During the grand old days of protection and imperial preference, if you purchased a piece of complex machinery from outside the empire — a printing press from the beastly Germans, a jabbering machine from the ridiculous Italians or some such — the whole apparatus when it arrived at the docks would have to be dismantled and reassembled by union labour. People got accustomed to things being “on the docks” for months. Great days of our settlement — and I am not being ironic.
Today we import memes not things, and there are similar delays: things reassembled wrongly, parts missing etc. This would appear to account for delays and lags, especially in the political field.
And so, yes, in a complete recension of our earlier remarks, we can comfortably say that a full political culture war is on the way, assembled overseas and applied shakily to local conditions. It’s going to be plonked down in the middle of everything, it’s going to be on critical race theory, curriculum, education etc, and it’s going to be absurd and hideous, particularly as reasonable and necessary debate will be tangled up with ridiculous claims. No matter how often it falters, it will be jerked into life and kept running in the weeks preceding, and into, the election campaign proper.
What a beast of a machine it’s going to be! Some of the parts are already here, and being used. War with Taiwan; national pride; “greatest country in the world” exceptionalism; history, maths and English teaching — there’s going to be a lot of moving parts. And the problem is that parts of it at least, especially as regards curriculum, are not without real material to work with.
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That said, one stands by one’s initial contention that the culture war machinery is a pretty alien apparatus to our politics. This one is going to have to be set in motion and kept running by the whole Coalition, The Australian, News Corp tabloids, bloggers, the IPA, the whole outfit. It’s going to have to be the “crisis of curriculum” in our midst, reaching out to touch the Defence crisis, which will run separately. It will be pushed and pushed and pushed, and kept running until the wider press gallery starts to ask questions of it, the TV tabloids take it up, and it starts to run the election. If it falters, it will be propped up, until it can somehow be got, wheezing and clanking, over the finish line.
Labor’s best chance of fighting it would be to identify itself wholly with a generally progressive, optimistic, social-nation building style of government — but to be fully effective in that pitch it may have had to have begun it a few years back. And it might also have wanted to sort out a few tangled issues to do with progressivism and curriculum as well.
Of course, the whole curriculum wars thing was meant to be over a decade ago when the Gillard government brought in an independent authority to sort out national curriculum after the futile late-stage spat over it in the dying year of the Howard government, when Howard rejected the history curriculum made for him by a hand-picked group — too many questions, too much asking students to take different points of view — and tried to substitute a sort of chronicle of Anglo-Celtic achievements model.
But in trying to depoliticise it with an authority, curriculum was essentially repoliticised at a deeper level, since curriculum designers in our era are not without a certain inclination. By their lights, that inclination is more towards “problem solving”, the development of autonomous skills, and a recognition of differing subject positions and cultural frameworks — even on things like maths — and less on the transfer of a body of knowledge and specific skills bound up with it.
By their opponents’ measure, it is an approach always oriented to less knowledge, more debate over legitimacy etc, until a true deauthorisation of the inherited knowledge base has occurred.
By no means are all these critics right-wing, as recent stoushes over the maths curriculum have made clear. Nor should the general “curriculist” approach be taken as inherently “left”; any genuinely materialist approach to education would say that a knowledge base is a developed historical achievement, the conditions of possibility for acting on the world, and an excessively positional and relativised approach something that has more to do with market logic than with anything resembling truth.
Since, due to COVID home schooling, a lot of parents are getting a better idea of what their kids are being taught, this may have become something of a sleeper issue. The Coalition may well have left the curriculum authority in place, precisely so it could have this war against it, a few months before election time. To supercharge it, it will attach the fear of critical race theory — not as something here, but as something coming from “over there” — to the wagon.
Once again, there is local fuel in the widespread adoption of the settler colonialist/capitalist argument in recent years, which holds that colonialism inheres through every part of Australian society and the state. Undoubtably a truer picture than those of its enemies, the argument can also be said to have overshot the mark, with an oversimplified view of state apparatuses, and a dematerialised view of 1788 as a fall, rather than an event bringing, violently, a new reality into being. This has created an infinite recession of guilt, which undermines the capacity to advance progressive and radical notions of Australian possibility. This too, squeezes progressive politics from both ends.
Will the Coalition wheel this whole clanking apparatus on to the battlefield? Hard to say, because one imagines it has not made up its mind yet. Perhaps it will be a minor part of the wider attack on “big government” being gingered up, with the idea of a dedicated elite trying to reprogram history and culture through your child’s mind. Since that is not without truth, it’s a tempting fight to have.
As ever, such a stoush will have the benefit of telling us who we are; just how great the cultural divide is, in a country more suburbanised, and more perfunctory in its historical observances than just about anywhere in the world. By the time we get the information, it will either be too late or, from a progressive point of view, it won’t have mattered.
Fun, waiting to find out, as, beneath a tarpaulin on the docks, the beast-machine sleeps half-assembled, waiting for its triannual slouch towards Bethlehem.