Can we talk? Seriously, I mean?

In the 1960s, researcher Stanley Milgram conducted his infamous experiments in which subjects were instructed to inflict pain upon folk in an adjoining room. How much suffering would these torturers be prepared to dish out, Milgram wished to know? Rather a lot, as it turned out.

Even when the participants could hear their victims screaming they continued to push the needle into the red. Somehow, with the victims unseen, they lost their humanity.

Something similar happens with editorials produced by The Australian. Pursuing an ideological line that can only be called the New Cruelty, the editorial writers seem prepared to zap the populace with ever-increasing voltage. The application of the New Cruelty was on display once again on Tuesday in an editorial devoted to the National History Curriculum. Decrying the potential for bias in the proposed structure, the editorial was itself the model of bias. Indeed a teacher could do worse than use the editorial for language analysis.

“After decades of woeful, inconsistent teaching that has left too many young Australians ignorant of important historical events,” the rant begins. Any senior English class would immediately recognise unsubstantiated generalisation.

Savvy students would also understand that in describing the author of the new curriculum, historian Stewart Macintyre, as “left-wing”, the editorial writers are using a code word for “dangerous lunatic”. The one “expert” cited, right-wing think tanker Gerald Henderson, even the dimmest student would see as narrowly selective.

Our barrel of monkeys next takes issue with the notion of students bringing “historical empathy and moral judgement” to the study of History. Apparently this leaves it too open to the machinations of “politically biased” teachers who occur in such numbers they have heads on them like mice. The editorial writers prefer plain facts.

Aside from the epistemological problem of what constitutes a fact, you have to wonder where these jackasses are getting their facts from. For the plain fact (sic) of the matter is that students are stuffed full of facts like force-fed foie gras geese. It is not just dates and personages but also political structures, belief systems, architecture, dress, dietary habits, social structure and the law.

Under the diktat of the Howard regime we even teach economics, although frankly with one’s superannuation disappearing like smoke in a bottle, teachers have every right to be disenchanted by free market capitalism.

With regard to facts, just what would the sage editorial writers have students do with them? Recite them like Mr Memory in The Thirty-Nine Steps? If, as the council of the wise insists, The Australian is “a passionate advocate of understanding how the past shapes the present and the future” then surely facts demand interpretation.

Finally, there is the furphy of a left-wing conspiracy within the teaching profession. Left-wing appears to be being confused with sceptical. Scepticism is the basis of ALL inquiry. With the world under extreme stress in almost every area — financial, ecological, demographic — it makes no sense to sail into the future with blind optimism.

She’ll be right, Jack. No, Jack, she won’t. The Australian editorial was another example of neocon perversity in which its adherents seem to compete to counter common sense. The New Cruelty also demands that there be a scapegoat the neocon can kick. The satisfaction of hearing someone in the next room screaming.

Class dismissed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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