Sunday, February 27, 2011

Allan Peachey: Protecting Democracy

To continue the theme of the last edition, I want to share with you my thoughts from reading one of the books that the Parliamentary Library sourced for me. It was called “The Age of American Unreason: Dumbing Down and the Future of Democracy” by Susan Jacoby.

Jacoby quotes President Eisenhower in 1954 as saying that an intellectual is “a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows”. I bet that upset a few people at the time? Or did it?

I would put this in a New Zealand context and argue that 50 years ago (and I was alive to observe it!) New Zealanders wanted to make up their own minds. This had nothing to do with the amount of formal education one had, or in many cases did not have. It was a characteristic of a generation. People like my parents and parents-in-law, grandparents, uncles and aunts, their neighbours and friends wanted information, they wanted to hear and talk about all sides of an argument, to consider the opinions of others and finally be able to make up their own minds, stand by their views and not fear having abusive and freedom-threatening terms like “fascist” and “racist” thrown at them. And others would protect that right, even if they had come to a different opinion. This was the very essence of being a democratic and free people. And why not. My father, both his brothers, my father-in-law and his brother all fought, like thousands of others, in the Second World War to ensure that the democratic nations of the world remained free. Incidentally, it is my view that the way the word “racist” is thrown around today without regard for fact and the way people refuse to express their views or offer an opinion for fear of being called “racist” is the greatest threat that we face to our freedom as citizens in a democracy. By the way, to that list of threats I would add our lack of a fixed wing fighter squadron and the sloppy legislation being produced by Parliament after Parliament!

Jacoby sums it up this way “too often today intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike tune out any voice that is not an echo”. I had no sooner filed that quote away in my mind and a Tamaki constituent with whom I was having a cup of tea (and I have lots of cups of tea in constituents’ houses!) showed me a newspaper report (don’t know which newspaper) about a book called “The Waitangi Tribunal and New Zealand History” in which Giselle Byrnes (Victoria University) questioned the validity of the history that the Tribunal (and apparently it employs 19 historians and researchers) is producing. First let me quote the article word for word:

“This is not the first time an historian has questioned the academic integrity of the history produced by the Waitangi Tribunal. Other historians – including Keith Sorenson, Michael Belgrave and Bill Oliver have raised similar concerns.”

Now let me quote Giselle Byrnes, as reported in the article:

“I know that many historians have felt some kind of disquiet about the sort of history the tribunal has been producing over the past few years. They haven’t spoken out about it because most historians have liberal political leanings and they don’t want to be seen as undermining or criticising the whole process.”

Bloody hell! I wait the taunts of “racist”. I shall wear each as a badge of honour. It behoves the generation sired by the men of World War Two to be braver in our defence of the freedoms (including freedom of thought and expression) that our fathers held so valuable that some died in their defence.

So back to Jacoby who argues that two things that are most at risk today are the enjoyment of reading and the ability to think critically. She says that society is less contemplative and judicious than it once was. The demise of reading and critical thought have been undermined by access to information through computer and the internet, which she says fosters an illusion that “the ability to retrieve words and numbers with a click of a mouse also confers a capacity to judge whether these words and numbers represent truth, lies, or something in between.”

When I re-read “What’s up with our Schools?” (Allan Peachey 2005) I remain 100% satisfied with what I wrote. Some say I was far too frank and honest for one about to be elected to Parliament. Whatever! I told the truth. I have one regret however. In the chapter “The Race Between Education and Catastrophe” I emphasised the failures of our economic and social systems. In light of what I have learned in my years as an MP I wish I had put greater emphasis on the extent to which the failures of our education system threaten our freedoms as citizens who enjoy democratic government. But how free and democratic is a country when you are frightened off intellectual inquiry and honest expression of opinion by taunts of “racist”.

Let me finish with another book that I have read over summer, “Just How Stupid Are We?” by Rick Shenkman in which he quotes President Madison (fourth President of the United States of America) as saying “if men were angels we wouldn’t need government”.

He went on to offer this line of thought. It could well be said that if politicians were angels we wouldn’t have to worry about voters’ ignorance. Politicians would simply do the right thing. They would not play on voters’ fears or pander to their irrational biases. But angelic politicians are rare – so we must put our energies into raising the level of ordinary voters to make them less ignorant.

Any advance on that as a reason for needing a highly-performing schooling system to protect democracy?


Anonymous said...

Yes, Allan, surely the development of reflective and critical thinking should be a priority in our education system. If children read widely, fiction and non fiction, they can learn to assess and comment on events, character and plot. Through literature they can observe that events are not always what they seem, that things are rarely only black and white and that people contain within them elements of good and bad. In other words they absorb a wider dimension of our common humanity.

So, upgrade our school libraries, give priority to Reading, Language and Literature even if computer studies have to wait a few years.

I don't believe that the mandarins controlling our schools are willing to do this so give parents real school choice so that those who agree with your sentiments and mine can actually send their childen to a school where these principles and priorities are established.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more - Phillip Pullman has written an excellent piece ('Library Carnage in David Cameron’s Big Society' about the British government's attacks on libraries, and the impact that could have on childrens' reading:

And use of the word 'racism' has got even sillier since the left used to throw it about with casual abandon a couple of decades ago.

Now it's become the basic knee-jerk response of every right-winger: if you are opposed to a free trade agreement, you are dubbed 'racist' or 'xenophobic'. If you support Maori culture or Maori rights, you are 'racist'. If you think we need to recognise Maori culture exists alongside European culture, you're accused of fomenting 'apartheid'. Check out any right-wing blog and you'll see what I mean.


Sam Buchanan