VCE English Outcome 3: The Big Picture


“Did you see it? Australia’s going to have a war with China!”
This was new “news” to me. Indeed, it was of the nature of news to the surprised and excited Year 12 student who shared it. If he had not thought it news, he would never have “reported” it on.
“Hang on a second,” I smiled, “What the hell are you talking about and where the hell did you hear that?”
It’s sad and unfortunate, isn’t it. One would think that sabre-rattling at China would be so destructive to the economies and relations between both countries in the context of world politics as to dissuade any advanced nation from doing so (without very good reason!). One would consider that Australia has a history of improving diplomacy with China, and no history of deliberate belligerence (again, in some respects!). One would hope that the lessons from the 20th Century would persuade government against military actions (between superpowers!).
I’m not asserting that Australia cannot and will not start a war. Truth and reason merely suggest we exercise scepticism when presented with such a reality. Indeed, my immediate reaction to the statement of the student was to wonder if he was talking about a recent release at the cinema (which, John Marsden is very unfortunately put at pains to point out, examines the characters of several teenagers at war, rather than the context of certain countries embroiled in conflict).
“It’s true,” I was told, “My teacher told me.”
* * *
Teachers have a number of motives in presenting information. Sometimes it is done in order to encourage students to exercise higher-order thinking skills. The practise of skills such as analysis, evaluation and creativity leads to the generation of critical intellects. So asking students to respond to a scenario, however fictional, can have excellent results.
“I see,” I said, although I soon discovered that I didn’t, “And were you having a class discussion about what would happen if there was a war or why it would start or…” Obviously I was proceeding from a premise of pedagogical purpose: those elements discussed earlier of think, consider and hope. I was pretty dismayed that the Year 12 student had not achieved these stages of higher-order thinking, and was still pursuing a narrative of military engagement with a country that, to use an analogy, proves every four years to most convincingly assume the podium for more Olympic gold medals than any other nation and many combined.
“No,” he told me, “She saw it on the news.”
* * *
Ah, the “news”. It used to be that news presented what had happened, or what was happening in the world. Reporters would rush to be the first with a scoop! Those were exciting times, weren’t they Grandpa?
Of course modern communications are so advanced nowadays that what is news quickly gets surpassed and simply becomes old news, thus reducing its value in publication. This has always been the nature of news, hence the development of the inverse-pyramid structure for news articles, such that paragraphs of details could be easily chopped out of submissions in order to make room on the published page for new reports. The first paragraph of a lengthy news report may be all that is left in print after such editing.
It is impressive though, that modern communications are so advanced that what is now called news may not have even happened. When one sits down with a modern newspaper and separates news from “news”, one is left with much, much less than fifty percent of the original product (previously a twelve year old analysing mX News with me determined the result to be one-ninth – it is not unfair to judge mX News on its merits as a newspaper when it presents itself as such).
* * *
Some readers may have already made the connection between my first sentence, and the report called “Firestorm” that appeared on 60 Minutes in September 2010. Such readers would not have wondered if a trailer for Tomorrow When the War Began had been misinterpreted, or if the classroom activity instigated by the teacher had been misjudged, and would already know that Richard Charlton deliberately exercised sleight-of-hand to overstate and misrepresent the “real” threat of China to Australia.
I don’t like having to do so, but I recognise that I have a responsibility to sit in front of the computer with a secondary school student watching a streamed clip on the 60 Minutes web-site, listening to the student emphasise presented “facts” with comments of “See! See!”, and challenging the secondary student to actually ask a few questions about the validity of the report.
I don’t intend to confront the teacher and ask them “What the hell are you talking about?”, because I know where the hell they heard it from.
Yet truth and reason are qualities that consumers need to exercise. Badly. Truth and reason, as I hope to have demonstrated with the story shared here, are qualities that consumers must develop. Without the ability to tell the difference between news and “news”, one might well be confused, frightened and overwhelmed. Outcome 3 in VCE explores the skills we all need to manage the information presented in a world of pervasive, subversive, insidious and ubiquitous media-advertising-propaganda. In education, these skills are often called “Critical Literacy”.

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