Friday, October 06, 2006

An approach to education that comes straight from Comrade Stalin

"For You, Fatherland, Our Young Hearts Beat."

It appears that there's far too much antithetical thinking in Australian education, and we're finally going to get the national curriculum we had to have. Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop has declared that the responsibility for setting curricula should be stripped from state education authorities and placed in the hands of a national board. She accuses educators of teaching themes which come "straight from Chairman Mao," though she doesn't explain why, and moreover, she doesn't need to: all she needs to do is utter the words "Chairman Mao" and "education" in the same sentence, and we all fill in the gaps. That, my friends, is dogwhistle politics. (Or could it be considered psychomarketing?)

Why would a political party that traditionally (purports to) believe in small government be proposing something as obviously Big-Brotheresque as a national curriculum? I have a couple of suggestions. First, there is the strong authoritarian streak among conservatives (whatever they may say), who see themselves as Strict Fathers looking after the interests of us wayward children. As George Lakoff explains:
When translated into politics, the government metaphorically becomes the Strict Father. The citizens are children of two kinds: the mature, successfully disciplined, and self-reliant ones (read: wealthy businesses and individuals), whom the government should not meddle with; and the whining, undisciplined, dependent ones who must never be coddled. Just as in the family, the government must be an instrument of Moral Authority, upholding and extending policies that express Moral Strength.
We saw this kind of Strict-Fatherism emerging in the push to get more male "role models" into Australian classrooms through the attempted introduction of male-only teaching scholarships in 2004. Now, Julie Bishop claims, students are spending all their time "deconstructing Big Brother or interpreting Shakespeare from a feminist perspective," and as a consequence, "you've got first year law students at prestigious universities having to undertake remedial English" (again, she doesn't explain how B follows from A--but like I said, she doesn't have to. Dogwhistle.) Clearly: spare the rod, and spoil the child--especially when there is a danger that the children might speak out of turn and explore ideas with which the Government disagrees.

A second, and strangely contradictory explanation is the nascent anti-intellectualism--or what might more accurately be described as an "anti-expert" attitude--among the political Right, reflected in Bishop's attack on the educational experts involved in designing the "Maoist" curricula she is condemning. We've seen this kind of thing before as well--in US debates over the teaching of evolution in the classroom. There, conservatives rant and rave about the need for "balance" in science curricula--unhappy that scientific explanations of the world are being taught in the science classroom, to the exclusion of their own--and engage in populist diatribes about "thought police" and "the Darwinist Inquisition" to account for the fact that their own religious ideologies aren't getting more of a look-in.

Likewise, Bishop's current complaints about "educational fads" and "ideologically-hijacked syllabi" and her call for a "commonsense curriculum:" curriculum designers aren't producing a curriculum that is in tune with the Howard Government's view of the world, therefore they should be distrusted. We should distrust, in other words, the legitimate expertise of professional curriculum designers--and we should instead place our trust, unquestioningly, the conservatives demand, in the illegitimate authority of Howard Government ideologues.

UPDATE: Ninglun's view.