The Prime Minister’s crude populism does
play well with the crowd as Christian Kerr pointed out (21
April, item 3),
but that doesn’t make it right or even necessarily accurate. There’s a
great deal of waffle about the great literature of the past, as if good
writing stopped sometime in the late
19th century. Has anyone stopped to consider that most kids today
find Shakespeare and Donne a little dated, difficult and well, cr*p?

I remember
my own English lessons of 30+ years ago. I hated Shakespeare and the English
religious poets we were made to study. In my spare time I read Kurt Vonnegut
and George Orwell, not to mention James Bond stories and detective fiction. It
really is time that dead white males like John Winston Howard left teaching
to the professionals and stopped making cheap political points at their
expense.

But there’s another angle to this debate
that’s also got up my nose—the equation of postmodernism with Marxism and the
belief that they’re both just variants of some wastrel relativist rubbish. This
could not be further from the truth. Postmodernism and Marxism are totally
different creatures and most decent postmodernists would be the first to
confess that they’re almost as anti-Marxism as the neo-cons in the White House
and the News Limited bunkers.

As a Marxist (perhaps as the result of not
understanding Shakespeare as an awkward 17-year-old?) I reject any association
with the relativism of the postmoderns. I still believe in some decent modernist
truths—yes, Virginia,
there is a ruling class. Capitalism is a system of waste, exploitation and war
and the workers of the world have nothing to lose but their chains. This does
not sit well with the relativist anything goes pastiche of postmodern popular
culture.

As Marx observed: the ideas
of an age are the ideas of its ruling class. The postmodernists would disagree
with this and the neo-cons dismiss any notion of class at all (are we all middle Australian?).

What Howard and his ilk object to is the
suggestion that teachers might be putting in front of curious students the idea
that they don’t have to accept the ideology of the ruling class as a given and
that they can in fact construct their own version of the world. Howard’s fear
is that such a world doesn’t include hypocritical dead white males like our
Prime Minister. Today he’s caught in
ethical quandaries like Iraq and the AWB scandal, yet finding it necessary to
dictate to young people what constitutes a politically-correct (from his point
of view) school curriculum.

It’s not surprising that his comments about
postmodernism and the curriculum are jumped on by the Murdoch papers, they’ve
been campaigning about this issue for more than a year and the former adviser
to the Liberals, Kevin Donnelly, has taken up almost permanent residence on the
op-ed pages of The Australian. What we all have to understand is that the
claims that these people make for objectivity and politics-free educational
values are nothing of the sort. They really want their values to dominate the
classroom, not those of young, progressive teachers who have the best interests
of their students at heart.

Peter Fray

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