When detailing the origins of the culture wars the British conservative politician Michael Gove refers to the establishment of the Frankfurt School in Germany during the 1920s by a number of Marxist academics. In addition to being dissatisfied with communism these intellectuals realised such was the prosperity and freedom experienced by those living in the West there was little, if any, chance of the disaffected storming the barricades and taking control. As such, the Frankfurt School shifted the focus of the revolution from taking control of the modes and means of production to the key institutions that underpin Western societies such as the family, universities, schools and the church. Gove especially notes the rise of identity politics as a result of what is often described as the long march through the institutions.
One of the most significant theories associated with the Frankfurt School is critical theory; defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as a liberating and emancipatory philosophy directed at ‘decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all its forms’.
The Encyclopedia goes on to suggest that in order to qualify as critical theory what is being advocated ‘must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation’.
As with Marxism the emphasis is very much on radical change as capitalist societies are rife with injustice and inequality. Critical theory has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on universities and schools in subjects like sociology, history, literature, geography, science and politics.
How English is defined and taught as a subject illustrates how successful the cultural-Left has been in enforcing its Marxist inspired ideology on schools. Whether learning to read or learning how to respond to literature, drawing originally on the works of the South American Marxist Paulo Freire, the focus is very much on critical literacy.
Critical literacy, a child of critical theory, argues that learning a language and education more generally must be emancipatory and liberating. Freire argues the true purpose of education is to allow students ‘to perceive themselves in dialectical relationship with their social reality (and) to assume an increasingly critical attitude toward the world and so to transform it’.
Practices like rote learning, teachers as experts and failing to address real-life issues are criticised as promoting a ‘banking concept’ where learners, supposedly, are passive and treated as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge.
Bodies like the Australian Association for the Teaching of English and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association are staunch supporters of Freire’s work and the concept of critical literacy. An editorial written for a 2004 edition of English in Australia argues the re-election of the Howard government was because teachers had failed to adequately teach critical literacy. The author, Wayne Sawyer argues: ‘English for the last ten years – not least on the pages of this journal – has trumpeted the cause of critical literacy. What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical generation that those who brought us balaclava’d security guards, Alsatians and Patrick’s Stevedoring could declare themselves the representatives of the workers and be supported by the electorate?’. Critical literacy and associated feminist, gender, sexuality and post-colonial theories have also had a significant impact on how literature is being taught.
Literature before the cultural-Left’s long march was generally restricted to those novels, short stories, plays and poems that had something significant, profound and lasting to say about human nature, how people interact and relate to the wider world and how we perceive and cope with the myriad challenges and issues we have to deal with as we journey through life. As D. H. Lawrence suggests in his essay Morality and the Novel, the ‘business of art is to reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe at the living moment’. Good literature was also celebrated for its exemplary use of language where words, whether written or spoken, were crafted in such a way as to be evocative and memorable.
Literature, especially Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse myths, fables and legends, also deals with the predicaments, heroes, archetypes, emotions and fables that underpin much of Western culture and that speak to our inner emotional and spiritual selves. What W. B. Yeats referred to as the Spiritus Mundi.
Such archetypes and myths found in various cultures deal with emotions such as love, betrayal, hubris, ambition, courage, sorrow, forgiveness and the need to find a more spiritual and transcendent sense of meaning in what is an often unforgiving and challenging world.
Instead of focusing on the moral and aesthetic importance of literature, one where students learn to understand human nature and to empathise with others, the emphasis for many years has been on deconstructing and critiquing ‘texts’ in terms of power relationships and theory. A situation where the definition of literature has been exploded to include: graffiti, text messages, posters, comics, movies and students’ own writing. As a result Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is criticised because of the ‘heteronormative’ love between the two central characters, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because of its treatment of slavery, Moby Dick as it centres on killing whales and Huckleberry Finn because it includes the word ‘n-gger’.
The campaign to redefine literature even extends to children’s books where Little Black Sambo is politically incorrect as it disparages people of colour, Thomas the Tank Engine because it has a hierarchy of trains with the capitalist Fat Controller in charge and Cinderella and Snow White because they reinforce a patriarchal view of the world where women are subservient to men and the happy ending is defined as a heterosexual marriage.
Abraham Lincoln wrote ‘the philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next’. One only needs to note how successful the cultural-Left has been in enforcing its ideology on education, thus, shaping the politics and world view of generations of young people to conclude Lincoln’s words have never been more relevant.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of How Political Correctness Is Destroying Education (Wilkinson).