I can't be blamed for a sense of deja vu about the controversy created by Davidson High School's entry in the Rock Eisteddfod. The piece, Bad Knight II, parodies the US President, George Bush, and his role in the Iraq War, repeating the anti-war theme of the school's previous entry Bad Night in Baghdad, which won the same competition when I was principal of the school three years ago.
Many Rock Eisteddfod performances comment on issues facing students and society. They make strong statements against drugs, racism and violence.
Davidson High School's 2004 entry was unashamedly one-sided. The school made strenuous efforts to make sure parents were aware of the subject matter and happy for their offspring to take part. There was nothing but enthusiastic support in response. When the school held a meeting to decide whether to proceed from the heats to the final, parents were hostile to any suggestion of changing the performance.
None of this protected Davidson High from a broadside from a morning talkback host, then several days of intense media coverage. The then federal education minister, Brendan Nelson, weighed in with a barrage linking bias in public schools to the NSW Teachers Federation, something that vastly amused staff who knew that the teacher involved was not a unionist. It apparently did not matter that many private schools submit equally challenging Rock Eisteddfod entries.
We constantly underestimate our young people. The sad thing about these moral panics is that they portray the teacher-student relationship as a one-way, passive flow of information. The image of teacher ideologues pouring bias down the throats of students devalues our young people, as my experience with students, including those at Davidson High, attests.
One of the lasting lessons for students, parents and teachers involved in the 2004 episode was the extent to which the tabloid media got it so wrong. Seeing their school dragged through the swamp of talkback radio taught students more about bias and media than a score of lessons. Good teachers brought articles and reports about the controversy into their classrooms. Equipping young people to unpack the messages they receive from others is critical to their growth and, ultimately, to a healthy democracy.
-Chris Bonnor, SMH today