The phrase of course is courtesy of a previous column by Andrew Bolt lamenting the politicisation of education. In a week when education has had a few headlines – with Dr Nelson’s proposal for a National Leaving Certificate exam being almost universally dismissed as impractical and ill-conceived (and undermined by the Minister’s own claim that it would probably not happen during his occupation of the office but rather in his lifetime), it would be tempting to dismiss the controversy over school English as a vehicle for inculcating politically correct views in students as another populist beatup. However, it probably isn’t, though the article by Associate Professor Wayne Sawyer in English in Australia has certainly been used for political capital. Before forming a view, it’s probably worthwhile reading the article itself.
I’ve previously argued that history needs to be taught more rigorously. I’d be opposed to accepting non-standard forms of written English as acceptable, though pedagogical methods that move from non-standard English to an appreciation of standard English are fine. There’s a basic equity argument here. One of the arguments against using “Black English” as legitimate in Californian schools was that it would further disadvantage African-Americans in the job market. No doubt the daughters and sons of middle-class professionals will pick up standard English, and to suggest that it’s socially just to accept non-standard written expression from those who do not grow up in a climate that fosters literacy is to me just stupidity.
The Queensland Government’s curricula and aims in its New Basics Project include developing critical literacies. There is no doubt that it is important for students to be able to understand different types of texts and formats, and to be able to negotiate various learning outcomes through the use of a range of media, including the internet. Contrary to the rhetoric that surrounds the notion of “critical literacy”, a lot of this sort of pedagogical theory and practice is actually driven by a desire to equip students to work in an environment where much information and its manipulation is done online. So it’s important not to underplay the vocational motivation of different pedagogies in studying language.
The other perennial issue is whether High School English ought to be about appreciation of the “great books”. My answer would be yes and no. Yes, it’s important to expose people to the riches of the English language literary tradition, and no, this should not be done in a boring and uncritical fashion. As I understand it, Shakespeare is still on most Senior curricula, and indeed this is probably a secondary issue, as the advocates of educational conservatism can attack and have attacked different methods of engaging with the Bard as “deconstructive nihilism” or whatever.
There’s also no doubt that educational theory from the 1960s and 1970s onwards has been influenced by ideas of empowering people to function as citizens, and also following thinkers like Paolo Freire, to perform a liberatory function. In itself, there’s nothing new about this – as I wrote in my post on history, John Stuart Mill was only one of many classic Nineteenth Century liberals to suggest that education would make democracy work. What appears to be at issue is whether fostering critical thought is done in a partisan manner. I suspect that the response to Sawyer’s piece is overblown – he could be read as just saying that he’s disappointed that people aren’t more engaged with politics, and that the education system has failed in creating citizens. Clearly his words were ill-chosen, and if he is suggesting that schools should be hotbeds of partisanism, then I disagree with him. But I don’t disagree that education should have a critical function. Of course it should. No-one should argue against teaching future citizens to think critically and to subject orthodoxies and truisms to rigorous examination. Nor should discussing politics be offlimits in the classroom, providing that the discussion is sensitive both to students’ understanding and to impartiality. During the Iraq War, for instance, primary teachers I know found it necessary to discuss the situation in classrooms with children of Islamic faith, and others found children were quite frightened by all the talk of war. This calls for intelligence and sensitivity on the part of teachers, but in itself should not be problematic. We can’t artificially cordon off schools and the children who learn there from the broader society.
Here again, as with the debate over literacy methods and phonics last year, I suspect the key is to get a balance in what works in teaching strategies and what their overarching goals should be. The first question ought to be answered through research and evidence, and the second is a matter of legitimate public debate, but such debate ought not to be harnessed to achieving political advantage for any political party. So, as a lot of us said last year as well, the over-politicisation of the bugbear that education is politicised, by itself does nothing to ensure that education is more soundly based.