Grumpy genius railed in vain against the rise of stupidity
The world lost one of its great grumps this week, Robert Hughes, dead at 74. Hughes was the best writer Australia has ever produced.
He wrote prolifically and broadly. He also wrote with guts and emotion. His epic recreation of our convict history, The Fatal Shore, stands as a truly horrifying account of the brutal origins of modern Australia. In his works on the city of Barcelona and his many books on art Hughes wrote with joy about all the possibilities of human creativity. In one of his best but lesser-known books, The Culture of Complaint, he wrote with scorn and disgust about one of the most pressing issues of the modern day.
Our tolerance for stupidity, our ambivalence towards the fact that the human species appears to be getting not smarter but dumber; most of all, our determination to permit laziness and avoid rigour, because the greatest sin you can commit in the modern age is to hurt anybody’s feelings.
This fiery essay was aimed specifically at popular culture and high school and university education in the United States, but its arguments apply across the western world. It was written in 1993 and, depressingly, rings truer with the passage of time. It includes one of the best sentences I have ever read:
“The self is now the sacred cow of American culture, self- esteem is sacrosanct, and so we labour to turn arts education into a system in which no one can fail. In the same spirit, tennis could be shorn of its elitist overtones: you just get rid of the net.”
Almost 20 years after Hughes wrote this line, in countries such as Australia you are more likely to become a household name if you have cooked the winning dish on MasterChef or sung the best song on The Voice than if you have written a great book or made a scientific discovery. One of the first acts of Campbell Newman’s premiership in Queensland was to axe the state’s literary awards, a deliberate button-pushing exercise aimed at reassuring rednecks that he wasn’t going to waste much-needed public dough on what hillbillies in the Carolinas call fancy book learnin’.
Our schools are strait-jacketed by the consensus that every kid has to be a winner, or at least treated as such, even if they are plagued by profound problems with their reading and writing. As a parent, the last thing you will find on a school report card is a blunt letter F for “fail”, a benchmark deemed too harsh in this age of squeamishness and euphemism, even if it means your son won’t be able to fill in the form properly at his job interview 10 years down the track. Instead we talk about performances set against the outcomes of the cohort and go to great pains to use incomprehensible language, lest anyone be presented with an upsettingly accurate picture of what is really going on.
One of the best examples of the lily-livered mindset so beautifully skewered by Robert Hughes comes from my home state of South Australia. On the day Hughes died I was listening to a debate on the radio about the South Australian Certificate of Education, one of the biggest white flags every raised by education bureaucrats in the fight for standards in schools.
South Australia is now the only state where in their final year students can do just four subjects, as well as a flimsy research project. Scandalously, English need not be one of the subjects undertaken in their final year. In this country where so many still struggle to meet required standards of literacy, we are sending kids into the world with the misleading reassurance that it’s not really that important anyway.
I have a couple of friends who are high school teachers in SA. They regard the SACE certificate as entirely vacuous and say that it makes them feel more like baby-sitters than educators. Indeed the store which the Education Department places on retention rates seems to confirm that schools are regarded more as a venue for child-minding rather than learning through discipline and repetition, regular homework, and robust but nurturing feedback.
It also reflects the defeatist policy response to sustained failure, which is to make it easier for people to pass a school curriculum or a university degree by simply lowering the standards.
If there is such a thing as required reading any more – and there isn’t – Hughes’ brilliant book should be placed on the desk of everyone who believes that tennis is best played without a net, and that feeling good about yourself is more important than knowing things.
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