Thursday, November 30, 2006


Standing up for standards?

For some time now conservative commentators and politicians have been arguing that there is a literacy crisis in this country. Claims of falling standards have been widespread. With regards to the teaching of reading, the argument that there needs to be a renewed focus on phonics has been put forward. The Australian newspaper, in particular, has been very vocal in support of this argument. This recent opinion piece, for example, was supported by an approving editorial. Its author also approvingly refers to another commentator, who regularly writes for the newspaper.,20867,20735845-13881,00.html

Support for an extreme phonics based approach in this country has come despite increasing evidence from the US which shows that students drilled in phonics are not learning to effectively comprehend what they read as they move into high school, and are not well equipped to cope with extended texts and content area reading.

The OECD PISA results confirm that Australian 15 year olds are achieving higher reading comprehension test scores than their US counterparts.

All of this makes what follows a laughable but timely cautionary tale.

Last Saturday, I submitted to The Australian the following letter to the editor. This was written in response to the suggestion made in that day's editorial that the Australian arm of the US publishing giant Scholastics is left-leaning in its policies and practices.

Saturday’s editorial on censorship left me alarmed. It appears that the long march of the left through our cultural institutions has extended to Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher of children’s books.

This multinational has a corporate mission to help children around the world to read and learn. But parents and teachers should be alert to the dangerous, left-leaning propaganda it is pedalling. Two titles given prominence on the corporation’s US web site give the game away: ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ and ‘I Spy’. And could that be a stick of gelignite ‘Captain Underpants’ has down the front of his jocks?

I was beginning to think that the editor’s criticisms of the ‘soft left’ were beginning to verge on the paranoiac. Not now. Where do I enlist for the culture wars?

This is what was published on the following Monday:

Your editorial on censorship left me alarmed. It appears that the long march of the Left through our cultural institutions has extended to Scholastic.
This multinational has a corporate mission to help children around the world to read and learn. But parents and teachers should be alert to the dangerous, Left-leaning views inherent in the publishing world.

I raised the issue of my argument being entirely altered in the editing process with the letters editor on the Monday. (It must be said that he had not been working over the weekend.) I received the following reply:

You are quite right (How the tone of yr letter was so completely misread puzzles me, to say the least).

I'm happy to publish a clarifing letter tomorrow. I can compose something and send it to you for your approval or you can send something to me. Whichever suits

Regards and apologies

To its credit, The Australian did publish a clarifying letter (but not an apology).

There is a clear message here about the place of comprehension in the reading process. Reading is so much more than word recognition and the blending of sounds.

There is probably also a parable to be found about having your own house in order before you start talking about falling standards elsewhere.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


Clifford: a big, RED dog?

If readers of editorials published in The Australian throughout 2006 still need any convincing of the all-pervasive cultural influence of the soft-left in this country, then today's editorial should decide matters for them. Apparently, the major international educational publisher Scholastic pursues a left-leaning publishing policy, and is soft on terror:,20867,20816387-7583,00.html

This editorial has left me alert and alarmed. It ineluctably establishes that the long march of the left through our cultural institutions has extended to the Australian arm of the world’s largest publisher of children’s books.

This multinational has a corporate mission to help children around the world to read and learn. But parents and teachers should be alert to the dangerous, left-leaning propaganda it is pedalling. Two titles given prominence on the corporation’s US web site give the game away: ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ and ‘I Spy’. And could that be a stick of gelignite ‘Captain Underpants’ has down the front of his jocks?

I was beginning to think that criticisms in The Australian of the ‘soft left’ were beginning to echo 'reds-under-the bed', cold war style paranoia. Not now. Where do I enlist for the culture wars?

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Just who are you calling airhead?

The problem with catch-phrases is that while they are attention-grabbing, they can quickly turn around and bite you on the bum. I am thinking here of the fun punsters have had on the front of t-shirts with the Nike ‘Just Do It!’ slogan, or the ironies some Australian comedians have found in the advertising slogans state governments have dreamed up to promote the attractions of their particular part of the country.

A week or so ago, The Australian gave space over to an extract from a new book by a former deputy editor, Shelley Gare.,20876,20735845-28737,00.html

Gare’s book is called The Triumph of the Airheads - and the Retreat from Commonsense. In the extract she pushes a familiar line, decrying the influence on education of poststructuralist deconstruction, postmodernism and constructivism. The usual sweeping generalisations are made: standards are lower today, grammar is no longer taught, kids can’t spell…. and so on, ad infinitum.

Gare reserves the soubriquet ‘airheads’ for those who ascribe to these theories. These deluded individuals, she suggests, are the enemies of ‘common sense’.

But is this not a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

As with much educational commentary in this country in recent times, Gare tends to offer anecdote as verifiable proof of a larger social trend. Where data exists, for example the PISA results relating to the reading comprehension of 15 year olds, she criticises the test instrument for not doing what it was never set up to do (ie test spelling and grammar). This is a line that The Australian has been running for some time:,20867,20658123-2702,00.html

I am not sure when ‘informed commentary’ became a synonym for vacuity in this country’s media. However, in the spirit of post-modern ‘playfulness’, something which well and truly gets Ms Gare’s back up, I am willing to fit with the times, embrace the trend and give it a go myself.

Here are two short pieces about subjects that have recently been on my mind.

Venerable Educational Institutions Have Failed the Elite

Talking to a German newspaper reporter earlier this year, the leader of the free world, Harvard educated President George W. Bush says, "The point now is how do we work together to achieve important goals. And one such goal is a democracy in Germany.”

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Laws, slides into postmodernist relativism and declares that a promise can be either ‘core’ or ‘non-core’.

Leader of the Opposition in the Australian parliament, Kim Beazley, a product of Oxford University, confuses Karl Rove with Australian television personality Rove McManus.

Prominent international socialite Paris Hilton, who attended the ultra-exclusive Dwight School in the US, explains that French is the only language spoken in Europe.

Eton educated Prince Harry wears a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party for a lark.

Do you see the trend?

Throughout the western world, prestigious educational institutions, many charging exorbitant fees, have been producing generations of ignorant, insensitive and hapless clowns.

One can only ponder how things might otherwise have been for these poor individuals if they had been exposed to the rigours of a spell in an under funded state high school or regional redbrick university.

Action is needed, and it is needed urgently. Let us not forget the fall of Rome and the collapse of the Ancien Regime in France. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril.

I say bulldoze the ivy clad institutions responsible for the intellectual decline of our social betters.

What is needed is a voucher system that would give the rich and powerful access to a decent, state funded education. Market forces alone have clearly failed to ensure that some of our oldest and most prestigious institutions provide a high standard education.


Deluded educators who have suggested that Australian students are amongst the most literate in the world have been discredited by incisive criticisms of the OECD PISA reading test.

The much vaunted claim that Australian students are amongst the most literate in the world has been cast into doubt by the shocking revelation that this test ignores the fundamentals of spelling, and instead promotes the lunatic idea that reading comprehension is a necessary skill for success in life.

The idea that reading comprehension, understanding written texts and applying that knowledge, is important has been dismissed by journalists as modish faddism- a ‘new age life skill’. It is a significant ‘failure’ on the part of the PISA test that it ‘does not examine the correct use of language’.

At the time of writing, it was yet to be revealed how a test that is run in 40 different countries and in a number of different languages could assess correct spelling.

The fact that Italian, for example, has about 45 different letter-sound combinations, and Spanish even fewer, while English has over 300, has been dismissed as post-modern relativism, designed to discredit the international standing of the English language.

What do Australian educators have to hide when they suggest, as one did at a recent conference of English teachers, that past a certain level, Italian and Spanish schoolchildren rarely make spelling mistakes, while in English some remarkably intelligent people, who on every other measure are highly literate, remain poor spellers?

Pointing out that many renowned authors, including Jane Austen, Charles Darwin Robert Lowell and Scott Fitzgerald, have been poor spellers is mere humbuggery.

Spelling by itself can, and should be, taken as a measure of literacy. Constructivist approaches that let our children be creative in their spelling need to be replaced by historically proven methods, such as drilling in word lists.

Australia does not need children who can think about, understand, evaluate and apply what they read. The future prosperity and security of this proud nation rests on a citizenry which can recite what it has been told to recite.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


Killing the light on the hill?

Kevin Donnelly has once again evoked the Western tradition in his criticisms of contemporary schooling, dismissing as left-wing radicalism attempts across the western world to ameliorate social disadvantage through education.,20867,20611053-7583,00.html

Upon reading Dr Donnelly’s latest piece, I was left wondering what Plato and Aristotle – to name just two venerable ancients- would make of Donnelly’s ideas on what is "reasonable" in education.

Plato equated learning with moral improvement. He argued that justice requires that the strong look after the weak. As such, society has a moral compulsion to ensure the good of the many.

Aristotle described the good life in the following terms: "the happy person is one who expresses complete virtue in his activities, with an adequate supply of external goods, not just for any time but for a complete life." This definition draws attention to Aristotle’s belief that virtue demands the good of the many outweigh the good of the few. To offer a leg up to one individual is to virtously assist him or her on the path to the good life. To refuse this same helping hand to another is to make it more difficult for them to achieve this same goal - an action lacking in virtue.

Indeed, the great enemy of moral conduct according to Aristotle is the failure to behave virtously when one's deliberations have resulted in clear knowledge of what is right. Given that Aristotle believed that a central function of education is to make people virtuous, it seems hard to imagine that he would oppose the idea of addressing issues of social inequality and disadvantage in schools both systemically and through the curriculum.

We now understand that the Australian education system actively discriminates against the most disadvantaged students. Summing up the implications of OECD testing for this nation, Barry McGaw (an Australian and Director of Education for the OECD) has suggested that Australia can be described in international terms as having a ‘high quality, low equity’ education system. In other words, Australia has an education system in which the most advantaged students are even further advantaged, and the most disadvantaged are even further disadvantaged. McGaw has contrasted the way Australia has ‘ignored equity’, with the better outcomes being achieved by disadvantaged students in countries such as Finland, Canada and Ireland.

There is a very clear rejoinder in McGaw’s words, and it is one that accords with the wisdom of the ancients. Virtue demands that we recognise and act upon the moral imperative to do something about the inequalities which exist in and are reproduced through schooling in Australia.

Which brings me back to Kevin Donnelly’s piece. Dr Donnelly appears to believe that it is a national moral imperative to sort students into winners and losers through ensuring ‘failure’ for some. (Barry McGaw has identified who these students typically are: those who start their schooling already suffering from significant disadvantage.)

Without irony or apology, Donnelly decries the focus in schools on ‘victim groups, such as women, migrants and Aborigines.’ The fact that victim is not qualified in his piece (“victim”) is telling. The word is not tentatively offered to the reader; it is not a word to be questioned, challenged or resisted. It is now a fact, if not an inevitability; a label putting these people in their right and proper place, in keeping with his desire to sort out the successful from the failures.

The fact that Donnelly is suggesting that attention (and one presumes resources and assistance) should be turned away from such groups, indicates an apparent belief that it is “right” to in fact ignore the causes of social inequality and disadvantage. Rather than focussing on pressing social questions related to the fulfillment of human potential, we should instead turn our gaze to ‘events’, ‘significant figures’ and ‘milestones’. Reading this list of supposed curriculum essentials, I was reminded of the way in which Graham Parr and Natalie Bellis evoke the spirit of Dickens’s dour schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind in their recent English in Australia piece on neo-liberal ideology and literacy teaching in Australia.
Tellingly, by the end of Hard Times Gradgrind abandons his inflexible demands for facts in favour of "Faith, Hope, and Charity". I am not sure Kevin Donnelly is going to have a similar road to Damascus experience any time soon.

In characterising as left-wing radicalism attempts to address issues of social inequality through education, Donnelly inexplicably makes a case for the morality of entrenching social disadvantage.

Surely a defining virtue of this nation has been an enduring heart-felt belief in a ‘fair go’ for all. That belief is now evidently under attack. It adds insult to injury when those doing the attacking then seek to suggest that they do so in the name of the western ‘tradition’. Plato, Aristotle, and Dickens would not recognise the virtue in Donnelly’s clinical social Darwinism.

And neither would, many might argue, Jesus. This is a point Kevin Rudd, Federal Member for Griffith, has made recently in speaking and writing about the wholly admirable German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rudd emphasises the way Bonhoeffer reminds Christians that faith means nothing if it does not lead to social action.

In his Monthly piece, Rudd evokes Ben Chifley’s famous ‘light on the hill’ as an enlarging vision of the way that values of decency, fairness and compassion are “still etched deep in our national soul”.
Some, it would seem, would like to switch off that light.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


The cultural cringe in education

The following articles outline the deleterious consequences in the UK and US of governments centralising school curriculum initiatives and mandating a narrow range of teaching strategies. Both are timely given the debate surrounding a national curriculum and school effectiveness in Australia. This sort of international contextualisation of the debate has not taken place in Australia to date. (use Billions for an Inside Game on Reading & Michael Grunwald in The Washington Post's Search engine),20867,20557863-13881,00.html

The first article from the US concerns the teaching of reading, and the possible corruption and mismanagement which has stemmed from the introduction of a program called ‘Reading First’, introduced as a result of the federal government’s No Child Left Behind legislation. A narrow phonics based approach has been mandated by law. This program has in effect centralised control of how reading is taught in US schools, and indeed how reading itself is defined. Teacher professional learning in the area of reading must now conform to the dictates of the federal government. In short, the professionalism of teachers, that is to say the ability of teachers in different school contexts to devise learning programs with the needs and interests of their students in mind, has been severely restricted.

The report highlights how the supposedly ‘scientifically based reading research’ has been hijacked by commercial publishers, with instances of the approval and funding of state reading programs having been contingent upon the use of a particular commercial product in schools.

Many elements of this program, and the supposed science upon which it is based, were endorsed as world’s best practice in ‘Teaching Reading’, the 2005 report of the inquiry into the teaching of literacy conducted on behalf of the Australian federal government.

In relation to the UK, a number of David Starkey’s comments were very telling and in effect amount to an endorsement of arguments recently put forward in this country by the likes of ex-principal Judith Wheeldon,20867,20537069-13881,00.htmland Jeff Kennett,20867,20548169-13881,00.html in support of curriculum diversity in Australia. These prominent citizens are hardly the radical Maoists federal education Minister Julie Bishop claims seek to propagate their left-wing thinking through state curriculums.,20867,20533224-13881,00.html

Starkey’s claim that highly prescriptive curriculums, combined with a fear in schools of failing in league tables, have produced "nothing but elaborately polished mediocrity" among students, who are coached to pass exams but not to understand their subjects, sounds a clear warning against simplistic claims that a national curriculum and ranking schools against each other will ensure better learning.

A national curriculum and renewed focus on the basics seem to make a good deal of sense. We all want the best for our children. However, when the facts of student performance in this country and international trends in education are considered, Julie Bishop’s grab for control is not as ‘sensible’ as she claims it to be.

The federal government’s recent inquiry into the teaching of literacy concluded that Australian students “compare well” with students in other OECD countries, with only a “minority” not acquiring acceptable levels of literacy. In the areas of literacy and critical thinking, Australian students outperform students from England and the US, two countries that have centralised the curriculum and legislated drilling in the basic skills. Things are now so parlous in the US, with students not being taught to read for meaning and learning, that a Carnegie Foundation report has concluded “when it comes to student literacy, [the US] is clearly on the wrong track.”

That the federal minister wants to take this nation down the same path is a manifestation of the cultural cringe. It reflects the fraught state of federal and state relations and is not good educational policy.

Julie Bishop has made a vitriolic attack on Australian teachers in her criticisms of their work on state curriculums, as well as her condemnation of their professional associations and trade unions. I can only conclude that she wants to engender amongst teachers the "cynicism" and loss of autonomy, self-confidence and sense of risk that David Starkey bemoans.

In the face of more reasonable and moderate arguments put forward in support of a national curriculum, such as those put forward by Professor Alan Reid (UniSA) and Karren Philp (president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English), the minister sounds shrill, evasive and vacuous.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello & Poetics

In one of those moments of coincidence (which will not strike those who are avid readers as odd), I continued reading Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello last night and found him to be grappling with the same issues I had been raising in relation to Williamson's distinction between Rhetoric and Story (see my last post). Life does, at times, seem to imitate art.

I was struck by two passages in particular, which resonate with what I was trying to say in my last post (albeit much less elegantly than Coetzee).

The first speaks to what I was trying to say about the public outpouring of grief for Brock and Irwin. Coetzee's writer protagonist, Elizabeth Costello, contemplating old age and death, is said to "like to think that the gods [note: to whom she attributes the invention of death] admire, however, grudgingly, our energy, the endless ingenuity with which we try to elude our fate. Fascinating creatures, she would like to think they remark to each other over their ambrosia; so like us in so many respects; their eyes in particular so expressive; what a pity they lack that je ne sais quoi without which they can never ascend to sit beside us!"

The second raises the way that poetics might shape what we understand about our emotions and how we learn to 'feel' and act. In this wonderfully metaphysical scene, Elizabeth makes application to a panel of judges, which will determine whether she is allowed to pass through the Gate to the 'other side'. Elizabeth is interrogated about her beliefs, and the judges begin to hone in on her claim that, as an author, she is a "secretary of the invisible" ( a phrase she has taken from Milosz). Elizabeth is asked, "the old Tasmanians, the ones who were exterminated. Do you have any special opinions about them?" Finding her answer - "beliefs are not the only ethical supports we have. We can rely on our hearts as well"-unsatisfactory, the judge continues. "But as a writer? You present yourself today not in your own person but as a special case, a special destiny, a writer who has written not just entertainments but books exploring the complexities of human conduct. In those books you make one judgement upon another, it must be so. What guides you in these judgements? Do you persist in saying it is all just a matter of heart? Have you no beliefs as a writer? If a writer is just a human being with a human heart, what is so special about your case?"

Fatigue beat me last night and I could read no further. But I am very much looking forward to seeing how Coetzee deals with this question through Elizabeth. I am not blind to the authoritarian impulse in the image of these superior distant figures interrogating Elizabeth as to her beliefs (and the way it refers back to other famous trial scenes in literature: Dostoyevsky, Kafka...). But the issues they raise are compelling. Elizabeth herself acknowledges this when the judge finishes, "No fool.... For the first time this day she feels tested."

These last words are, for me, an eloquent expression of the place of theory in the study of literature. To want to test beliefs is NOT the same as having no beliefs at all. It is the desire to want to live an examined life, something the ancients urged us to do. It is about tradition, not anarchy.

Monday, October 09, 2006


A Response to David Williamson

A thoughtful and measured response to the national curriculum debate from David Williamson was published in The Australian today.,20867,20546352-7583,00.html

Williamson quite rightly highlights the rhetorical tradition in English, and –surprise, surprise- even suggests there is a place for post-structuralist approaches in the classroom. He uses some apposite examples from canonical literature to highlight how English teaching is inevitably political in nature because of the way the greatest literary works have dealt with such loaded themes as the exercising of power, social stratification, poverty, race, gender and so on. It is almost inevitable that aware young readers will draw parallels between the fictive worlds of these texts and their own.

As I imagine all English teachers would be, I am sympathetic to Williamson’s argument about the affirming power of great literature and the way it imaginatively brings to life the ‘guiding emotions’ of human experience. So many wonderful stories that I read through my childhood and adolescence stay with me today. Indeed, they have all informed who I now am and what I believe. That this appears to be a common - if not universal - experience amongst colleagues (indeed there is research to suggest this is the primary reason why people choose to become English teachers) gives lie to the idea that English classrooms are now inhabited by political ideologues. After all, how many teachers have really become high school English teachers because they are passionate about deconstruction? However, it is because they are alive to the power of literature and its capacity to inform a rich and imaginative life that many English teachers do take theories such as post –structuralism seriously. Such a theory does not negate the power and wonder of literature: it instead emphasises and confirms it by seeking to explain the basis of its transformative powers.

So, it is on this point that I cannot agree with Williamson. His suggestion about splitting ‘Rhetoric’ from ‘Story’ strikes me as unconvincing. It seems to me that Williamson underestimates the power of poetics or literary discourse to actually shape how we understand and enact the proper expression of what he calls the ‘guiding emotions’.

The recent public mourning of the deaths of Peter Brock and Steve Irwin is a case in point. The excessive public attention given to the deaths of these two accomplished men seems to me to draw at once on the conventions of tragic drama and epic adventure. Here were two intrepid heroes, each living much ‘larger’, more thrilling and colourful lives than the rest of us, daring to tempt fate at every turn. Yet, each man was also one of us. They retained a ‘common touch’; they were not gods but god-like. Because they were mortal, it was inevitable that fate would win out - as many great stories remind us. The greatest narratives of all time teach us that we can only aspire- or, as some would have it, are only allowed – to test the limits of our humanity, and therefore our mortality, so far. So we mourn Brock and Irwin. Indeed, to do otherwise has been labelled ‘unAustralian’. Their ‘largeness’ reminds us of our ‘smallness’, their risk taking reminds us of our trepidation. Above all, their too-early deaths remind each of us of our own inevitable fate; in mourning them we anticpate our own demise and mourn for the loss of the hope that we too might yet have lived as giants.

Meanwhile, for the days that Brock and Irwin dominate our media, countless other less 'heroic' deaths (eg the victims of famine and civil war) pass unremarked and unmourned, relegated to a few seconds of screen time in television news bulletins or a few words in the middle pages of the major newspapers. Our great stories of the past have not taught us to weep for the deaths of these innocents, the victims of man’s enduring inhumanity to his own kind.

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