Sunday, January 15, 2006

'Education: what is it?' -- Part Two

In his current Weekend Australian column, Christopher Pearson is bemoaning a decline in standards, which is something that all good right-wing pundits need to do on a regular basis if they want to keep their edge. This week it's the decline in standards of education (or is it literacy?) in Australia (or is it the US?), which he blames on changes in reading-education techniques ... or is it the opening-up of the universities?

For which in turn he blames Dawkins (or is it (gasp) Menzies?), and which has resulted in the dumbing-down of curricula in, of course, wait for it, the humanities. Ah, a clean well-lighted RWDB position at last, and Pearson nestles into it, rhetorically speaking, with an almost audible sigh of relief.

All of which is to say that the column is oddly scrambled and self-contradictory, as though Pearson had set himself the challenge to cover every possible right-wing pundit party line and cliche on the subject in the course of a relatively short piece of writing, even if it meant directly contradicting himself in almost every paragraph.

But the out-of-left-field (so to speak) criticism of Menzies gives a glimpse of the Pearson of twenty years ago, who was an independent thinker with a razor-sharp brain. Conservatism seems to have blunted it (twenty years ago he would never have committed to paper such an egregiously mixed metaphor as 'a burgeoning vicious circle', for a start. Circles don't burgeon, they expand. Sheesh) but every so often one gets a quick glimpse of what he used to be like. Criticising Menzies?

Ah, but no, wait, what was he criticising Menzies for?

Wait for it: the trouble with Menzies was that he was not conservative enough.

Two things about this piece:

1) It's another example of the very nasty drift on the right towards the notion that facts and opinions have equal status and validity. Pearson's opinions are presented rhetorically as facts. This kind of thing at its worst results in wild rants from the right about non-existent global warming on the one hand and demonstrable 'intelligent design' on the other, where failure to acknowledge that some people 'believe in' ID and/or not in global warming is decried as a lack of 'balance'.

2) It's all about the party line. There's no way that anyone could even begin to get to the truth of the enormously complex and endlessly changing state of education in a thousand punter-friendly words. But my sad suspicion is that the truth about the situation isn't what chiefly interests Pearson, or any other pundit anywhere on the political spectrum with a barrow to push or a flag to wave. Public signalling of one's allegiances is becoming the journalistic substitute for finding out and reporting on what has actually happened.

Pearson's characteristic tutting in this piece is -- uncharacteristically -- half-hearted and unfocused. As so often with his op eds, he's torn between the intellectual attractions of truth and complexity on the one hand and the comforting clarity of the party line on the other. (My guess is that being a highly intelligent right-winger is bloody hard work; think of all the internal contradictions that need to be resolved.)

This piece could easily have been an interesting and thought-provoking sweep across the broad range of reasons why literacy in particular and education in general, in Australia and elsewhere, might have changed the way they have over the last few decades. It could have examined what I think is the single central issue, which is the rapidly-increasing commodification of education and the distortions and dumbing-down effects of that -- but no right-winger's going to touch that one; Pearson merely mentions in a neutral tone the current cost of education as though there were a direct and self-evident correlation between the amount of cash you fork out and the 'quality' of the education your kid gets. (One of the most dismaying effects of this kind of thinking is that it constructs education as a one-way street, something that you passively 'get'. But that's a whole other discussion.)

It could easily have been a really good piece of op ed writing. But in the end it simply rumbles away from behind its cigar in its comfy leather chair at its gentleman's club, getting no further than 'Things were better in my day' and using the crucial, massive problems and issues in contemporary education as just another stage on which to do the 'I told you so' dance.


elsewhere said...

Interesting. This kind of laziness has also been present in op ed writing on Indigenous affairs where certain opinions that haven't been aired for a while are given equal status with others, on the basis (it sometimes seems) that they haven't been heard for a while. The logic seems to go something like this, for eg, 'for too long we have heard the left wing opinions on this subject so now it's time to hear the right wing opinions' with very little validation (admittedly, this logic has been played back the other way at times). The simple matter of history, and why some policies have been implemented, the real reasons why they haven't worked (e.g. they needed more time) and why other older ones (like assimilation) have been discarded and should stay discarded seems to be lost in much of this style of debating.

mark bahnisch said...

Nice post!

Pavlov's Cat said...

Elsewhere: I think the press and the general public's failure to assimilate the failure of assimilation as any kind of acceptable or workable policy is one of the most depressing aspects of race relations history in this country. As for the 'taking it in turns' routine, I dunno, maybe the function of newspapers has undergone some fundamental change while our backs were turned. Did they really used to be mainly cheer squads the way they are now?

Mark: why, thank ya.

elsewhere said...

The attractiveness of assimilation is a very interesting subject in itself, esp when compared to other settler nations. The argument generally goes that other settler nations had a treaty-making system so this kind of conformity was less easy to encourage. But while that's at least partly the case, I think there are elements of the 'Australian ethos' that Howard has manipulated cleverly in the current climate -- the fair go & mateship stuff, etc. It would be an interesting study, to look at why Australia has been particularly open to such things.

As for newspapers, I reckon the rot started to set in during the early 90s but wasn't clear til 95-96 (this is going by the Age, really, and the rise of the Kennett government). I basically think the rise of the lifestyle supplement is a sign of a civilisation in decline...the more lifestyle supplements a newspaper has, the less news and genuine journalism it's likely to have (not that I don't enjoy the occacsional lifestyle supplement on a Sunday morning.)