The Left’s Long Creep Through the Schools
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
In the mid-1990s I first warned about the danger of political correctness after attending a conservative think-tank conference in America and buying a copy of The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Guide. The dictionary signalled the way cultural-Left activists were weaponising language and enforcing groupthink in their long march to overthrow what they condemned as a Eurocentric, patriarchal, capitalist society riven with structural racism, sexism and inequality.
Examples include DWEMs for dead white European males, speciesism for killing and eating animals, and womyn instead of women. At the same time, as had been foretold by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, student radicals were attacking and undermining a liberal view of education associated with what T.S. Eliot describes as “the preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom”.
In more recent times it has become obvious that political correctness has become even more virulent and widespread. As a result of the culture wars and cancel culture, Western nations like Australia are facing an existential threat, where what should be most acknowledged and valued is either ignored or condemned as obsolete and oppressive.
Proven by the hundreds of academics opposing the establishment of Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, the Australian national curriculum placing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies centre stage or the Safe Schools program advocating gender fluidity to primary school pupils, the reality is that the barbarians are no longer merely attacking the gates, they have now taken the citadel.
Such has been the success of the cultural Left in infecting the academy, the Australian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans in his 1996 Boyer Lectures argued:
The main problem is not so much that the university as Western civilisation knew it, is now dead, but that its death has hardly registered in the consciousness of the public, and even the majority of academics.
Mervyn Bendle, an academic at James Cook University until he was forced out by the Left, also decries the destructive impact of cultural-Left ideology; an ideology that enforces a “treasonous, self-lacerating, and nihilistic worldview” that is “institutionalised throughout Western academia”.
How has it come to this? The first thing to note is that, while political correctness and cancel culture are new, the reality, as noted by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies, is that totalitarian forms of domination and control are “just as old or just as young as civilisation itself”. Since time immemorial people have been subject to coercion and oppression, and democratic, liberal forms of government are a relatively recent historical phenomenon.
This essay appears in the current Quadrant.
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It should also be remembered that while billions around the world live under oppressive, dictatorial regimes, those fortunate enough to live in the West experience an unheralded degree of liberty and freedom. Even at a time when governments impose draconian measures as a result of COVID-19 there is still a bedrock of rights and liberties citizens can call on when governments overreach.
When tracing the origins of the culture wars, the British conservative politician Michael Gove, in Celsius 7/7, identifies the Frankfurt School established in Germany during the 1920s: “In the place of traditional social democracy and conventional communism a variety of new trends drove leftist thinking. The thinkers of the Frankfurt School revived Marxism as primarily a cultural rather than an economic movement.” The Melbourne-based academic Gary Marks, in Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March (2021), draws the same conclusion: “The Left’s march through the institutions originated with the Frankfurt School.” In addition to being disillusioned with what was occurring in the Soviet Union, the academics associated with the Frankfurt School also realised classical Marxism would never lead to a revolution in the West.
Among the academics and revolutionary thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School over a number of years are Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Eric Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Jürgen Habermas and Herbert Marcuse. In fields as varied as sociology, politics, psychology, education, sexuality and gender studies, literature and mass culture, neo-Marxist ideology and its offshoots infiltrated and now dominate universities across Europe, America, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Associated with the Frankfurt School is the emergence of critical theory—an empowering and liberating ideology dedicated to overthrowing Western capitalist societies. As Wanda Skowronska argued in a 2018 paper titled “1960s Psychologists: Beguiling Ideologues and Smiling Assassins”,
Critical theory did not aim to tear down the economic base of Western society … It aimed rather at tearing down the cultural superstructure which supposedly reflected the powerful controllers of the economic system and this would enable the collapse of Western civilisation.
One example of critical theory, espoused by Wilhelm Reich in his book The Sexual Revolution, is that, as capitalist societies reproduce themselves by enforcing a moralistic, repressive view of sexuality, there must be a sexual revolution if people are to be fully liberated and empowered. The Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce, in his essay “The Ascendence of Erotism”, noted that the traditional monogamous family and a heterosexual view of sexuality have been especially targeted as oppressive and outdated.
Contemporary radical sexuality theory, underpinning the Safe Schools program and the same-sex-marriage and transgender movements, owes much to critical theory and the pioneering work of Reich. One of the designers of the Safe Schools program, Roz Ward, has justified the program by arguing that “only Marxism provides the theory and practice of genuine human liberation” and “it will only be through a revitalised class struggle and revolutionary change that we can hope for the liberation of LGBTI people”.
Marcuse’s argument that in order to win the revolution activists had to ignore free speech, impartiality and tolerance represents a second important aspect of critical theory. Jennifer Oriel, in her chapter in Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March, says Marcuse “justified a new form of inequality that would be made manifest by censoring right-of-centre freethinkers”. Such examples include no-platforming speakers like Bettina Arndt and Germaine Greer, the ABC failing to employ conservative voices, and peer-reviewed journals and university appointments being open only to the chosen. Oriel goes on to argue:
Marcuse argued for a new form of inequality won by censoring dissent. He wrote that a subversive majority could be established by undemocratic means including the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups that dissented from left-wing politics.
Such is the pervasive and dominating influence of political correctness and cancel culture, the American feminist Camille Paglia writes, “We are plunged once again into an ethical chaos where intolerance masquerades as tolerance and where individual liberty is crushed by the tyranny of the group.”
While not part of the Frankfurt School, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci is another significant figure in the culture wars. Central to Gramsci’s writings is the concept of cultural hegemony. Capitalist societies reproduce themselves by conditioning citizens, even though they are victims of oppression, to believe all is well and they are not disadvantaged. Hence, the cultural-Left’s necessity to infiltrate and take control of institutions such as schools, universities, the churches, media, intermediary organisations and the family.
Similar to cultural hegemony is the French Marxist Louis Althusser’s concept of the ideological state apparatus. Capitalist states maintain control and reproduce themselves, he asserted, by employing violence and physical force, what is termed the “repressive state apparatus”, and also by ensuring citizens accept as sensible and natural what is inherently unjust and inequitable. Once again, schools and universities are targeted as institutions guilty of enforcing capitalist ideology. A belief in meritocracy, competitive examinations and the traditional academic curriculum is seen as inherently unjust, as only the already privileged and materially well-off students achieve success. Two American Marxist academics, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, also argue that the way schools are structured and how the curriculum is selected ensure “surplus value” is generated for the owners of the modes and means of production. In Schooling in Capitalist America they write that education “serves to perpetuate the social, political and economic conditions through which a portion of the product of labor is expropriated in the form of profits”.
Those committed to a neo-Marxist view of education believe working-class and migrant students living in low socio-economic status (SES) communities are always disadvantaged and in need of positive discrimination. This explains the Gonski school funding model championed by Julia Gillard when she was Education Minister, which involves billions being wasted in a fruitless attempt to overcome educational disadvantage. Ignored is the research showing that the impact of SES on a student’s performance ranges from 10 to 18 per cent, and more important factors include student ability and motivation, the quality of the curriculum, teacher expertise, and the classroom and school environment.
In addition to cultural hegemony and the ideological state apparatus, those committed to neo-Marxist critical theory also argue that citizens who are happy living in Western, capitalist societies like Australia and who fail to demonstrate the required level of radical fervour are victims of false consciousness. Such is the dominance and power of capitalism that it indoctrinates people to accept and even enjoy their situation in life. Women who are happily married and content with their role as wives and mothers have been duped by a patriarchal system that denies them true freedom; those business people and entrepreneurs who believe they have the right to enjoy the benefits of hard work and risk-taking are guilty of participating in and endorsing an oppressive and inequitable economic and financial system.
As significant as the Frankfurt School in the origins of political correctness and cancel culture is the impact of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s—a time of Vietnam moratoriums, hippies and the youth counter-culture movement, the music festival Woodstock and student rebellion epitomised by students from the Sorbonne rioting in the streets of Paris in 1968. This was also a time when critical theory morphed into a rainbow alliance of cultural-Left ideologies and movements, including postmodernism, deconstructionism and radical feminist, gender, queer and post-colonial theories. While such ideologies and theories are often in disagreement, what they have in common is a deep-seated hatred of Western civilisation, Judeo-Christianity and capitalism. This period of radical change, as noted by Roger Kimball, is best epitomised by the phrase “the long march through the institutions” attributed to the German Marxist Rudi Dutschke. If the revolution was to succeed, the cultural Left needed to infiltrate and take control of the organisations and institutions responsible for maintaining and reproducing the capitalist state.
Those committed to postmodernism argue there are no absolute truths or objective reality, as how we perceive and understand ourselves and the world in which we live is subjective and relative. Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind describes this as the belief that “The critical search for truth is constrained to be tolerant of ambiguity and pluralism, and its outcome will necessarily be knowledge that is relative and fallible rather than absolute or certain.” Radical gender activists deny the inherent biological nature of sexuality and condemn Western societies and the nuclear family as heteronormative, homophobic and transphobic. Post-colonial theorists argue there is nothing inherently worthwhile or beneficial about Western civilisation and that universities must be purged of “whiteness” and “Eurocentric supremacy”. Academics at the University of Sheffield tell students that European science identified with the Enlightenment is “inherently white” and a “fundamental contributor to European imperialism and a major beneficiary of its injustices”.
Schools are a primary focus of cultural-Left activists and fellow travellers in the fight to reshape society in their utopian image. The revised Australian national curriculum, released earlier this year, illustrates how successful they have been. The curriculum adopts what Geoffrey Blainey has called a black-armband view of Australian history, where the arrival of the First Fleet is described as an invasion leading to genocide. Students at Year 9 are told to analyse the “impact of invasion, colonisation and dispossession of lands by Europeans on the First Nations Peoples of Australia such as frontier warfare, genocide, removal from land, relocation to ‘protectorates’, reserves and missions”. The body responsible also prioritises Aboriginal history, culture and spirituality over the significance and debt owed to Judeo-Christianity and describes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social organisation systems, protocols, kinship structures, economies and enterprises as “sophisticated”. The curriculum writers go as far as arguing that schools should teach Aboriginal algebra and science. No doubt Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu will be set for compulsory study.
When mandating what schools should teach, the Civics and Citizenship curriculum also reveals evidence of cultural-Left thinking by adopting a postmodern, subjective view of citizenship. Students are told Australia is a “multicultural, multi-faith society” where “citizens’ identity transcends geography or political borders and people have rights and responsibilities at the global level”. Diversity and difference reign supreme and instead of valuing what makes Australia unique, students are presented with a subjective view of citizenship, where “A person’s sense of who they are, and conception and expression of their individuality or association with a group culture or to a state or nation, a region or the world regardless of one’s citizenship status” takes priority. So much for nation-building at a time when totalitarian China is seeking domination and control over the South China Sea.
The national curriculum is only one example of how successful the cultural Left has been in its long march through the education system. Whether redefining the purpose of education, the relationship between schools and society more broadly or transforming teacher training and what happens in the classroom, education has been radically overhauled. Joan Kirner, who was soon to become Victoria’s Education Minister and Premier, argued at a Fabian Society meeting in Melbourne in 1985 that education had to be reshaped as “part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system”.
The teacher training textbook Making the Difference, published in 1982, also argues schools must become centres for political activism. Australian society is described as “disfigured by class exploitation, sexual and racial oppression, and in chronic danger of war and environmental destruction”. The authors argue that “conservative hegemony” is the target and “the only education worth the name is one that forms people capable of taking part in their own liberation”. Such is the all-important and strategic nature of the battle, the authors write that teachers “have to decide whose side they are on”.
The concept of a liberal education involving what Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy describes as “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world” gives way to cultural-Left ideology, language control and groupthink.
Teacher professional bodies and associations including the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA), the Australian Education Union (AEU), the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA) are also committed to schools and the curriculum being used as vehicles to overthrow the status quo.
The AEU argues that Australian society is riven with inequality and disadvantage and that consequently the education system needs a radical overhaul. It argues that Catholic and independent schools should not be funded by governments, it is wrong to compare and rank students in terms of academic performance, and the curriculum must prioritise anthropogenic global warming, LGBT+ and peace studies, multiculturalism and Aboriginal history, culture and spirituality. Not surprisingly, the AEU’s 2003 “Policy on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender People” says “Homophobia and Heterosexism must be included in the content of pre-service training for all teachers”.
In relation to the curriculum, an argument is also put that “Homosexuality and bisexuality need to be normalised and materials need to be developed which will help combat homophobia”. In relation to controversial issues like Australia’s involvement in the Iraqi war and global warming, instead of teachers being impartial, the union argues teachers should encourage students to become “agents of change” and “take direct action”.
Since the mid-to-late 1960s academics responsible for teacher training and professional associations, including ACSA, have also championed cultural-Left ideology. In its publication Going Public, ACSA argues schools must embrace “social democratic values” because society is characterised by “deep-seated prejudices, hatreds and fears that obviously lurk beneath the cosmopolitan veneer of Australian society”.
One chapter, instead of agreeing that there is a literacy crisis and detailing what must be done to raise standards, argues that media reports are “alarmist and negative” and that governments magnify concerns about literacy standards to “deflect attention away from material problems such as youth poverty and unemployment”. The chapter concludes by arguing for a new and radical definition of literacy: “what is required in this postmodern, postcolonial globalised context is not a ‘dumbing down’ of the construction of literacy, but an enhancement and rethinking of its very construction”.
Underpinning a cultural-Left approach to education is the belief that knowledge is a social construct employed by those in control to enforce their dominance. ACSA’s Policy Statement of 1996 describes the curriculum as “a social, historical and material construction which typically serves the interest of particular groups at the expense of others”. Teachers are urged to identify and criticise “the ideology embedded in all curriculum practice, discourse and organisation” and to “act locally, think globally” as well as endorsing “sustainable global citizenship”.
The AATE is yet another professional body steeped in cultural-Left ideology. Associated with the concept of critical theory is an approach to teaching English that champions critical literacy. Drawing on the work of the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed was widely set for teacher training courses during the 1970s and 1980s, the argument is that learning to read and write is an intensely political act. Freire, drawing on Marx, Gramsci and Hegel, argues students must be empowered 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”. The AATE has long championed critical literacy, arguing the focus of the subject must be on teaching students to deconstruct and critique language and literature (now known as “texts”) in terms of power relationships involving gender, ethnicity, race and class.
Judging by the way senior school English courses are developed and taught, critical literacy is the new orthodoxy. A West Australian senior English course argues: “The concept of the literary is socially and historically constructed, rather than objective or self-evident. Constructions of the literary are embedded in social contexts, reflecting particular knowledge, values, assumptions and power relationships.” So much for the enduring moral and aesthetic value of good literature and the belief that good literature has something enduring and profound to say about human nature and what D.H. Lawrence describes as “the relation between man and his circumambient universe at the living moment”.
Children’s fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are now criticised for favouring heterosexual love, classic novels like Moby-Dick for killing whales, and To Kill a Mockingbird for being written by a white woman. In a Queensland senior school course, students are asked to deconstruct Macbeth as an example of “patriarchal concerns with order and gender” and to undertake “an eco-critical reading of a selection of the poetry of either Wordsworth or Les Murray”. In an issue of the AATE’s journal titled “Love in English”, the argument is put that the literary works chosen for Years 11 and 12 are guilty of prioritising “heterosexual and cisgender identities as the norms against which to define the other”. The solution is for English teachers to embrace a “queer-inclusive curriculum” that “celebrates diverse sexualities”. The AATE also tells teachers they should stop teaching pronouns like she and he in the classroom and instead ensure “their, they, them are used as alternatives to gendered pronouns”.
In 1919 W.B. Yeats wrote in his poem “The Second Coming” that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”. While such a description aptly describes a bleak and depressing situation, there are signs that not all is lost.
Such is the destructive and unjust nature of cancel culture, increasing numbers of those identified as Centre-Left are publicly condemning it. The journalist Bari Weiss resigned from the New York Times arguing that the paper failed to uphold the values of independent journalism; 152 writers and academics, many considered progressive, signed an open letter arguing that cancel culture was enforcing “ideological conformity”; and feminists including Germaine Greer oppose radical gender theory, arguing that men cannot be women. President Obama has also criticised political correctness for often being too “judgmental” and cautioned activists for “throwing stones” instead of engaging in constructive activism.
The popularity of the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, whose YouTube videos are watched by millions, the work of British academics including Douglas Murray and late Roger Scruton, and the popularity of Greg Sheridan’s books on Christianity also suggest opposition to cancel culture is alive and well. Even the ABC’s 2019 Australia Talks survey found that 68 per cent of those surveyed agreed that “Political correctness has gone too far in Australia”. One of the factors explaining Scott Morrison’s electoral success in 2019 was that many voters preferred a conservative agenda to Bill Shorten’s leftist policies on climate change, freedom of speech and LGBT+ policies. The growth of Sydney’s liberal arts Campion College and the work of Centre-Right think-tanks like the IPA and the Sydney Institute also suggest the battle of ideas is not yet over.
Dr Kevin Donnelly, a Melbourne author and commentator, has a website at kevindonnelly.com.au. He is the editor of the essay collection Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March (Wilkinson Publishing, 2021). Show your support