Children of the Enlightenment

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The Western world is considered by many observers as being in a catastrophic state of moral decline. Such people point to rising divorce rates, falling marriage and birth rates, increasing drug use, sexually explicit films and TV, premarital sex rates, abortion, contraception, teenage sexual activity, the sexualisation of children and the clothes they wear, explicit lyrics in popular music, the universality of bad language, teen pregnancies, teen abortions, gay rights, and even childhood obesity. While some of these are of real concern to many families, those raising such alarms go one step further by drawing a direct line between such moral turpitude and the triumph of the values of the enlightenment in the 1960s and 1970s.

Much of the concern about such issues, and certainly many of the orchestrated campaigns to stamp them out, have contributed to what we have come to know as the culture wars. Like many such terms, the phrase is tossed around rather loosely, particularly by people in the media; however, it is our suspicion that many people who hear the term only have the vaguest idea what is meant by it.

Some of the hot issues in the ‘culture wars’ as we write are alleged bias in the ABC, the black armband view of history, postmodernist (including Maoist) infiltration of school curricula, Marxist and feminist propaganda in schools, sedition, chaplains in secular schools and the entire values debate. For many of us, particularly parents struggling to rear children in an increasingly confused society, this debate can seem at best bewildering and at worst, terrifying.

In the wake of what is sometimes seen as a moral collapse, many have demanded a return to a more authoritarian set of values, particularly those of a religious authority. We’ve tried the enlightenment way of doing things, the argument seems to go, and look at the disaster we now have on our hands. We have allegedly allowed people to come to their own conclusions about how to live their lives and all we have is an apparent free for all. Many seem to believe that it is now time to return to following the rules, or at least a specific set of rules.

The culture wars don’t appear to have much to do with the priorities parents seek out for their children’s schooling: their children’s level of achievement at school, personal wellbeing and the prospects for a secure and successful livelihood. They don’t even have much to do with the recurring educational issues in the media, including topics such as literacy and numeracy. Maybe this is because a greater proportion of our young people are probably more highly skilled than any generation before them. Contrary to some of the propaganda, in only two decades, the number of students who complete 13 years of schooling has expanded enormously, and many more are attending university than their parent’s generation ever dreamed of.

Instead, the issues that are trumpeted by various cultural warriors probably tell us more about them, than any real problems in our schools. Indeed, what people believe is the hottest issue in education may be a good way of defining which side of the culture wars they are on. Those who think the biggest issue is values which includes discipline, the ‘dumbing down’ of the curriculum, relativist morality, boys versus girls, sex education etc are probably on the ‘return to the rules’ side. Those who believe that the biggest issues include the growing gap in the opportunities for our kids have probably not yet given up on the promise of the enlightenment.

The author and philosopher Stephen Law, from the University of London, argues that what we are really seeing is a war between two ways of looking at the world. On the one hand are those who prefer a world that bows to Authority (with a capital A), where morality and rules are imposed on individuals by an (often divine) external authority. On the other side are those who remain faithful to the idea that individuals should be guided by their own internal consciences and be rather suspicious of all kinds of authority.

As with most wars, most of us are somewhere in the middle. In his book Stephen Law convincingly argues that the values of liberalism rationality, questioning, the secular, philosophical and scientific traditions have nothing whatsoever to do with moral relativism (the idea that anything goes as long as it feels right to the individual). He argues this is an erroneous claim made by fundamentalists (the ultimate believers in Authority) to discredit liberals (small ‘l’, that is). The core value of liberalism is probably best expressed as the right of an individual to do what they like as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.

It is hardly surprising that the cultural warriors would see schools, and particularly public schools, as the perfect battleground for their campaign. Secular public schools are, after all, children of the enlightenment. Their entire pedagogy is predicated on provocative questioning, followed by rational thought, argument and putting together a logical case, often without the need to come up with a definitive answer. This pedagogy is challenging for young people and is certainly not a soft option. Adolescents, being a complicated mixture of rebels and authoritarians, often complain about the lack of clear right and wrong answers, particularly in subjects like English. Religion does tend to provide right and wrong answers that is why some teachers comment that a student’s commitment to a set of beliefs which defines life’s answers might disadvantage them in subjects and topics which are complex and decidedly grey.

Critics might argue that such an assertion is anti-religious or anti-Christian. However, as Law was also at pains to point out, the values associated with the enlightenment, including liberalism, are not, of themselves, anti-religious. The culture wars are being fought just as vigorously in our churches as they are in our schools. The worldwide Anglican community is tearing itself apart over the ordination of women and of gays. To those in the church who take an authoritarian view, it is impossible for such people to be ordained. For those who believe in the primacy of individual conscience and vocation, it is unthinkable that they should be excluded.

The Catholic Church is continually riven by similar battles. To the outsider it appears that it has completely lost control of its nuns, for example. Once giving the impression of being so meek, many now give the impression of being one of the most radical groups in the church. And the Jews have divided themselves into orthodox and liberal denominations.

All Australian teachers are trained by similar universities, in the same long-established liberal pedagogy, so most of them take the same approach to teaching and learning, regardless of the type of school in which they teach. Indeed, many, if not most church schools, will have precisely the same pedagogical approach to learning as do secular public schools. They will teach by asking students to question and challenge, not just the accepted view, but their own ideas and prejudices. One of the most recent skirmishes in the culture wars was triggered by an essay question set in an exclusive Anglican girls’ school, where students were asked about a Marxist interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s plays. Armed with a limited understanding of the curriculum and teaching, authoritarians immediately began to accuse the school, the curri ­culum and teachers in general of being propagandists for the ‘Left’.

Interestingly, this reveals one of the giant chasms of understanding between the two sides in this debate. For an authoritarian it is hard to understand that anyone would ask a question that they didn’t themselves believe in and to which th
ey already know the ‘right’ answer. They would believe that the teacher in question is, if not quite a Marxist, then at least a ‘Leftie’ of some description.

The reality is that the teacher, just as any teacher in any school, could be anything: an unreconstructed free-marketer who is a devout Christian, a Fabian Socialist, an apolitical libertarian or none of the above. On another level, however, the authoritarians do understand one clear signal sent by the teacher asking such a question: he/she is unequivocally a liberal.

This is an edited extract from The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education (UNSW Press).

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