February 26th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The WMC takeover - losing our last mining giant

EDITORIAL: A challenge to the biotech corporations?

SCHOOLS: The battle for our children's minds

SPECIAL FEATURE: 1.5 million dead Armenians (but don't tell the EU)

ECONOMICS: Australia's plight in dire need of a remedy

SUGAR INDUSTRY: Anger at stalled sugar package

ENERGY: Ethanol needed for new fuel, engine standards

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Conspiracy against public health / Half a loaf is better than one / Palm oil - a New Class aphrodisiac

IRAQ: Shi'ite win in Iraq elections vindicates US role

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS: China's anti-secession law raises tension

CHINA: Beijing's ban on sex-selective abortion

POPULATION: Why Australia must decentralise to new states now

OPINION: The tsunami of bias

The Holocaust Industry (letter)

Communist killings (letter)

Putin a second Stolypin? (letter)

The Left and the Iraq War (letter)

Misinformation about WW2 bombing (letter)

No reaction to Dutch infanticide (letter)

Link queried (letter)

Sure-fire recipe for disaster (letter)

BOOKS: DAWKINS' GOD: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, by Alister McGrath

BOOKS: GOD UNDER HOWARD: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics

Books promotion page

The battle for our children's minds

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, February 26, 2005
In the US, it's known as the culture wars: the battle between a liberal-humanist view of education based on the disinterested pursuit of truth and those committed to overthrowing the status quo and turning students into politically-correct new-age warriors.

The editorial in the latest edition of English in Australia, the journal of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE), provides ample evidence that the culture wars have reached our shores and that those seeking to control our schools prefer indoctrination to education.

Wayne Sawyer, the president of the NSW English Teachers Association and chairman of the NSW Board of Studies English Curriculum Committee, bemoans the fact that the Howard Government was re-elected and cites this as evidence that English teachers have failed in their job.

To read and write

Parents and the general public might be forgiven for thinking that English teachers, instead of teaching students the "right" way to vote, should be more concerned with teaching students to read and write and to value good literature. Not so.

Sawyer asks: "What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical generation that those who brought us balaclava-clad security guards, Alsatians and Patrick's stevedoring could declare themselves the representatives of the workers and be supported by the electorate?

"Three years before, Howard had headlined the non-existent children overboard; he had put race firmly on the agenda as an election issue and cynically manipulated the desperation and poverty of our Pacific neighbours. What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical, ethical citizenry that that kind of deception is rewarded?"

One might imagine, in a democracy such as ours, that once the people have voted, those who voted the other way would accept the outcome and respect the people's judgment. Not so Sawyer.

As is so characteristic of the elites who seek to control Australia's cultural agenda, Sawyer refuses to accept that the people may have got it right and that their decision, while unacceptable to him, might be based on sound judgment.

What Sawyer also fails to consider is that such was the Howard Government's record - high employment, low inflation and secure borders - and the dismal performance of the ALP, that voting for the Coalition might have been the action of a sensible person.

Even worse than Sawyer's jaundiced view about the election - and the apparent failure of English teachers to get tomorrow's adults to vote the way he would like - is what the editorial tells us about how English is now taught.

In the postmodern classroom, literacy is defined as social-critical literacy and texts are "deconstructed" to show how disadvantaged groups, such as girls and women, are marginalised and dispossessed. Ignored is the aesthetic and moral value of great literature.

The result? Traditional fairytales such as Jack and the Beanstalk and children's classics such as The Magic Far Away Tree are criticised for presenting boys as masculine and physically assertive and for failing to show girls in dominant positions.

The English classroom was once a place to learn how to read and write. In the edubabble much loved by teacher educators such as Wayne Martino, this more traditional approach is considered obsolete and, as an alternative, the English classroom must be "conceptualised as a sociopolitical site where alternative reading positions can be made available to students outside of an oppressive male-female dualistic hierarchy - outside of an oppressive phallocentric signifying system for making meaning".

In line with the PC approach to curriculum, the AATE also argues that competitive assessment is inequitable and socially unjust, and that testing and failing students in areas such as literacy is bad for their self-esteem.

Given that the AATE has promoted such failed fads as whole language, it is understandable why the association refused to accept the results of the 1996 national survey that showed 27 per cent of Year 3 and 29 per cent of Year 5 students failed to reach the minimum standard in reading.

"Manufactured crisis"

In the words of a past president of the AATE, Margaret Gill, all is well in Australia's classrooms and the concern about standards is simply a "manufactured crisis".

A federally funded survey of Australian parents carried out in 1997 discovered that 60 per cent of those interviewed did not believe that teachers were professional enough or well enough trained to teach about politics without bias. Judged by the actions of professional associations such as the AATE, it appears that they are correct.

  • Kevin Donnelly, a former chief of staff to federal Employment Minister, Kevin Andrews, is author of Why Our Schools are Failing (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2004).

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