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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 103


Senator MASON (7:41 PM) —Not so long ago, Mr Wayne Sawyer, the President of the NSW English Teachers Association and Chairman of the NSW Board of Studies English Curriculum Committee, created a minor controversy with his very public admission that English teachers Australia wide have failed. They have failed not as one might think because literacy standards have not been reached, or because the younger generation is not so familiar with the classics of English literature. No—not according to Mr Sawyer. English teachers have failed in their task because the Howard government was re-elected. After romping through a veritable laundry list of left wing grievances, from industrial relations to refugees, and from GST to WMDs, Mr Sawyer laments that, despite the supposed Dickensian state of modern Australia, people, including young students, still voted for the Howard government. Mr Sawyer asked the question: ‘What does it mean for us’—that is, English teachers—‘and our ability to create questioning, critical citizens?’

A cynic might answer that perhaps it means it is time to abandon political activism in the classroom for the sake of teaching our children to read and write. But, alas, I doubt that is going to happen. You see, Mr Sawyer writes:

English for the last ten years ... 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—

good use of English—

how they are being worked over—by advertisers, by politicians, by the media.

An activist’s usual response is not to admit defeat but to redouble one’s efforts. Still, perhaps critical literacy, far from being a failure, was actually very successful and the students were able to ‘suss’ out how they were being worked over by their English teachers, and thus re-elected the Howard government. Be that as it may, I am sure that most parents, regardless of their political views, are asking themselves at the moment: is that why we are sending our children to school, or indeed to university, as the problem of academic bias and indoctrination is in many ways even more pronounced in our institutions of higher learning?

So, what is the role of education? Should education socialise the young within an existing culture and offer them the basic means to succeed in that culture? Or should education give to the young the means to challenge and overthrow the existing culture, presumably in order to achieve a better life? Professor Roger Shattuck, the former president of the American Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, is far from being a conservative, but he answers the question thus:

We are overloading education when we ask it to reform society, to redesign culture, and to incorporate the avant-garde and bohemia in its precincts. In a free society, original and disaffected minds will always find a platform. The university need not provide the principal home for political, social, and artistic dissidents. The primary mission of a University is the transmission of a precious heritage.

Of a fellow academic who uses his English class for ‘unashamed advocacy’ of social reform, Professor Shattuck asks: ‘Shouldn’t he be looking for a slot in political science? Or perhaps he should be running for office?’ We could ask the same questions of Mr Sawyer.

From that point of view, I welcome the decision by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Nelson, to set up an inquiry into teacher training in Australia. The inquiry will investigate all aspects of how we teach those who will teach our children, but it hopefully will also focus on some less technical aspects of the matter. As the minister himself recently said, ‘In far too many instances I’ve had teacher education faculties described to me as quasi-sociology departments.’

Our secondary schools are, of course, only one aspect of the general problem. Universities, if anything—and I can speak from some experience—generate even more opportunities for the politicisation and indoctrination of students. If I had 10c for every story I have heard over the years of lecturers preaching to their captive audience on political subjects unrelated to the course at hand, or of students being marked up or down depending on whether their political views agreed with those of their lecturers, I personally would be able to fund several scholarships to our top universities. It is time to do something about this problem.

In America, thanks to the initiative and efforts of Mr David Horowitz and an organisation called Students for Academic Freedom, the proposal for a bill of rights for university students is now before 20 state legislatures throughout the United States. The driving idea behind the student bill of rights is that institutions of higher learning should provide their students with ‘a learning environment in which the students have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subjects they study’ and that their education should be free from political or religious indoctrination by faculty members.

One of the provisions of this student bill of rights proposed by Mr Horowitz is that curricula and reading lists should provide students with a broad range of viewpoints—not the current trendy ideas of the post-modernist, left wing, irrelevant diatribe that colours much of the university scholarship in this country. Most of the world has given up on this French post-modernism, but, of course, in universities in Australia—the bastions of lost causes—it remains. Other provisions are that students should be graded solely on the basis of the quality of their work and not on their political or indeed religious beliefs, and that lecturers should not use their positions for political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination and in particular should refrain from introducing into classrooms matters which have no relation to the subject of study. Finally, in addition, lecturers themselves should be hired, fired, promoted or granted tenure only on the basis of their competence and expertise, not because of their personal beliefs—trendy, fashionable or otherwise.

Needless to say, American academics have cried censorship and McCarthyism, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the bill of rights does not deny them the right to hold their own views or to teach what they want. The bill of rights is about ensuring that students are not taught from narrow perspectives that ignore all others with whom the lecturers disagree, and that lecturers do not misuse their privileged position as a bully pulpit to propagate their narrow views. As Professor Shattuck writes, ‘Constant appeal to academic freedom, treated as a special privilege for professors to speak their minds, neglects the accompanying principle of academic responsibility.’ We entrust teachers and academics with the education, not the indoctrination, of our children. (Time expired)