Interview by Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 21 September 2008

Hostages of history

Ten years ago he formed part of an ill-fated commission for educational reform, as well as a short-lived commission to discuss the introduction of divorce. Now, Professor Kenneth Wain finds we have learnt little from the experience of those distant battles

They say that history repeats itself, but few have more hands-on experience of this cyclical interpretation of things than Professor Kenneth Wain: former dean of the Faculty of Education, Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations, and an outspoken advocate of secular liberalism in his own right.
Speaking at a recent business breakfast organised by the Nationalist Party on the subject of education, Prof. Wain once again raised the issue of streaming in schools: a system he argues is as fundamentally unfair today as it was when the subject was first formally broached in 1999.
Sitting in his office at the University of Malta some weeks afterwards, he almost rolls his eyes when I ask him how he would like to see the educational sector reformed “in an ideal world”.
“In an idea world, politicians would appoint groups of competent persons with the experience and collective expertise to address the relevant issues,” he replies after a pause. “These persons would be commissioned to draw up reports and to make suggestions, and – always in an ideal world – their recommendations would be followed up with concrete action...”
Needless to add, the world we are living in is far from ideal, and the above scenario can almost be taken as the complete opposite of the situation on the ground today.
“We’ve been through all this before,” Wain adds with an air of resignation. “In 1999, I formed part of the commission that drew up the plan for a National Curriculum. We prepared the studies, made our recommendations, presented a five-year plan whereby these could be achieved... and then, nothing happened.”
Effectively, the commission’s proposals thrust the government of the time into conflict with the Malta Union of Teachers, and the reform was de facto put onto a permanent backburner.
“What happened as a result was that the process of educational reform has been stalled for eight years. Some might argue: well, what’s the big deal? The answer is... it IS a big deal. These reforms were and still are necessary. We need to update our educational systems and policies, but by stalling the process for so long the opposite has taken place: the document we presented in 1999 is now itself outdated...”
The effects are far-reaching, and as Prof. Wain points out are now visible to any who care to look.
“The system currently in place is tried and tested, and can be shown to have failed,” he says. “We are not performing to EU standards, and this is evident from a comparison between our educational performance and those of other EU member states. My concern is ultimately that Malta is missing the bus. In a fast-changing world you can’t wait eight years for necessary changes to take place.”
So what went wrong with the 1999 National Curriculum?
“From my experience I would say the problem is political. I have worked under a number of different (education) ministers, and by and large they were all sympathetic to the ideas behind our proposals. What bothers them is grassroots opposition from parents, teachers, the party itself... The issue is more complex than just a clash between government and union: there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction against change, on the grounds that it will bring about social upheaval. This is not necessarily the case; more than a sudden upheaval, what we suggested was a gradual process of streamlining the existing system...”
In practical terms, among the draft curriculum’s proposals was the abolition of the Junior Lyceum examination, as well as the common entrance exam.
“The result would have been a more streamlined, continuous and comprehensive system,” Wain suggests, adding that this would relieve the pressure on young children, as well as providing for a more robust base on which to build a fairer educational system for all.
But the education minister of the time (Evarist Bartolo) dissociated himself from the document, and the reforms never took place.
“After the change of government in 1998, the new minister (Louis Galea) restarted the process. But again, these particular recommendations were omitted from the actual reforms. I am sure that both these ministers were sympathetic to the ideas themselves; but at the same time they viewed them as politically dangerous.”
In this and other spheres, Wain argues, Malta is all too often a “hostage of its own history.”
“A lot of people remember with some trepidation the educational reforms that took place in the early 1970s, when (among other things) the Lyceum was dismantled. Some might still be scared that the reforms proposed in 1999 will have a similar effect.”
For all the upheaval this distant reform brought about, Prof. Wain argues that the underpinning idea was, and still is, valid.
“What was wrong was the implementation. The reform was ushered in without any proper consultation, without the necessary studies, with hardly any preparation, and not enough resources allocated.”
Meanwhile, according to Kenneth Wain, Malta’s failure to acknowledge the need for change is having a deleterious effect on the weakest elements of society.
“Who pays the price for this failure?” he muses, “The most vulnerable children and their parents: those with learning difficulties, or who come from troubled backgrounds. I can’t understand how a system which is manifestly unjust is retained, even when the political forces understand the need to change it. The rest of Europe has long moved away from the streaming model, and the most advanced countries – the ones with the best educational performance – have all adopted a non-selective, open educational system. Here, we start streaming our children at the age of eight. It’s incredible.”
As with educational reform, there are other proposed social changes which automatically invoke visions of social unrest. One current example is the divorce issue: foisted once again onto the national agenda, after both the Nationalist and Labour parties signalled a willingness to at least talk about the subject.
For Wain, this is another case of deja-vu.
“In 1997, I played a very active role in a commission, set up by then Prime Minister Alfred Sant, to discuss the possibility of divorce legislation being introduced. Again, we conducted studies and presented a report... wait one moment, I think I have a copy of it here somewhere...”
After some time browsing through several box files, he finally pulls out from the shelf a voluminous report.
“Here it is,” he says at length, “Gathering dust, in more senses than one...”
So... what happened? Wain shrugs. “I think the government got cold feet, and as tends to be the case the report was quietly put aside and forgotten. It’s easy to see why: today, the same issue promises to be as heated again as it was 10 years ago.”
This view appears to be vindicated by the events of recent weeks. On Monday September 8 - the feast of Our Lady of Victories - the Bishops of Malta warned from the pulpit against the incipient “threat” of secularisation. Significantly, Archbishop Cremona implied that “legislation leading to divorce, abortion and euthanasia” would weaken society. How does a liberal secularist like Prof. Wain react to this line of reasoning?
“I was rather taken aback by the way the Church responded to the divorce issue,” he said with reference to the sermon. “At a glance I don’t think it was commensurate to the actual threat. It is true that support for divorce legislation seems to have grown in the last decade; speaking to people you get the impression that they are more sympathetic to the concept across a wide spectrum of arguments. But this does not always carry over into public discourse. So far there has only been a smattering of articles in the newspapers about it. People still seem to be wary of expressing their approval publicly...”
From this perspective, Prof. Wain argues that the Bishops’ onslaught against secularism is something akin to a “pre-emptive strike”.
“It is similar in a sense to the abortion proposal,” he adds, referring to a campaign - initiated in 2005 and resuscitated just this week - for a Constitutional amendment extending the right to life from the moment of conception. “On that issue, there was a move to entrench an abortion ban into the Constitution... and yet, there is no lobby vociferously promoting any kind of legislation to make abortion legal in Malta.”
For Wain, the timing of this latest attempt is likewise significant. “It is understanable that the organisation involved (Gift of Life) would have taken heart at statements such as the one made by the Bishops last week. What worries me, however, is that this is taking on the aspect of a crusade. Crusades may have been fashionable seven or eight centuries ago, but we are in the 21st century, and these things should really be behind us now... at least, in our part of the world. Today I think the way forward should be a sensible, reasonable debate based on dialogue and the exchange of ideas...”
Admittedly Gift of Life’s initiative has been dealt a double blow this week. On Thursday, Labour leader Joseph Muscat expressed his own personal reservations on the matter – quoting none other than Professor Wain himself in support of his arguments. Likewise, Alternattiva Demokratika/The Green Party has now come out unequivocally against the Constitutional amendment, while at the same time reiterating its pro-life stand.
In so doing, both political movements have effectively shattered the illusion of a nationwide consensus in favour of entrenchment.
However, the situation regarding divorce is less clear-cut. Coming back to the Church’s position, Wain professes disappointment at the hard-line position assumed by Archbishop Cremona and Bishop Grech.
“In this day and age I would have expected a less militant approach. The last thing I would have thought we needed was a declaration of war... particularly since the Bishops themselves had earlier pronounced themselves for rational discussion.”
Mor seriously, Wain openly doubts the motivation behind the attack.
“I think it’s extremely unfair to place three separate and unrelated issues such as divorce, abortion and euthanasia in the same category. It’s as though the Church were trying to exploit a widespread phobia of abortion and euthanasia to make a case against divorce. This is not a fair, nor an honest argument.”
According to Kenneth Wain, the three issues should be “studiously kept apart”. “Confusing these issues is not conducive to a healthy, rational debate. If anything, it serves only to contaminate the discussion.”
But just as the abortion proposal appears to have tripped up on its own zeal, Prof. Wain suggests that the Curia’s prohibitory attitude may also have been a strategic mistake.
“I don’t think the Bishop’s approach has done the Church any favours,” Prof Wain continues. “Their position comes across as dogmatic and almost intimidating. It’s not easy to gauge popular reaction, but my impression is that people now expect a different approach: one defined by the freedom of individuals to exchange their ideas without undue pressure."
But to give the ecclesiastical authorities their full due, Prof Wain acknowledges that not all the points raised by the Bishops are of the “Thou Shalt Not” variety. Among their arguments is the observation that State legislation, even if independent of Church influence, ought still to derive legitimacy from the underlying issue of “the common good”.
“The problem I find with this argument is that the State is not an expert on the common good. The argument for the common good is a utilitarian one. I am amazed that it is supported by those who normally reject utilitarian or consequentialist arguments, and insist that morality is a matter of principle or right. In the case of divorce I tend to agree with them. The concept of the 'common good' applied to divorce is an abstract and contentious principle - certainly not a legislative principle for a modern democratic state with a pluralistic society if it projects itself as a state for all its citizens.
“The right to divorce is a civil right. Put simply, it is the right people in a democratic, pluralistic society have to determine their own future for themselves once their former marriage is dead - it should be forced on no one and it should be denied to no one within appropriate laws.”


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