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Thursday, 2 December 1976
Page: 3203

Mr MARTYR (Swan) -That is the voice of experience. No one in this chamber would be surprised to hear the nonsense which the honourable member for Chifley speaks, but I will not say much about that tonight. I regret that the honourable member for Burke (Mr Keith Johnson) is not here because limited- on his own admission last Tuesday night- and good-natured as I know he is, he could not grasp the central thesis of the honourable member for EdenMonaro (Mr Sainsbury) last Tuesday night. The honourable member for Eden-Monaro presented a proper concern about the deterioration of literacy and numeracy in Australian schools. He cited the report of the Australian Council for Educational Research which showed that such deterioration was factual. On the other hand, the honourable member for Burke obviously considers that teaching the art of street demonstrations is much superior to teaching the basic skills of counting and sentence-construction.

Mr Scholes - You are misrepresenting him, are you not?

Mr MARTYR - That is what he said last Tuesday night. I want to support the honourable member for Eden-Monaro and relate some American experiences which seem to me to be directly related to the Australian situation. Actually there is not a great deal of difference. Nearly half of the entering class at the University of California at Berkeley, a fairly selective school which takes only the top eighth of California high school graduates, failed placement exams and had to be enrolled in remedial composition courses. Applicants to journalism programs at Wisconsin, Minnesota, Texas and North Carolina flunked basic spelling, punctuation and usage tests at rates that varied between 30 per cent and SO per cent. A survey by the Association of American Publishers showed that first year university students really do read on what used to be considered just a high school level.

American students are not learning to write because nobody is bothering to teach them how. Like many other bureaucracies the United States universities have become in large measure ingrown, so self-contained that most of their faculties believe, without even pausing to think about it, that what is good for them is good for the culture at large. In English departments, where one would expect a concern for literacy to be located, the attitude of self-interest appears to be all but universal. Far from resisting the general dissolution, English professors as a group pay almost no attention at all to such mundane topics as literate writing. This will not really concern the honourable member for Chifley, so he can go back to sleep. The business of the American English department is not the teaching of literacy; it is the worship of literature.

An American professor, Gene Lyons, said that after 8 years' experience as a student and seven more as a faculty member at five State universities, every day he was more astonished by the increasing distance between most English departments and the everyday concerns of the society that pays their bills. So accustomed have they become to thinking of themselves as the very vanguard, if not the salvation, of Western culture, that the average member of 'The Profession', as it likes to call itself, believes that society exists to serve literary scholarship rather than the other way round. What he was saying applied in varying degrees to almost every academic discipline that he knew anything about, particularly those in the humanities, arts and social sciences. As things stand now, it is rare to find more than half a dozen college students in the United States out of a class of twenty-five who say that they were given regular instruction in writing in secondary school. The more perceptive students see teachers like this less as dedicated practitioners of their disciplines than as persons whose good fortune it has been to convince the government or the trustees of schools to underwrite their hobbies. What students are learning from such teachers is that learning to write is simply not very important.

That is the sort of thing that we as taxpayers have had to put up with in this country for many years, particularly during the last 3 years, when every crackpot who wanted to announce himself as a sociologist was able to give advice to students, to go into the streets and demonstrate and not worry about the basic skills which the honourable member for Eden-Monaro spoke about last Tuesday.

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