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The 'whatever' society

By Sean Regan - posted Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Those of us who bother about such things have been encouraged of late by a growing backlash against the postmodern orthodoxies bequeathed by the sixties.

Three variants stand out. First, criticism of "progressive" schooling as exemplified by the prevalence of "outcomes-based learning", and as prosecuted by such warriors as Dr Kevin Donnelly (in On Line Opinion, among other places).

Secondly, revulsion at the widespread abuse of public language - especially in its managerialist vogue - as admonished by Dr Don Watson and his fellow hunters of "weasel words".


And third, a reaction against the boorishness which now characterises all social strata and most human intercourse. Here Lynn Truss (Talk To The Hand) is the acknowledged champion - as she was earlier over punctuation.

The three are related, the first and second more obviously so - though a moment’s reflection makes it clear that yobbish language is the calling card of yobbish behaviour.

Each grievance involves several detailed objections, but all share two major claims. That our current way of living is intellectually, socially and often morally irresponsible. And that it is self-defeating.

The first is undoubtedly true. No matter how the data are manipulated, there is no question but that educational standards have plummeted over the past few decades. Even the Council of Australian Governments recognises that something has to be done about basic literacy and numeracy. As not only Dr Donnelly but also many left-leaning commentators have shown, the nation’s schoolrooms have been plagued by half-baked educational theory and ideological posturing.

In the tertiary sector, the maniacal push for credentialism has turned the universities into even less congenial degree mills than they were before. Overcrowded classes, gimcrack courses and the indulgence of fee-paying underachievers have made many Australian qualifications suspect at best, nugatory at worst. The duumvirate of dogma and incompetence rules, even in science and ostensibly vocational fields.

The poverty of language is equally indisputable. Whether in government, business, the media or social life generally, inarticulateness and obfuscation are rife. Worse, much of the time the balderdash is unintentional, people no longer being able to think, speak or write in plain terms — in other words, no longer being able to think, speak or write coherently at all.


One predictable upshot is a burgeoning "Whatever" culture in which information has displaced both knowledge and wisdom as intellectual goals, and material opulence allows us to dispense with mere civility. Books give way to electronic geegaws, "Reality TV" takes the place of intelligent discussion and serious drama. Sex becomes just another youthful pastime like suicide.

So the first major claim is well-founded. We are an increasingly uneducated, illiterate and uncouth society.

The problem is with the second: that this is somehow self-defeating.

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About the Author

Sean Regan has worked as an academic, policy advisor and journalist. He is the principal of Editorial Eyes.

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