“Revolution, revolution … there has already been one.” Lu Xun, The True Story of Ah Q, 1921-22. (trans.)
The great Chinese satirist and social critic Lu Xun knew a thing or two about revolutions.
Lu Xun wrote that line when the newly-awakened nation of China had thrown off the dynastic Emperors barely a decade before. As his characters smashed clay tablets proclaiming “Long Live the Emperor”, Lu Xun offered a darkly prescient vision of the cataclysmic revolutionary violence that would again convulse his nation a generation hence.
That is why this quote, delivered by a weeping nun sheltering from the rampage, is in my view the lynch-pin of Lu Xun’s legacy to us. His warning is stark - that revolutions have a tendency to roll you back round to where you started, and that things get broken along the way.
That is why I fervently hope that the latest revolutionary, our Prime Minister Lu Kewen, has read Lu Xun. If so, then perhaps he coined the term “education revolution” as an ironic homage to Lu Xun’s prophetic warning. If not, then I fear we are in for a bumpy ride.
We should not ignore the spirit and intent of language such as “revolution”, even when it is thrown about casually or for PR purposes. We know there is still a rump of old-guard ALP who get excited by such terms, but they really ought to check their heart medication before manning the barricades. If Lu Kewen announced the “education revolution” to give these old warriors one last thrill, then it would be cheaper and less troublesome to simply write them a prescription for Viagra.
Regular readers of On Line Opinion would know there have been many revolutions in Australian education, each of which has been explored, contested, celebrated and lamented by a range of writers here. Knowledgeable participants, like the weeping nun, know that when it comes to a revolution in education, “there has already been one”.
So if, as it seems, Lu Kewen’s education revolution is a merely a rhetorical catch-cry to unify a range of disparate initiatives, then it is far less a revolution than a continuation of Australia’s long, diverse, sometimes chaotic yet always fruitful development of public education.
Whatever are the results of Lu Kewen’s revolution, we should all hope that Australia does not, in a revolutionary frenzy, abandon the public system of education that has served it so well for so many generations.
Personally, I would have preferred to work towards an education Renaissance. There is much to be done to restore public confidence in our education system, and the public discourse currently abounds with Cultural Revolutionaries who smash the tablets of public education without a thought for their heritage and value. These thieves in the temple voice pious prayers to the secular deities of “choice” and “falling standards”, when what we really need is to bring our children together into a place that lets each learn, participate and express their identity without leaving their religion, language or culture at the front door. At stake is a socially cohesive future for this country.
Doubtless the critics will remain strident and cloth-eared with their harrumphs that kids today can’t write and can’t spell. And doubtless today’s Year 6 class will fulminate in 2050 that the youth of tomorrow can’t compose a Flash animation, program a Facebook application, or write a blog to save their lives. But that is all part of education’s wheel of karma, revolving us back to where we started.
In any event, I shall now have the opportunity to observe the spinning wheel from a distance, as I depart these shores for the USA, the land of No Child Left Unturned (sic). Those “Foreign Devils” too are no strangers to revolution. While, of course, I owe so much thanks to my family and friends, I reserve the greatest share of gratitude to our system of public education, which still consistently and quietly helps to raise the next Australian generation, and enables us to spread our wings across the world.