaison, Lecture together with a ring-binder of specified colour and dimensions with dividing pages entitled Geographie, Sciences, Histoire, Education Civique and Mathematiques. All this for 7 year olds.

The details for art materials, physical education gear and swimming kit were equally exacting (the last mentioned activity requiring not just a towel but an additional small one specially labelled as being for drying the hair!) There is no risk that any little recruits will be lacking anything whatever the eventualities.

Keeping parents on their toes

But this is nothing alongside the expectations entertained in respect of parents. Not only are they expected to fight their way through avenging hordes in the special emergency school supplies departments that are erected in shops around the country, flailing their lists of teacher-specified materials. They are also required to carry out teaching duties from the moment classes end to the moment children are returned the next morning. And lest there is any risk of back-sliding or indigence on the part of parents, they are summoned to attend a special lecture from the form teacher (in place of Saturday school for the children).

Tradition dictates that parents are to sit in their children’s places in the neatly arranged rows of little desks and chairs. (The assumption seemed to be that only one parent would come which created its own minor dramas but we’ll leave that to one side). In upton-on-line’s case, the homily lasted two hours during which time parents sat meekly in place and took copious notes to retain the finer detail on the colour and size of the various bags and boxes in which different books or items of clothing had to be stored.

But it was the substance of the curriculum that afforded most interest to this languid, Anglo-Saxon correspondent. Parents were informed, in no uncertain terms, that French grammar was complex and abstract – and very difficult for children. There was to be no shirking in the face of the demand for absolute rigour. (Only days before, the socialist French education minister, Jack Lang had importuned teachers to concentrate on accuracy – ‘dictée, dictée and more dictée’ was his prescription which reminded upton-on-line of those dismal Latin dictées he struggled with aged 9 at Southwell School all those years ago…)

It is inconceivable that such a message could even be delivered in a New Zealand school (not least because English grammar is far more forgiving or massacre-able depending on your viewpoint).

No time for slacking

As if the 8.30 – 4.30 day was not enough for the little dears, parents were then instructed on homework. The presentation commenced with the officially mandated line that homework is under no circumstances mandatory (as a result of government decree). Without a flicker of irony, Madame then proceeded to explain the homework that would, she fully expected, be done each night, to be signed off by parents after supervision.

But mere sign-off is no enough. A special cahier is designated for correspondence between teacher and parents enabling the teacher to expand on the dry little comments that appear in the margin of school books. (Geoffrey’s teacher has a grading system thus: Bravo, Très Bien, Bien, Assez Bien and, more tepidly, Oui (which corresponds roughly to an A+ to C- range). Below the cut-off mark there is just a withering Vu!). Correspondence is lengthy at times and Madame thinks nothing of correcting the grammatical lapses of wayward parents. (French parents have conceded to upton-on-line that they write their notes in pencil first so they can check their grammar for mistakes before sending it in).

In short

It is, at least from the narrow perspective of the Sixième, a remarkably rigorous and exacting system. By all accounts this is the relatively soft, initiatory stage of things. By secondary school, students are in a state of perpetual nervous tension and parents can be found conversing in whispers each night for fear of disturbing their children. It is easy to mock it (and the French do) but the fact remains that it appears to be a system in which there are objective standards that are either met, or not met; and children are required to organise themselves and see to it that what is supposed to happen, happens.

All of this is done in physical surroundings that are very ordinary. The interior of the classrooms at Geoffrey’s school reminded upton-on-line of any number of old, three or four teacher rural schools he has visited – high ceiling, windows that don’t close properly, a pot-belly stove or similarly large and ugly radiator, children’s work hung on pegs from strings tied to window catches, a huge blackboard with painted lines and the obligatory world map with now-unfamiliar names covering large parts of Africa and Asia.

Not an overhead projector or computer in sight (although these are alleged to lurk elsewhere in the school). Knowledge wavers would be in a cold sweat, but for those of us who consider that substance comes before technique it is a blessed sanctuary of knowledge acquisition rather than infotainment overload.

A tip for Trevor

And if Trevor Mallard really wants to create a sensation, he could always consider doing what his French counterpart does and call all school principals to a huge meeting the week before term starts to give them their riding instructions. It sounds unbelievably centralised and statist. It is. But no-one blinks an eye-lid and the same controlling tendency that permits this to happen also reinforces a powerfully conservative aversion to experimenting with children’s education. The French believe their systems works. Woe betide the progressive who ever tries to liberalise it!

A wholly new way to serve pork

New Zealand politicians have become so used to wearing sackcloth and ashes that they have probably become incapable of mustering even a flickering of envy for their counterparts abroad who enjoy more luxurious troughs in which to rest their weary trotters.

But a recent report from the French Senate confirmed that there are better places to shelter from reality than the New Zealand Parliament. This august upper chamber elects from its number three questeurs whose task it is to oversee a sizeable sum of money that is spent on researching legislation sent to it for it scrutiny. The work must be arduous indeed, for there are some not inconsiderable extra emoluments to encourage people to step forward for the jobs.

There is an extra 18,000 francs a month to add to the standard stipend of 36,516 francs (that’s a total of roughly NZ$18,000 a month, net), chauffeur-driven limousines, a 250 square metre apartment each in the Rue Bonaparte (an unimaginable size in this sought-after quartier) AND an additional apartment at Versailles with staff attached!

Upton-on-line was unaware that there was still a reigning monarch in the old palace in need of advice. But it does occur to him that if an heir to the Bourbon fortunes were to secure election to the Senate (and its in-built conservatism should not prove an obstacle), he would be closer to regaining the old family seat than one would have dared believe possible in this egalitarian and republican country.


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