Postmadness? Education gets deconstructed (OZ) : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

Story Link

<>Postmadness? Education gets deconstructed
Wednesday 26 April 2000

ARE universities, and in particular arts faculties, the best place to invest? Should all students, even those doing information technology, be asked to undertake humanities courses in subjects such as history and literature? According to Dr Janet McCalman, ("The Best Place to Invest", on this page last Wednesday), the answer is yes.

In fact, McCalman argues that if students want "quality intellectual content" they must turn to the type of "rich general education" represented by institutions and arts faculties such as hers, at Melbourne University. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As anyone familiar with the "culture wars" will know, universities have long since stopped even pretending that education should be about what Matthew Arnold termed the "best that has been thought and said".

Whereas the Academy was once based on the assumption that to be educated required being initiated into what Michael Oakshott calls the "conversations of mankind", students are now considered educated if they simply mimic what is ideologically correct or politically sound.

Take Melbourne University's Faculty of Arts. With undergraduate courses such as Reading Sexuality, From Rock to Rave, Feminist Cultural Studies, Postcolonial Writing and Contemporary Culture and Everyday Life, it is obvious that intellectual content has gone out the window.

Great literature was once valued for its aesthetic and moral value. The impact of neo-Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism and theories of transgression (in particular queer theory) now means that traditional approaches, in the jargon of the deconstructed, are considered Eurocentric, homophobic, patriarchal and middle class.

The result? Students at Melbourne University spend their time "reading diverse cultural forms (the family home, the amusement park) and practices (shopping, fandom)" and learning how "pop-feminist and post-feminist discourses conceptualised the relation between gender, sexuality and embodiment".

Not only has the literary canon been exploded to include "the fashion industry, daytime television, cyberfeminism, plastic surgery", but concepts such as truth and beauty are replaced by "concepts such as authenticity, identity, historical revisionism, mimicry and hybridity".

That future English teachers might not have studied the classics is made even more likely by the fact that there "are no core or compulsory units of study" in the English Department. Conceivably, a student can graduate without ever reading Patrick White or Shakespeare.

Studying literature is not the only casualty of the "culture wars". Melbourne University's history department also has its fair share of the weird and wacky. "The Body: History, Sex and Gender" unit proclaims that students will gain "an understanding of the different readings of the body of the construction of the slender body, the gay and lesbian body, and the gendered body of the late 20th century".

Many might be forgiven for thinking that history is about the past. Not so at Melbourne University - there students can enrol in a unit entitled "Towards the 21st Century" and learn about "a past still being created". Or, if the future is not their thing, there is a unit called "Gender, Globalisation and Development" with topics such as "tourism and sexual politics".

Of course, the argument might be that the above courses are an aberration and that most Australian universities are still committed to academic excellence and intellectual rigor. This is not the case.

From Hobart to Canberra, from Queensland to Melbourne, the advocates of the postmodern and the "new left" have completed their long march through the institutions and the battle has ended, not with a bang but a whimper.

The irony, for those familiar with what is happening in schools both in Australia and overseas, is that at the very time academics and universities are touting the postmodern, schools are being asked to develop curriculums based on sound academic content based on the disciplines.

Both the American Federation of Teachers and states such as California argue that school curriculum must, in the words of the AFT, "be based on the academic disciplines" and "clearly define the knowledge, understanding and skills unique to each core discipline".

In England, the Chief Inspector of Schools recently gave a speech entitled "The Continuing Importance of a Liberal Education" where he argued for learning that was "of central intellectual and cultural importance". Such learning did not include studying Princess Di or the lyrics of pop songs.

As stated by Pierre Ryckmans in the 1996 Boyer Lectures: "A true university is (and has always been) anchored in values. Deprived of this holding ground, it can only drift at the caprice of all the winds and currents of fashion, and, in the end, is doomed to founder in the shallows of farce and incoherence."

Worse still, not only are universities made to suffer, but schools and generations of students miss out because future teachers are leaving universities culturally impoverished.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Melbourne-based education consultant.


"Drifting at the caprice of all the winds and currents of fashion, and, in the end, doomed to founder in the shallows of farce and incoherence, our future teachers are leaving universities culturally impoverished".

Yup. That's what my ancient grammar lecturer opines when soaking up the warmth on a garden bench and smoking a pipe with that other old reprobate - my old man, the disciplinarian and terror of skedaddlers.

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (, April 26, 2000


I'm so out of it---what is "queer theory?" Is it what I think it is? Or maybe it's a typo and should read "queue theory". Or maybe it's about the dynamics of crowds at a gay bar; in which case it should read "queer queue theory". I'm so confused.

-- Lars (, April 26, 2000.

Thanx for the interesting post. Im sure it will provoke some thought and discussions at the old work front today.. It is interesting to see that the discourse on the Universities is so universal.

I, for what it is worth, agree that there is too much on the "pop" edge of almost every major theme of study today. But how much of this is because the limits have been pushed back by all that excellent Doctorial level research in almost every field and how much is based on the need for Universities to get money and attract students? If it is true that in todays world we really do need at the general level to deal with some really really miniscule issue such as the nuancing of rock skipping or Chaos Theory as it applies to {pick whatever topic you wish} then perhaps the University structure is simply poorly guided. I think though, that there is probably a whole lot of "core" courses that are merely the pets of the most powerful profs in that department. A form of Job Security if you will.

Just a thought - Im probably wrong..


-- ditto (, April 27, 2000.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ