Pearson’s radical hope

noel pearson

Noel Pearson:

I need to revisit the first point I made in my 2009 essay Radical Hope. Quoting Jonathan Lear, I said what made the hope of a people who lost their old world radical was that “it is directed towards a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it”.

Closing the gap in education, and Aboriginal Australians’ internalisation of the Enlightenment, are necessary for my people to take their rightful place in the national and global communities. But those things don’t transcend our present understanding …

We do need economically and socially sustainable lives; but it is our cultural link with the past – a link that would break without language – that makes our lives spiritually sustainable as members of a conquered people. What we need more than anything else is to see that our tongues are not dying languages spoken only in a few homes but languages with a future: growing, officially recognised languages of Australia
Speaking one’s mother tongue is vital

I’d be interested in the thoughts of others about this passionate article by Noel Pearson.

I read his Radical Hope essay when it was published in 2009 and was persuaded that behaviourist based delivery (the ever controversial Pearson has opted for Zig Engelmann’s “Direct Instruction”) was essential to jump start his Cape York education reform. However, note that the Cape York educational system was designed to be well and truly bicultural as well as behaviourist.

It is Pearson’s grasp of dialectics that enables him to plan and implement a scheme which draws from opposite sides of educational philosophy. It is also clear from the article that his grasp of dialectics has enabled Pearson to significantly influence the thinking of Tony Abbott, in a similar way to his previous influence on John Howard.

8 Responses to “Pearson’s radical hope”

  1. 1 keza

    I find Noel Pearson quite fascinating. He’s everywhere at once – and in an intelligent way. He crosses boundaries in surprising ways and I think he’s capable of doing this because he is absolutely not an ideologue. Instead he’s put his mind to coming to grips with the problems faced by Aboriginal Australians, and how to solve them.

    So we find him advocating Direct Instruction which is a style of teaching involving a lot of drill and based on behaviorist principles. It’s a very teacher-directed approach and is widely regarded as very strict, old fashioned, not ‘child-friendly’. Several decades ago, I would have rejected it out-of-hand and argued that it was oppressive. Kids blossom intellectually via self-directed exploratory learning whereas rote learning and drill destroys motivation and creativity. However … it turns out that for some kids this is just not true – in particular kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. We may want to believe otherwise, but the evidence won’t co-operate. Behaviorist teaching methods can definitely rescue kids from academic failure, and seem to work better than any other approach. Nevertheless there’s stubborn resistance to it .

    I was interested in what Pearson had to say about the importance of teaching Aboriginal languages – and the fact that he’s involved in the development of Direct instruction style programs for teaching them. As he says, that’s something “truly new” and I’m looking forward to finding out the results.

    I agree with his general comment that everyone should have a second language. Being bilingual makes people more cognitively flexible, allows them to develop slightly different conceptual frameworks, quite apart from making it possible to communicate with speakers of their second language.

    And I also think he’s correct in saying at the same time that since “the English language and Anglophone culture are the most powerful forces in history “to become fluent in English is indeed an indispensible part of any child’s education anywhere in the world”.

    I can’t comment in any depth on his concerns about the disappearance of Aboriginal languages – I think the loss of human languages has happened throughout history, and more losses are probably inevitable. However it does make sense to me that giving kids the ability to speak their mother tongue would be the best way for them to have a real sense of the culture. And as well as that, a deeper understanding of modern Anglophone culture.

    At the core of Pearson’s article however is the idea of “radical hope” . I haven’t read his 2009 essay about that but I gather it has something to do with the need for oppressed peoples to have their hope made real, to have a leadership which can give it some shape: “Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it”.

    Am I right about that, Bill?

  2. 2 Bill Kerr

    Pearson draws inspiration from Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. It is an analysis of the courage and wisdom of the last great chief of the Crow peoples, Plenty Coups (1848-1932) who said, “But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground… After this nothing happened.”

    Pearson identifies with Plenty Coups who led his people through “one of those great doors separating entire epochs in human history: from the semi nomadic life of the warrior hunter to the domiciled life of an agriculturalist on a government designated reservation”.

    Although subject to “bouts of doubt and sadness” Pearson has hope:

    Our hope is dependent on education. Our hope depends on how serious we become about the education of our people.

    I do have a pdf copy of Pearson’s Radical Hope essay. Send me an email if you want to read it: billkerr (at) gmail (dot) com. It is a practical vision of the sort of education system that could work for remote indigenous Australians.

  3. 3 tom

    I share Keza’s thoughts about Pearson. Intellectually he is a long way in front of the pack.
    I read the article over the weekend and pondered hard over the matters of language and culture. Embarrasingly I only speak one language but support his advocacy of people being bi or multi lingual. It also makes sense to me that for dispossessed peoples there is a clear link between language and culture.
    What I’m curious about is the effect of “internalising the Enlightenment” on the remnants of aboriginal culture. On the one hand it will surely destroy it, this time at the hands of the aboriginals themselves. On the other,out of this destruction, and because of it, will emerge something new, something I imagine will be recognisably western (or post Enlightenment) but also genuinely aboriginal.
    I find Bill’s (and Pearson’s) reference to Plenty Coups leading his people through “one of those great doors separating entire epochs in human history…” sobering for no matter how this journey is made it will be,(and has been)accompanied by loss and destruction as well as hope. I think what makes the hope radical is the recognition that a return to the past is not possible and that the future is not known (beyond here there be dragons) but that the road ahead must be taken anyway.
    Somewhat whimsically I see Coups and Pearson as Time Lords. Regrettably Tardis’ are in short supply so the trip Pearson is advocating won’t be easy. Just necessary.

  4. 4 Bill Kerr

    wrt the Enlightenment destroying the remnants of aboriginal culture I did notice some 5 years ago that one of the slogans being advanced by the Cape York Institute was: “Keep our diverse languages and cultural traditions by excelling in education and digital technologies, the only means of arresting the decline of our ancient and oral traditions”

    The other slogans were good too, all of them illustrating Pearson’s dialectical combining of opposites in some way while looking forward at the same time:

    “Maintain our identity as a people but encourage individual excellence in education and achievement”
    “Fight racism but don’t let it be our disability”
    “Rebuild social, cultural and legal intolerance of substance abuse”
    “Our right to take back responsibility”
    “We don’t have an inalieable right to dependency, we have an inalieable right to a fair share in the real economy”
    “Fight victimisation but we won’t be the victims”
    “Never forget history but engage in the future”

  5. 5 Bill Kerr

    Writing is on the wall for underperforming schools by Miranda Devine

    This article does not address the bicultural issue but does raise some good discussion points: How is it possible that the basics of literacy and numeracy are not attained by so many aboriginal students? You would think that this would be a solvable problem.

  6. 6 Bill Kerr

    Down payments on a hope-filled future by Noel Pearson

    On the surface this is a simple story but it’s told with feeling and represents years of hard work on policy formation and implementation. Pearson demonstrates that if you can get family + school + government pulling in the same direction then simple miracles are possible. This only appears to be happening in Queensland. In other states there is gridlock at the political level – eg. half hearted support for the NT intervention after Mal Brough was removed from office.

  7. 7 steve owens
  8. 8 steve Owens

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