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Federal

Jan 10, 2014

Rundle: the education puppet show, with Labor scared in the wings

Christopher Pyne wants to weed out "bias" from Australian classrooms. And Labor doesn't really seem to care. In Tasmania, it seems set for self-destruction.

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The bloke in charge of the country’s education is a sinister little meat-puppet, a demented pouting Pinocchio, whose real cause has nothing to do with real politics but is driven by his demented, one-dimensional self-righteousness …

I am speaking of course of Michael Gove, the British Education Secretary, an aggressive midget Tory, a former child TV star who has never lost the look of one, and who has been pushing hard on defining the current UK high school curriculum as a left-wing conspiracy. For Gove, it’s World War I that has been dismissed as “meaningless slaughter” by Lefties — and y’know, most of those who were actually there — whereas it was, in his opinion, a war for “liberal civilisation” against a rapacious German horde who wanted to take away a Briton’s right to his own country — and to India’s, East Africa’s and Malaysia’s, as well.

Sound familiar? Gove has advanced the cause of free schools and tilting school funding back (further) to the rich. Sound familiar? Gove has adopted horn-rimmed spectacles in a bid to look like he runs his country’s schools, rather than attending one. Sound familiar?

Yes, meat-puppet Gove has an eerie shadow puppet in Christopher Pyne, who seems to be following his moves, feint by feint. Neither are substantial figures, but Gove at least has content, starting as a post-9/11 hysteric — with a “death of the West” book called Celsius 7/7 — and progressing to championing the idea that UK schools will be improved by the imposition of rigid curricula content. He is a particular champion of rote-learning in history, having produced a much-criticised Britocentric draft list of essential dates that appeared to suggest that, when anything did happen east of Dover, it was nothing at all, unless it was the Brits extending civilisation. Much of this proved counter-productive. As with John Howard’s meddling in curriculum design right up to the 2007 election, the end-product was judged unteachable, even by right-wing educationists. And for most people, who had no problem with the curriculum as was — insofar as they can understand it at all — it seemed part of the needless chaos the Con-Dem government specialised in.

Pyne’s intervention has the same ham-fisted quality. Assailing the current curriculum, instituted by Labor, he has ridiculed it, arguing that it tries to define the year 1-10 curriculum through three areas: indigenous Australia, sustainability and Asia — and that the later Australian history years are slanted in a Leftist direction. Neither do anything of the sort. The year 1-10 curriculum is organised in the usual subjects and with the usual goals — literacy, numeracy, etc — with the three focus areas as an add-on. Rather lamely, they make the obvious point that these will have less relevance to some areas than to others, i.e. year 2 adding and subtracting, for example. The later years suggest a range of topic areas in history that have a certain degree of loading to them — the main theme driving modern history is “a better world”, though it has a question mark — but ones that cover all aspects of the modern world, and one that any competent teacher would teach as a series of questions.

Thus, a solid curriculum with a degree of progressivist asininity about it. But that is not good enough for Pyne, who is employing well-known cultural hysteric Kevin Donnelly to turn the thing into a prescriptive model, based on the idea that Judeo-Christian civilisation is not only Australia’s cultural base, but is superior to others. So this is a retread of a retread, stretching through Gove back to Howard, which is what gives it something of a tired air. The days when you could drum an ideology into kids’ heads in the classroom is long gone. When all high school kids have the world in their grasp through the tablets they’re doing their homework on, the culture has inherently relativised — because they can compare everything to everything else.

But the whole process has as rote a feel as the lesson plans they would like to impose. As does the roll-out of Cory Bernardi’s book, The Conservative Revolution, trying to plant the cross in the sand of one of the most irreligious societies on earth. There is no sense here, nor is there much in the UK, of a concerted cultural-political program, just as there is little sense of a program overall. Both haphazard programs indicate the ideological weakness of the Right at this time. The neo-con formula — state cultural control over a free-market society — doesn’t work any more, the former element now replaced by authoritarian state control. Such moves — everything from internet firewalls to anti-assembly laws applied to “anti-social elements” — not only spark outright protest, but give the lie to the idea that the Right is the party of freedom, small government, or even orderly social management.

“Labor has so denuded itself of a bigger picture that it talks about means to ends … and calls them values, mistaking them for ends in themselves.”

Yet it prospers to a degree, especially now, in Australia, because Labor has left a vacuum where an alternative should be. Perhaps that is part of a cunning plan, but it looks more like pure absence of any idea about what Labor should be. More worryingly, there is no sign that Labor has any interest in thinking through what it could or should be offering the Australian people in the years ahead, what its vision of a better Australia is. As the government is stuffed to the gills with “free” marketeers, with the PM’s staff including a former Rio Tinto exec and a Toyota marketing guru, one suspects that sections of Labor don’t have a huge problem with much of what is on Abbott’s agenda and would rather like him to get on with it, let 2016 go to the keeper, and hope to get back in ’19.

Labor should by now be pioneering a large-scale project on how its founding values can be translated to current social life, and which of them should change in relation to new social aims. But there appears to be no real interchange between the party and an intellectual hinterland. Labor has so denuded itself of a bigger picture that it talks about means to ends — jobs, better schooling, etc — and calls them values, mistaking them for ends in themselves.

Judging by the past three years, the usual Labor trick when stuck in this impasse is to attack the Greens. And whaddaya know, Paul Howes laid into the Tasmanian Greens, part of the Labor-Green coalition, ahead of the Giddings government’s desperate attempt to distance itself from it. Howes is pursuing the line that Labor and the Greens share “no values”, which will be news to those who switch their votes back and forth between two parties that support collective bargaining, public education and health, environmentalism, and the rest. It’s particularly funny coming from an ex-teen Trotskyite, risen through the bruvvers, who now counts Planet Janet Albrechtsen and Michael “Wormhole” Kroger as friends.

The approach — favoured also by Troy “Boy” Bramston, the world’s only Gough Whitlam scholar who would have voted for Arthur Calwell — didn’t work in Melbourne this time round, and it won’t work in Tassie, either. It gains no votes from Libs and rusts a section of the wavering Labor/Greens votes onto the Greens. The danger for Labor in Tasmania is that the coming Lib landslide will be at its expense, leaving the Greens with their quota, and producing for example a Lib/Lab/Green result of, say, 14/5/6 seats — at which point the Greens become the official opposition, a win from a loss.

Labor has a bit of time on its hands. It has gained the great good fortune of a conservative government that won by promising to implement the program of a Labor government, and is now going in six directions at once trying to reconcile its blank-cheque promises. It is led by a man whose temperament it does not trust, and whose lasting achievement may be conflict with Indonesia. Even its culture wars are now being imported on the imperial preference system, shipped straight from Blighty, with a union jack stamp on the side.

Should its response to this gift be to once again swing its guns ’round on the Greens, then people will know it does not mean to offer a serious alternative, and the Abbott government’s meat puppets will get a chance to come to life.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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