Saturday, 5 October 2013

Progressive Education

In 1974, Maximus Books published a collection of essays written by Max Harris. It was called "Ockers: Essays on the Bad Old New Australia", and it gives the impression of having been written one Saturday afternoon after Harris had built up a considerable head of exasperated steam about what he describes as "idiot egalitarianism".

In the book, Harris rages against philistinism in Australia. I suppose the furious tone of his prose is not altogether surprising; that is, everything he wrote after 1943 probably needs to be viewed through the filter of his experience with Ern Malley, which, I suspect, left him ever afterwards feeling a little wounded - and what, after all, is anger, if not an expression of hurt?

Anyway, the thesis Harris puts forward in Ockers is this: Gough Whitlam and his government; Paul Hogan; Barry Humphries; Philip Adams; and one or two others caused "a backward shift to uneducated attitudes" in Australia and the "resurgence of that ill-educated, dogmatic, incoherent and arrogant psychological phenomenon - the Australian ocker". One of my uncles used to occasionally exclaim with feeling, "The trouble with this country is the buggers won't work"; Harris's argument struck me as being on just about exactly that level of sophistication.

All the same, when I came across this paragraph, it resonated with me, perhaps because I was sent to a Froebel school as a child and longed instead to be at the nearby Lycee, where they had homework and were challenged and seemed to be gaining an enviable competence in a number of areas, whereas the only thing I was becoming highly skilled at, (apart from music and movement), was papier mache modelling, (mind you, we did once make a half lifesize dapple-grey horse):

"The theory of progressivist education has been that learning occurs through exploiting hedonistic impulses in the young. That is, targets, tests, examinations, homework, compulsory and coercive acquisition of skills like spelling, handwriting, simple arithmetic, etc. are bad. They symbolise education as an oppressive and authoritarian process. No doubt. But the opposite philosophy leaves young adults with a firm conviction that life can be shambled through as a non-stop dedication to aimless hedonism."


  1. He’s got it right about the necessity for the 3Rs, but I think that “...the opposite philosophy leaves young adults with a firm conviction that life can be shambled through...” on the basis that mediocrity is not only acceptable but desirable. [Sadly, that comment makes me look as old as I am.]

    1. I'm hoping you are saying that you are against giving anyone a firm conviction that life can be shambled through. I'm sick of encountering people who are supposed to being do a job of work who approach it with this attitude, which makes me look even older than I am (or at least older than I'm admitting)