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Cannon fodder of the culture wars

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Friday, 11 February 2005

In the US it's known as the culture wars: the battle between a liberal-humanist view of education based on the disinterested pursuit of truth and those committed to overthrowing the status quo and turning students into politically correct new age warriors.

The editorial in the latest edition of English in Australia, the journal of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE), provides ample evidence that the culture wars have reached our shores and that those seeking to control our schools prefer indoctrination to education.

Wayne Sawyer, the president of the NSW English Teachers Association and former chairman of the NSW Board of Studies English Curriculum Committee, bemoans the fact that the Howard Government was re-elected and cites this as evidence that English teachers have failed in their job.


Parents and the general public might be forgiven for thinking that English teachers, instead of teaching students the "right" way to vote, should be more concerned with teaching students to read and write and to value good literature. Not so.

Sawyer asks: "What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical generation that those who bought us balaclavaed security guards, Alsatians and Patrick's stevedoring could declare themselves the representatives of the workers and be supported by the electorate?

"Three years before, Howard had headlined the non-existent children overboard, he had put race firmly on the agenda as an election issue and cynically manipulated the desperation and poverty of our Pacific neighbours. What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical, ethical citizenry that that kind of deception is rewarded?"

One might imagine, in a democracy such as ours, that once the people have voted, those who voted the other way would accept the outcome and respect the people's judgment. Not so Sawyer. As is so characteristic of the elites who seek to control Australia's cultural agenda, Sawyer refuses to accept that the people may have got it right and that their decision, while unacceptable to him, might be based on sound judgment.

It's also ironic, notwithstanding the rhetoric about empowering students to think independently, that Sawyer seeks to impose his view of what is politically correct and judges anybody who begs to differ as being duped.

"We knew the truth about Iraq before the election. Did our former students just not care? We knew before the election that “children overboard” was a crock, but, as it was yesterday's news, did they not care about that either? Has English failed not only to create critical generations, but also failed to create humane ones?"


What Sawyer also fails to consider is that such was the Howard Government's record - high employment, low inflation and secure borders - and the dismal performance of the ALP that voting for the Coalition might have been the action of a sensible person.

Even worse than Sawyer's jaundiced view about the election, and the apparent failure of English teachers to get tomorrow's adults to vote the way he would like, is what the editorial tells us about how English is now taught.

In the post-modern classroom, literacy is defined as social-critical literacy and texts are deconstructed to show how disadvantaged groups, such as girls and women, are marginalised and dispossessed. Ignored is the aesthetic and moral value of great literature.

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First published in The Australian on February 9, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Kevin Donnelly
Related Links
Politics in the classroom: A riposte - On Line Opinion
You failed your voting test, kids - The Australian
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