Ethics, Kids and People Behaving Badly

Ethical dilemmas;

Who killed the readers;

A moment with Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry;

Introducing Sydney’s endangered species

Sydney could teach Hollywood a few things about arrogance. Take a closer look at the current heated hoo-hah over the introduction of ethics classes to public primary schools.

It has taken the faiths thousands of years, the persecutions of millions of their followers, the creation of some of the most beautiful literature, art and music in the world, to have their beliefs and traditions so accepted as a part of our society that now, in New South Wales, faiths from Islam to Christianity to Judaism are allowed to go into public schools and give up to an hour of special religious instruction – except it’s usually 30 minutes – once a week.

It has taken one man with a somewhat laidback attitude to ethics –“non-judgemental” – just seven years to be on the verge of getting his brand of ethical instruction into schools, to be taught at the same time as SRE.


When Simon Longstaff, head of The St James Ethics Centre, tells people earnestly that all children deserve to have access to “meaningful engagement” during the SRE period, what exactly does he mean?

And how well will the new subject – “an ethics-based complement to scripture” – be taught?

The wonder of the current debate is not that it has got as far as it has since 2003 – with Premier Keneally now virtually promising full steam ahead – but that it has done so with so few pinning Longstaff up against a wall by his ears – metaphorically speaking – to get some hard answers.

Here are some quick-fire questions:

* Where’s the funding going to come from? And the considerable extra resources needed? (SRE relies on 12000+ volunteers and is funded by the different faiths.)

* What will Longstaff (and the rest of us) do about the moral relativism that, just as critics predicted, has already surfaced in this year’s trial classes?

* And what does Longstaff think will happen when other ethics providers start claiming their right to teach their versions of ethics in classrooms.

These aren’t the concerns of a religious nut or cranky nay-sayer.

You can find them – and more – raised in the state government commissioned and funded 101 page report, by Dr Sue Knight of the University of South Australia, on the pilot ethics classes that were held in ten NSW schools during this year’s second term.

Not that you would guess from the clamorous applause that greeted her report when it was released in October. St James Ethics Centre staff, the NSW P&C federation and education minister Verity Firth fell upon it with delight and Firth announced it showed the pilot course did essentially achieve its aims.

Funny old conclusion given much of the material.

The Sydney Morning Herald’’s reporter Sean Nicholls attempted to raise some of it in his exclusive at the time, but the partisan seemed to only get as far the headline on his story: “Labor to defy churches: ethics classes likely to start next year”.

So here are some of the things to ponder (and that’s before we even contemplate how eager but raw volunteers with two days training can teach a subject as complex, vital and beautifully nuanced as ethics. I can’t help thinking of that Dilbert line: “Do you believe that anything you don’t understand must be easy to do?”)

Knight clearly signals her concerns about moral relativism and is bothered that volunteers see their role as “solely [her italics] one of encouraging students to express their ideas and reasons … A number of volunteers also expressed the view that ‘there are no right or wrong answers’. These misconceptions impose limitations…”

Back in January, Longstaff denied the new ethic classes, designed by Associate Professor Philip Cam, would encourage relativism. He still does.

So why does one lobby website, parents4ethics, have a volunteer ethics facilitator explaining on video: “The most difficult thing … was actually encouraging the children that there was no right or wrong answer, that what they thought was valid …”

The same video is on the St James Ethics Centre site.

Then there’s the issue of time-wasting, given we hear so much from Longstaff and the P&Cs about tiny non-SRE-attending children pining piteously for instruction and “meaningful activity” but being denied it by the cruel education and church authorities.

The ethics lessons are supposed to run for 45 minutes, but needed to go to close to an hour, Knight observed, if kids were to ever get to the vital bit, examining their reasoning via Socratic dialogue.

The average SRE class, meanwhile, is just 30 minutes and non-attending students, according to policy, are allowed to do homework, read or study during that time.

That’s not meaningful?

Meanwhile the education department says again that it does not “anticipate a cost for ethics classes”. So who will fund it all? Knight mentions, “significant financial and organizational resources”.

Longstaff says he is confident the project “will attract adequate support from individuals, trusts and foundations” and that the pilot was funded by “three generous individuals, at least two of whom are devout Christians.”

But who, who, who? We’re now going to have anonymous individuals and bodies funding ethics classes in our public schools? I know Sydney philanthropists who I wouldn’t trust dividing a chocolate bar let alone nurturing a child’s sense of values.

Finally, there’s a vast, lurking Pandora’s Box sending out thought-rays to this credulous city with its even more credulous politicians: “Open me, open me.”

The matter-of-fact Knight writes, “Over time, a wider roll-out of an ethics-based complement to SRE is likely to attract applications from any number of providers …”

Good luck to the department trying to head off applications from these other ethics providers – whoever they may turn out to be and whatever they may want to teach the kids.

Can’t we just have ethics classes taught by properly trained teachers in school time?

There’s one last oddity. Although the Knight report was funded by the department, Newcastle academics, who recently approached it for permission to research SRE in schools, were knocked back. Twice.

A number of Christian churches had wanted to see how effectively SRE was being taught and offered to fund the project. The academics only needed departmental permission. They didn’t get it. They were rejected first, for insufficient consultation, and then, when the researchers  brought in other faiths, they were refused again.

The department explained, on January 22, 2009, that the survey’s findings “are likely to contribute little to knowledge and practice in education”.

I’m sorry. Hello?



On Tuesday night, at the Sydney Masonic centre, Bruce Guthrie, former editor, now author and once one of my colleagues, inscribed my copy of his book Man Bites Murdoch with this: “Who would have thought we had the golden years!” Indeed.

When we worked together in the mid-eighties, it was 12+ hour days and our jobs depended on us winning back readers to a famous newspaper that was doomed, whatever we did, because it came out in the afternoon. But at least we cared about readers.

If the golden years are over – and that’s the sad consensus of most in print unless you’re Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair or David Remnick at The New Yorker – it’s because in the last 20 years, advertisers have become more important than readers.

It isn’t the internet alone that’s killing print; it’s 20 years of greed, laziness and short-term thinking at the top that has driven bad decisions, and – worst of all – a steadily growing distaste for readers who actually read.



For all white Australia’s clutching its heart over apologies to Aborigines, white people still aren’t comfortable at actually noticing people who aren’t white. Activist, author, poet and Harvard PhD Roberta Sykes, the daughter of an African-American serviceman, died on the weekend. I would have been among millions who was surprised to discover she’d spent her last several years in a nursing home. Vale, Ms Sykes.

The same weekend, I found a DVD of a movie called Cadillac Records. It’s about the rise of the Chess label in Fifties America, along with stars Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry.

Naturally enough, most of the cast are African-American. Not white. Except there’s a white guy in there too, a major character, so the movie can’t be neatly categorised as hip black.

It’s one of the most riveting movies I’ve watched. Hypnotic. It didn’t even get screen release here but went straight to DVD.

Here are two clips that might make you wonder where people’s heads are at:

Cadillac Records – Howlin Wolf Sings

Cadillac Records -My name is Chuck Berry


Endangered Sydney species number one – the well behaved audience member

Why is this so hard? Just remember one thing: you ARE in the audience. So you don’t draw attention to yourself.

You don’t talk. You do not leave your mobile on, buried at the bottom of a deep pocket or capacious bag or swaddling robe. You do not bring crying babies. If a cough gets out of hand, you leave.

It’s not about you.

You do not ruin every other person’s enjoyment. You especially do not ruin the moment of the person upfront who has laboured hard to get there. It’s their moment to stuff up, if at all. Not yours.

Ring Lardner expressed it best. “Shut up, he explained.”