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Director's cut — April 2006

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April 1, 2006 by Tara Brabazon

Greetings to members and lurkers.

That old chestnut — of a week being a long time in politics — does not grasp the half of it. Between April 20 and April 22, John Howard commenced an attack on education and educational standards. As Prime Minister, that is his right. But the fodder for his critique involved an attack on popular culture, and members should ponder how our project — the goal of a socially just, quality, dynamic and diverse pop — is undermined by his comments.

On Thursday April 20, John Howard stated on radio that "I mean we all understand it's necessary to be able to be literate and coherent … and we also understand there's high-quality literature and there's rubbish, and we need a curriculum that encourages an understanding of the high quality literature and not the rubbish."

Once the Prime Minister of a country starts using words like 'gobbledegook' and 'rubbish' to describe an English curriculum that includes popular culture, then the complexity of our project in the PCC is not only undermined, but underestimated.

The tragedy of this 'debate' is that serious points of analysis have been smeared with tar. In these two days in April, four separate discussions, about literacy, the English Literature curriculum, popular culture and postmodernism, were merged and blurred. All four topics would have some value in being raised for public debate, but assuming a convergence was a mistake. Literacy has been much more than the encoding and decoding of print since Richard Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy in 1957. The discussions about the English Literature curriculum have their origins in claims made by Colin McCabe in 1981 that Derrida — an evil Frenchman — was destroying the pleasure and purity of great English books through his foreign ideas.

To abuse popular culture as 'rubbish' is to repeat Matthew Arnold's argument — made in 1869 — in Culture and Anarchy. In this context, Arnold was 'protecting' the middle class from a revolutionary working class, using claims for the greatness of 'literature' to block disempowered, barely literate citizens from thinking about the conditions of their own lives. Literature was a replacement for political consciousness. Also, the 'great writers' that the Prime Minister is protecting, such as William Shakespeare, were profoundly popular playwrights in their own time, commenting — often with humour — about the pompous, prideful men who hold power.

The issue is not the division between high culture and popular culture. The goal is relevant culture that encourages thought, debate and a dialogue with the time from which it emerges.

While the Prime Minister's comments on literature, popular culture and literacy were dated, the attack on 'postmodernism' is the strangest in this carnival of politicised education. I have not mentioned the word postmodernism in a classroom since 1993. This is a controversy without a cause. Theories of Liquid Modernity from Zygmunt Bauman and John Urry's research into mobilities are intricate, well cited and — indeed — famous investigations of the social, cultural and political environment of our time.

Our role in the PCC is to be active in our communities and stress the value of popular culture in building a confident identity and a socially just environment. Popular culture is not rubbish. It is not 'gobbledegook.' Popular culture encases the seed of change. Perhaps that is why it is so feared.

See you in May.