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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 04-Mar-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 17

Wordcount: 849

Here’s a challenge: start raging against the dumb machine


All that February heat quite put me in the mood for heresy. I’m thinking something nice and threatening, not like last year’s festival of supposedly “dangerous” ideas that just congealed the Opera House in its role as a centre for the global mediocracy.

Arrayed in its bains-marie like so much coagulant honey chicken were Cardinal George Pell on God, Germaine Greer on freedom, Admiral Chris Barrie on conscription, Christopher Hitchens on the evils of religion. All about as subversive as a Tupperware party.

But if it’s scary you want, here’s what I really think.

I think it’s time our intelligentsia quit with the supine and spoke in its own clear voice.

Judging by the appalling scrabble of parents who have just realised it’s a fortnight to the selective schools exam (that teachers pretend is a mere blip in the calendar but every parent knows will determine their child’s future), you’d take us for a country that valued intelligence to the hilt.

Nothing could be further from

the truth.

In fact, the scrabble is the sound of parents who trusted the system’s “we give your child all the education it needs”, then realised too late half the kids in the class had been on seven hours’ coaching a week since kindy.

Coaching isn’t intelligence.

Skill, hard work, knowledge, sure. Not intelligence.

And although the official line insists otherwise, it’s the coached kids who pack selective schools.

This is a system designed to foster the trappings of intelligence at the expense of the real thing.

Take the Premier’s Reading Challenge, for all kids K to 9. Last year, boasts the government, 180,142 students “met the challenge”, exclamation mark. But what exactly is this supposed challenge?

It is to read, between February and September, 20 books (30 for K to 2, when a book has about that many words) of which 15 must be on the approved list – which puts all 39 Asterix comics at years 5-6 level

and abridges Agatha Christie as “graphic novels”.

Twenty comics in seven months. And we all act like this is a good thing. In some cases, no doubt, it is. Boys who once read nothing now read, well, comix. But there are plenty of kids for whom the so-called challenge is just an annual go-slow, six weeks of skim-reading, years below your level.

This is triply destructive. The least of it is putting your real mental life on hold while you read or re-read stuff that’s too easy.

Worse is the underlying lesson that the system not only can be duped, it wants to be duped. In fact it rewards duping. Bad enough for adults to know they can outsmart the system, or that “challenge” really means “just fake it”. Much, much worse for kids.

More catastrophic still is the emphasis on quantity over quality. This is a direct result of postmodern relativism, where a universal fear of exercising judgment – even by those, like teachers, whose job it is – leaves us clad in a threadbare bean-counting materialism.

And it’s not only kids. Just about every adult who could partake of unfettered, intelligent debate is silenced by one dumbing-down mechanism or another.

Perhaps the new curriculum will remedy this never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width approach to education, but it won’t be easy.

Universities have become self-censoring corporates, respectful of any feeding hand, be it government or, more ominously, the hand of populism. Indeed, promoting bogan culture as serious intellectual fare has become academia’s defining game.

Critiquing McMansions, for example, reliably draws angry emails from academics whose life’s work it is to defend sprawl but who, when pressed, can produce no argument in its favour except that people like it. PhDs on football, videogames and web-porn have passed through chic to staple and yet Aldous Huxley or Thomas Mann, were they writing now, would scarcely get past the agent.

Hospital medics, generally pretty cranially endowed, are almost universally bound by confidentiality contracts protecting not their patients’ secrets, but their employers’.

So anyone who actually understands the rank stupidities of hospital administration is automatically and permanently gagged.

Lawyers and architects are so tribally and commercially bound they’ll harangue the dinner table, but not the public. And the ABC, our once-fearless educator, is so ratings-driven it focuses increasingly on giggle-a-minute panel shows.

Even as I write I, too, feel that pit-of-the-stomach fear.

Not just the what-if-it-rebounds-on-my-kids stuff that generally stops parents criticising schools. But also the sneers from the yah-boo-you-think-you’re-so-clever brigade.

But I ask you this. How, in a culture that pretends to revere excellence, did “clever” become a term of derision? No one ever attacked Cathy Freeman saying “you think you’re so fast!” Or Torah Bright saying “you think you’re so fearless”.

No other group, I submit, would tolerate such oppression.

The intelligentsia is the last minority that dare not speak its name.

It’s not new, to wit brain drain, feeding our best and brightest to the global machine.

Yet never, as our third-rate governance shows, have we needed an intelligentsia more.

You know who you are. Be unsilent. Abandon your closets.

Why reclaim the streets if we can’t reclaim the future? IQ Pride!

Exclamation mark.


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