History ad populum: the Right whines about postmodernism . . . again (yawn)

20 01 2006

So beset is the right-wing echo-chamber that is the Opinion section of The Australian with arrogance and hubris–its commentators no longer appear to deem it necessary to encumber their bloviations with details, examples, or even an argument. Take, for instance, Can’t we just teach serious history in the classroom?” by high school history teacher Gregory Haines, in which he talks about the “decline” of academic history: a decline that he attributes to . . . drum roll, please . . . “The rise of postmodernism and theory in arts faculties.” But it is very difficult to tell precisely what kind of history Haines believes the academies should be teaching–or would be teaching were it not for the pernicious influences of postmodernism and theory. And given that his piece closes by drawing an analogy with current controversies in science education–“It is little realised how closely the relationship between history and the cocktail of postmodernism, theory and political correctness resembles the relationship between science and creationism or intelligent design”–one can reasonably infer that Haines believes that an unbiased, apolitical, scientific and objective approach to the teaching of history is possible.

Sadly, no explanation of what such an approach would look like is forthcoming.

Instead, Haines regales us with horror-stories of how students

seem fed up with many of the courses on offer, especially history from below, politically correct history and the current fad of historiography.

Aside from the fact that you will struggle to find a course in any educational institution that calls itself “Politically Correct History,” notice that Haines doesn’t really tell us what’s wrong with history from below or historiography–all he gives us is pejorative and the idea that these things are unpopular, which is, for the Right, critique enough.

He continues:

Students, it appears from a number of surveys, prefer history courses of substance dealing with the grand themes, courses which are educational as well as informative and which open them to diverse cultures and times.

According to surveys? Again, his assertion is long on jingoism and short on detail, but it does reveal one thing: Haines thinks what he calls “politically correct history” should be supplanted by . . . politically correct history! History ad populum rather than history from below. Poll-driven history, the content of which is determined by what people–particularly, the majority of people (as “a number of surveys” would indicate)–want to hear.

Haines’ remark is interesting, given his allusion to the ID debate. If he thinks what gets taught in history courses should be dictated by surveys, does he believe the same should apply to other subjects–such as science or mathematics? Are his own history lessons conducted in this fashion?

I think not. I think Haines has a fairly precise notion of what he thinks should be taught in a history course, and I suspect it would not differ greatly from the politically-correct version of history that prevailed in Australian high school curricula until a few decades ago (i.e. the version of history that tells us that Australian history more or less began in 1788). But why not tell his readers about (even if he is preaching to the choir–his piece originally appeared in Quadrant)? It seems all you need to do to get a right-wing op-ed piece published these days is to string together the requisite red-scare words–“postmodernist,” “left-wing”, “Marxist,” “academic”–and let the sheeple fill in the blanks.

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