The Dog’s Bollocks

Truth is like a dog’s bollocks – pretty obvious if you care to look.

Howard’s educational ghost of futures past

I remember Howard’s vision for the future of education quite well. It’s straight from the 1950s. That’s why it won’t work, because we no longer live in the 1950s. The world we inhabit almost half a century later bears little resemblance to those times. Given that education is the way we integrate our offspring into civil society and the productivity of working life, it is not surprising that education has also changed.

There have been some truly profound changes in our economy and society since those halcyon school days of John Howard’s childhood.

There was almost unquestioning faith in Queen, God and Empire and acceptance of authority simply granted by virtue of one’s station in life. Shops closed on Friday afternoon and reopened on Monday morning. We went to the footy on Saturday. Most of us went to church on Sunday, put on our best clothes and visited relatives in drawing rooms or kitchens where children were seen but not heard.

On Monday, Dad went off to work with the lunch Mum had made him, while she would tidy up the house, put on the washing, look after kids, have chats over morning tea with the neighbours, do seasonal chores, walk to the shops and start preparing dinner for when Dad came home.

When I began school, we lined up in rows, sang God Save the Queen while gazing reverently at the flag, and then marched into our classrooms. Some teachers were absolutely wonderful, but I had some shockers. In Grade 1, my Head Mistress practically ripped my overlong fingernails from my hand with a brutal pair of scissors.

My Grade 5 teacher would prowl the classroom and slam down a book on your head, or whack you with the edge of a ruler for even whispering when you were meant to be working. She regularly hit, punched and finger jabbed me across the front of the classroom, for not much more than being the smartest kid in the class. I know that because my report book told me so at the end of each term. The number 1 was written in the box at the top of the tiny page along with a score out of ten for each subject and single comment at the bottom. Some poor student would have 36. But at least it was a report you could understand and you were in no doubt as to where you stood. She sent me to the office a few times where I received up to 6 cuts of the cane, sometimes on the bum, other times the back of the legs or the open hand – for the smallest of misdemeanours. No discipline problems back then, No Sir.

At 2.00 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon we would listen to a radio broadcast about an Autralian explorer or famous Governor and complete the same page of work, from the same book as every other kid in the state. Facts were facts then. My teacher would often have a coughing fit in the cloakroom and would drink some kind of medicine from a hip flask. We also had a bank holiday on Empire Day in honour of Queen Victoria.

Authority figures were largely feared and respected and always to be obeyed. The currency was fixed, imports were strictly regulated. Everyone had a job. We lived in a lucky country indeed.

The 60s saw all that start to change rapidly and it hasn’t stopped. Wide-sweeping questioning of authority in turbulent times, sexual freedom with the pill, mothers began returning to work, people marched in the streets, unions became militant, terrorism challenged traditional notions of warfare, the British Empire was crumbling, and Vietnam divided our community.

Philosophers of all persuasion were searching for new ways to understand the rapidly changing world around us. Post-modernism, relativism, economic rationalism. These ideas permeate academia, schools, media and society and inform political and economic reality in profound ways.

Mum and Dad now both have to work long hours just to maintain their ‘lifestyle’. Kids are left largely to their own devices. They have huge appetites for television, film, music, computers, the internet and all forms of passive entertainment. They can do several at the same time in a way entirely mysterious to adults of Howard’s vintage. They have very short multi-tasking attention spans as short as 3 seconds. I’m bored. They’re not dumb, but they inhabit a childhood world that may as well be alien compared to that experienced by John Howard. Like, all children, they adapt to the world they live in and are thoroughly formed by their experiences of it. It’s what humans do. If you throw emotional neglect, abuse, poverty, unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction into that childhood world, the child of today is radically different from that of the 50s.

As lovely as it might be to think we could go back to teacher-directed learning from a uniform national curriculum with strict discipline mirroring that of the world around us, it just won’t work anymore. The conditions under which it worked are now history. We accept radical economic and cultural changes, 24/7 media and messaging, global advertising, and rampant consumerism as important features of modern times. And so we should accept that education has changed and must continue to so do. We trust the modern experts in everything else, so why the scepticism in education?

Howard, Bishop and other public school teacher bashers would have us believe that private school do education differently. They do, but only by degree and style, made posible by the benefits of selective student intake and superior funding. The pedagogy and curriculum are identical. Even Kevin Donnelly knows this.

Public school teachers are portrayed as inferior  teachers, when all evidence suggests that not to be the case. So why the sleight of hand? The real agenda is privatisation. The simplest way to privatise public education is to run down its funding, consistently denigrate its teachers and curriculum through national leaders and the mass media and then watch parents march with their feet. Privatisation by stealth. Pretty clever really, but not very smart.


Filed under: Big Picture, Education, Politics

2 Responses

  1. Adrien says:

    “Public school teachers are portrayed as inferior  teachers, when all evidence suggests that not to be the case. So why the sleight of hand? The real agenda is privatisation. ”

    I wonder to what extent these people are thinking things thru? America’s great technological innovations occured because of the (formerly) excellent public health school system. A lot of the famous American inventors rather than coming from the prep schools and Ivy League institutions went to Mid-western high schools and universities.

    Tom Wolfe wrote piece about the phenomena called “Two Men Who Went Out West” (click to see a review) about the inventor of the silicon chip. The virtues of the American midwest in the nineteenth and twentieth century are similar to those in ancient Greek colonies c 6-5 centuries BCE: self-reliance, flexible heirarchy, a culture which honors rather than despises manual labour, a practical education and no entrenched oligarchy.

    This was the time and place that gave birth to the set of practises we today call science.

    I reckon Howards trying to emulate America by copying it’s present rather than its past and this is a mistake. I reckon also that as we still teach kids roughly the same way we did two hundred years ago despite advances in technology and explosions in knowledge about cognition we’re really missing the opportunity to design a much better education system.

    Howard’s a working class/petit bourgeoisie social climber (always the most orthodox type of Tory) but his mates are all blue-bloods. They want to guarantee the cream for their descendents and they don’t see that this is a move guaranteed to stifle the national intellect. Howard should ask himself how he was able to get where he was and if some other garage mechanics kid could do the same in the Australia he’s now creating.

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