Saturday, November 24, 2007

Teaching mediocrity to the multitudes

Back in the '80s, did you ever see the Indiana Jones trilogy? That series of rollicking adventures set in pre-World War II Egypt, India, the Amazon and Europe, in which the witty, sexy, debonair and occasionally flawed archaeologist, Indiana Jones, took on the Nazis at the height of their power in an exhilarating chase for some of history's most famous biblical artefacts? Great stuff, wasn't it? It was awesome how Indie was this stuffy, clumsy, be-spectacled academic in "real life", who would swap his pen and books for a slouch-hat and bull-whip and take to the field to become this daring, robust cad who broke the rules and took risks in order to obtain ancient treasures, and who enjoyed a fist-fight as much as his numerous tumbles in the hay with some genuine stunners. What a hero!

And do you remember those other great archaeological thrillers of the '80s, the Filipino Smith trilogy? No? He was that short, fat, pasty, balding archaeologist with glasses, a nasal voice and who was always wearing a grey suit. You remember. He lived with his mother, had no friends and would spend years in his office writing letters to various authorities requesting permission to dig up ancient archaeological sites. Smith was wrist-slashingly patient about doing things strictly by the book and was committed to searching for his archaeological treasures through academic research which never once took him beyond three kilometres of his mother's home. As a result of his cautious nature, his total contribution to the world's collection of ancient treasures was a three-hundred year old (American) Indian moccasin ... well, actually, it was just one chunk of an Indian moccasin, which, he maintained throughout the trilogy, proved conclusively that Indians once wore moccasins. Really? You don't remember those films? That's odd.

Now that I think about it, I suppose in comparison with Indiana Jones, Filipino Smith wasn't really much of an adventurer, or at least not much like the kind of adventurer we admire. In fact, when we break it right down, there isn't really much to admire about him at all. He wasn't attractive in the least. He wasn't witty, interesting, charming, energetic, courageous or even the kind of person who could handle himself in an argument. He was neither independent in his personal life, nor in his work, and he was not likely to be tumbling in the hay with a buxom beauty any time soon.

But we watch and enjoy movies all the time which feature hopeless characters like Filipino Smith, so why weren't his movies as successful as Indiana's? I reckon it comes down to what we really admire in a hero; not the wit, physique, affability and intelligence - all admirable and attractive in their way - but the willingness to recognise what is right and just, and to break the rules and take risks in order to achieve it. That's what Indiana Jones really had going for him, and that's why he was such a fantastic hero.

This admiration for those who'll break the rules and take risks in the name of a just cause goes way beyond the thrills of fictitious action trilogies. In Australia, our entire national identity was founded on the battlefields of The Somme in World War I, when "our boys" distinguished themselves from the obedient, British "Tommys", by breaking all sorts of centuries-old, military conventions in order to take-on the wicked Hun, and as a result earned themselves a reputation as fierce shock-troops upon whom the allied military came to rely whenever an urgent offensive push was required. Their brash, outlandish and often undisciplined behaviour, which so often riled the British officers, far from being maligned back home, became a badge of honour, and the admirable virtues of true heroes.

Since those years, Australians have always admired those who are willing to take on the establishment for a just cause. We have always worshipped the daring, and the risk-taker, and by contrast, we detest and chastise those who would stand idle before a great wrong, for fear of personal disadvantage.

For example, how much do we admire that fellow employee with the sour disposition who has been with the organisation for thirty years, has never had a promotion and who complains every Monday morning about how much they hate the boss, how much they hate their job, and how "these young ones think they know everything"? And by contrast, what do we think of that "young one" who is just as miserable in his/her work, but who, after five years with the organisation, decides to throw it all in to go back to school for four years in order to have a crack at that career in journalism to which they always aspired? Of course, we admire the one who had the guts to take a risk, rather than the one who sits around and complains, but does nothing about it. Isn't it interesting that even though we know nothing about either of them, we start to think of this younger person, this urban hero, as likeable in comparison with the older individual ... and possibly even a bit sexy?

So without being able to help it, we admire the risk taker - it's part of our National psyche, and we'd all like to think that we, too, would take risks if it would contribute to the greater good. Which brings me to my point (Phew – it's about bloody time, Donkey!).

When out and about in the world, Donkey regularly finds himself employed to train various officials and personnel on how to plan their annual programs and activities by setting goals and objectives towards which they can work, and up until recently, I've always reckoned that I'm not too bad at it. Now, with one short exception, every job I've had in the last five years or so has been funded by Australian organisations, to meet Australian expectations and requirements. So when I work with people to develop goals and objectives that they should work towards achieving, what do you think is the first thing I tell them? "Remember, when setting your goals, make sure they are achievable. Don't ever set your goals too high; if they're too high you'll never succeed". In other words, "Do not try to achieve beyond your current abilities and remember, under no circumstances must you ever take risks!". Doesn't sound very Aussie, does it? Doesn't sound like the kind of stuff you'd expect from a bunch of people who'd be prepared to break all the rules in order to achieve what is good and just, does it? What are we teaching people from developing countries? To remain as mediocre as possible? Are we deliberately suppressing any tendency towards daring or bravery? Is this some capitalist ploy to keep the poor people poor?

Possibly the only thing less attractive than choosing to do nothing for fear of personal disadvantage, instead of taking a risk that could contribute to the greater good, is to teach hundreds of people to be just as cowardly and mediocre. Hmmm, perhaps it could be time for a change of career, Donkey!

Post script:

On the eve of the Australian Federal Election, one has to wonder how it is that a nation of people who supposedly admire the daring, the risk-taker and the kind of person who will break the rules in order to achieve what is good and just, has, over the last eleven years, demonstrated utter cowardice for change in the face of gross miscarriages of justice and human rights, and an increase in the number of disadvantaged, low-income Australians, simply so that they can hang-on to their precious tax cuts, petrol subsidies and low interest rates on their mortgages. One would hope that tomorrow, when Australians go to the polls, they remember who and what they admire, and that they right a great, eleven-year wrong, by daring to take a risk, and vote for change.

Indiana Jones or Filipino Smith: which would you choose for a tumble in the hay? Pics: and respectively.
Post-post script (24 hours later):
You bloody ripper!


BV said...

Man, you are so preaching to the choir. Stand up, people, stand up!

sabrina said...

Oooh i loved loved Indiana. It's sad that Connery isn't returning as his father...i thought they made a great pair