Worst generation game piece ever?

Writing in today’s Oz, Greg Melleuish starts out with the observation

It is not common for the political leadership of the country to be discussed in generational terms

Having read the piece that follows, I’m not surprised. Silly as the usual generation game stuff is, the attempt to classify individual political leaders by their birth year is even sillier (which isn’t to say it hasn’t been done, particularly in the US). The burden of the piece is to attack Kevin Rudd for the heinous sin of having been born in 19571

It’s hard to know what’s silliest in this piece: there is, for example, the claim that boomers like Kevin Rudd were products of the “education revolution of the 1960s” – in reality, the schools of the 1960s and early 1970s were dominated by rote learning of tables and dates. As for the university radicalism of the era, it was confined to a minority of a minority, since few kids got past year 12 in the 1960s. And by the time Kevin Rudd went to ANU in the mid-1970s 2, the days of radical activism were well and truly over.

Or perhaps there is the idea that, as a baby boomer, Rudd is tarred with the brush of postmodernism. As anyone who has followed these intellectual games knows, postmodernism came to the fore in the late 1980s, and was much more associated with Gen X academics, who used it to undermine the “grand narratives” (Marxism, functionalism and so on) which had appealed to the boomers who were now blocking their career progress.

But I think, the clearest silliness is the pairings it produces. It is a commonplace of Australian political discussion that the great adversaries Whitlam and Fraser share more similarities than differences, but Melleuish absurdly pairs Whitlam with Holt and Fraser with Hawke. More recently, and fatally to Melleuish’s silly attack on Rudd, lots of people have observed that Rudd is, in many respects, a younger version of John Howard. But, in Melleuish’s theatre of the absurd, Howard is paired with Paul Keating (in many ways the ultimate embodiment of cliches about baby boomers) on the basis that both were born during World War II. He might want to check the bios of, say, John Lennon and Mick Jagger.

1For aficianados, this makes him a member of Generation Jones, but Melleuish appears to have got his knowledge of the subject at the pub, or by watching game shows on TV

2 I just found this out on Wikipedia. We were contemporaries, it seems, but I never met him

25 thoughts on “Worst generation game piece ever?

  1. It’s unfair to say that Rudd is a younger version of Howard, presumably because both are socially conservative. Rudd’s outlook is cosmpolitan, while Howard, if he had not gone into politics, may never have travelled outside Australia, in common with many people of his type.

  2. I didn’t mean to refer to policy positions. It’s more a matter of character. Howard and Rudd both present as low-key and competent, and the opposite of charismatic. That is, not someone who you would particularly want to have a beer with, but (assuming you like their policies) the kind of person you would want to run the country.

    As far as social conservatism goes, I don’t see Rudd as being particularly conservative, except by comparison with (say) Keating. His main achievement has been to put an end to the political Culture Wars. Since social conservatives can only win by actively politicising opposition to social change, Rudd’s effective position is the opposite of social conservatism.

  3. So are we going to be regularly commenting on retarded Australian opinion pieces here? Gonna be a long winter…

  4. Rudd is an opportunistic participant in the culture wars, as his entirely gratuitous intervention in the Bill Henson saga shows, not to mention the ridiculous and confected Gordon Ramsay-Tracey Grimshaw brouhaha. (Perhaps he doesn’t believe what he says and he is just playing to the crowd.) I can’t see him rushing into, say, amending the Marriage Act to permit gay marriages either. In fact, I can’t think of any aspect of Australia’s social landscape that Rudd wants to change, apart from the condition of Aboriginals in the NT. This makes him a social conservative by definition.

  5. Well, Tim Lambert deals with the Oz’ war on science, the psephbloggers tackle the war on bloggers, and LP deals with the culture warriors, so I just backstop on occasional idiocies like this.

  6. “The burden of the piece is to attack Kevin Rudd for the heinous sin of having been born in 1957”

    You know who else was born in 1957? Osama bin Laden.

  7. “As anyone who has followed these intellectual games knows, postmodernism came to the fore in the late 1980s, and was much more associated with Gen X academics”

    In 1989, the oldest Gen Xers would only have been 24 years old. I’m not sure how many people of that age hold significant academic posts. The youngest Gen Xers were still in primary school.

    I don’t think it was until the 1990s that any significant Gen Xers were making much contribution on anything.

  8. I don’t agree the Melleuish’s arguments however I do take exception to the following statement in your criticism of it.

    “in reality, the schools of the 1960s and early 1970s were dominated by rote learning of tables and dates.”

    In actual fact, many of the new ideas that were introduced in seventies particularly in Queensland that were supposed to save children from the tyranny of the “rote-leaning” have proved to be dead ends. Word recognition which was supposed to replace phonetic reading, numeric concept acquisition instead of arithmetic tables, etc.. It turns out that latest brain scanning research is showing that reading and arithmetic are just additional language sand like all languages they are acquired by repetition. This is what you call “rote-learning”. There are no short cuts!

    The “anti-rote learning” follies of the past thirty years have resulted in a several generations poorly educated Queenslanders as shown in national and international rankings. (Bright kids learn anyway. It the people with medium and low ability that have suffered most by the educational failures in Queensland). It has got so bad that Queensland Education department is now introducing a literacy and numeracy test for teachers to break the downward spiral.

    I think Kevin Rudd was lucky to be educated in the Queensland on the 1960/70s which had under gone an education revolution under Jack Pizzey as education minister but before the “anti-rote learning” practices were in place. Prior to Pizzey, Queensland Queensland education was affected by the dismal performance of successive Labor governments from the 1930s onwards. Labor had a deliberate policy of keeping the population of the state uneducated to maintain their voter base.

  9. Howard once described Melleuish as his favourite Australian historian (which may or may not have peeved John Hirst). I think the ‘Rudd is a younger version of Howard’ line is largely a furphy, apart from the ‘small target’ strategy in opposition and, as John says, the lack of charisma etc. R

    udd’s politics are very different to Howard’s; in fact Latham was the Labor leader whose political outlook (bitterness toward ‘elites’, yearning for a simpler, whiter time, distrust of foreigners and other pet hatreds) most resembled the Rodent’s.

    However, Rudd did take some of his political lessons from Howard, which presumably is why he does silly, backwater things like giving the ‘Adios’ to Sol Trujillo. Not befitting of the leader of a serious country (unless that country is Italy).

  10. I’d date the end of the baby boom to 1961, and observe that the usual process of academic insurgency is one where bright grad students adopt hot new ideas, as part of the process of displacing their elders. By the late 80s, the grad student cohort contained mostly Gen Xers. And the decade or so when postmodernism ruled the roost matches pretty closely with the thesis-producing years of Gen X.

    Of course, the ideas originated with older thinkers, just as was true of the (early) baby boomer enthusiasm for the ideas of Marcuse and McLuhan.

    And, of course, any generational generalisation is mostly false.

  11. Peterm, my statement about rote learning was factual, not judgemental. FWIW, this is one issue on which I’m a wishy-washy centrist. I think you have to start with rote learning, but you also have to go beyond it, which the older style didn’t really do, except for the tiny elite who went to uni.

    On Queensland Labor before Pizzey, you’re spot-on. We didn’t even have universal free secondary education until 1963. Unfortunately, Bjelke-Petersen reverted to the old ways, and it was left to Goss and Beattie to finish the job Pizzy started.

  12. Its a real dilemma isn’t?
    To pay attention to and therby give some sort of credibility to the normally incoherent, rambling, illogical and factually challenged ravings of the Murdoch mafia.
    Or to give their writings, when you accidentally encounter them that is, the respect they deserve by responding with a quiet amused chuckle, a sad shake of the head and consign them to the closest round filing system?
    Or, as JQ has done here, go for a sort of middle course where you can point out the silliness without giving too much credibility.

  13. Professor Q, I suspect your and my outlook on teaching styles are essentially in agreement. I was trying to make the point that the Queensland primary education system in the 1960 & 70 was in better shape than the system is today because of the bias against “rote-learning” in the recent past. Kevin Rudd is a product of that system. And there were much less resources around than there is today.

    I often wonder that so of place Queensland would have become in the 1970 & 80s if Pizzey been Queensland premier for an extended term.

    On an aside, I believe a good deal of credit for the Queensland primary education system in the 60 and 70s needs to go to James Robinson who ran the Kelvin Grove college, together with the cadre of very fine teachers who came out of that institution.


    BTW: My grandfather was a member of 26th Battalion who Robinson commanded. I remember my mother say that it was not uncommon to get a visit from “Colonel Robinson” in the evening. Whenever he was in town inspecting schools in the area, he would drop in to see how his “men” were getting on. He was still concerned for the welfare of “his” men decades after the war had ended.

  14. 1957 was a very good year. I remember it well, I was seven. If the first 5 years of a persons life are the ones that build their prime personality then Rudd should be a person with the strong Australian values of fairness and hard work, as he grew up in the golden period at the tail end of the colonial era.

    I was just thinking about that as I drove to work this morning. What ever happened to the Commomwealth of Australia. Car lisense plates used to be marked with C of A, government issue stationary all had the C ^ A mark on it (^is an up arrow by the way), and there used to be a Post Master General. What happened to all of that? Is it possible that the “new order” frowns upon the idea of…..a common wealth,….of shared values?

  15. In answer to your headline question, yes totally. I read Melleuish yesterday and was left wondering whether it was a case of astounding intellectual laziness or just boneheaded stupidity. Whatever, the piece does not deserve publication in a national newspaper. It is not even faintly amusing. And this plodder is a teacher of university students? Poor fellow my country.

  16. I have no problem with the schoolroom chanting I did as a child. I never recall feeling programmed. It was more like a bit of a sing along “once seven is seven…two sevens are fourteen” etc. I think children dont actually mind it. Writing had guidelines you slid under the paper and they really need to bring those back and do a lot more writing….writing in undergraduate uni students has been deteriariting for years…its not only bad…its atrocious. The letters go in all sorts of scrawling directions.
    I once trekked up to my son’s school to complain about whole language approach to learning spelling eg sheet of paper with picture of sea and sun… Spelling words to be learned in kindy ? ball, spade, towel, hat, umbrella, sand. No relationship in sounds at all. What happened to hat, cat, bat, mat?. They lost the plot in primary schools somewhere along the line.

  17. Are you sure about Rudd/ANU/1970s? He must have never gone near student politics or surely I would have remembered him (or was he really that forgettable?) And nowhere near Young Labor either, though that may have been common sense or self preservation…

    On another topic, has anyone tried learning to read Chinese without rote learning?

  18. It’s true that much of the discussion about generations is littered with cliches, over-generalisations and outright falsehoods. One of those is the idea that baby boomers are nearly all left wing, politically correct, intellectual fashion junkies. Similarly, it is common to argue that all the social movements of the 60s and 70s were started by boomers, when they were largely started by pre-boomers.

    However, I think the argument that baby boomers have been more advantaged than other generations contains a grain of truth, simply because if one generation is more numerous than others they have a greater ability to influence society, culture and public policy to their advantage at different stages of the life cycle.

    Among my friends and associates, I have noticed a trend that many Generation Joneses have a more relaxed and optimistic outlook on life than Gen Xers, who are often more cynical and pessimistic.

  19. Kevin and Therese lived in Burgman or Garran and were involved in Goddy groups.

  20. 1957 was a very good year because the Cat in the Hat was born and Paul McCartney met John Lennon.

  21. “However, I think the argument that baby boomers have been more advantaged than other generations contains a grain of truth, simply because if one generation is more numerous than others they have a greater ability to influence society, culture and public policy to their advantage at different stages of the life cycle.”

    Against that, they are in oversupply in labour markets. It’s really the preboomers who did best – they were natural leaders for the large, slightly younger group of boomers and were in short supply themselves

    But except for a brief period around school leaving age, all cohort factors of this kind are trumped by class, gender and random shocks. It is, and always has been, far better to be born to the right parents than born in the right year.

  22. I agree JQ. Im a 57. It was always a case of “wait for me…”.

    I think the 1950s to 57s had the most interesting time. They were the leaders of the boomers. They were in the middle of the cultural revolution. I wanted to be part of the cultural revolution but my father wouldnt let me! I had to beg for a Kaftan! I wanted to go to the “arts factory” and see psychedelic light shows… alas not allowed. People kissed or hugged people just met. I heard about all sorts of amazing things happening but I was just a bit too young…just a bit…so I got myself a red chinese embroidered dressing gown and put it on, on the bus, painted extended eyelashes on my face in the train station toilets, bought an ivory carved cigarette holder, met my friends on the train and went to see Santana at the Hordern Pavilion and danced…it was so cool!

  23. JQ, I agree that pre-boomers did better in the labour market. I recall reading somewhere that 1938 was the best year to be born in terms of career opportunities.

    I wasn’t thinking primarily in terms of the labour market. I was considering mainly public policy and general influence on societal attitudes.

  24. Lord Sir Alexander “Dolly” Downer :
    Kevin and Therese lived in Burgman or Garran and were involved in Goddy groups.

    I suppose that was a parallel world, as in never meeting the political world at all. I certainly managed to get by without running into any religious at all, but they must have been around somewhere. I did get to know Peter Berzins, but I suppose that is getting a bit off topic.

  25. Kevin & Therese were both at Burgmann and studied hard and were involved in Christian groups on and off campus. Kevin did not get involved in student politics but that never was to everyone’s taste. I don’t recall Quiggin or Nick Minchin (like Rudd also from Burgmann) being involved in student politics but my memory could be faulty. I certainly remember Quiggin taking on economic orthodoxies from an early age but I thought he used journals rather than the student newspaper.

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