The Dispatch

Dispatch – March 12: Poor Things

One of the signs that elections are coming is that politicians suddenly concern themselves with your children’s best interests. The Georgian Dream government, for example, wants to keep them safe from what they call “LGBT propaganda” by legislating another illiberal law. The announcement has left Georgian liberals depressed and wondering how the party is going to “protect” us from yet another non-existent threat. But since they got the ball rolling, a closer look revealed the government policies may still end up “protecting” children from one crucial thing: education.

Here is Nini and the Dispatch newsletter to talk about the politicians who want to protect us from everything except the single most immediate threat – themselves.

Queer fears

The Georgian Dream announcing the so-called anti-LGBT propaganda bill on February 29 didn’t come as much of a surprise. Rights activists felt it was a matter of when, not if, ever since Georgians forced the party into eating its hat seasoned with the “foreign agent laws” last March (and we do recommend the two op-eds on how it happened: here and here).

The ruling party is now seeking to rally conservative voters in the widely homophobic country by scapegoating and vilifying its queer citizens and is holding the opposition hostage to questionable morals. Go ahead and oppose it, GD dares its opponents, confident that not many are ready to take the risk. Observers fear there is little common denominator for the kind of public mobilization that barred the “foreign agent law.”

So far, the opposition has chosen to play down the (yet unseen) bill, framing it as a campaign distraction and trying to bludgeon the GD on economic problems, such as rising prices. The LGBTQ+ community is also surprisingly silent, given that it is directly concerned. This may yet change – both local and international critics seem to be postponing an awkward conversation until the text of the bill is made public.

But the ruling party is bent on keeping the issue afloat. And while ex-PM Garibashvili is on a campaign trail scaring villagers with imminent gay invasion (and not forgetting to accuse the opposition of sponsoring queers), it fell to Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili, the distinguished gender-wrestler (remember this?), to become the media’s poster boy for “Gender Education.”

His advanced anatomy lectures on how a man is a man, a woman is a woman, and “biological markers are biological markers” were edifying. Mr. Speaker must indeed be glad to have found a new outlet for his overflowing powers of argumentation. We knew all along that he was bigger than his English-language tweets (or x-es?), which in turn were larger (in size) than the audience willing to read them. Men like him crave a larger audience – preferably the one that is not educated enough to see through the brainwashing tactics.

The government thus found a way to create such an audience through a reform that would put more focus on “national identity,” “patriotism,” and “family values” in general education. It started when one fine winter morning, then-PM Irakli Garibashvili woke up to the shocking realization that his government had spent the last decade using a curriculum drafted by their arch-enemies who – Garibashvili argued – had conducted “experiments” on Georgian youth through “pseudo reforms” launched in 2004.

Patriotism without style

Garibashvili changed chairs, but his legacy lives on. On February 26, the Ministry of Education unveiled the first two-page draft of the new educational goals – a document designed to define long-term teaching strategy – and magnanimously allowed less than two weeks for public feedback. A handful of experts scrambled to meet the tight deadline. And they found that… the document was so badly written, it hardly made sense.

The text “needs semantic and stylistic correction,” wrote Simon Janashia, a leading education expert. The document has been presented “in violation of stylistic, linguistic norms,” commented the Social Justice Center and the Education Coalition, lamenting that the way it was written made it hard to give sensible, structured commentary.

And if you looked into the document, like we did, you’d know what they meant. The draft looks like the Ministry just took things that looked like “values” from the previous document, mixed them in a large cauldron with whatever the GD talking heads now say are “the values en vogue” and scattered that mix liberally (wrong value alert!) throughout the text.

Still, the experts could figure out that shoehorning things like “national values” and “family traditions” into the text squeezed out some important things (besides syntaxis and coherence).

Janashia wrote in his assessment that the draft document has overtones “that are characteristic of contemporary right-wing populist party rhetoric.” While saying that updating the strategic goals of education policy after 20 years is a good thing, he worried that the focus and presentation make the document look like the GD’s election flyer rather than a policy document.

Worse, both critical assessments found the document portrays a student as a “product” or “passive recipient of education.” According to Janashia, the draft document views the teaching process in terms of the “transmission” of knowledge and values “rather than allowing students to actively build their knowledge, develop values, and comprehend them.”

He says the goals also make students see themselves as “subordinates” to the state and its institutions instead of “seeing the state as the expression of the will of the citizens.” And those goals are defined “from a nationalist perspective” – an ideology, Janashia fears, that has already infected the classrooms. The two watchdogs, the Social Justice Center and the Education Coalition, share these concerns.

But let’s not be too critical. The drafters undoubtedly had the children’s best interests at heart – with what little money and talent the government is investing in education, they will end up illiterate anyway, so let’s at least make them proud of who they are (or are not).

Who knows, all these nationalistic and “multi-phobic” sentiments the current political leaders are indoctrinating may one day advance their own political undoing. And while it may serve them right, it will hardly mean a happy ending for the country.


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