January 29th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Lessons of the tsunami tragedy

TAX REFORM: Time to abolish income tax?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Labor needs new direction as well as new leader

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Labor after the Latham experiment

WA ELECTIONS: Labor's Geoff Gallop looking at defeat

FREEDOM OF SPEECH: The perils of vilification laws

EDUCATION: Deconstructing 'Critical Literacy'

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Ockham's Razor ... or Jack the Ripper? / Hogarth's Melbourne / Victoria's ailing hospitals

RUSSIA: Putin, Communism, and Santamaria's hopes for Russia

INDONESIA: Jemaah Islamiah's threat to regional security

Swifter response needed (letter)

Labor misrepresented (letter)

WW2 Allied air raids (letter)

CINEMA: Behind the Kinsey legend

BOOKS: BIOEVOLUTION: How Biotechnology is Changing the World, by Michael Fumento

BOOKS: EICHMANN: His Life and Crimes, by David Cesarani

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Deconstructing 'Critical Literacy'

by John Kelly

News Weekly, January 29, 2005
Many schoolchildren today are routinely taught that, ultimately, there is no such thing as objective knowledge or meaning. This educational fad is called "Critical Literacy" or "Deconstruction".

John Kelly, a secondary-school teacher in South Australia, argues that the New Left is deliberately using its educational monopoly to enforce "Critical Literacy" on today's generation of culturally disinherited schoolchildren and undergraduates.

That something is seriously amiss in the teaching of English is finally being addressed in part by Mr Brendan Nelson's inquiry into literacy (News Weekly, November 20, 2004), despite the protests of those in parts of academia and teachers' unions who appear to dwell in a chronic state of denial.

The Federal Minister for Education's initiative, while welcome, cannot however be confined to the basic "mechanics" of reading at primary and middle school levels.

It needs to tackle, too, the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of that form of literary criticism known as "Critical Literacy" - a method of interpretation embedded in many English and humanities departments and transmitted now, via teacher-training and professional development, to secondary schools, where, to date, it seems to have been exempted from the scrutiny to which it has subjected long-tested theory and practice.

Behind the catchy exhortations to students to be "active makers of meaning" and "creators of their own knowledge" (phrases used to advertise "Critical Literacy" in recently revised English curricula throughout Australia), lie several philosophical strands:

First is the doctrinaire sceptical stance of Jürgen Habermas' "hermeneutic of suspicion" which presupposes that all institutional rationales (except those, it seems, of the New Left) are merely exercises in self-legitimising rhetorical afflatus. Coupled with this is the postmodernist literary theory of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and others who deny that language can have any fixed meaning.

Second is the Romantic assumption of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose scepticism towards societal institutions was complemented by his utopian belief, expressed in Emile, of the native genius of the deschooled student, a sort of "scholar gypsy".

Such a student's natural creativity, Rousseau argued, could best be served by self-directed learning without the constraints of a structured environment and prescribed curriculum with its attendant external disciplines.

Rousseau's idealised student is the prototype of individualistic disengagement from what society at large deemed to be worthwhile and necessary in maintaining and developing common values and shared knowledge.

A further identifiable strand - perhaps the most influential because of its author's seminal philosophical status in the modern Germanic tradition - is Kant's subjective idealism, with its emphasis on the processes of knowing and the thinking subject, rather than on what is known; as well as on the rejection of the power of language to grasp realities themselves, as distinct from one's perception of them.

A Kantian provenance is most recently discernible in Kalmer's "Critical Writing Pedagogy", which urges the development of student "self-consciousness about how stories are told, how they are made, how they might be written differently" (English in Australia, 2004, no. 138).

In Kalmer's scheme, the accent is clearly on the reader's self-awareness; and on technique rather than on aesthetic, social, moral and spiritual value, or knowledge in itself.

This dubious epistemology slides pedagogically in "Critical Literacy" to the repudiation of objective intentionality and the possibility of its expression on the part of a "text's" author, and stressing of the cultural attitudes and contexts the reader brings to the work under consideration.

Sleight of hand

Any basis of meaning inherent in the text having thus been dispensed with, the grounds of interpretation and authority are shifted from the text to the reader, who supplies, or "makes" meaning - the "constructivist" aspect of the interpretative process permitted by the initial "deconstructionist strategies" - the reader becoming, by sleight-of-hand assertion, "empowered" in the exercise.

So, what Dante intended and achieved in The Divine Comedy, Shakespeare in Macbeth, or Swift in Gulliver's Travels, is not of primary concern as it is essentially indeterminate; it is rather what, I, as reader, "make" of the text that is paramount.

In its worst manifestations, the text is reduced to a mere occasion for exhibiting the student's preconceptions (or even ignorance and prejudices) which are duly rewarded for their novelty value, not their closely considered and textually justified depth.

The deliberate political aim of "Critical Literacy" in relation to the pursuit of disinterested, objective knowledge is the subversion of "dominant discourses" constructed by church, state, education systems and any other body that exercises authority or exhibits "privileged positioning" in society; or any cognitive theory, for that matter.

The authority and universality of truth are dismissed and replaced by a subjective "construction" of reality.

Shock value

The effective upshot is a mindset of aesthetic, moral, social and cultural relativism, with the "interactivity", "excitement", or "shock-value" it generates becoming the criterion for its validity.

Of more immediate concern, however, for students and student teachers rehearsed in the practices of "Critical Literacy", is the diminishing of confidence and reasonable conviction in their ability to make appropriately substantiated judgments about literary works (or films) that transcend their own personal reactions.

To this add the dismantling of authoritative interpretation in literature, and society has a serious problem of affirming and communicating shared values and meanings, especially when "diversity" is advanced as a primary thrust in current curriculum statements through the endorsement of "multiple readings" (interpretations), "multiple intelligences" and lately, "multi-modal literacies".

The question necessarily arises as to how society's future citizens are to develop an edifying sense of shared knowledge, values and meaning, without which there can be no social coherence.

Ancient Greek thinkers sanely recognised the perennial historical tension between "the one and the many"; post-modernist education purports to solve the problem by effectively eliminating its unitive term of reference, extolling a diversity and intellectual dispersion that is potentially anarchic.

When the best Athenian philosophers regarded one who did not share the language of the polis as an "idiot", they were not necessarily being unkind so much as paying due respect to the importance of language and its specified usage, intellectually and socially.

What common sense or social good can come from the nihilistic sophistry offered by "Deathhead" songwriter Chris Jester, who recently invoked Derrida's deconstructionism in evading any responsibility for "misunderstandings" about the meaning of his lyrics in The Call?

The lyrics run:

The soul it hurts but it no longer bleeds
The heart's spawn has been conceived
The welcoming heir to the throne of hell
Mine to claim and serve it well.

Jester maintains that Derrida's deconstructionism permits the phrase "welcoming heir to the throne of hell" to just as much mean, "I'll have extra anchovies on that pizza", as "I would welcome it, if during my next programme, you would unload the contents of a 12-gauge shotgun into my stomach" - a grim reference to the December 2004 murder of US heavy-metal "hero", Darrell "Dimebag" Abbott.

In relation to the same incident, Paul Di'Anno, Iron Maiden's lead vocalist, claims heavy-metal lyrics are "actually intended as contributions to the English poetic canon in the tradition of Shakespeare and Donne" (Imre Saluzinsky, The Australian, December 16, 2004).

At school level, reflecting in imaginative terms "constructivist" theory, deconstructionism's Panglossian twin, Brian Moon (Literary Terms, A Practical Glossary, 1992) likens "texts" to "the toys that children make out of blocks and constructor sets ... what makes these things meaningful is the information supplied by the child ... For a text to mean anything at all readers must fill in the information." Readers "make meaning" by supplying "memories, imagination, playfulness."

By Moon's account, then, interpretation is essentially a subjective exercise, as the meanings associated with the text are not gleaned primarily from the work itself under consideration, but rather, provided extraneously by the reader.

To appreciate how radical a departure this notion is from the traditional, indeed normal, understanding of interpretation, it is worth recalling T.S. Eliot's identification, in a letter to the poet Stephen Spender, of distinct stages in the interpretative and literary critical process:

  • an initial "surrender", that is, an openness or receptivity which respects the otherness, or 'integrity' of what is being read;

  • then a "recovery", the movement towards detached and integrating reflection;

  • and finally "having something to say".

This last stage is where articulated response occurs which, while representing fairly what has been read, transcends the immediate, locating it in a broader cultural perspective and connecting both the work read and readers' responses to a literary field and experience beyond themselves (F. Kermode, Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, London: Faber & Faber, 1975).

This is a more exigent, illuminating and satisfying - not to mention culturally and socially enlightening - pursuit, surely, than the mind revolving in a comparatively small and ultimately atrophying orbit of its own self-conscious experience? That way, hubris and lunacy would appear to lie, psychologically, socially and hermeneutically.

Ideologically, "Critical Literacy" serves well the purposes of the New Left's exclusively pragmatic view of schooling as a means for producing "equal outcomes" and an egalitarian society.

The relativising of truth to the point where common bonds that the pursuit of truth and excellence encourage are ruptured, facilitates ideological redefinition and reductivism that the New Left's educational monopoly in all states is earnestly exploiting.


Higher, objectively accessible standards and, increasingly, subject-specific exams are collapsed under the weight of impractically diversified syllabi, teacher-student negotiation, and work-required, as distinct from qualitative, assessment.

In English, no single "text" has greater inherent entitlement, be it literary or cinematic, than another for inclusion in the syllabus, since no text can be deemed to possess intrinsic value; it is merely one authorial construct among others, whose conspicuousness and durability, if it enjoys them, are dependent on extrinsic factors such as race, class, or gender.

Nor can there validly be a corpus of literature, secular or religious, which deserves a special, let alone authoritative, place in the individual's or society's intellectual and spiritual consciousness. Claims to such "privileging" are "elitist" pretence, the result of oppressive "discrimination" and "exclusivity".

So, at least goes the cant that is rapidly superseding serious, informed thinking among our academically and culturally disinherited senior students and undergraduates, many of the most intellectually able of whom, like Milton's hungry sheep looking up and not being fed, drop out in disenchantment; or mimic the cynicism exhibited by television's "clever" stand-up comedians - a risible case of the mountains labouring to produce ridiculous mice.

It is not uncommon to hear Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE) and English trainee teachers today describe their role as "facilitators of learning skills in a computer-complex society"; and rare to discover any who have duly considered conviction about the intrinsic value of their specialist subjects, even English and History.

Many of these future "bearers of the flame" display a blasé indifference to works that comprise the canon of English and Western literature. Indeed, the very notion of canonicity seems offensive to their conditioned relativism and egalitarianism.

Postmodern theory and practice and a stultifying political correctness, which is replacing religious orthodoxy, have left their mark on them.

Moreover, an increasing number of these teachers of tomorrow who show more than nodding acquaintance with the canon regard it as a "political vehicle of Western capitalist oppression", or simply as a launching point for displaying deconstructivist and constructivist critical technique.

For instance, they infer from Homer's "silences and gaps in the text", that the "faithful Penelope" - despite the author's repeated use of this epithet in respect of Odysseus' wife and Ithaca's queen, as well as her prolonged, ingenious ruses to keep the urgent "suitors" at bay - was "most probably not faithful at all"; or that Clytemnestra's murder of her husband Agamemnon was "motivated by vengeance, not lust for her lover, Aegisthus".

Such examples illustrate not only how the deconstructionist/con-structivist tandem operates, but also how the culturally iconic and traditional values, in the lexicon of postmodernists, "the dominant discourse of inherited meaning" - in this case, a wife's admirable and long-suffering fidelity and the love of family and homeland - are contemptuously and programmatically undermined.

This is a far cry, indeed, from Plato's "turning the soul's eye to the light". But then, Plato actually believed in the knowability and communicability of truth and its ultimate Source. He saw education as first and foremost a spiritual exercise involving a restraining of the senses; accepted the objectivity of morality and its indispensability to educating the whole person and building society; and recognised the pleasure that delights in the truth for its own sake.

Crisis point

It seems fair to conclude that when a society's institutions of learning promote sophists as their gurus and encourage their young to regard language simply as a rhetorical device in the employ of ideological and utilitarian ends, it has reached a crisis point.

With clear-headedness and systematic political resolve, however, the current trend, which magnifies the abnormal, and is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of formal education, can be arrested.

It will take, however, more than remedying literacy skills in reading, foundational as they are.

It will require, more profoundly, a re-awakening and re-affirmation, in teacher-training, professional development and schooling, of that Aristotelian realism - central in the Western philosophical heritage - which has endured and outshone self-defeating scepticism, imposed ideology and even nihilism from ancient days; and of the bracing and animating relevance of this tradition in our own time.

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