If even Geoffrey Blainey’s upset with John Howard, you know the PM can’t be having a good week (or year, for that matter).
The eminent historian has expressed concern about Howard’s personal intervention in the awarding of a history prize worth $100 000 against the recommendation of a panel that Howard himself established to decide the winner of the PM’s Prize for Australian history. While the panel favoured Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition, Howard reportedly intervened to ensure that his pick, Les Carlyon’s The Great War, shared the honours. Blainey also thinks that the inclusion of a federal government rep on the panel, Education honcho Lisa Paul, is inappropriate for an award which ought to be judged on merit.
Journo and author Gideon Haigh, who reviewed the best-selling Carlyon tome for The Monthly, says:
This isn’t a bad book, it’s even quite a good book. But it’s ultimately a pretty safe, unambitious and formulaic book — too big, too unwieldy, too superficial. In the end, too obviously in the Australia-saves-the-world-again camp.
Quelle surprise, as Alexander Downer might say…
John Howard’s tried his best to get the culture wars up as a theme in this election campaign, with a conspicuous lack of success, and it certainly hasn’t been a feature of the Liberal message. As a number of commentators, including John Quiggin, Guy Rundle and myself, have observed, the debate has already moved on and the culture wars have already been buried in advance of Howard’s passing from the stage of history. Nor, as Quiggin and I argue, is their revival post-Howard likely to lead to anything other than a continuing source of political negatives for the Coalition.
While early this year, some authors wrote hyperbolically about the activities of the culture warrior commentariat as if they were waging a “war on democracy”, in actual fact the rhetorical and political force of the crusade against the evils of Maoist postmodernism or whatever has dissipated in the blink of an eye – revealed as the chimera it always was. Armistice day has passed, and the discursive trenches have been vacated.
Yet, Blainey’s intervention points to a much more important phenomenon – the effective elision between the national story and the PM’s own prejudices. An instance of this can be observed in the quasi-Presidential usurpation of the role of the Governor-General, but it’s most starkly on show in the education and history wars.
The attempt on the part of the PM to mould the teaching of history in schools to his own beliefs was a failure – with the history summit failing to turn out a “single narrative”. That was always a predictable outcome, as unlike the culture warriors per se, academic historians from whom the PM sought educational salvation such as Blainey and Greg Melluish are not blinkered ideologues but scholars capable of seeing the complexity of history, even if their own political leanings are to the right. So we saw Howard himself effectively overturn the verdict of his own summit, and seek to arrogate the right to shape curriculum himself.
If the Howard government is re-elected, Education Minister Julie Bishop has signalled that this model will become normative for a national curriculum. It’s ludicrous to imagine, as Stephen Smith suggests, members of parliament determining what secondary school students should be learning in maths or English, whether with or without the assistance of self-promoting and self-serving self-proclaimed “experts”.
Bishop’s justification is the alleged “capture” of curriculum formation by the hordes of postmodernists and Maoists swarming in state education departments and authorities.
I’m no fan, personally, of teaching deconstruction at secondary level before any narratives have actually been constructed, and I must confess that I cringed when I first heard the awful neologism “learnings”, since enshrined by Tasmania in policy documents. Significantly, though, I first heard it from a Business School academic – and much of the tosh that is taught is really managerial speak aligned to a vocationalist agenda rather than some putatively left wing “march through the institutions”. That goes to the nub of the debate about curriculum – much of what’s wrong with education is in fact the effect of a certain corporatism rather than of some crazed and imaginary culture war. There’s much irony in the fact that the defenders of the big C Canon are the self-same people whose ideological fellow travellers can see education only through the lens of the needs of the economy, very narrowly conceived.
But whatever one’s personal preferences or position in some of the curriculum debates, and many of them (for instance those about literacy education) are quite arcane, I think that it’s vital that agreement be reached on the principle that the direction, and nuts and bolts, of curriculum should be determined by genuine experts, not newspaper columnists, former Liberal party staffers or pollies. A degree of depoliticisation would be a boon for both history and education, and the end of the culture wars gives me some hope that a serious evidence-based debate on education can begin. In the present circumstances, that in itself would represent something of an “education revolution”.
Cross-posted at PollieGraph.