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No. 59 : November 2012

Analytical Absurdity 
from Kafka and Havel in
The National Curriculum for the Arts

What is it about Czech writers that makes them finger the pointedly ridiculous in pompous collectivity and bureaucracy?


Having recently had the good fortune to be part of a reading of Vaclav Havel's play, MEMORANDUM, at the Czech Embassy in Canberra, I have a deep appreciation for the insights of these two great Czech writers who, more than anyone, seem to touch on the essence of collective insanity in bureaucratic and academic processes for defining what is "good" and "necessary". They point up so eloquently the following characteristics:

Personal self interest, pettiness, resentment at being bypassed, skill at manipulating social situations, a love of meetings and agendas, a penchant for reductionism and pedantry, a paranoid disposition seeing threats from everyone in their vicinity, a view that all can be controlled, a deeply ingrained self righteousness, a love of point-scoring over colleagues, one-upmanship, success via conceits rather than actually producing anything, a love for tearing down those above them, an ability to stifle those below them, a sense of self- importance, a belief that everything can be managed . . .

The two writers almost define the basis of post-modernism: that nexus of self-interest and blindness to all other considerations! The absurdity of morality ... the calous indifference to the reduction of humanity to a core of bickering jackals dressed up in respectable attire and rituals feeding off the remnants of their sliding privileged position!

Havel's play Memorandum creates a scenario where a new language, Ptydepe, is constructed by bureaucratic decree to prevent ambiguity in professional discourse . . . a kind of newspeak. Both Havel's Ptydepe and Orwell's Newspeak aimed at centralizing discourse so as to control the flow of information and thought processes. Both required centralized sanctioning.

Sound familiar?

The Howard/Gillard consensus on the need for a core curriculum dressed up as a National Curriculum might well be parodied in the same way . . . though we don't seem to have writers clever enough to make the gross absurdity stick. 

In the Arts, committees have been wrestling with how best to implement a National Curriculum. What should be included and how should it be time-tabled? Especially considering the continueous outbursts of initiation in education coming from The Prime Minister, it is absurd to think that framers of new policy will show any significant increase in arts education; and might well contribute to there being less. But "ptydepe" is certainly on the increase. The language of bureaucracy and managerialism is certainly on the increase. More boxes to be ticked! More satisfied ex-teachers can feel they are doing a good job by ever increasing the "alignment" between some trivial semantic point and some introduced phenomena used to assess and approach planning.

The reduction of everything to commodified and measurable segments makes the idea of arts and humanities somewhat difficult. Unfortunately, if education is seen as a simple means for increasing economic prosperity, then we have a major crises in our thinking. In this we are not alone.

"Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Eager for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive."  (Martha Nussbaum accessed 04/11/12)

    The Enlightenment's optimism for a world progressing towards emancipation from tribalism, superstition, organized religion and offering up the triumpth of a scientific mindset that demanded reasonable explanations for authority and order has clearly given way to an overwhelming disappointment; a sense that if our most cherished beliefs could still throw up the genocide of WW2, then such aspirations were clearly absurd and wrong. The left-over spasms of Modernism's carcas that resulted in the "peace" generation of the 60s and 70s ("Give Peace A Chance" and "Imagine no possessions" . . . etc!) were to be replaced quickly with "self interest" in the 1980s. Academics and the populace ultimately knew that humanity was rotting with the basest of urges maggoting away idealism and cultural progress. The best we could hope for is some kind of even playing field where everything could be reduced to some lowest common denominator. There is even a growing assumption that with skills will come prosperity. The disadvantaged child need not bother with cultural, arts or humanities studies because these are not the main game. Drill them in the 3 R's of reading riting and rithmetic (note the irony of the spelling that gives rise to 3 Rs) and they will be on this neutral-judgement playing field where survival will be available for the fittest! Offer teachers more money to con the kids into learning with techniques and approaches that will "engage" them and all will be well. Australia will return to top 5 educational results in the world.

    The reductionist commodification of all facets of life has been post-modernism's greatest and foulest achievement. It has actually made a positive trait out of statistical analysis replacing wisdom and balanced consideration based on experience. The tick box becomes more real than the actual event it describes. The ticked boxes themselves can become weighted to give statistical meaning to reality. Teachers are more and more required to fulfill accountable tick boxes through which they can be assessed. Yet virtually NONE of these boxes actually can be verified by the actual life experience of students.

    Like computers and machines, it is assumed that people will respond to the right programming or what used to be called, "social engineering".

    But accepting that Arts and Humanities can only be of fringe interest to the main game of numeracy and "literacy", as stated by Gillard, then we also accept that we only have a peripheral role in the shaping of the very culture and social structures that gave rise the way of life we have. There are lots of places in the world that do not have boatloads of desparate people trying to gain access.

    The deeply held post modernist view is that we do not challenge or judge such other societies but rather, we smugly proclaim egalitarianism and multi-culturalism; seeming to suggest that the others really aren't up to it so why discuss it; better to just accept everyone! Our education is seen in the same light. "There's no point in being creative if we aren't literate or numerate!" It is as if numeracy and literacy were isolated aspects of human endeavour; not connected with one's personal sense of purpose and being!

    It is this connection that Arts provides. In an academic arena, it is the Humanities. To see dismantling of arts courses in universities and schools throughout the west is an indication that Post Modernism is reeking its potentially destructive urges in order to create the nihilism it ultimately craves and to hand order back to despotic ideologies and tyrants.

     

    Joe Woodward

 


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