Lyndon Hood - (Cult)ural Theorist, Lower Hutt

Monday, April 24, 2006

Lyndon Hood - (Cult)ural Theorist, Lower Hutt

In a burst ANZAC spirt (well, it was more a riot RAMSI spirit) I happened to look at the Aussie media, and discovered it's funny what presses my buttons.

John Howard is standing up to prevent the dumbing-down of English classes.

This from the man whose Education Minister sounded happy for 'intelligent' design to be taught as science. I demand equal time for the standard response!

The transcripts of the Howard thing also includes some sterling support of Keith Windschuttle, who teaches us that the Aboriginies all died without help from the settlers. Standing up for History too, I see.

But of all the things I could be railing against, for some reason it's the complaint that there is postmodernism in Australian schools.

Now I have my problems with postmodernism. For starters, the associated intellectual relativism thing does not suit every occasion - witness the teching of 'intelligent' design. Also, high pomo writing is indistinguishable from nonsense (though it's not the first time in philosophy or literary theory that that's happened).

But, as far as 'the problem with the world today' goes, I think postmodernism is more of a diagnosis than a cause.

There are also things I like. For one thing, it's a useful tool for attacking modernism with - that's modernism as in all the false certainties that prevailed from about the Renaissanse and burst circa WWI. I haven't gone to deep with this, but I suspect that some of the Islamic thinking that alarms people could be described as modern. Certainly, if Australia thinks that, no matter what the question, there is only one right answer (which by coincidence tends to be "what I think"), it has another thing coming.

For another thing, when it come to the subjective old Arts, it's actually very useful. For things like explaining why Tom Stoppard is so good, for starters.

Now, I had imagined any threat of postmodernist insurrection had petered out by the mid 90s. But Australia remains ready. Also against political correctness.

So what's the fuss about? Well, partly, about Western Australia's move to 'outcomes based' education, which apparently rates student with respect to each other. Terrifying. But what set me going was when The Australian cited this bit of evidence:
The criticism of teaching standards followed revelations in The Weekend Australian that a prestigious Sydney school, SCEGGS Darlinghurst, had asked students to interpret Othello from Marxist, feminist and racial perspectives.

Of course, they also mentioned this:
Western Australia's introduction of a Year 12 English exam that fails to penalise students for poor spelling or grammar and asks students to compare two film posters but not read a book has also been blasted by Canberra.
But I missed that on account of I'd already got mad. I'm writing my blog about the first quote. I suppose I'm really complaining about The Australian, but I'll bitch abut Howard anyway.

So they call the Othello thing 'dumbing down'?

I would personally have been against teaching high school kids postmodernism too. I'd have said it's too hard. The author of the winning high school review from the Arts Festival, for example (can't find it online), seemed to find the idea of getting to decide what a performance was all about for yourself inherently bad.*

That question is actually more difficult that a standard one. You don't just have to know the text, and use it to support your assertions. You also have to look at it in some kind of cultural context. Of course you apply cultural context anyway - probably that kind of reactionary one people seem to think great literature requires. Doing it the default way requires less thought and while it's inhernetly acceptable to people's prejudices sometimes that's not good enough.

Perhaps Howard thinks teaching applied marxist theory is outside a high school's brief. Fine. He might be concerned that if they start propogating postmodern ideas, Australia may one day be forced to take Aboriginal culture seriously. That, if not okay, at least is based on assessments I can understand.

But dumbing down? It may be (though it doesn't strike me that way) that then person who set the exam is thrying to put Shakepeare on the level of any other cultural artefact. While I far prefer to think of Othello as a text for performance than as ephemera, I do think that a) cultural artefacts are, per se worthy of study, and b) for all that people should read books for English lessons, the analysis and study involved in analysing pop culture well are much like those involved in the study of literature. The issue of quanity may need addressing in WA, though. And I suppose there is a difference between teaching postmodernism and - eek - applying postmodern theory in teaching.

But the the Othello thing: Dumbing down? Could John Howard answer that exam question? Well, maybe he could.

Anyway, applied to theatre - not least to Shakespeare - the idea of a text having some kind of fixed meaning looks particularly bizarre. Not only has every single performance of eeach different production been filtered through a whole squad of people - actors, directors, producers, designers and tech operators, all competent or inept by turns - but after all that the meaning is ultimately something that is sparked in the mind of the audience by what they experience (as is the case with all art, high and low).

I was once involved in a production of the Merchant of Venice whose director's vision was "as Shakespeare intended". When you get down to it, this is an excuse not to do any of your own thinking. If one actually sits down and tries to work out what Shakespeare might have been thinking**, working from those marvellous, dense, theatrical*** texts, you will end up with something that is uniquely you own and you still won't have a full set of instructions for a full production.

Then you might try thinking about all those words as if you had come up with them. Powerful magic. I tend to think of Shakespeare's play as magic crystals make significant patterns no matter what way you shine the light through them.

As it happened, that production of The Merchant wasn't at all 16th century, but then neither was the audience. The show was just mostly fairly obvious, which is not a recipie for earth-shattering theatre. And if the question of whether it's all right to be antisemitic like the heroes of the play - or of whether the The Merchant can become something it's actually ethical to perform - was faced at all, it was by the actors rather than the director.

So leaving the naming of ()modernisms aside, students must be taught to look at Shakespeare in modern contexts. Because, what was your other option?

* The review is of DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation. You may be diverted by my review (which was not in competition) and here's an interview. The whole collage nature of remixing makes it inherently postmodern; Spooky is more aware of that than most. (back)

** We'll leave aside the way the putative author's intention was probably 'a full house at a penny each on the floor and tuppence for the gallery'. (back)

*** I had an English lecturer once called King Lear a poem. It's a play. (back)

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