Austin day 7

Monday, 7 December 2009:

“Dialectical journal”, it said at the top of a piece of paper lying on the dining table. What was that? I wondered. It was a handout given to my seventh-grader nephew and each of his classmates by his teacher, describing the homework they had to do. Seventh grade is equivalent to Seconday One in Singapore.

The gist of it was that the pupil had to read a novel that was at least 200 pages in length. As he read it, he would have to jot down 15 sentences or passages that caused him to think, either in disputation or reflection – a kind of solo mental dialectics, as it were. Against each passage that is jotted down, the student had to describe the thoughts so triggered.

Finally, he had to pen a two-page book review.

My guess is that the aim was to inculcate a habit of critical reading, which is a good habit to have. What I don’t quite understand is whether doing this exercise against a 200-page novel might be too ambitious, especially for seventh grade. Moreover, the pupil could select his own novel; the teacher apparently did not provide a shortlist of novels to choose from. In that case, how would the teacher be able to assess the quality of the child’s responses to highlighted passages without knowing the context surrounding each passage? Each child would choose a different book; how could the teacher possibly read every book himself?

Would it not have been better for the teacher to provide a shortlist of essays (not novels) with different themes and perhaps a few short stories for the pupils to choose from?

Another question I had was – do we do something similar in Singapore schools?

* * * * *

Does critical thinking lead to more creative expression?

Critical reading skills will apply to more than just reading; these skills can apply to what we see and hear in life. The problem, however, may be that people see and hear very selectively. You cannot critique what you have not seen, read or heard.

I had an hour in a Starbucks this afternoon, waiting for the cold drizzle to pass, during which I read the Austin American Statesman quite thoroughly. This, the chief local newspaper, wasn’t thick.

The front page was almost entirely devoted to a weekend victory by the University of Texas’ football team over Nebraska; the local team would next play Alabama for the championship in Pasadena, California on January 7. This and related stories overflowed into two other inside pages, in addition to taking up a good chunk of the Sports section.

Somewhere within, there were four pages under the section heading “World & Nation”, which struck me as a strange siamese twin. Isn’t there quite a large distinction between national news and international news? How do they come together under the same desk?

Closer inspection provided the answer. The four pages had a mix of news about goings-on in other US states, some issues seizing Congress, and American military involvement in Afghanistan. The only two news items that didn’t fit these categories were a tiny one about an election law being passed in Baghdad and a medium-length report about the Climate Change conference in Copenhagen.

In other words, “World & Nation” is perfectly apt. The world is seen almost exclusively from the American perspective; what news there is is about US involvement with the outside world. Indonesia’s involvement with China or India, for example, or the shift in Turkey’s foreign policy away from Europe, are simply not news.

What effect would that have on Americans’ ability to engage with other nations? Is this lack of prior contextual understanding of other countries and cultures, through not paying them any attention until US forces have invaded, a recipe for military disaster?

The newspaper was strong on political cartoons. I recall seeing eight of them – seven of which were about the dilemma of US involvement in Afghanistan. The eighth and last cartoon, however put everything into perspective. Seeing it, you really don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That cartoon depicted a scene in a bar with many television monitors tuned to various channels. All of them were going on and on about the big news of the week: golfer Tiger Woods’ carousel of girlfriends. A patron propped up at the bar mutters to himself something to the effect that: Oh, by the way, the second biggest news of the week is only that Obama has authorised 30,000 more troops for Afghanistan.

Joie de vivre on an Austin street

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While on the subject of not looking at the world through our own perspectives, Maruah Singapore is doing a few events on people with disabilities, including a film screening on 14 December. Check out details at

1 Response to “Austin day 7”

  1. 1 anony 9 December 2009 at 21:07

    That is why you find so many geographically challenged Americans polluting the world when they travel abroad. I have met a few of them in Europe and when they ask you where you are from, just say Asia full stop. No need to mention Spore, you will get the most ridiculous answers.

    BTW, those mini cars that you saw in Austin city center will be useless as the majority of adult Americans will not fit into it due to their sheer physical size. I wonder whether they feel that the mayor of Austin is mocking them by coming up with such teeny cars. Perhaps he has good intentions but I really do not see it being used extensively.

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