Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Partisanship and parochialism

Neil from Cloud in Trousers links to this story about a high school in Pittsburgh where the local school district board voted to drop the International Baccalaureate.

Amongst the complaints about the IB from board members was that it is "un-American, un-Christian, Marxist" and generally the work of (foreign) evil-doers.

This caused a bit of a stooshie: at the district board meeting, about a thousand pupils and parents heckled members and the police had to be called. One board member has also received death threats.

Now, if you're reading this - have you taken sides? If so, I'd argue you're part of the problem - or you would be if you lived in the United States. Because this story is all about the culture wars and how they have disfigured American political culture and public discourse.

A plague on both these partisan houses, I say. The case of Jay Bennish reinforced the impression that it is getting increasingly difficult to have sensible conversations about education in the US. The debate had nothing to do with his fitness to teach - he was evidently just a silly wee boy who doesn't understand what his job is. He was supported simply because he was seen as an enemy of the conservatives in general and Bush in particular.

In the same way, the Baccalaureate appears to have been dropped in this case for some fairly lunatic reasons - and then this action is opposed with some pretty outrageous methods.

But what if the Baccalaureate was, like Jay Bennish, simply unsuited for its purpose? Could conservatives make that case without arguing it necessarily leads to "one-world government"? Could a liberal make it and still find themselves identified with the "right side"? They'd find it difficult, I'd imagine. Which is a shame because maybe they should. Is there a compelling "anti-parochial" case for having it? If so, its supporters better get the finger out because at present, an insignificant 1,746 schools in the world carry it.

I don't know enough (anything, really) about the IB to comment on it but while I'm sure it's a perfectly respectable qualification, partisanship can blind you to the possibility that your advocacy for a cause or a policy can lose any connection with its intrinsic merit.

It was like the hoohah surrounding the two films that became for a short while the incarnation of the culture wars in America before the Presidential election. Liberals and Democrats of all sorts went all moist over Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 while conservatives and Republicans got themselves worked into a veritable frenzy over The Passion. Cinema audiences were said to be giving both of these films standing ovations in cinema and - always a bad sign - going on about how "all Americans" should haul themselves down to their local movie theatres in order to be Enlightened as to the Truth.

The problem was both these films were utterly appalling; I forced myself to watch both of them and they were unbearably bad. For anyone sensible enough not to have seen either, basically Gibson's offering was pious pornography; Moore's paranoid propaganda. Pure, blinkered, unyielding partisanship made both of these films much more successful than they deserved, because it brought them more attention than they deserved - becoming to celluloid what Rangers and Celtic are to football.

And this is the problem: the extreme partisanship that stops you standing just a little way back to ask the question, "Is this a good film?" or "Is this good football?" also manifests itself in the failure to ask, "Is this a good educational policy?" - because the perennial assumption is that all matters of public life are subject to the culture wars, and as such can be reduced to a single question, "Who's side are you on?" This inability to abstract social issues from partisan political allegiance disfigures public discourse but is also damaging to the culture of learning. It's going to be difficult to stop because America's culture wars have always struck me as having more than a little of the vendetta principle behind them, animating them and giving them energy.

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