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Sense, nonsense, speculation and invective

07 Aug

Always a lot of the last three around, not so much of the first — though there are times all four can coexist. Such seems to be the case with Paul Keating’s interview on last night’s 7.30 Report, which I did not see as I was watching the movie I tell you about in the next entry. The occasion of the interview was the launch of Unfinished Business: Paul Keating’s interrupted revolution by David Love, a book I wouldn’t mind reading. Keating, it appears, was in fine form.

KERRY OBRIEN: What, so Kevin Rudd does talk to you? Have you come in from the cold because Labor in opposition didn’t seem to know how to treat you, did they?
PAUL KEATING: The great pity for the post-me Labor Party is they gave — as this book today, the cause of our interview says — they gifted to Howard and Costello a two per cent inflation rate, a four per cent growth rate, a three per cent productivity rate, which they said thank you and stuck in their pockets. So now the Labor Party has come round to reality. You now have to deal with real things.
KERRY OBRIEN: How do you critique the first eight months of the Rudd Government?
PAUL KEATING: Um, solid. Solid but cautious. I think if there’s any problem the Government has it is that. When I say a problem I don’t any it’s a problem necessarily but it is to not have an over arching narrative in place. You know, I always talked about the internationalisation of the economy, the opening of the product financial and labour markets, the flexibility of the kind we have with all of our financial institutions, the exchange rate, wages. All of the Cabinet understood that, the message was always the same. We call that the narrative…

KERRY OBRIEN: Kevin Rudd has been painted as micro manager. Now whatever you and Bob Hawke were accused of as prime ministers I don’t think micro manager was one of them. Can a Prime Minister afford to engage in the small detail in running Government? In the end do you have to invest trust and significant autonomy in your ministerial colleagues?
PAUL KEATING: Absolutely. You can’t micro manage a thing like the Commonwealth…

Not entirely nonsense, that.

Pretty close to nonsense is Miranda Devine today psychoanalysing Liberal Party leaders (or leadership aspirants) in terms of sibling rivalry. It isn’t the worst thing she has ever written, and is quite innocuous comparatively speaking, I suppose.  I should add I was #3 in our family…

Everyone’s favourite topic has surfaced again as the annual Great HSC Sacrifice of Youth approaches: The futile 13 years: lid lifted on HSC. Anna Patty starts with a suitably sensationalist hook after that shock horror headine:

MOST students can complete 13 years of school without having to demonstrate basic literacy and numeracy skills, says a leading educational assessment expert.

The chief executive officer for the Australian Council for Educational Research, Geoff Masters, says minimum standards of reading, writing and maths should be met by all students before they are awarded an HSC or equivalent qualification.

In his address to the council’s annual research conference in Brisbane next week, Professor Masters will raise concerns about Australia’s failure to ensure all students have reached basic standards when they finish school…

There is, Anna, a great difference between “demonstrating” something in accordance with some universal bureaucratic benchmark and actually being able to do that something. It strikes me as sheer hyperbole, and quite misleading, to suggest the most — what: 90%? 51%? — students get through to the end of high school without “basic literacy and numeracy skills.” In fact these days the poor mites are tested and measured to death through their thirteen years of schooling, much more so than my cohort was fifty years ago. We just had an Intermediate in Year 9, mostly internal and none of it “objective” or “standardised”, and a Leaving in Year 11. (I speak of course of NSW there.) No basic skills tests in Year 3, Year 6, Year 7, Year 8 and Year 10 in our day.

The article goes on to quote OECD figures showing “13 per cent of Australians aged 15 were below the standard at which students were considered to be at risk of not having the basic skills.” Let’s just take that at face value for the moment: I think you will agree that 13% is by no definition “most students.” Whether that figure is disgusting, or simply a reflection of what might be expected in the real world, and what it actually means, I have gone into before. Check the literacy tag in the side bar, and for a systematic discussion see an essay from 1998: Literacy on Ninglun’s Specials. Honestly, there’s not much new under the sun in this area; take it from one who has been around the education business for over four decades, whose familiarity with the issues through family connection and reading goes back more than a century.

It may be that Geoff Masters has something reasonable to say, but that seems to have been filtered somewhat in the Herald story.

Finally, I should mention that one of my favourite books on English Studies is the mock-critical collection The Pooh Perplex by Frederick Crews.

The essays:

  • Paradoxical Persona: The Hierarchy of Heroism in Winnie-the-Pooh (Harvey C. Windrow)
  • A Bourgeois Writer’s Proletarian Fables (Martin Tempralis)
  • The Theory and Practice of Bardic Verse: Notations on the Hums of Pooh (P.R. Honeycomb)
  • Poisoned Paradise: The Underside of Pooh (Myron Masterson)
  • O Felix Culpa! The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh (C.J.L. Culpepper, D.Litt,, Oxon)
  • Winnie and the Cultural Stream (Murphy A. Sweat)
  • A la recherche du Pooh perdu (Woodbine Meadowlark)
  • A Complete Analsis of Winnie-the-Pooh (Duns C. Penwiper)
  • Another Book to Cross Off Your List (Simon Lacerous)
  • The Style of Pooh: Sources, Analogues, and Influences (Benjamin Thumb)
  • A.A. Milne’s Honey-Balloon-Pit-Gun-Tail-Bathtubcomplex (Karl Anschauung, M.D.)
  • Prolegomena to Any Future Study of Winnie-the-Pooh (Smedley Force)

As Danny Yee says in the review from which I took that summary, The Pooh Perplex is very old (1964 — just in time to delight me during my Honours English year at Sydney University) but has had a 2001 sequel Postmodern Pooh. I couldn’t help thinking of Crews when I read Darwin to the Rescue: A group of scholars thinks evolutionary science can reinvigorate literary studies via A&L Daily about a week ago.

In the face of any looming apocalypse, imagined or not, prophets abound. For the literary academy, which has been imagining its own demise for almost as long as it has been around, prophets seem always to look to science, with its soothing specificity and concreteness. As the modern discipline of literary criticism was forming in the early 20th century, scholars concentrated their efforts on philology, a study that was thought to be more systematic than pure literary analysis. When the New Critics made their debut in the 1920s and 30s, their goal was to give a quasi-scientific rigor to literary theory: to lay out in detail the formal attributes of a “good poem” and provide guidance as to how exactly one discovered them. Later the Canadian critic Northrop Frye, in his 1957 Anatomy of Criticism, famously queried: “What if criticism is a science as well as an art?” And some of the poststructuralist thought that began to filter into America from France in the 1960s took as its bedrock linguistic and psychoanalytic theory.

But very few pro-science activists suggested that literary scholars should actually work the way scientists do, using such methods as accumulating data and forming and testing hypotheses. Even Frye argued that, while the critic should understand the natural sciences, “he need waste no time in emulating their methods. I understand there is a Ph.D. thesis somewhere which displays a list of Hardy’s novels in the order of the percentages of gloom they contain, but one does not feel that that sort of procedure should be encouraged.”

Over the last decade or so, however, a cadre of literary scholars has begun to encourage exactly that sort of procedure, and recently they have become very loud about it. The most prominent (at least in the nonacademic media) are the Literary Darwinists, whose work emphasizes the discovery of the evolutionary patterns of behavior within literary texts — the Iliad in terms of dominance and aggression, or Jane Austen in terms of mating rituals — and sets itself firmly against 30 years of what they see as anti-scientific literary theories like poststructuralism and Marxism…

Pseudoscientific and faux Darwinism, I would have thought. Now of course it may be interesting to read Jane Austen looking for mating rituals, if you want to… Or to read King Lear looking for the impact of toilet training. But why would you want to? Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favour or a variety of critical approaches, but I really do think English Studies doesn’t stand to gain much from this latest outbreak of academic empire building — and I suspect that is what it really is.

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Posted by on August 7, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, awful warnings, book reviews, education, English studies, exams and assessment, literacy, literary theory/criticism, politics, reading, teaching, weirdness

 

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