The Rapid Data Rapidman 1208LC to the rescue

AUSTRALIAN schools are supposedly under attack from a swarm of sinister postmodernites armed with educational photos of Elle Macpherson’s underwear.

These Foucault-snorting punks have no respect for traditional Rs such as reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and ‘rictly ‘ronological history. They won’t rest until Shakespeare is removed from high schools and replaced with a couple of spam mails.

”Nyeh heh heh,” they cackle as they gather in nihilistic groups to watch Buffy DVDs and pleasure themselves over the latest inexcrutable acallectual neologism.

“Let’s trash the education system by insisting there’s no difference between the Western canon and Elle’s arse. Praise the lordlessness and pass the relativism.”

Like extreme subscribers to any theory – be it peak oil, Christianity or imminent alien invasionism – postmodernist hardliners really aren’t the sort of people you’d want looking after your young ‘uns.

But regardless of your opinion of this much-maligned (and, to be honest, much misunderstood) arena of intellectual endeavour, the ongoing debate about school curriculums is too important to automatically condemn all changes to the status quo as evidence of an evil postmodernist agenda.

Take the present hoo-ha over a Sydney girls school’s decision to allow students to ring friends and use the internet during exams, for example.

”In terms of preparing them for the world, we need to redefine our attitudes towards traditional ideas of cheating,” a spokes-teacher told the media.

”In their working lives they will never need to carry enormous amounts of information around in their heads. What they will need to do is access information from all their sources quickly and check the reliability of their information.”

Filter out the hysterical cries of “postmodernist!” and the response to these developments is similar to the outrage that erupted back in the late 1970s when schools finally decided to – oooh er – allow pocket calculators during maths tests.

Good Lord. You would have thought the earth was about to shudder to a halt because future workers wouldn’t know how to perform long division without the assistance of a Busicom LE-120A HANDY-LE or Rapid Data Rapidman 1208LC.

Yet somehow the world – and the educational integrity of its maths students – survived.

Now, as then, the big problem when deciding what constitutes an all-round education is that work has become so ridiculously specialised.

Last weekend, for instance, there were job postings for a research fellow in experimental particle physics, a consultant psychogeriatrician and an Adelaide-based Santa Claus.

No school curriculum can cover the basics of all these jobs (much as I would have enjoyed signing up for three-unit beardiness or fat suits 101). So how on earth do we decide what to leave in and what to chuck out?

Old-fashioned English is obviously a must because the rise and rise of text-based technology means the ability to create and comprehend squiggly lines is more important than ever (as is the ability to know when it’s OK2ritentxtspk and when it’s best to use sentences that contain the bare minimum of verbs). Maths and history are also kind of crucial because, you know, there’s more than one of most things and stuff happened before today.

But, aside from these basics, we need to stop bickering about which subjects are proper and which are pestiferous, and start focusing on the disciplines and teaching methods that cultivate generic mental agility: the sort of cerebral athleticism that aids all post-school pursuits.

Maybe long division should be resurrected, not because we may need it in a real world emergency but because it’s a good way to brain train.

Maybe computers do belong in some exams, not because rote learning should be put out of its misery but because most professionals use external references as well as their internal hard drives.

And maybe, just maybe, Elle’s undie ads are worthy of study not because they’re on par with great literature but because inquiring minds examine the meaning and context of everything.

The point is that fiery debate over education is not proof that something’s gone terribly wrong or that schools have been hijacked by beret-wearing Derridans.

It’s simply evidence that times change and sparks will always fly in the admirable – and endless – effort to keep education relevant to the epoch.

– originally published in The Australian on 28-08-2008.

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