No country for young people? Anxieties in Australian education

Year: 2008

Author: Gough, Noel

Type of paper: Presidential address

No Country for Old Men is a 2007 crime thriller movie that tells the story of a botched drug deal and the violent cat-and-mouse drama that ensues as the protagonists crisscross each other's paths in the desert landscape of 1980 West Texas.

No Country for Young People is not a crime thriller, although it includes an accusation of criminality and lashings of symbolic violence. It's a story of botched educational ideals and the political melodramas that ensue as multiple stakeholders crisscross each other's paths in the educational policy landscape of 21st century Australia. But beyond this slightly stretched comparison, No Country for Young People is primarily a meditation on contemporary anxieties in Australian education. It is partly inspired by Peter Pierce's 1999 monograph, The Country of Lost Children, in which he portrays Australia as a place where the innocent young are most especially in jeopardy. In 19th century literature and art, the recurring motif of a child lost in 'the bush' became an increasingly significant dimension of European settlers' experiences of Australia, whereas the latter half of the 20th century saw analogous cultural narratives shift towards urban environments and the plight of young people abandoned or endangered by their parents' generation.

In contemporary popular culture, Australia's late industrial cities and suburbs are places where children are aborted, abandoned, murdered or never conceived, and in which many adults and social institutions - through neglect or deliberate intention - are dedicated to their ruin. In life these young people are prey to parental abuse, prowling paedophiles, Internet porn peddlers, religious sects, and serial killers, and in death they become raw material for sensationalising community fears through media-driven and/or politically motivated moral panics. Like the bush-lost children before them, these 'at risk' young people symbolise adult fears of self, society, and the future, but now they also attract more obscure anxieties. Characters worry about whether their children have a future in Australia, sometimes asking if succeeding generations should be brought into being at all. Doom-laden scenarios concerning global warming, food and energy security, and other aspects of Australia's social, economic and environmental sustainability exacerbate such fears.

My concern is that the most common public policy response to these persistent fears and insecurities is to retreat to a politics of complexity reduction. Many politicians and public opinion leaders see teachers and schools (aided and abetted by trendy intellectuals and postmodernist academics) as being in the vanguard of people and institutions dedicated to Australian children's educational ruin, and simplistically seek to 'protect' them with blunt instruments such as back-to-phonics literacy and a national curriculum. I will argue that Australia's young people are much more seriously endangered by the symbolic violence of those who position them as docile receptors of whatever schools and teachers serve up to them, and who treat them as passive screens upon which to project their own anxieties about their location in place/space and time.