Yesterday, the media reported that Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, criticised the education system for "dumbing down" the teaching of English to children. As The Age article points out, his statements follow his condemnation of how History is taught in schools, made earlier this year. On both occasions he has drawn on similar language claiming education has succumbed to "political correctness", "so-called post-modernism" while shunning "the Classics" and " the importance of dates".
There was a strong, united and articulate response from most educators dismissing Howard's claims as "out of touch" and "simplistic". His comments came across as so ignorant and uninformed they blew in and out of the daily press without gaining much traction.
Howard is lashing out at what he believes to be an easy target - the imagined leftist educators that are out to teach critical thinking. He throws around terms like "political correctness" and "post-modernism" with no understanding of the complexity or history of their meaning but simply as a trigger for conservatives and uninformed members of the public.
It is a tired and see-through tactic that he uses whenever he wants to distract attention away from criticism of the actions of his own government and towards some invented social problem.
Despite knowing this, it is hard to know exactly how to react to these inane statements. Yes, they are tactics of distraction and getting heated up about it means accepting the bait. On the other hand, simply dismissing his statements and moving on seems to somehow give validity to the increasing tendency, not just tendency but official strategy, to identify and frame certain sectors of society as "enemies of the state". It is a finger-pointing exercise and I fear that every instance adds to the environment of fear and hatred that this government relies on to remain in power and to invoke its conservative agenda. I do fear. I fear the consequences.
In the same Age article, John Frow, the head of Melbourne University's English Department, makes the point that Howard is waging a cultural war against a phantom enemy; "This is polemics. This is part of some phantom war he (Mr Howard) is waging against an imaginary enemy". But while his enemies are imaginary, it is this exact lack of definition and clarity that enables and facilitates persecution of others. The others may be vague and shadowy forms that hover under the signs of "political correctness" and "post-modernism" today but become very real figures when the hatred hardens from symbolic to physical actions directed at human lives.