Published in The Australian 28 March 2005
English in Australia , the journal of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, is yet another example of the endless dispute between conservatives and leftists over what should be taught in schools, and which teaching methods ought to be employed.
Sawyer accused English teachers of failing to educate a thoughtful generation of voters who can successfully apply their critical faculties to the policies presented in the recent election campaign. It's obviously desirable that voters be able to judge the relative merits of political parties. But the part of Sawyer's editorial which aroused comment was that he equated the success of the Howard Government with a lack of judgement on the part of the voters, implying that successful teaching entailed engendering sympathies which lie to the left of centre.
Kevin Donnelly responded by bemoaning the influence of left-wing, progressive ideology in the English classroom and yearning for the days when texts were studied in a "disinterested pursuit of truth".
I agree with Donnelly's opposition to overt ideological influence in the classroom. The question is, can it ever be eliminated or should we merely aim to minimise its influence?
At present a single curriculum monopolises every Year 12 English classroom in NSW. Every student who wishes to graduate from the NSW education system has no choice but to study the curriculum proscribed by the NSW Board of Studies English Curriculum Committee. If there is ideological bias in the curriculum and the methods by which it is taught, that bias is absorbed, consciously or unconsciously, by every Year 12 English student across the state.
But the same would be true of any state-wide curriculum. It's unlikely that any curriculum would be totally free of bias or unquestioned assumptions, so rather than simply replace one monopoly with another, a better approach is to foster a diversity of curricula and let them succeed or fail on their merits.
Brendan Nelson commented that Sawyer's editorial "confirms in part what is held as the worst fears of parents that often teachers are seeking to impose their own particular views which they are perfectly entitled to have, but not to impose those views on students." If Nelson opposes the imposition of a single view on students, why does he call for increased uniformity across the education systems of the various states? Nelson has recently put forth a proposal for a uniform starting age, and has even raised the issue of a uniform national leaving certificate. He may not think much of Sawyer, but he shares his zeal for uniformity.
If we really want educational standards to rise we need to foster an education environment which encourages innovation, in which successful programs flourish and sub-standard programs die a natural death. This can brought about by the introduction of a number of competing leaving exams to which schools may subscribe.
Surely we can recognise that parents have different aspirations for their children and ought to have some sort of choice about the curriculum they are taught. Furthermore, we must recognise that replacing one monopoly with another will not allow us to meaningfully compare the two.
If we really want the best for our schools we need to trial different curricula and different teaching methods simultaneously, and let parents have the freedom to decide which system is working best. As with other industries which encourage innovation and let the market decide on the best solution, educational progress needs to be driven by demonstrable success, success which can be appreciated and understood, not just by professional educators and academics, but also by the men and women who comprise the parent body of our society.
In an environment of curriculum competition, theories such as post-modern deconstruction, whole language learning and fuzzy maths would have to stand the rigorous examination of the market and their influence would be proportional to their efficacy. If these theories produce the results the parent body seeks then they deserve to flourish, if not, their influence should be confined to the communities who are dedicated to such a philosophical position.
Rather than leaving the debate mired in the trenches of the progressive v conservative battle which is confined to the committee rooms of centralised educational bureaucracies, the student body would be far better served if the merits of various educational approaches were put to the test of the market.