Right-wing education critique is historically inaccurate and perpetuates myths

15 Dec

Like all good prefaces, written after the event

The following post began quite late on Friday night; I was still typing when I noted it was now Saturday morning! I cut the story short before I had really reached the syllabus changes of the 1990s. That was when the NSW Board of Studies rewrote the previous HSC Syllabus — a friend of mine was involved in the rewriting; the Syllabus had not really been rewritten — just tweaked — since the mid 1960s. Part of the brief then was to incorporate recent trends in English and Media Studies. (These trends are well summarised in Rob Pope, The English Studies Book, Routledge 2ed 2006.) A second part of their brief was to make senior English more rigorous and more demanding; despite what many think I believe they succeeded in that only too well. I still think the syllabus is too ambitious. In practice the more “exotic” aspects of the course have been downplayed, even at the level of recent HSC questions, so that the differences between old and new HSC have greatly reduced; Leavis in fact has returned in large measure, even if the notion of “text” expanding to “anything which makes meaning” has allowed for a wider range of objects for study than used to be the case. At the same time the classics really are well represented, especially in the Advanced and Extension courses.

The main difference has been the shift to criterion-referenced assessment. That is a whole other issue. See Worried about outcomes based education? [UPDATE: There are some legitimate concerns about that in the teaching and assessment of writing: see Legitimate concerns about writing rubrics.]

Keep in mind that I have thoroughly told the story up to 1998 in Literacy on the English/ESL blog. If there had been a golden age of English teaching some time back fifty or sixty years I can assure you I would know about it, because as either student or teacher I WAS THERE! There was no such golden age.

The post

Big claim? Yes it is, and it is also true.

I have come to this conclusion after reading Shelley Gare’s often entertaining Triumph of the Airheads (Sydney, Park Street Press, 2006) — especially Chapter 7, “How to Educate a Goldfish”, which purports to explain the decline of education at all levels in Australia since the 1960s. In that respect it parallels Kevin Donnelly’s work.

That is not surprising as her “evidence” is largely anecdotal,  based on conversations with Kevin, of course, several advisers to George Bush, Luke Slattery, a Canadian called Catherine Runcie, cognitive scientist Max Coltheart (who in common with several in this list was not in Australia between 1969 and the 1980s and seems to have little idea what actually was being discussed here among teachers, especially English teachers), Barry Spurr, and others. The most reputable figure cited, in my opinion, is writer/critic Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) whose work I do respect for its courage, clarity and subtlety. He is head and shoulders above the rest of that lot.

The “philosophical” basis of Shelley Gare’s journalism is spelt out in a footnote of amazing confusion:

These two terms [postmodernism and economic rationalism] will appear often in this book. I’m using the word “postmodern” as a general term to cover [anything I don’t like … sorry] the “isms”, from deconstructionism to relativism, which have come to dominate cultural and social thinking and literary theory and which had their origins in the philosophy that came out in France in the late Sixties, formulated by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes, among others. These are the notions that there are no such things as truth or objective reality; that all texts contain hidden meanings, which have to be revealed, and that to talk of “foundations” or “a canon” is to make assumptions, which may reveal post-colonial, sexist or racial bias. Unfortunately, many of the most fervent exponents of postmodernism have pushed it on to areas such as primary and secondary education where it has bred nonsense, and insistence on a particular kind of individualism and a brand of well-schooled ignorance. “Economic rationalism” is used in Australia to describe the belief that market forces when left to themselves will nearly always give the best economic outcome for society, that the individual should be free to pursue his or her economic interests and that state intervention is to be resisted. Elsewhere, it is called neo-liberalism. I have yet to meet a poor economic rationalist although there are very many rich ones.

The first part of that conflates so many philosophies and positions, often quite contradictory ones, under an unbelievably naive category of eeevilll things called pomo/relativism. Deep stuff. And yet the second, no doubt also naive, I do rather agree with! The book, then, alternates between points I really wish I had made, and others that are just nonsense, and dangerous nonsense because for so many people this nonsense passes for truth (or “the dirt”) on education.

The usual suspects get a pasting in the chapter — bad apostrophes, spelling, not knowing the capital cities of Australia, dubious morality, not reading The Classics, silly whole-language — all the cliches of culture warrior critique that I find so misleading when I look at what students actually do in my subjects, English and History.

I was in Australia through the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and obviously now. During much of that time I was teaching English. For quite a bit of that time I was active in the English Teachers Association. I actually know some of the people who created the syllabuses in the late 60s and 70s that underlie what we do today, and I also know where the ideas came from. I was  fortunate to meet on various occasions some of the people who originated those ideas, and I mean people from the UK and the USA as well as Australia.

The first time anyone ever mentioned deconstruction or postmodernism in a NSW English teaching journal was in the very early 1980s, long after those syllabuses were written. I know this because I wrote that first article*! It was in fact a critique of these (to us) new ideas: there was a very long time-lag between them appearing in France or wherever and coming to the attention of English teachers in NSW. Sure, old-fashioned left-wing ideas, especially as refracted through left-Leavisites, did impinge on us. It was not until the 1990s that pomo etc began to have any impact at all on English teaching here in NSW, and even then the response was cautiously eclectic (as it still is) rather than wildly accepting, some individuals notwithstanding. Leavis really does continue to be the major strand in the thinking of most secondary English teachers, whether they are conscious of it or not. Even more significant than all the “isms” mentioned by Shelley Gare has been the influence of the linguist M A K Halliday, whose version of grammar — purged of much of its rather difficult jargon — undergirds the NSW K-6 English syllabus to this day, reinstating a care about grammar and syntax that may, for some, have gone by the board; Halliday’s work is also of critical importance in ESL teaching. (Halliday I have met and talked to about some of these matters.)

The real influence on the so-called New English was, and to a large extent still is, quite other than pomo. It really derives from an international conference on the teaching of English in 1967 at Dartmouth College. Why Johnny can’t write – teaching grammar and logic to college students by Heather MacDonald is a right-wing diatribe from the neocon mag Public Interest, but it at least gets a few things right historically:

Predictably, the corruption of writing pedagogy began in the sixties. In 1966, the Carnegie Endowment funded a conference of American and British writing teachers at Dartmouth College. The event was organized by the Modern Language Association and the National Conference of Teachers of English. The Dartmouth Conference was the Woodstock of the composition professions: It liberated teachers from the dull routine of teaching grammar and logic.

The Dartmouth Conference rejected what was called a “transmission model” of English in favor of a “growth model.” In a transmission mode, teachers pass along composition skills and literary knowledge. In a growth mode, according to Joseph Harris, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, they focus on students’ “experience of language in all its forms” – including ungrammatical ones. A big problem with the transmission model of English, apparently, is that it implies that teachers actually know more than their students do. In the growth model, in contrast, the teacher is not an authority figure; rather, he is a supportive, nurturing friend, who works with, rather than challenges, what a student has to say. Dartmouth proponents claimed that improvement in students’ linguistic skills need not come through direct training in grammar and style but, rather, would flower incidentally as students experiment with personal and expressive forms of talk and writing.

That is parodic, as anyone who was around at the time knows, and while there were excesses, most teachers managed a paradigm shift without abandoning all that had gone before. My own approach and experience you can read for yourself, and I was far from atypical. I never stopped teaching grammar or spelling; I fancy, however, that I taught both better because I knew why I was teaching them, to whom I was teaching them, and what the advantages and disadvantages of such teaching were. I was not, as in my first year or two, blindly following a dodgy textbook and calling that a program.

You can get a far fairer view of what Dartmouth led to by reading one of the participants, James Moffett, and it had nothing whatever to do with the fetishes in Triumph of the Airheads. Moffett is still an excellent starting point for effective English teaching. In the UK a key figure was Professor James Britton, again no pomo, but gently leftish. I have met him and on one occasion canvassed with him quite a few ideas over a beer or two in Sydney’s Forest Lodge Hotel. This teacher in Canada gives some idea of what he was about:

James Britton (1988) offers an interesting model for looking at writing.

Britton holds that all writing starts as expression. We want to say something. This expression has two extremes: we can say something in order to get something done, or we can create something by saying.

If we are writing to get something done, we are carrying out a transaction: persuading, informing, thanking, inviting, applying… Traditionally, most school writing is expected to be of this transactional nature; this is especially true of essay writing. Here we use language “to organize and communicate facts and ideas (recording, reporting, explaining, persuading, etc.)”

The creative aspect of writing deals with times when we want to say something about ourselves and our worlds. This creative writing is poetic, and allows students to shape their experiences, and through this process of shaping, to reveal much of what they feel about their experiences.


What we do with language1aarwrt 1aarwrt What we make with language

Both types of writing are important, because we learn different things when engaged with each type. In the first type of learning, we learn how to participate in an exchange of ideas. In the second type of learning we learn how to step back from this participation, to look at how and what people are doing, and to learn how to change what it is we are doing.

Finally, Britton maintains that the way in to writing lies in the expressive. That is, all writing can start out being informal, chatty, and explorative. As we grow in maturity as writers, we will be better able to turn this expressive writing into transactional writing, or poetic writing…

If we agree with Britton, and my practice suggests that we should, then we must re-think the way we teach writing in our classrooms. We must find a way to interest students in writing, and to accept expressive writing that has the potential to become either transactional or poetic.

Here are some of the tenets I have accepted in my teaching:


Students must be given time to write. This means allowing time for the whole process of writing, not just to produce product. Each stage in a student’s writing process must be given time in our classrooms.


Students must be allowed to choose, within reason, what they will write about, what form their writing will take, and when they will finish a piece of writing. We must show students that writing can play an important role in their lives both inside and outside of school.


Students must be given time to share their writing, to help one another come to understanding. Peer editing and conferring must be taught processes. Students must believe that the teacher need not be an integral part of their writing process.


We need to write for a reason. Students must be encouraged to share their writing with its intended audience. If it’s transactional writing, students should send it to the people they are trying to inform or persuade. If it’s poetic, students should be encouraged to read their writing aloud.


If we expect students to use writing in their lives, we must show them that we use it in ours. If we expect them to become writers, we must practice writing.

Revolutionary, isn’t it? Just good practice, I would have thought…

I wonder how much of this all these culture warriors actually know? Very little, I suspect.

That’s quite enough for now on this. I have taken up aspects of the story in other posts. Use the tags on Old Lines from a Floating Life and OzPolitics to find them. Or go to English/ESL to see at least some of what I think is good practice. Certainly I found that as I began to implement such ideas in the 70s and 80s the quality both of my teaching and of my students’ writing greatly improved, but the model was incomplete; later study of Halliday and his colleagues, and the work of the 1990s literacy researchers in Australia and elsewhere, sharpened our knowledge of what writing actually involves linguistically, and enhanced our ability to devise and teach models and scaffolds for a greater variety of writing tasks. This has tended to curb some of the more romantic, less reflective, excesses of the “teacher as facilitator” approach by enabling more explicit and more linguistically sophisticated instruction. See Scaffolding.

Yes, there are whole new areas and new approaches that were not part of our world of English teaching in 1966. How can it be otherwise? But I am here to tell you that the whole enterprise since has not been some kind of plot to make airheads of our students. Something rather more analytical and more dispassionate than Shelley Gare’s chapter may point to ways we could do better; what she comes up with is really rather an episode of Grumpy Old Women (nothing against them, as a grumpy old man myself, in their place) than any kind of useful contribution to good educational practice.

* Neil Whitfield, “Construction and Misconstruction”, The Teaching of English, NSW English Teachers’ Association, 1983.

NOTE: Look in the Vodpod on English/ESL too.


Post-structuralism in English Classrooms: Critical Literacy and After — Bronwyn Mellor and Annette Patterson (PDF) (2004)


Monday December 17 afterthought

I can’t help thinking there is some confusion in all this over the problems of university English departments, so far as they still exist, and what happens in English or Language Arts in schools. While teachers are trained in universities and therefore take on the perspectives of their courses there — or rebel against them — they soon discover that the links between the concerns of the university and the needs of school students are often tenuous. This difference does need to be remembered. Barry Spurr, for example, it seems to me, imports his views about the proper role of a university English department into debates concerning school English, and I really don’t think he has thought that through. While I admire Simon Leys, especially for his work on Chinese culture and history — he did a wonderful translation of Confucius, I find much that he says is not directly relevant to the concerns of a teacher in Year 9 English. At that level teachers tend to become very pragmatic when it comes to matters of high theory; if something simply does not work, bores kids rigid, and makes no impact on the abilities of kids in speaking, reading, listening or writing, it will tend to get binned.


This is older than the other PDF file, but is well worth reading.

Joseph Harris, “After Dartmouth: Growth and Conflict in English”, College English October 1991 (PDF)

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Posted by on December 15, 2007 in Australia, education, memory


10 responses to “Right-wing education critique is historically inaccurate and perpetuates myths

  1. Steve Rosenbaum

    December 15, 2007 at 2:17 am

    I can’t remember a time when education wasn’t under attack in one way or another. I think in part it’s nostaligia. “I had it harder when I was a kid. I walked to school in 10 feet of snow. Up hill both ways.”

    It’s also partly due to the fact that it’s part of the political system. Polictics thrives on crisis and problems. It’s hard to get more money for something that everyone thinks is doing well. So in some respects, education will always be in crisis.

    Finally, education of all kinds, varies tremendously by location, school and even teacher to teacher. As a result, you get some very good, some mediocre and some poor teaching going on. Without rigorous process and quality improvement efforts, this situation will always persist.

    A quick story..

    I learned to write at the speed that I can type. I learned this from a job I had in advertising where I sat at an old Royal type writer eight hours a day writing. My speed at the end of three years made getting my thoughts down on paper really easy.

    my blog.

  2. Jim Belshaw

    December 15, 2007 at 7:01 am

    Neil, I should be packing, but got side-tracked by this post. I found the post confusing, not because of lack of clarity in your writing, but because of unexpected juxtapositions of ideas.

    A question to you. What, in Shelley Gare’s mind, is the linkage between post modernism and economic rationalism? Read in isolation but in the context of your article, the quote seems to link them together as though those holding post modernist views were also economic rationalists? Or have a misread this?

    I would have thought that those holding economic rationalist views were more likely to be opposed to post modernism.

  3. ninglun

    December 15, 2007 at 8:12 am

    Steve, you’ve been here before and your comment is, I should warn my readers, essentially a commercial promotion of your business. However, your last anecdote does confirm the tried and true idea that doing is the best way of learning. That is how I learned computer!

    Jim, yes it is confusing. The Quadrant review of Shelley Gare’s book noted it back in 2006.

    SHELLEY GARE is affectionately remembered by Australian intellectuals as the founding editor (1996–98) of the Australian’s Review of Books. Just for once, the feuding classes put away their backbiting and resentment to admire a publication that commissioned a wide range of high-quality writing on ideas and paid a dollar a word for it.

    ARB was widely read but lost money and could not last. Gare herself moved on to edit the Sun-Herald/Age’s lifestyle magazine, giving her hands-on experience in the parade of airheaded culture she excoriates in Triumph of the Airheads. She wrote for the magazine an unexpectedly successful column purportedly written by her cat, and when her position as editor was made “redundant”, she was allowed to take the cat’s intellectual property (if that is the correct phrase) with her. The column continued successfully elsewhere, only to be outmanoeuvred by a rival column written by a chicken…

    But there is analysis behind the stories. Gare fingers two culprits, postmodernism (widely understood) and economic rationalism. Those two bodies of ideas are not normally attacked by the same people, but Gare argues they form a pincer movement that shreds decent human values and coherent thought processes. Most readers of Quadrant will probably agree with her views on postmodernism and appreciate her examples of its effect on the education system (Australian Education Union branch president: “I would hate to see this debate turn into an absolute prerequisite that all teachers have to pass spelling bees. Literacy is more than just learning how to spell.”). They may warm less naturally to her criticisms of the doings of capitalists, but her evidence gives cause for concern…

    I am now going back to write a brief preface to a very long post that I really cut short when I saw it was 1 am!

    I should also add something with reference to Australian Education Union branch president: “I would hate to see this debate turn into an absolute prerequisite that all teachers have to pass spelling bees. Literacy is more than just learning how to spell.” My brother and sister, taught in the 1940s, were both of them poor spellers. I was not. Why? Heaven knows. I do know people were bitching about spelling in 1957, 1967, 1977, 1987, 1997, and now 2007. Same goes for apostrophe abuse… Literacy really is about more than spelling!

  4. Jim Belshaw

    December 16, 2007 at 10:39 am

    Thanks for this explanation, Neil. Then I broadly agree with Gare’s general position, if not with what appears to be her specific position re English. Without checking the details, your argument appears to show a different but still possibly linked derivation.

    I feel a post coming on at some point, but not today.

    From South West Rocks

  5. ninglun

    December 16, 2007 at 10:46 am

    Fancy spending your holiday in such a lovely place commenting on my post, Jim! 😉

  6. Jim Belshaw

    December 17, 2007 at 9:38 am

    Quite ridiculous, I know, Neil. Dee reckons I am a tragic! But it’s been a bit wet. By the way, good to see you keeping the culture wars alive and well.

  7. ninglun

    December 17, 2007 at 9:51 am

    Janet Albrechtsen has certainly decided to keep the culture wars alive and well, hasn’t she? I really do tend to think they may be dying, or perhaps moving to a higher plane…

  8. AV

    December 17, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    Revolutionary, isn’t it? Just good practice, I would have thought…

    Nope. Straight from Chairman Mao.

  9. AV

    December 17, 2007 at 10:43 pm

    BTW: I hear on the grapevine that WA is ditching OBE.

  10. ninglun

    December 17, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    I did have a Little Red Book, Arthur, but never found it very useful at an ETA Conference… 😉

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