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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

donnelly and the dog « Previous | |Next »
January 31, 2008

Two stomach turning surprises in one day.

The first one happened when the dog returned from an illicit exploration of the neighbourhood smelling like Essence of Death. She was coated in some hellish, grey, greasy substance. Washing it off was an exercise that brought tears to the eyes and breakfast back to the just-swallowed stage.

The second one happened when I found myself agreeing with Kevin Donnelly and Tony Smith on education. I'm still not sure which surprise was the nastier.

Donnelly objects to the appointment of Barry McGaw as head of the National Curriculum Board on the grounds that he's part of the "establishment" (showing your age there Kev) and doesn't qualify as a curriculum expert. But Donnelly was always going to criticise anyone who got the job who wasn't him.

Moving along, Donnelly argues that past attempts at national curriculum implementation have fallen over because they failed to involve input from practicing educators, and they haven't allowed schools the flexibility to take local community needs into account.

The failure to consult with people practicing in the classroom during the initial stages is a pretty basic error, although consultation comes with its own problems. Freeing up active teachers means finding and paying for temporary replacements, which isn't easy or cheap and students bear the brunt of disruption. Good teachers, who are presumably the ones you'd want to contribute, work much longer hours than commonly thought, and it's unreasonable to expect them to continue teaching and contribute during non-existent spare time.

Tony Smith points out that teacher shortages are already a problem, though he conveniently neglects to mention his own side's role in that shortage, instead indulging in a fit of state bashing. By now we're all aware that we face shortages in plenty of skills, largely thanks to the previous government's attitude towards education generally. If it didn't involve a flag and a helpful instruction manual on social conservatism it didn't count as education. But that's another story, and hopefully one which can safely be filed in the Golden Age of Howard archives.

Teachers generally get involved in curriculum development at the pilot stage, when plans and materials have already been developed at enormous cost. Their feedback can, and sometimes does, lead to improvements, but the process creates other problems along the way. Inadequate training, lack of time for record keeping, lack of both technical and collegial support, and the fact that they and their students are lab rats for someone else's experiment are just some of the problems faced in the past.

Donnelly's second reason, that "schools had little, if any, flexibility to fashion what was taught to their local needs", and that they need the "freedom to shape a curriculum that best suits their unique communities" is also a good point, thought I doubt Donnelly would agree with me on why.

Donnelly spends a great deal of time trying to ensure that disadvantage of various kinds is no barrier to every Australian child rote learning the complete works of Shakespeare. The idea that a school curriculum should support student engagement with communities, histories and vernacular stuff like local linguistic practices amounts to pomo postcode relativism in Donnelly World.

However, in the context of this single article I find I agree with Donnelly. A reversal of the experience of my dog turning my stomach, but similarly disconcerting.

| Posted by Lyn at 4:43 PM | | Comments (12)


I've never understood the resistance to a national educational curriculum for schools. Why the resistance for so long?

The early attempts of the late 80s and early 90s to get a National Curriculum foundered on short-term cynical State politics. Towards the end of the Kirner government the Liberal opposition withdrew bi-partisan support so that it could do some cheap head kicking about the drafts. Similar parochial factors from all parties prevailed in the other States. Even the NT had to have its own Framework.
The idea that practitioner consultation did not take place is inaccurate in many cases and simplistic at best. The neo-cons believed that education was provider (i.e. teacher) captive. Kennett's , and later Howard's, idea of consulting was to ask Donnelly. The recent report on History curriculum seems to have come up with a course outline almost identical to the ones I was involved with in several High Schools in Victoria and the NT.

Partly because they've been so badly organised and partly because the states have been doing their own thing for so long a lot of their systems are simply incompatible.

For example Qld has only recently introduced a compulsory pre-school year. That meant that Qld kids were not prepared for the NSW version of early year level curriculum. That's only one example of many.

Donnelly, like Murdoch's Australian and the Coalition, seems to stand for the education basics (eg., phonics and grammar) and reading the classics (the canon) as the best way to help disadvantaged students. This educational conservatism is then placed in opposition to what educational conservatives call new-age and politically correct approaches to English teaching, represented by postmodern theory, critical literacy, gender politics and embracing computers and the internet. The latter represents the totalitarianism of the Left thunders The Australian.

Give me a break.

How are the basics and classics meant to help disadvantaged students find their feet in a digital age and information society is way beyond me. The only answer that I can come up with is that the educational conservatives are thinking in terms of casual jobs at Coles for disadvantaged working class kids.

some would argue that it is the volume and diversity of electronic communication that is contributing to the declining levels of literacy in the body politic. The “fundamental anxiety” over literacy expressed by the above educational conservatives is a sub-component of this larger concern.

I found the Donnelly piece you're quoting there very reassuring. I have not gone over to the dark side. Donnelly is still a fossil and a nutcase.

Hi Lyn,

A fossil - ageist
A nutcase - offensive to those who are intellectually challenged

Am I really that bad?

three cheers for stirring. We need more intellectual challengings. The more challenges thrown out for us citizens to mull over the better. Good for democracy and all that.

My reservations have a single point. I cannot follow your argument about how the educational basics and reading the classic canon re disadvantaged kids.

I have nothing against basics + the canon per se, as I spent time in remedial classes re-learning grammar and how to spell + as well as spending ten years of my life reading the classics of the western philosophical tradition. Yet I am a postmodernist who recognizes that just like that old dog Hegel, Derrida and Deleuze are a part of that philosophical tradition, however much they question specific strands of it. They do so by drawing on other strands of the canon.

My point of concern is this. How is your emphasis on educational basics and reading the literary canon going to help disadvantaged working class kids in Elizabeth Adelaide, get jobs in the newly forming information society? Should they?

Are they going to be the tradespeople in defence and mining industries, rather than computer programmers or website designers in the creative economy? Is that it? Or is their role to work on a casual basis at the checkout at Coles?

Do the disadvantaged working class kids in Elizabeth, Adelaide need more skills than the educational basis + reading the literary canon? If so, then what kind of skills? Skills that enable them to be productive workers in the new economy?

Kevin Donnelly,
Postmodernist, Left wing, politically correct, feminist and progressive are all terms you have regularly used to denigrate hordes of people to audiences much larger than the one here. Most of them are sincerely concerned about providing students with the best possible education.

I believe that education deserves a non-partisan collaboration between the best people we have available. To do otherwise is to limit the pool of resources available for informed decision making in the interests of politics rather than students.

Kevin Donnelly the public figure routinely politicises education, which is really that bad. The private Kevin Donnelly could be a lovely bloke for all I know. Maybe be even spends time trying to prepare his own kids for a future most of us can't imagine, in a present many of us are finding difficult to come to terms with.

I suspect that neither version of Kevin Donnelly needs any of this explained. The Kevin Donnelly who posted that comment is clearly capable of a critical analysis that would make all those French pomo theorists and masters of irony very proud.

for conservative critics of education postmodernist, Left wing, politically correct, feminist and progressive are all currents of political correctness, which they see as an unmitigated catastrophe.

They don't see that the culture of political correctness as a new set of ideas that arose in the 1970s, and had its roots in morally respectable convictions and intellectually respectable opinions----diversity, multiculturalism, and constructivism.

Luke Slatterly writing in the Australian gives the game away about the hostility to critical literacy.He says:

If critical literacy were simply a tool for textual engagement there would be no criticism of it. In fact it is a faddish pedagogy cobbled together from a grab-bag of post-'60s theories - a touch of Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed; a tincture of Michel Foucault; a nod to Jacques Derrida - with emancipatory ambitions. It is a form of pedagogical resistance to the structures of oppression: race, class and gender

So its poststructuralism that he opposes and the lilinking of texts to relations of power.

But he does not stand alone:

Critical literacy is heavily influenced by post-1968 baby-boomer theorists variously described as poststructuralist, or postmodernist; their influence is deep-grained in the language with which critical literacy explains itself. This is an entirely uncontroversial proposition. It's a given. Equally uncontroversial is the following point: the authority of post-structuralism/postmodernism is vigorously contested. Its many distinguished critics range right across the Anglo-American intelligentsia, from left to right. They include philosophers John Searle, Simon Blackburn, Daniel Dennett and Martha Nussbaum; Left academics Noam Chomsky and Terry Eagleton; literary critics Frederick Crews and Frank Kermode. Any advocate of critical literacy, no matter how rabid, is going to have to give me these points.

What of it? Where's the argument that we should dump poststructuralism in toto? We should says Slattery because:
With critical literacy, it seems to me, we see a shift in the pedagogical aim. Literacy loses its high-end individualist aspirations and its emphasis on cultural knowledge. It entails attention and submission to the mantras of race, class and gender, and a view of all textual performances as encoded power. This might be a good way to transmit received dogma and to foster right thinking, but it is no way to develop critical intelligence.

This constitutes Slattery's response to Ilana Snyder's The Literacy Wars.

even Malcolm Colless is carrying on about the dangers of a return of political corectness by the Rudd Government. What does he mean by that? It's not clear, but here it is:

But having decided to go down the apology path, Rudd has a national duty to ensure that he doesn't create more damage than good. He has said that this apology will not be a recipe for financial compensation claims. He must be firm on this. He must also ensure that he does not lapse into the rhetoric of postmodernism and uncork the genie of political correctness that was successfully bottled up by the Howard government.

Postmodernism has become a boo word for the Left for the conservatives. It means whatever they want it to mean.