Thursday, February 10, 2005

Trouble at the dark satanic mill

In The Australian this week, Kevin Donnelly attacked Professor Wayne Sawyer's editorial in English in Australia 141, Spring 2004. This morning's edition brings a batch of letters. Here's a bit of what Sawyer wrote (the rest is here). The letters can be found at the paper's website.
English for the last ten years – not least in the pages of this journal – has trumpeted the cause of critical literacy. Critical literacy holds as its central premise the education of the student to be able to ‘suss’ out how they are being worked over – by advertisers, by politicians, by the media. We’re told that the government was re-elected by the young. If so, a fair proportion of that group by now must have graduated from a ‘critical’ education. What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical generation that those who brought us balaclava’d security guards, Alsatians and Patrick’s Stevedoring could declare themselves the representatives of the workers and be supported by the electorate? Two days after the election, Howard declared that ‘We do not treat blue collar workers with contempt’ while highlighting the ratcheting up of his workplace ‘reforms’ in the same speech. What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical generation that that kind of language gets itself re-elected?
Amongst the attacking letters (in The Australian, 11.2.2005) - on the whole, moderate in tone - are some in his defence. These are worth inspection.

Right on, brother, says Daniel Hulme of Summerhill, Tas.

Like Sawyer, I find it impossible to believe that truly critical and inquiring minds could fail to see through the multitude of lies that have overwhelmingly laid the foundation for this Government's four election wins.

Hulme has been suckered, implies Mark Howie, assistant editor of English in Australia, who offers the Irony Defence.

Sawyer's piece questioned the social purpose of English and, in particular, took up the challenge to the social-critical notion of literacy that Donnelly erroneously claims Sawyer champions.

Note to Howie: good try, but irony needs to mark itself off (rhetorically) from straight talking: see Swift, 'A Modest Proposal' in which there is some disparity between 'modest' and the substantive proposal: to solve starvation, eat babies. No trace of such finesse in Sawyer: either he meant what he said or he can't write.

Paul Sommer, from the Australian Association for Teachers of English, wants to skip out from under, sort of.
We encourage students to think and develop opinions on matters of importance to the community. In this spirit, we support Professor Sawyer, especially when he expresses what he clearly says are his own views not those of the association. Isn't this the point of democracy? Kevin Donnelly's representation of us as seeking to control our schools and preferring indoctrination to education seems more than a little paranoid.
Yes but hang on, Professor Sawyer is the editor of the journal, what he wrote was an editorial, and he associates his views with the journal itself in his first paragraph. Those aspects of the presentation rather outweigh disclaimers.

In the profession, it is common knowledge that some teachers treat English as a branch of political education. The questions now become: how many, and which politics do they favour? Kevin Donnelly is a longstanding critic of the educational left, and after some of the abuse he's copped in the past, it wouldn't be surprising if he were to overstate his case. But consider. At tertiary level, the study of English has rapidly changed into something that in some places dare not speak its name, but would plausibly be called Cultural Studies. Cultural Studies is overwhelmingly academic-Left. Much the same can be said for schools of education where the doctrine of social-constructivism holds sway. These are the institutions that teach the teachers. All these terms of course slide about, and what I've said here doesn't constitute an argument, let alone a judgment. But there is scope for enquiry.

Since the 1960s, the ideal of what has variously been called detached, impartial, objective, or disinterested scholarship and teaching has been under attack and in many places in the universities has been routed. It has become routine to read this kind of thing.
Our current students face a relentless barrage of shockjocks, media barons, advertising and corporate greed masquerading as common sense. Of course the overtly critical-ethical from teachers will be called ‘ideological’, while the overtly political from the media barons, the corporates and the Liberals is ‘neutral’.
This - also from Sawyer's editorial - ought to be astonishing. Hello out there in Western Sydney, Professor Sawyer: corporations and politicians are political players and no-one expects them to be neutral, nor nowadays do they pretend to be. Many parents and students - and academics - believe that teachers ought always to represent a variety of points-of-view about controversial subjects, and should play down their own opinions, both to avoid undue influence and to clear the air for free speech. If that is 'neutrality' then yes, we want you to be neutral. If that's too much for you to bear, get yourself another job.

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