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.