In what sort of a society is it even thinkable that school students could be seen, on mass, marching through the streets protesting that governments are not doing enough to … change the climate? That the education system of which they were a part could sanction this? That many of society’s “leaders” could egg them on? And that they would be rewarded with headlines, only to be denied front page billing as a result of the murderous carnage in New Zealand? This bizarre scenario has played out across the country these past days.
A number of issues have been canvassed in response to the kiddies’ climate marches: the role of adult-led activist organisations in encouraging and organising the marches, the apparent acquiescence of schools and principals, the debauching of school curricula, the role of teachers in peddling ideology while pretending it is science, and the sheer nonsense that is climate alarmism. These are all valid topics and, in their own ways, alarming markers of educational decline.
Two deeper questions also beg attention. First, is Generation Z really so dumb that they believe this stuff? Not only believe it, but can be cajoled into the streets to bleat and shout it to the world. Second, don’t young people question things anymore? Back in the day, students used to question authority, to doubt things they were fed, on the basis of their natural scepticism of the ruling class and the ruling ideas of the age. Whether they sign up to be useful idiots in this age and for this issue — because of their lack of knowledge of the facts of climate science, or because they now simply believe whatever they are told — either way we are in deep trouble. One day, in the not too distant future, “the most educated (sic) generation in history” will be our society’s leaders. This generation of students doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, nor does it have the critical tools with which to judge when things might not be what they seem. Put bluntly, they seem no longer to have in-built intellectual BS detectors. Yes, we can blame the activist teachers and the curriculum debauchers in the cossetted echo chambers of our “education” departments. But even if our youngsters are fed rubbish, shouldn’t they be able to tell? And in being able to tell, grow up with the skills and knowledge needed to lead functioning adult lives of discernment and judgement.
This is, of course the Wikipedia generation, the tecchie generation, the boys and girls with the toys. The irony is that the one abiding virtue of former generations of learners, “excellence”, has gone missing just at the time when we most require it of our young people. Achieving excellence, even pursuing it, and knowing why it is valuable in study and in life generally, is of great importance in the times in which we live, and its absence is of chilling consequence.
It is reassuring that there are still schools and school principals that not only strive for excellence, and seek to achieve excellence by having high expectations, but that also go out of their way to make a big thing about excellence. The latter has been under considerable pressure in our society for some time.
Of course, the debates about excellence are part of an ongoing public conversation that covers things like standards, values, “dumbing down”, private versus public schools, the growing cost of education, the proper place of private tuition, to name but a few. Sadly – and this is seen endlessly in election campaigns especially – is that arguments over standards inevitably get reduced to debates over funding. This is the dreadful and harmful assumption, driving the whole Gonski paradigm, that more education funding equals better outcomes. Indeed, the sad, dreary use of words like “outcomes” says much about the declining use of the very term “excellence”. And don’t get me started on “twenty-first century skills” that vapid, cover-all educational mantra of our day.
Where has the excellence gone, even, in these days of climate marches, the Age of Fake Everything? Excellence for students should mean, of course, doing the best job they can, being their best selves, aiming high, having goals and trying rigorously to meet them. It means taking things seriously. It means that near enough is not good enough. Excellence also means valuing doing things well. Excellence is much an attitude as an outcome. It is important for students to understand why excellence matters, so that it does not simply become a cliché. There is an important connection between pursuing excellence in learning and knowledge, discernment, judgement, truth, tradition, culture, seriousness and wisdom. Excellence matters because these things matter. And these things appear not to matter to many people these days in what has become, in many ways, an “anything goes”, me-centred culture where excellence is, frankly, out of fashion.
Valuing excellence in learning will also serve our future leaders well. The next generation of leaders – in politics, in business and industry, in the arts, and in education itself – will have to be highly and rightly motivated, and well educated. The communication skills and judgement required will be immense, the sense of purpose will need to be clear.
It might come as a surprise that “excellence” is not always valued highly. For many, excellence has been parked on a side road or buried under a whole range of other values that actually might threaten excellence and its pursuit. Broadly, there are three threats to pursuing and achieving excellence with which students and young adults will have to contend.
The first relates to the distractions that they face and create, which are many, and the way they gobble up time. Their world is crowded. There is the determination of a generation of parents to whisk school-age children from school to sporting events, to art lessons, to jazz ballet, and so on. There are events and commitments now that were unknown a generation or two ago. Activities are endless. Children’s diaries are filled up to within an inch of their lives, with activities that distract from learning.
Then there are the webs of networks that the young have developed, and the instant tools of communication they have to keep then in touch. And they simply love communicating. Incessantly. It is hard to believe the world has only had mobile phones for twenty years or so in its four-billion year history. Yet despite all those time-consuming distractions expectations are high and increasing, and there are enormous pressures on today’s students, especially pressures to do well at school. It is a very competitive world now.
The second threat to achieving excellence relates to how changing government policies and the prevailing fashions in thinking about education can affect its quality and redefine its very purposes. Governments spend billions on education. They say, rightly, that it is important. But they seem to believe, wrongly, that more education, and education for more people, means better education. We now have a mass education system. In the early 1980s, around 30 per cent of students in secondary school finished Year 12. Only 30 per cent. Now, as a result of government policy, over 80 per cent complete Year 12. Similarly, far greater numbers of students go to university now than thirty years ago. And governments want even more people to go to university. In effect, higher education is officially endorsed for almost everyone. This cannot help but change fundamentally what happens in the classroom, both at school and university. Everything students learn and even how they learn it must now be “relevant”. We simply can’t have students being bored. This has meant, among other things, that education has become far more “outcomes” focused and vocationally oriented. As a result, the knowledge of graduates (particularly at university) has narrowed as more students specialise in fewer things. Education is now linked very firmly in the minds of the young to getting a well paid job. This is, sadly, how universities themselves now recruit students, the temptation to dumb down learning to meet the need for relevance has been very difficult to resist.
What of the trends and fashions in thinking about education? There are a number. The greatest fashion is, of course, post-modernism. It has infected society and students all suffer from it. Put simply, the postmodernists in the education system argue that Shakespeare is no better than Ginger Meggs, that “Andrew Marvell is no better than Mickey Mouse”. One might also add that they believe Bach is no better than Lady Gaga. For these people, there is no objective truth or beauty and no one writer or thinker is necessarily better than any other. Especially if he is a dead, white male.
As Barry Spurr, Quadrant‘s new poetry editor, has argued, post-modernism reduces much of our Western intellectual tradition to ideology. Education is no longer about the pursuit of the good, the true, the beautiful, about absorbing and being amazed by the best that that is known or thought in the world (to quote the nineteenth century English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold), about us becoming better men and women improved spiritually, morally and socially by education. Education is now seen by many as a means of group emancipation rather than of individual fulfilment, linked to the currently preferred goals of “social inclusion” and “diversity”.
Under the weight of current, trendy, politically correct thinking in education, striving for excellence is itself widely disparaged. It is often derided as “elitism”, one of the great sins of the age. Christopher Koch argued (in Naomi Smith’s book Education and the Ideal) that there is actually a hatred of excellence at work in the abandonment of study of the “great writers and thinkers”. They are great because they continue to tell us important things about ourselves and our world — and because they write really, really well. Changes to the curriculum resulting from post-modernist thinking, especially the abandonment of studying “the great books”, cause quite a deal of resentment among those students with an unquenched thirst for the good, the true and the beautiful, and a feeling that they may have missed out on something really important.
There are other fashions, too, that have had consequences for what the young are taught. One (related) fashion is that “all must have prizes”, that we can’t call failure by its name lest this cause offence. Melanie Phillips, writing about the British education system in 2003, put it this way:
Surely, in the immortal words of John McEnroe, they cannot be serious? Alas, the latest pronouncement from those in charge of our exam system is truly beyond satire.
Their new idea for boosting examination success is to abolish the very idea of failure, along with the difference between the right and the wrong answer to a question.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has told those marking the school curriculum tests that ‘F’ for ‘Fail’ is to be replaced by ‘N’ for ‘Nearly’, and that maths questions are to be marked ‘creditworthy’ or ‘not creditworthy’ instead of correct or incorrect. A QCA spokesman said – apparently with a straight face — that if pupils don’t pass these tests it doesn’t mean they have failed, because they will have ‘nearly reached the target’.
This may seem ridiculous beyond parody. Tragically, however, it is merely the logical outcome of an education system which is steadily destroying the concept of achievement itself.
Another fashion is the move towards, even obsession with, measurement and outcomes a mighty distraction from actual learning. Then there is the smothering of education in technology. The tools are plentiful, readily to hand, and in some ways empowering and seductive. But do they enhance learning? Or do they distract from learning? Do Wikipedia and Google develop research skills or simply outsource them?
Yet a further peril is the turning of students into customers. Yes, now they are customers. Their parents pay considerable amounts via tax or fees for them to be at school. But they are students first, and they always will be. They are not “customers”, despite the shift towards the commercialistion and corporatisation of learning.
Finally, there has also been a move away from content and facts in teaching and learning, driven by a questioning that there is a particular body of knowledge to be acquired in a general education.
All in all, these late twentieth century ruling fashions in education and government policies do not help the pursuit of excellence, to say the least. They park it, they undermine it, they trivialise it, they ultimately render it unachievable.
The third threat to achieving excellence in education relates to the broader culture in which we live, for it values style over substance, celebrity over achievement. Excellence in learning is simply not valued as it once was. And this is ironic in view of the huge public and private investment in education and the fact that so many more students now complete school and go on to university. Schools that strive for excellence are kicking into a pretty strong breeze in terms of the broader culture and recent trends.
Shelly Gare, in her book Triumph of the Airheads, also talks about the shunning of standards and excellence, even though she doesn’t use the term. For Gare, “airheadism” means pride in ignorance, consumerism, shopping, self-gratification, reading glossy magazines and self-help books, jargon and management-speak, thinking that no one exists but me, being driven by how the next five minutes pan out, Big Brother, Paris Hilton, and so on. (Gare’s book was published in 2006. What she might make of My Kitchen Rules and Married at First Sight is anybody’s guess). We all have our airhead moments, of course. But for Gare those instants have become a way of life which symbolises our culture. Students screaming in the streets for governments to spend trillions of dollars in an attempt to reduce global air temperatures by a sliver of a fraction of one degree surely must qualify as one of the great airhead moments of all time.
Speaking of airheads, an anecdote from the former American show Late Show with Jay Leno, was reported in Mark Bauerlein’s provocative book The Dumbest Generation. (Bauerlein, a professor of English, is now an editor at First Things, America’s foremost journal of religion, politics and culture). Under the segment title of “Jaywalking”, Leno would go onto the streets to ask passersby questions to test their factual knowledge.
“Do you remember the last book you read?” Leno queries a young man. “Do magazines count?” he wonders. Moments later, a long-haired guy replies, “Maybe a comic book.” Here’s another exchange to give you pause:
“Where does the Pope live?”
“Where in England?” (Leno tries to keep a straight face).
And there was this:
“Who made the first light bulb?” A college student ponders before replying, “Thomas Edison.” Leno congratulates his interview subject — until the student adds, “Yeah, with the kite.” Leno corrects him, “That’s Ben Franklin.”
Of another subject, Leno inquires, “Do you ever read any of the classics?” The guest draws a blank. “Anything by Charles Dickens?” Another blank. “A Christmas Carol?”
“I saw the movie,” she blurts, adding that she likes “the one with Scrooge McDuck better.”
It isn’t enough to say that these young people are uninterested in world realities. They are actively cut off from them. Or a better way to put it is to say that they are encased in more immediate realities that shut out conditions beyond – friends, work, clothes, cars, pop music, sitcoms, Facebook. Each day, the information they receive and the interactions they have must be so local or superficial that the facts of government, foreign and domestic affairs, the historical past, and the fine arts never slip through. How do they do it? It sounds hard, especially in an age of so much information, so many screens and streams in private and public places, and we might assume that the guests on “Jaywalking” represent but a tiny portion of the rising generation.
The cultural threat is not just about celebrity and “it’s cool to be a fool”, in the words of Don Watson. The very idea that there is no ultimate “truth”, just opinions and ideologies, is highly subversive of attempts at excellence, whether in the education system or indeed anywhere else. How many of our young would ever have come across that marvellous little book by Roger Scruton called Culture Counts?
What does all this mean for the current generation of school students? For the pursuit of excellence? For a system that, the most notable example of late, seems to have reduced students to useful idiots in the adult games of ideological climate politics?
These trends in thinking and in our culture cannot but have changed the way our young are now educated in fundamental ways. They all make the pursuit of excellence at the same time more difficult and more important, in the fetid educational swamp that we have delivered our young. This is what has made climate strikes by automaton students possible, perhaps inevitable.
First, it is more than past time for us to value excellence as well as to pursue it. We should remember that excellence in learning means knowledge, not just information. It means wisdom and discernment. It means truth and beauty. It means being the best we can, and indeed it means knowing what the best means. It means accepting that there is “a best”.
Second, what are the ways that you can pursue excellence? Some years ago, I gave this advice to a group of school students attending a great private college in country Victoria.
Apart from paying attention in class, doing the homework, and being good to your mother, I would suggest the following:
Construct your own mini classical liberal education, the one you no longer get because of what has been done to the school curriculum.
Doing very well in exams is really important, in fact much more so now that nearly everybody finishes Year 12 and many more people now go to university. Employers and universities providing scholarships for higher degrees now look even more carefully at how well you have done in your degree. But … passing exams and completing studies does not mean you are educated.
Read widely and wisely. Read books. Read lots of books. Read for enjoyment. Seek out the best writers. Lose yourself in the best that has been written and thought. Include George Orwell, for example. Start with his essays. Don’t limit yourself to what you find easy to read.
Hunt down and read good magazines that treat serious issues like the Australian Spectator or Quadrant (yes I actually said that to the students!). Buy Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, or ask for it as your next birthday present.
Appreciate beauty, and know that it exists.
Appreciate and respect tradition. Tradition, as the great English political thinker Edmund Burke once said, is the democracy of the dead. Because something is “so yesterday” doesn’t mean we just get rid of it. That a lot of people believe in something for a long time need not make it right. But equally, it is not necessarily wrong. Worshipping the god of “relevance” means that we miss so much that is of great value to each new generation.
Try and study philosophy if you go to university, especially logic.
Don’t rely on Wikipedia.
Be well informed about current issues. We really do live in a poorly informed world, and there is often more to things than meets the eye. I overheard a couple of people last year discussing the wonders of Barack Obama’s oratory. One said to the other that wasn’t he marvelous because he could speak for 45 minutes without a note. They simply didn’t know that Obama reads most of his speeches from two TelePrompters. How did I know? Quite simple. I read stuff, and I had the good fortune to have been taught inquisitiveness and discernment at a youngish age.
Let me give you another example. Students at a recent workshop, when presented with a list of sources for further study of the national economy, asked, not unreasonably, about how we know whether what we read on a subject is accurate and reliable?
A very good question, and one asked by young people with a tertiary education. But it is also a very sad question in some ways. To have attended university AND not to know how to discern fact from fiction or opinion, or to discern good arguments from poor ones, or where to go for good information, means that someone has not done his job along the way.
The thing is that this is now the norm rather than the exception. It proves, I think, that more education is not better education; that having masses of information at our disposal is not much use if we do not have the critical skills and instinct for learning that leads to real knowledge.
Read international newspapers. Marvel that now we can read the Times of London on the internet just as readily as we can read The Age.
But do not accept what journalists write in the papers as gospel. Have a sceptical approach to what you read. Journalists now think they are educated, AND they freely give their opinions in support of causes and ideologies often rather than simply reporting facts or giving proper weight to every side of a story. This is a dangerous combination. Know the difference between reporting and opinion. These have become blurred. Don’t rely on the mainstream media.
Don’t give up the internet just because books are good, but be focused when you are on the internet. Surf the internet with purpose and discernment.
Read good blogs regularly but not slavishly. Yes they are opinion, and on the net every semi-informed idiot gets a platform. But … they are often sources of alternate views that you simply do not get on the six o’clock news. And the online world is increasingly a source of democracy. It can change things. How many of you know about the way the Climategate scandal was exposed online and the impact this will have on the global warming debate?
Listen to and appreciate views other than your own, respectfully. We don’t have a monopoly on the truth and wisdom, and there is immense value for our culture in civilised debates. Always be up for an argument, but as the great English writer G.K. Chesterton insisted, an argument doesn’t have to become a quarrel.
Specialise and become an expert in something by all means, but don’t think you are “educated” just because you have done this. Know enough about a range of subjects to converse. Remember that information is not the same as knowledge, let alone wisdom.
And keep reading. Never stop.
Re-reading my advice to these young men of country Victoria, a landscape now sadly dotted with useless, costly and harmful wind farms, one can only reflect, in these days of students’ climate marches, that not many would have heard anything much like the sane advice I then sought to impart. Yes, the adult activists are at work. Yes, the curriculum is nought but ideological madness. Yes, the teachers are mostly, it seems, ideologues themselves bent on intellectual destruction in the name of the Gaia, in which they believe.
But none of this would even work if we but had a generation of students able to discern what ideology even is when they see. To have the intuition to question, on the basis that in today’s world what we see, hear and read no longer is what it seems. To have the learned capacity to think clearly and critically, not in clichés and not simply absorbing, as is by ideological osmosis, what they are “taught”. To pick up a book that might question their echo-chamber world.
Those same ideologues who stand in front of classrooms and the bureaucrats who write what students will be taught, have effectively and with deadly intent prevented a generation of students from developing the capacity even to ask good questions. This is the unavoidable conclusion from the sad events of the last few days, on the streets of our cities and towns. It would make Orwell shake his head in disbelief.