Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on dissing teachers, and the politics of Homeland

October 29th, 2012

For politicians and bureaucrats alike, their readiness to diss the people they rely on to improve education outcomes is a risky leadership tactic. To most teachers, the comments by Education Ministry CEO Lesley Longstone that the NZ education system is not world class were not made in a vacuum. The comments come in the wake of imposed policies on (a) national standards (b) charter schools and (c) the abortive attempt to increase class sizes – all of which run counter to the equity outcomes that Longstone now professes to be dead keen on promoting.

To many teachers, these comments will be the last straw – and Longstone’s subsequent attempt on RNZ this morning to redefine her comments to say that what she really meant was that the system is not “world class” in its outcomes for every child, renders the term virtually meaningless. By that standard, there is no ‘world class’ education system anywhere on the planet, and even the world’s recognised premier educational success stories – Finland and South Korea – would have to be classed as not being world class. This is nonsense.

If the problem really is one of inequity for Maori, Pasifika and poor children, Longstone’s comments would only make sense if the policies currently being imposed on the education sector were going to improve this situation. Instead, there is fairly compelling evidence that a focus on national standards testing and the diversion of resources into charter schools will make the overall equity situation worse, not better. Those countries with proven success stories in fostering “world class” educational outcomes are not going down this path. They have explicitly rejected the path of competition, privatisation and test-based accountability.

The results as even the Wall St Journal have noted have exceeded US educational models, and this is reflected not simply in the Finns achievement of high international scores by 15 year olds on maths and science – where New Zealand still does extremely well in ranking fourth and sixth – but on equity measures as well. Admittedly, Finnish society is more homogeneous than New Zealand society, but its education system does seem to work in terms of equity:

Each school year, the U.S. spends an average of $8,700 per student, while the Finns spend $7,500. Finland’s high-tax government provides roughly equal per-pupil funding, unlike the disparities between Beverly Hills public schools, for example, and schools in poorer districts. The gap between Finland’s best- and worst-performing schools was the smallest of any country in the PISA testing.

Understandably, teacher organizations have responded to Longstone’s comments with some annoyance. For years now, New Zealand teachers have continued to produce high educational outcomes despite the policy prescriptions being promoted by those in power, who have of late shown a distinct lack of interest either in listening to teacher and principals, or in following the lessons of international best practice when it comes to how performance could be improved, and made more equitable. To be then chided by the likes of Longstreet for the inequitable outcomes of current policy must be utterly infuriating for the people at the chalk face. More so than anyone, they see the failures. They have advocated in vain for the internationally proven remedies. The problem is that the politicians and top educational bureaucrats have been captured by an ideology that has shown itself incapable of generating equity, and ‘world class” outcomes.

Homeland as Politics

By now, we’ve got used to the idea that comedian/journalists (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert) provide the most acute commentary on US politics. Thanks to their status as official jesters at the White House court, Stewart & Colbert are given greater licence to mock and provoke than is deemed appropriate for the media’s ‘serious’ political commentators. Some time ago, Steve Anyon did a pretty good job in The Baffler of analyzing some of the drawbacks of that situation – and the ‘queasy irony’ whereby Stewart and Colbert function as parasites of the dysfunctions that they mock.

In related fashion, a recent article in Salon by Andrew O’Hehir about the TV series Homeland provided some of the best insights into the foreign policy dimension of the US presidential campaign.

First, O’Hehir gave us the setting:

As viewers of that highly addictive, Emmy-winning Showtime melodrama know, “Homeland” paints a distorted, funhouse-mirror portrait of current events, infused not just with a hysterical level of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab paranoia but also with a current of bodice-ripping eroticism. We have a hunky, brooding United States congressman who is both a closeted Muslim and an agent of al-Qaida – or rather of the seamless web of Islamic terror that, in this entirely fictional universe, unites the disparate forces of al-Qaida, Palestinian militia groups and the Iranian regime – and who is entangled, in star-crossed-lovers fashion, with a blonde, skinny, startled-looking CIA agent battling bipolar disorder.

The question O’Hehir poses is this: “Are Romney and Obama proposing foreign policy based on what’s happening in the real world, or are they just reacting to events in the current season of Homeland? In both contexts, we seem to be dealing with “the disordered collective psychology of America, with its combination of superiority complex, persecution mania and paranoid delusion.” The scary thing (to me, anyway) is that O’Hehir makes a pretty good case that Romney. Obama and the US audiences for both the presidential debates and the Homeland series are reacting to a skewed and fictional account of events in the Middle East:

One way of understanding the debate, in fact, is that Obama and Romney were playing opposing candidates on TV, debating events in the “Homeland” timeline as a way of reaching out to a dim public that possesses less and less knowledge of the world and has almost no sense of the boundary between reality and fiction. Obama said that al-Qaida remains the biggest threat to the U.S., while Romney claimed it was the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb. I think you can make a pretty good case that both things are useful chimeras; al-Qaida looks increasingly like a fading, failed franchise operation, while the Iranian bomb does not exist and probably never will.

This kind of fusion of the fictional and the factual to produce a delusional version of foreign policy has happened before, of course. As O’Hehir points out, during the Bush administration the exploits of Jack Bauer on the series 24 played a similar role in reflecting and confirming public and White House perceptions of the war on terrorism. And so on to the heart of the matter:

While Obama and Romney tried to out-rhetoric each other on the imaginary Iranian bomb, they spent only a few minutes trading barbs about America’s worsening financial and commercial subservience to China, which is not only real but vastly more dangerous. There was almost no substance to that back-and-forth, largely because both men know there is little they can realistically do, at least in the short horizon of one four-year term in the White House. It’s already clear which nation will be the economic superpower of this century…

I don’t think either Romney or Obama ever directly mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which hovers in the middle distance as a motivating force behind so much of the world’s turmoil, just as it does on “Homeland.” (They discussed Israel, but only in the bizarre context demanded by American electoral politics, that being the question of which candidate loves it more passionately.) As with China, there is little or nothing to be done given current conditions, and both candidates presumably agree on something that cannot be spoken aloud: A two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians, which has been proposed and partway negotiated numerous times since the 1930s and remains official global policy, is pretty much dead in the water.

As I say, very little of this perceptive analysis – and its underlying theme of the reality/unreality of our current forms of political discourse – can be detected in the “serious” political commentary about the Romney/Obama debates. That it occurs in a TV review is instructive, and pretty alarming. Yet at least O’Hehir could cite one reason for feeling re-assured:

Faced with the dreary, unsolvable dilemmas that make America look second-rate, ineffective and mildly psychotic, who can blame the candidates for luring us into a fictional alternate universe? At least there, we can be pretty sure that the buff, blue-eyed Muslim terrorist and the cute, nutcase CIA renegade will soon find a way to work through their issues, most likely in a darkened room.

ENDS

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