Something rotten in the state of education

Temple of Concordia and statue of Icarus, Agrigento, Sicily – SHUTTERSTOCK
ALLEGRA BYRON witnesses the winnowing of the Western curriculum

In the final scene of Hamlet, the Danish kingdom lays in ruins: a corrupt leader bleeds to death; a poisoned First Lady takes her last breath; a young nobleman dies by his own treachery; and a fatally wounded prince, desperately seeking Truth and Justice, urges his close friend to report the true nature of things. This outward carnage and chaos mirror the deep rot within.

As dramatic as this may sound, the crumbling Danish world metaphorically parallels the disappearing, Western kingdom. In particular, our education system, fundamental to the prosperity and progress of any society, lays bleeding on all sides. The dismantling and decay (and ‘decolonising’) of education directly affects the core participants – the pupils, the teachers, the parents – most of whom have become victims of the Conqueror Worm . Often, they are too manipulated or confused or exhausted to see that the few hoarse voices protesting against the destruction of school curricula are not “mere madness” but urgently attempting to restore order from chaos, to weed out the cankers.

In most schools, two significant learning areas embedded in the curricula are English (language and literature) and history. Whilst each country offers various colours and flavours of these subjects, dependent evidently upon cultural contexts, governments, educational bodies and the public, would agree that our young people need to demonstrate competency and confidence in communicating; they need to read and write and speak and spell well. Admittedly, line-ups for ‘meet the history teacher’ cannot compete with the mad dash for the maths and English teachers’ tables at parent-teacher nights, yet most do place value on pupils knowing about their past and how that past affects their present and future. Australia, like other nations, has sought to standardise its education nationally, believing that this decision ensures equal access for all Australian children. Indeed, students deserve quality, academically rigorous, twenty-first century schools to shape them into life-long learners, allowing them to be active citizens. Noble aims. Important aims. Tragically, however, this hopeful national curriculum with all its virtuous pursuits is an “unweeded garden / That grows to seed”

“Alas, poor Yorick – I knew him, Horatio”: the disappearing texts

One value in immersing young minds in classical literature, a luminous tapestry of novels, plays, short stories and poetry, is that these works present, as Mortimer Adler once suggested, the great enduring truths of the human experience . Between the pages of ‘old books’ a reader discovers love, goodness, despair, forgiveness, longing, graciousness, evilness, beauty, honour, truth and justice. These discourses are offered through the windows of sophisticated, varied vocabulary, clever phrasing and fresh, figurative diction and mature syntax. C S Lewis believed strongly that

…the only palliative [to the blindness of our own century] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books  .

Given his ability to read just about everything and then remember everything he read, Lewis had something of value to say about reading choices. Shakespeare’s country grammar school days at King’s New School also valorised the classics. The schoolmasters instructed in spoken and written Latin. During the mornings and afternoons, the diligent pupils translated biblical texts from Greek into Latin and English. They were skilled in Butler’s Rhetorik, andthe boys also studied authors such as Terence, Virgil and Horace. At breaks, mucking about in the schoolyard, the lads were encouraged to speak in Latin (a space, perhaps, to craft his witty insults?). While the drudgery of Elizabethan schoolwork is self-evident in the well-known Romeo and Juliet simile, “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, / But love from love, toward school with heavy looks”, 400 years later, contemporary audiences benefit from Shakespeare’s liberal education, clearly evident in his writings. Closer to our time, a Queensland school reader, given to 12 and 13-year olds, dating from the 1960s, aimed “to instil into the minds of pupils such a love of literature as will last beyond school-days and be an unfailing source of profit and delight”  . The collections of accomplished visual artists, poets and short story writers selected for young Australian girls and boys were “compend[ia] of useful knowledge as well as a treasury of beautiful thoughts”  .

Today’s modern reading lists in many schools, au contraire, shy away from classical works. They are dropping off and disappearing. Instead, the-powers-that-be scramble to introduce newly published texts into the Australian classroom, replacing the tried and tested. English teachers’ organisations across the country will openly acknowledge the deliberate decision to highlight texts that reflect the myriad of (current) voices in Australia. These ‘new’ texts have morphed into supposed ‘tools of reconciliation’ for the silenced Australian voices. Books (and the odd poem) appear as vehicles of change: to dismantle the white or male (or both) cultural norms. Now, classical literature, part of the ‘best that has been thought and said’, when evident in teachers’ unit plans, is often reduced to a gender warfare or a platform to disrupt the ‘settler myth’ or colonial injustices. Teachers are repackaged as social engineers. For example, on the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website, viewers are offered Year 9 sample student responses to an analytical essay on the ‘role of women’ in Macbeth . Thus, 14 and 15-year old students, still emerging writers, still wrestling with accurate written expression, are requested to uncover the alleged gender imbalance in an Elizabethan text. Rather than discover the beauty and craft of masterful language and storytelling, the teenagers must interrogate the play for its perpetuation or subversion of dominant power dynamics and ideologies. At Eton College – a school that dismissed a teacher for ‘gross misconduct’, that is, for daring to promote masculinity – the headmaster promised that

…the teaching of history, geography, religious studies, politics and English will change and that decolonisation will be incorporated into assemblies, religious services, tutorials and societies also” .

Across the Atlantic, a recently formed American organisation called #DisruptTexts, “whose mission [is] to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices”, claims that “white supremacy” in classrooms is real, and that teachers’ roles are to collapse the deeply embedded racism and “to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that … students deserve” . White supremacy is evident, so goes the tall tale, in our ‘worship’ of the word (rather than pictures). This angry mob of anti-Western canon protesters challenge their new comrades with the question: “Who determined that long words were the only words that could be considered complex?” Apparently, their placards proclaim, when we criticise these new ideologically-approved texts then we criticise the young people that read them.

Back on Australian soil,English teachers are trained how to present ‘culturally sensitive texts’, ones that could contain “community and/or family violence and abuse (sexual or other), alcohol and drug use, crime, explicit sex scenes” for their “literary merit”  . Wide reading lists in some schools for pubescent students will privilege homosexual and/or transgender ideology. If teachers contest the use of these texts, then these questions reveal teachers’ intolerance or ‘their lack of understanding’. Often any logical reasons offered against the use of these texts are considered right wing, fascism. Do Australian educators need to fear the Eton teacher’s fate? Some parents also are too afraid to make noise. One American writer and cultural critic has identified parents as ‘tyrants’. He moans, “parents’ [sic] is an oppressive class, like rich people or white people” . It’s no wonder mums and dads feel silenced and disempowered.

Clearly, not all Australian voices are welcome in the carefully constructed, ‘progressive’ classrooms. And not all silenced, marginalised voices are being heard. Where has the treasury of beautiful thoughts disappeared? Will these new books become ‘sources of profit and delight’?

Yesterday’s battles, today

History in Australian schools has not been inoculated against the disease of rapid disruption. The outspoken Scottish history academic, Jill Stephenson, opened a recent article with these words: “No school subject lends itself more readily to political manipulation and propaganda than history” .  The 2014 review of the Australian Curriculum identified an “undue emphasis” on the three cross-curriculum priorities: sustainability, the histories and cultures of Indigenous Australians and Australia’s engagement with Asia . The post-modern pendulum swings heavily in favour of this three-pronged priority at the expense of a balanced presentation of Western civilisation and its Judeo-Christian heritage. Stephanie Forrest of the Sydney think-tank, Institute of Public Affairs, found that current, Australian Curriculum-approved, history textbooks were “factually incorrect”, made “outrageous statements” and in some places presented “an environmentalist, socialist and sometimes almost Marxist agenda” . For the most part, however, the 21st century history class has textbook-styled lessons buried, and they now re-emerge as pseudo-scholarly fora, where eras and movements appear via primary sources. Teenaged students, still embryonic in seeing the broad sweep of history from its beginning, now must become historiographers, articulating academic, historical hypotheses and debating the usefulness and reliability of sources before they understand their world and its timeline. Instead of deep learning and time to ruminate, the students, too soon, must learn how to evaluate, analyse and assess the credibility of published authors. They become lost in piles of primary and secondary sources, pouring over visual and written artefacts constructed for an adult audience. In some cases, given that the standard for senior history subjects is so unattainable, the criteria just too difficult, these high school ‘scholars’ will be locked out of taking history courses in upper secondary if their grades are only ‘satisfactory’.

Further, the history units gallop at top speed. Some have one lesson on the Renaissance. The Reformation didn’t happen (apparently, as it’s not referenced in some schools). World War I can be taught in nine lessons. Capitalism is critiqued. Socialism is privileged. Teachers collide, breathlessly, in breeze-ways and hallways, quizzing their colleagues, “Have you finished — unit yet?”. They mark, meet and moderate (papers). And then they do it all again. And again.

But we need history. Despite the pundits arguing that history yawns with ‘drill-and-kill’, so many students continue to love the human stories that arise along the historical timeline. Young people lean in to hear about the ‘boy soldiers’, Trooper Harold Thomas Bell, for example, from the Australian Light Horse Regiment. He was a farmer lad from country Victoria. Although so long ago in a land far, far away, the students feel empathy upon hearing that Harry, like so many others, died from gunshot wounds after the charge against Beersheba on 31 October 1917. He was only 16. Pools of pupils will linger to talk to Teacher after class, bursting to tell her anecdotes about their Pop’s Pop or their Nan’s dad: the medals, the marches, the military. During a lesson (sacrificing the heavily prescribed curriculum requirements), the questions roll around the room, questions breed questions: why didn’t they care for the children in the factories? Did those soldiers really stop fighting on that Christmas Eve? Did Elizabeth the First have kids? Will there be another world war? How tall d’you reckon Alexander the Great was? The late NYU professor Neil Postman sighed knowing that children enter school as question marks and leave as periods. The reality? Quite simply, there isn’t the time for student-led curiosity.

Education today is a tragedy. Limping into a new year, the educational system lags with poisonous political ideologies; left-wing agendas purposefully massacre traditional values once treasured in good books and in a rich, balanced history curriculum. Recent research into educational trends confirmed that half of Australian educators believed that literacy and numeracy (and student behaviour) had declined in the last ten years . Our schools, the children and the dedicated teachers and leaders that fill them, have been betrayed by those in positions of political and academic power, those granted the privilege to lead with wisdom and discernment. We wring our hands and hearts in dismay.

And yet …

If we circle back to the beginning, where we met a disorderly Danish kingdom, like all Shakespearean tragedies, there is always a quest for divine order after a catastrophe. A godly design for all matter (from rocks to celestial beings) governed the Renaissance world: everything had its rightful place. While the noble-hearted Hamlet dies in his desperate attempt to avenge the wrongs of his world, Horatio courageously tells the Prince of Norway, Fortinbras, of the “casual slaughters” and the “cunning and forced deaths” that took place in this pursuit. We too have Hamlet-types of our time. There have been (and are) brave men and women – brilliant professors, deeply committed school teachers and leaders, excellent medical doctors, just politicians, outspoken writers and journalists and many others from all walks of life – suffering the fatal blows of our nihilistic, culture wars. The casualties include a researcher from a tropical, north Queensland university fired for telling the truth; a New York Times writer finished for critiquing critical theory; a social commentator on gender issues lynched for advocating for young men’s rights on university campuses; and a Melbourne medical doctor, practicing for 15 years, ‘cancelled’ for having opinions. Each year, the casualty list multiplies.

Of course, in Shakespeare’s story, Fortinbras claims rights to the broken kingdom. Likewise, we identify a groundswell of opposition, a collective Fortinbras of sorts, all across our nations, some in secret and hidden spaces and places, now gaining momentum and traction to battle against the disruption and destruction of education and other. They claim their right to a better education. They seek a better way for the children. While the UK has academies like the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, an academically excellent group of schools established in economically depressed northern England and London’s ‘strictest’ school, Michaela College, led by Headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, America has pockets of charter and independent schools, some of which produce their own classically-based curriculum sold globally. In Australia, tucked away out the back of Brisbane, Queensland, is the newly established Charlotte Mason College, offering families respite from the turbulent curriculum wars; a place where children meet “a feast of living books, cultural artworks and ideas” . This new Classical Liberal Arts school gently provides “an abundant life [for the boys and girls] that is good, true and beautiful”  Travelling south, into Victoria, home to the controversial “Safe Schools” program, the Australian Classical Education Society, an organic collection of teachers, students, home schooling families and academics, commit to establishing Classical Education schools across the country. Thus, we have hope. We must look towards a bright future, believing that a restoration of rightful order to a disorderly Western kingdom will take place.

Campus tragedy

MICHAEL WILDING surveys the sorry state of Australia’s universities

The systematic degradation of the universities has now been continuing for 40 years.

It began at the end of the 1970s, with the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the USA. Australia dutifully followed suit. The policies were a mixture of reprisals for the radical political activism of the 1960s and 70s, and the systematic replacement of public and state ownership by privatisation. Funding for the Arts – History, English, Philosophy, etc – was drastically reduced since it was perceived that the protests had developed from those areas. Vocational courses were introduced in keeping with the new market economy business model. Staff were pressured to take early retirement. Those who remained found that the safeguards of the traditional concept of academic freedom were being removed. Tenure was steadily abolished. New appointments and promotions began to be made for a fixed term contract. If you said or wrote something deemed to be unacceptable – and the list of the unacceptable has grown rapidly – you were likely to find yourself out of a job at the end of your contract.

Then it was decided that too few students went to university. In the 1950s and 1960s, 5% of the eligible population went to university. The new aim was to exceed 50%. This was easily achieved by deciding that colleges of advanced education, institutes of technology, teachers’ colleges, art schools, nursing colleges should all become universities, either by changing their name or by merging with existing universities. These institutions had been primarily vocational. Their staff were often drawn from people who had had experience in industry, marketing, media and so on, and could impart practical experience. They had a higher teaching load than university staff, but they were not expected to undertake research. These institutions had generally functioned well, and their students were engaged with the practical and vocational orientation of their courses.

But the more abstract and theoretical nature of university courses was not something that has engaged today’s vastly increased number of students – especially as most of them are struggling to hold down jobs, and to fit their courses into spaces in their employment schedule. As a result, the traditional university courses have been dumbed down and reoriented. Foreign language courses withered away and in many cases perished. The classics of ancient Greece and Rome were taught in translation, insofar as they were taught at all. The number of characters a student of Chinese was expected to learn was halved. Indian studies shifted from historical and cultural studies to a business studies orientation. English courses withered away; exposure to works of literature was drastically reduced, as critical theory, creative writing and other developments occupied the syllabus space, while communications and media studies, despite having little credibility in media industries, further drew away traditional students.

Other factors came into play. During the 1960s, there had been two federal funding bodies for academic research in Australia, one for the arts and one for sciences. The marked difference between them was that grants for the arts were modest. The arts researcher typically asked for no more than Aus$10,000 for some research assistance, for typing, for travel. The science grants were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to support equipment and teams of research assistants. It was a system that functioned well. Then the two funding bodies were merged and funding became pretty well entirely on the scientific scale. Grants of hundreds of thousands of dollars were available for the arts; small grants were no longer the model. This was wasteful enough but worse was to follow. A new concept of ‘teaching relief’ was introduced, allowing grant recipients to use research funds to hire someone to do their teaching for them.

One justification for research funding in the arts was that the discoveries made during research fed back into teaching, ensuring teaching was of a high quality and at the cutting edge of knowledge. Now, to adapt the old saying, as for teaching, our servants shall do that for us. And these servants hired to do the teaching were all employed as part time, casual staff. They were paid around Aus$50 an hour during teaching term; during vacations they had to apply for welfare. While the grant recipients swanned around and never saw a student, let alone imparted any knowledge. The university administrators saw these research funds as a source of finance. They appointed further administrators, on high salaries, who coached academics in how to apply for research grants. People who had acquired funding were made into ‘distinguished research professors’ on five year contracts. They moved from campus to campus and grant to grant, doing no teaching.

And much of the time no research conclusions were ever published. The scandal of this has never been exposed, but thousands upon thousands of tax-payers’ dollars were handed out with nothing to show for it in return. The universities took their cut of the funds, the distinguished professors took their salaries, but all too often nothing was published. When a senior academic I knew tried to research into how the Australian Research Council awarded grants, he found it was impossible. All records of unsuccessful applications had been destroyed. There was no way of assessing the assessors and of examining the so-called peer-reviewing process. Nonetheless, the process continues. Publication used to be a mark of academic achievement. Now success in receiving funding is deemed more important. The emphasis has shifted from evidence of work produced to evidence of money received.

The universities have spent millions of dollars hiring management consultants to restructure them from their original religious and cultural foundations to corporatized machines for making money

This is part of the shift to a business model. The universities have spent millions of dollars hiring management consultants to restructure them from their original religious and cultural foundations to corporatized machines for making money. Vice-chancellors now call themselves CEOs and are given grotesquely large salaries –  Aus$1,800,00 a year plus bonuses at the University of Sydney. Bonuses! Gratifyingly, quite a few of them have been dismissed for plagiarism and other corrupt behaviour. And the number of administrators, paid far more than teaching staff, has proliferated absurdly. One of the consequences of the merger of universities with art schools, nursing colleges, agricultural colleges and the rest, was that the heads of those institutions were all given highly paid administrative titles in the expanded university. Where there used to be a vice-chancellor and a deputy, now there are a dozen or more deputy vice-chancellors. They all seem to get sabbatical leave, though rarely have any of them done any significant academic work. But this is just part of the insane growth of the administrative bureaucracies in the universities. When I first taught at the university of Sydney there used to be one administrator for every 12 members of the teaching staff. Now fewer than 50% of university staff are actually involved in teaching.

And now over 40% of students in Australia are foreign students. The universities have made themselves dependent on foreign students. They are now the economic base of the operation. Forget providing a cultural context and education for Australian students. The universities have become part of an immigration racket. Student visas allow residency, the opportunity to provide cut-price work, and the chance of citizenship. Some of the recruitment agencies that find overseas students not only receive a large finding fee but are also involved in the construction industry, building, renting and selling student apartments. This has nothing to do with education. And with the travel restrictions and health issues arising from Covid-19, this has proved a disastrous model, with Australian universities suffering a massive reduction in fees and consequent massive job cuts, as overseas students no longer enrol.

Indeed, it has been the antithesis of education. In order to cater for the influx of foreign students, standards have been dropped, indeed abandoned. Most of the top rank of foreign students go to the United States, United Kingdom or Europe. Australia caters for the generally less able ones – and caters for them by lowering, or abandoning, standards. There are endless, authenticated stories of academics being instructed not to fail foreign students: they have paid their fees, they must be passed. Academics who attempt to maintain standards are overruled and disciplined.

Back at the beginning of the century when I published my novel Academia Nuts, I felt I had recorded the university in decline. In a comic way, of course. Campus farce. “Unmistakeably the last waltz”, the Times Higher Educational Supplement called it. But “’tis not the end when we can say, this is the end”. The decline had a lot further to go. Now my portrait of an institution in decline looks quite idyllic compared with the current state of the universities.