April 12th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Red Star over Canberra

EDITORIAL: Behind the bid for UN Security Council seat

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Kevin Rudd's ideas summit looms

BIOFUELS: Ethanol doesn't have to compete with food

QUARANTINE: AQIS blamed for equine influenza outbreak

FINANCE: Right and wrong way to tackle financial crisis

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The American elections / Rudd's honesty / Conservative blues / NATO's fastidious peace-keeping

TAIWAN: KMT victory paves way for improved China ties

EUROPE: The Dutch disease - how low can you go?

BIOETHICS: Man - a vanishing species?

OPINION: Twilight of the British Raj

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Beijing's one-child policy a demographic powder-keg / A nation of dunces? / Fragility of the affluent society

High cost of foregoing trade deal (letter)

Finlandisation? (letter)

News Weekly's stand on global-warming (letter)

Earth Hour a silly idea (letter)

BOOKS: THE LITERACY WARS: teaching children to read and write in Australia by Ilana Snyder

BOOKS: ORIGINS: An Atlas of Human Migration edited by Russell King

Books promotion page

THE LITERACY WARS: teaching children to read and write in Australia by Ilana Snyder

by Bill James

News Weekly, April 12, 2008
Traditionalists denounced as "literacy warriors"

Why teaching children to read and write is a battleground in Australia
by Ilana Snyder

(Sydney: Allan & Unwin)
Paperback: 256 pages
Rec. price: $32.95

Anyone who presumes to write a book on literacy is tempting fate, because everything they say will be scrutinised with the eye of pedantry.

Ilana Snyder, an associate professor in Monash University's faculty of education, escapes fairly lightly. She falls into the common error of using "reticent" when she means "reluctant", and there is a dangling participle on page 47. She also fails to detect the irony in Christopher Pearson's playful use of postmodern jargon, "interrogate the texts".


Jargon is something that Snyder herself uses tendentiously, as in our old friend the "moral panic", and the "privileging" of this, that and the other by something called the "right". Snyder inhabits a monodextrous cosmos in which there is no "left"; only the unlabelled normal and self-evident, which is constantly threatened by the Other, known as the "right". Just as opponents of communism, but not its apologists, were called Cold Warriors, so the questioners of current orthodoxies are literacy warriors, but their defenders are not.

Of far greater importance than these minor solecisms is a major sin of omission. Snyder ignores the scandal of English students who are marked down or failed because their stance on a social or political issue is unacceptable to their teachers. Over the years a number of students have complained in the media about being ideologically bullied in this way.

I heard a VCE English tutor explain that he encourages his students to think independently about issues, but directs them to the politically correct line when it comes to actually submitting exercises. It is easy to grasp his point by attempting to imagine, for example, the academic outcome for a student who displayed the slightest scepticism toward the recent Sorry Day celebration! This tutor is subverting the system and nurturing his students' critical faculties, but it is deeply disturbing that he is forced by the teaching establishment to adopt such dissembling tactics.

A hermeneutic of suspicion exposes two fundamental motivations underlying the writing of this book.

The first is wounded amour propre. As a teacher of teachers in an education faculty, Ms Snyder just knows that she, her fellow academics, and her former trainees who are now teaching English out in the class-rooms, have all done, and are doing, a magnificent job. Any blemishes on Australia's literacy-teaching record are a product of ill-disposed reactionaries' imaginations, or a result of inadequate government funding, or the outcome of class, ethnicity and gender inequalities.

The second is political prejudice. Ms Snyder and her academic and journalistic ilk, in their idiosyncratic version of the Whig interpretation of history, regard the Howard years 1996-2007 as a gloomy, quasi-fascist aberration, during which the uppity masses flouted the cultural ordinances of their trendy-left betters.

She approvingly cites a piece of hysterical paranoia, called Underground, about an Australia ruled by a Howard-esque dictator. She then goes on to signal, "I wants to make your flesh creep", by indulging in a spot of sensationalism herself. Her educational dystopia features students reading the works of Dead White Males in class-rooms dominated by photographs of, yes, Mr. Howard!

Snyder also defends the notorious editorial in English in Australia, which deplored the 2004 coalition election victory and called for teachers to prevent its repetition by educating future voters in so-called critical literacy.

The editorial included a list of real or imagined shortcomings of the Howard Government. It does not seem to occur to Snyder or the editorial writer that this sort of petty partisanship can be played by anyone. How about the following hypothetical from 30 years earlier (1974) about another iconic prime ministership?

"What does Whitlam's victory in successive elections tell us about the ethical and political judgement of the Australian people? The electorate has exposed grave flaws in our education system by wilfully voting for a government which grovelled to China's Mao regime (history's most murderous) without any mention of its human rights record; gratuitously recognised the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states; supported Indonesia's subjugation of East Timor; was forced to demote two ministers for misleading Parliament; wallowed in the murky Khemlani Loans Affair; and finally, if anticlimactically, was cozened by con-artists playing on its cultural pretentiousness and insecurity into wasting millions of taxpayers' dollars on Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles."


Snyder's political outlook, which she wants imposed on Australia's schoolchildren, is modish, myopic and parochial.

She is obsessed with not only the alleged turpitude of John Howard, but also with that of Tony Blair and George W. Bush as well. Whatever these three men's faults, the first two have already gone, and the third will be gone by the end of the year, each as a result of an orderly democratic process.

If Snyder were really concerned with the inculcation of liberal values she would be calling for the classroom dissection and analysis of genuinely toxic political systems. These would include Islamic extremism (Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran); communism (China, North Korea, Cuba); and failed post-colonial states (Burma, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Sudan, Turkmenistan).

This review has so far concentrated on deconstructing Snyder's politics. Her professed authorial intention in writing her book, however, is two-fold.

First, she wants to review the debate over how best to teach writing and reading in primary schools, particularly the contested field of phonics versus "whole language" methods.

Second, she wants to deal with allegations that literature teaching in secondary schools has been debased.

Many of the accusations are taken from The Australian, her particular bête noire. They include claims that study of works from the canon has been either neglected in favour of "texts" such as TV soap operas, or distorted by being forced into the Procrustean bed of gender, class and ethnicity.

Snyder ranges well beyond these two issues, and is definitely worth reading.


Only the most rigidly converted and indoctrinated will agree with everything she writes, but even the sceptical will be forced to re-think, or at least think more rigorously about, the areas which she surveys.

In addition to the introduction and conclusion, the chapter headings consist of grammar, reading, culture, gender, testing, technology and curriculum.

Her chapter on technology is thoughtful, and her coverage of curriculum development is informed and informative, even if the bureaucratese is eye-glazing.

From now on, anybody who wants to participate in the debate over literacy in Australia will have to have read this book.

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