Outcomes-based and politically correct — the impact of the Culture Wars on our schools
by Kevin Donnelly
(Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books)
Paperback: 256 pages
Rec. price: $24.95
Reviewed by John Kelly
The main contention of Dr Kevin Donnelly’s new book, Dumbing Down, is that the standard of education in Australia has been systematically lowered since the 1960s and forfeited to secular New Age ideology that stunts the scope and depth of students’ knowledge and potential, and is seeing Australia fall behind other countries in the quality of its academic performance and cultural development.
The disturbing irony of the book’s title will not be lost on those who have been following the growing public debate on education and schooling over recent years.
Uniform and spiritless
The irony lies in the fact that many of the very institutions — universities and schools (both primary and secondary) — established to encourage academic excellence and enrich society at large with its benefits, have become instruments of a reductive utopian socialism. If this decline is not arrested soon, it is not fanciful to suggest Australia will find itself transformed into a uniform, spiritless and unproductive welfare state.
This country, argues Donnelly with reasoned passion, deserves much better.
The price of post-’60s Marxist-lite praxis, whereby traditional ideas are subordinate to “transformative action”, has been, as Donnelly shows, the abandonment of the pursuit of academic excellence — which is regarded by leftist ideologues as “elitist” — together with the erosion of the independence and freedom necessary for its attainment, in the interests of a “tyranny of relevance” and contrived “political correctness”.
Kevin Donnelly’s work is informed as much by his rich and extensive teaching experience in state and private systems as it is by thorough, broad and highly relevant research which is both generous and judicious in presenting the views of his educational opponents.
Dumbing Down ensures that the current leftist domination of Australian education is open to public scrutiny and held to account; and that the educational bureaucracies and teacher unions, which either outrightly negate or talk down real problems, will finally have to face facts.
The research findings presented in this book will be no comfort to those theorists, educrats and unionists whose main energies since the 1960s have been directed, not to upholding the value of knowledge in itself, but to the manipulation of education for their own political ends; and to the dissemination of propaganda favourable to the myopic status quo their “long march through the institutions” has produced.
At the same time, Donnelly’s work is an encouragement for those who regard the cultivation of the mind and heart — necessarily involving an appreciation of an ongoing tradition committed to engaging students with “the best that has been thought and said” — as the primary business of education and schooling.
Donnelly’s philosophy of education, unlike his critics’, is founded on a tested confidence in the developing Western tradition of liberal humanism and Judaeo-Christianity. His opponents in the educational establishment today remarkably regard this intrinsically dynamic and leavening legacy as either irrelevant to their idea of “a changing world” — rather like disdaining the need for a compass and rudder when putting out to sea — or as an obstruction to their neo-Marxist idea of “progress”.
Paradoxically, Donnelly’s appreciation of the emancipating value of the Western tradition is one shared, in its insistence on genuine literacy (classical languages, no less), by Marx himself and many of the Old Left, themselves beneficiaries of the kind of curricula and syllabi their New Age “successors” condemn as “oppressive”.
Dumbing Down deserves a wide audience, not only because of the central importance of education to society, but because of the comprehensive, systematic critique Donnelly makes of it at a critical point in Australia’s history.
For tertiary students, especially those in teacher-training, this book will provide a liberating background and alternative vision to the reductivist utopian presuppositions of many of their mentors, themselves often now foot-soldiers of the neo-Marxist and post-modern capture of curriculum and teacher-training institutes — the “Boxers” of Animal Farm.
Parents and students will welcome the call in Donnelly’s book for explicit, explanatory teaching based on academically worthy and culturally important texts. They will also appreciate the author’s vehement opposition to facile “student-centred” and “constructivist” assumptions, such as children being expected to “create their own knowledge” (within radical leftist parameters, of course); and to the reigning socialist orthodoxy that competition is inherently evil, anti-democratic and inegalitarian.
They will appreciate, too, Donnelly’s critique of educational methods that demonstrably fail to equip students with the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, and of deliberately woolly “outcomes-based learning”.
He insists on clear reporting and grading (A-E) that accurately reflects actual achievement — or lack of it — according to specific, subject-related standards. For years, under-achieving students’ real needs have effectively been ignored by a reporting system designed to obfuscate deficiencies in skills and knowledge, with the automatic promotion of all students to produce “equal outcomes”.
Many experienced teachers, too — required by professional development to attend conferences whose structuring ensures that questioning, let alone criticism, of prevailing educational orthodoxy is silenced and marginalised — will welcome this book.
Dumbing Down is also essential reading for all politicians. No government that endorses the subversive mixture of postmodernist theory and neo-Marxist ideology that underlies current curriculum statements and pedagogy can expect to claim a valid mandate from parents who seek what is best for their children in this crucial and costly area of their development.
Donnelly offers a democratic and fair starting point for reform. He recommends that the Australian Commonwealth Government “develop exemplary curricula syllabuses at the national level” which would be “offered to schools in competition against state and territory documents”.
He says: “Within broad guidelines, each school should be free to design a curriculum that best suits its needs and interests and in line with what the school community considers best practice.”
It is a proposal based on extensive knowledge and conviction about the value of what is being systemically and, until recently, stealthily jettisoned: real choice, independence, opportunity, enterprise, objectivity and excellence. Without these, civilised society regresses.
This initiative would also counteract the ideological monopoly of curriculum and teaching methodology, and the intrusive influence of strategic networking which currently secures a politically-correct ascendancy in the agenda of educational conferences and their procedures.
It also opens the way for ordinary people, especially parents, to have a say. This they are often at present denied by elitist ideologues whose esoteric theories and self-defeating relativism do nothing, intellectually or spiritually, to inspire the young entrusted to them.
The discarding of the moral and aesthetic value of literature evident in English curriculum statements, and the artificial parity of esteem awarded to all “texts”, are an application of the relativist principle in curriculum in order to facilitate leftist ‘interpretation’ and ideology.
This approach is, as Donnelly notes, among the main contributing factors to the increasingly joyless and confusing experience the study of literature has become for many students.
This is not to mention the “black armband” view of history that regards Australia merely as a society “disfigured by class exploitation, sexual and racial oppression and environmental destruction”. Sound familiar? It’s back to the ’60s.
The disaffection generated by this morbid and distorted vision is exacerbated, not assuaged, by the confected secular utopianism that accompanies it in the “Futures” sections of Essential Learnings in revised curriculum statements, where airy “attitudes” and “dispositions” replace traditional curriculum emphasis on knowledge.
Relativism, founded on seriously flawed epistemology, is rightly identified by Donnelly as the philosophical weakness that undermines much contemporary schooling. Donnelly cites Pope John Paul II who said:
“Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways this capacity is limited and conditioned. This has given rise to different forms of agnosticism and relativism which have led philosophical research to lose its way.”
Even more recently, Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of a “dictatorship of relativism”.
The better-performing Catholic schools and tertiary institutions, committed as they are to authentic development grounded in Scripture and church tradition, and to universal truth and values, could be expected to play a leading role in the recovery of sound education and the pursuit of excellence that Donnelly’s critique demonstrates is overdue.
Dumbing Down‘s analysis of “edubabble” in the final chapter not only provides a handy critical glossary of educational “Newspeak” but also exposes the philosophical bankruptcy of “progressive” educational theory and practice.
The proliferation of terms like “diversity”, “constructivism” and “equity of outcomes” (“empathy”, “multiple readings” and “inter-disciplinary readings” might also be added) mask the relativistic outlook that subvert objectivity — even in science and mathematics curricula, as Donnelly shows.
It does not seem to occur to many who espouse it that, if relativism is pivotal to the educational enterprise, then power and pragmatism must be the ultimate arbiters of issues. But then, there is abundant evidence in Donnelly’s research — especially when it comes to the interpretation of texts and understanding of history — to suggest that this is the very intention of its most radical proponents.
In short, Dumbing Down should be on the mandatory reading list of all seriously interested in education and the common good of society.
— John Kelly is a South Australian secondary school teacher.