April 14th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Howard's Coalition - fewer options left as election looms

EDITORIAL: The high cost of 'symbolic' politics

THE ENVIRONMENT: Bushfire victims take NSW, Vic govts to court

WATER: Details of PM's water plan - disaster for farmers

NSW STATE ELECTION: When will Liberals, Nationals ever learn?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why young people read less / NSW's Knight with the Mournful Countenance / Journalistic hooliganism / The Easter Rising

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: Losing the war on the home front / Assessing the terrorist threat

SCHOOLS: Labor's standard threat to schools

MEDICAL SCIENCE: New developments in stem-cell science

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Australia caught between Beijing and Washington

SRI LANKA: Bloodbath looms in war-torn Sri Lanka

OPINION: An ABC of the ABC - a listener's guide


Millions squandered (letter)

Regional rail networks (letter)

Labor's Mugabe dilemma (letter)

David Hicks (letter)

Russia's Putin should not be demonised (letter)

CINEMA: Story to scare the daylights out of you - Lives of Others

BOOKS: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

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Why young people read less / NSW's Knight with the Mournful Countenance / Journalistic hooliganism / The Easter Rising

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, April 14, 2007
Why young people read less

The writers' lobby group PEN (to use a description used by Rosemary Neill in The Australian, March 22, 2007) has just held a forum in Sydney to discuss "Australian literature: does it have a future?". Well, it did have a modest past, but has it even a present?

Professor Elizabeth Webby of the University of Sydney said that Miles Franklin and co. would have been "horrified" by this. Why?

Ms Webby produced some telling statistics from her university. In 1980, Ozlit subjects at Sydney attracted 500 students, with some taking more than one subject. Today, that number is closer to 100.

For the first time since the mid-1980s, when Sydney University established its Australian literature honours program, no students are taking that unit. There were also, in 1981, five year-long courses in Australian literature and six shorter options. "Now we are only able to offer two courses each semester," she said.

Why has this happened? She blames the decline on the Federal Government - their funding cuts which meant putting on only literature subjects which were popular rather than of cultural importance.

Funny - I know of courses which were both, and a few academics who have been both. I have also heard supposed government parsimony blamed for courses and departments that were box-office poison ever since I resumed teaching in Australia in 1964 - and never believed a word of it, nor the teacher unions' version of the same.

Teachers are on the nose, not governments.

The Sydney forum was told that "in a multi-media age, young people read less" and that "the rise of post-modern theory" has "inhibited the teaching of Australian literature".

Only Australian literature? In fact, there hasn't been a humanities discipline that hasn't been deformed or infantilised in this way. And only in universities?

Have they looked at the teaching of Ozlit in schools and considered the general dislike of Australian history, Australian "studies", and indeed Australian anything? If English were not compulsory, masses wouldn't take it at school.

Is this because students are anti-Australian? No - if anything, because many of them are pro-Australian.

Mark Lopez, in particular, has been writing about the woeful English syllabi and the troubles they cause many students, and the exclusion of so many good books - now on the Chalkies' Index of Forbidden Publications - and their replacement by callow, often lifeless agitprop, which turns students away from literature en masse.

And, sorry to say, when most students sample first-year English at university, they find the same indoctrination, nauseous second-hand ideas and the blocking of all attempts to get at, and discuss, a whole book in the writer's own terms.

There was, in our schools, quite a lot of Australian literature, from the early years on, and later Australian history. Both were greatly appreciated because the writers were allowed simply to say their piece, tell their story, recite their poem.

And the history was about a developing culture and society of which the students felt a part. No mystification, no denigration, no indoctrination.

Yes, young people read less. In particular, the primary educational sector - mainly staffed by women (80 per cent in Victoria) - send into the secondary sector 30 per cent of their charges who are semi-literate and innumerate.

But it's all John Howard's fault! Not enough money. For teachers? Or for DVD salesmen?

NSW's Knight with the Mournful Countenance

There have been hundreds of opinions already offered on the New South Wales election and they display an unusual degree of congruity. The diagnosis was easy, whereas the causal explanations were more difficult, but similar to one another.

Labor Premier Morris Iemma seems a far more human being than his Liberal opponent Peter Debnam, whose arid and puritanical visage suggests a narrow, even intolerant, mentality. (It may also be that many voters remember the destruction of his predecessor, John Brogden, not only politically but, in a sense, of his life, in the course of a despicable smear campaign). By contrast, Iemma exudes an aura at once tolerant, reassuring and almost soporific.

So this was a no-contest. And the divisions and conflicts virtually built into the NSW Liberals foreshadowed a dysfunctional government had they won office.

That is the same story as in virtually all the state Liberal parties and helps to explain their nationwide impotence at the regional level and the growing pessimism of Howard as to whether they can be reformed.

We have all spent so much time on warring factions within the Labor Party and the political left generally, that we have been letting Australian conservatives off too lightly - that is, if we can even call them conservatives.

The Howard Federal Government is sui generis among conservatives, but it resembles the conservatives earlier on. They too depended on the personality of the leader - in that case, Robert Menzies, plus the skills of his deputy John McEwen, and a divided Labor Party.

After Menzies, there broke out continuing factional intrigue and sabotage: until Whitlamism brought the conservatives briefly back to their senses. But the result of this rediscovery of what politics is about was a compromise and an uninspiring interregnum under Malcolm Fraser. Then followed the long period of internecine fighting post-Fraser, which underpinned the Hawke-Keating hegemony.

So Howard has been sui generis, but in politics all good things come to an end.

A more interesting feature in NSW was the silent failure of the Greens, and the extinction of the Australian Democrats. Given the enormous free publicity for them and the genuine worries of the voters on climate change, water accessibility and the drought, we would have expected the environmentalists to have advanced in leaps and bounds - instead of which they stalled or faded.

The environment didn't figure as a big issue or vote-changer in this election, nor did workplace relations - despite the newly-minted wisdom after the event.

I've just heard that Peter Debnam - the Knight with the Mournful Countenance - has stood down for his deputy. Maybe peace will break out.

The received wisdom has been that people vote Liberal federally for the big picture and for certain key issues, and prefer the ALP at the state level for essential services and the quality of life.

But Labor state government after Labor state government is failing in these very areas. Yet people still vote for them! Another theory gone West.

Journalistic hooliganism

Prince William's girlfriend Kate Middleton has just filed a formal complaint against the paparazzi who have been endeavouring to make her life an undignified misery and, they would further hope, to dirty a most important personal relationship between two young people.

She is formally complaining to the Press Complaints Commission about the Daily Mirror's harassment of herself, which breaches Clause 4 (Harassment) of the media's Code of Practice.

Anyone who saw television news items portraying the unchecked harassment of this working lady, by a collection of bullies and lily-livers - "lily-livers" because they hide behind rights such as freedom of speech and publication, the public interest, etc, and count on even more vindictive anomic editors to orchestrate revenge campaigns against complainants, not to mention anyone close to them - would hope that this formal complaint bears fruit.

I understand the British Government has enacted legislation whereby these creatures could be fined. The creatures would at least be identified, but that is clearly insufficient. A prison sentence or a spell of community work might start to restrain the paparazzi. And then there are the editors …

After Kate Middleton's 25th birthday, with its massive journalistic hooliganism outside her home, the PCC issued a "final warning".

News International - viz., The Sun, The Times and The News of the World - said they would no longer use paparazzi shots of Ms Middleton. But the other papers are at it again.

The Easter Rising

I'm writing this on the Sunday before Good Friday and waiting to see how the media and our government handle this implicit challenge to gross materialism, lives spent denying the reality of death and tragedy, and the covert to overt anti-religious behaviour of our professional secularists.

On the experience of the last few years, I would expect further attempts to diminish the significance of Easter and the Judaeo-Christian foundations of Western culture and morality.

As little evidence of Christian worship will be run on our television as the public will allow, and as much triviality and commercialism as the public will stand, one new pretext for virtually suppressing the Christian message is that its public affirmation might disturb Muslims. Here are the bitter fruits of multiculturalism and selective tolerance.

In Melbourne, generally, traffic conditions get worse and worse - for now, not only Saturday but Sunday, are hijacked by "special events", such as marathons, runathons, walkathons and fleabag political demonstrations, all of which interrupt traffic on a regular basis and as of right.

The government and the police always seem to be caught by surprise. In the not-too-distant past, the weekend was a precious respite when the volume and roar of traffic subsided as did, quite patently, air pollution. People could criss-cross Melbourne to visit friends in a fraction of the time taken during weekdays. This weekend has been stolen.

Greed and boredom are two of Melbourne's Horses of the Apocalypse, and governments aid and abet them.

But to return to Easter, I have to witness once more the Tenebrae mass in St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne. While the now embarrassing drivel about the decline of religious belief and public worship, including Catholicism, sputter on, a friend has just given me some figures on the number of masses conducted and the number of people attending mass over any week in St Francis', Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. They are astonishing. That church is a dynamo of religious activity.

Other friends speak of churches they have known all their lives now packing in crowds, and still with people standing in considerable numbers. Not exactly signs of ill health.

As fewer and fewer people join in, or remain in, political parties or politicised social activities - for example, markedly fewer demonstrations - some of our churches are growing apace.

There is now a symmetry between declining politicking and rising involvement in the world of religion, so much so there are not enough chiefs to serve the Indians, and too many chiefs to talk to half-empty halls of the party faithful, still wearing their bedraggled feathers.

- Max Teichmann.

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