09 October 2006

Secondary importance

Both Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop and Labor pie-eater Craig Emerson have demonstrated a firm grasp on the wrong end of the stick in the debate on secondary education.

This issue flares on different fronts from time to time, and though it's a big issue it's all the same. Kids today, they:

  • Can't spell/don't understand grammar;

  • Are menaces on the road;

  • Don't know the first thing about Australian history;

  • Are mathematical/ scientific ignoramuses;

  • Must be afraid of the hard work needed to make it in a trade;

  • Provide dreadful service in shops;

  • Listen to crappy music and have no appreciation of Fine Arts;

  • Are too fat;

  • Are surly and disrespectful of older people;

  • Have no idea how to look presentable;

  • etc.

These are features of the same debate: what is secondary education for?

The purpose of primary education was never in doubt. Basic literacy and numeracy is the essential foundation for both the acquisition of skills and the enrichment of young minds, depending on your view of kids as future employees or citizens. This area has received close attention and funding from government in recent years.

Tertiary education, for all its ups and downs, also has a clear role. It must train people for workplace-related skills which change constantly, and to absorb the timeless learning from millenia of civilisation. It must train people to be skeptical while still being capable of action - including the ability to do that which one has not explicitly been asked to do. It is a massive export industry in itself and its contribution to other parts of the economy is enormous. This is likely to be the case into the future so far as we can tell from this angle.

Secondary education involves taking students from primary to tertiary education. That's it, really. It can't be as universal as primary education, for in secondary education we see divergent individuals emerging. It can't be as flexible as tertiary education, because kids need standards and they haven't entered the workforce that would reward such flexibility. It offers sufficient training for some jobs - low-value, low-income jobs, jobs that may serve to get kids through tertiary education or may be a poverty trap for those who take them instead of tertiary education. It's everything, and nothing, and anyone in such a position is acutely vulnerable to anyone who wants to take a shot at them.

The problem of secondary education is basically the problem of its target market, adolescents. Adolescents are not to be entrusted with the full rights and responsibilities of adults. Adolescents are not to be merely kept in line and instilled with facts and motor skills like children. Individual learning styles become more apparent during this time, and mishandling can limit people's potential as it expands that of others.

Take the teaching of Australian history:

  • In a primary sense, it is important that people know basic facts about (deep breath): traditional Aboriginal society; both the economic/political expansion and deplorable social conditions of eighteenth-century British society; the settlement of Sydney, and from there the settlement and exploitation of land (and yes, the alienation of Aborigines from it); gold rushes; political developments leading to Federation; Gallipoli in particular and Australia's participation in war generally; the rise and decline of White Australia; and the postwar developments leading to modern Australia which help explain why Granny's constantly astonished about things kids take for granted.

  • In tertiary terms it is perfectly valid to be entrusted with original sources and to understand various perspectives on what they might mean, including brand-name tools from Deleuze, Marx or whomever.

The primary knowledge is good for little more than answering quizzes, or for instilling predictable reactions when certain facts are invoked from time to time. The tertiary tools are inadequate because no tool is ever adequate: an adjustable spanner is a tool that can be used in car repairs, but it cannot fix all car-related problems, nor all other problems, and not is it a substitute for the vehicle on which it operates as the theorists would claim.

It is a bugger of a job, then, to build an understanding of Australian history strong enough to survive the dousing and filtering of history, to nurture an effection for the subject that will carry the student across the arid terrain of theory. It is entirely appropriate to teach kids that different people have different ways of looking at things, and that it is possible to anticipate and even participate in debates across society.

It is not helpful to those faced with this job to be wittering on about Maoism as though it were a real and present force in modern society, nor to insist that hammering square pegs into round holes is simply a matter of the right hammer and the right amount of force. At about the time that leftists were being encouraged to do a long march through the instutions, Tiny Tim was having people tiptoe through the tulips, and the effects on the education system of both journeys are about the same. The sort of beef-witted individual who is good for nothing but state politics regards secondary education as a service for keeping adolescents off the streets is unable to address questions about what secondary education is for. This crap about Maoists is an attempt to give them a relevance they just don't have. It is terribly important that such individuals not be entrusted with government.

Leaving school before one's secondary education is complete need be no tragedy in an era of lifelong learning. Keeping students in secondary education while its fundamental purpose is unclear is too much to expect. The key question is to build a bridge between primary understandings and tertiary applications, and no sensible person believes that Bishop, Emerson or anyone else prominent in state or federal politics can be of any help whatsoever.

Update: Kevin Donnelly says;
The impact of the cultural Left on education has been profound. Competition and failure are banned. Feminists attack traditional texts such as Romeo and Juliet as enforcing gender stereotypes. In history teaching, instead of focusing on significant historical events and figures and celebrating past milestones, the focus is on victim groups, such as women, migrants and Aborigines.

Rubbish! The impact of the cultural left is non-existant. Competition and failure are real presences in the lives of young people, more so in a less bucolic environment than the one in which Kevin grew up. Teachers that go over the facts and explain how different people view things differently are ultimately doing kids a favour.

How ironic that Kevin chose, of all texts, Romeo & Juliet. Two dysfunctional young people at the heart of that story can only demonstrate the irrelevance of the adult storm going on around them by their own extinction. If people like Kevin could get over themselves and their feuds of old for long enough they could realise that it's stupid to claim that such a complex, wide-ranging and widely popular work can only be taught one way to everyone. If Kevin wants to use the pages of the Oz for this purpose, fine; but he must stop misleading people about the nature of education. This idea of a big lie to spur people to the barricades is so 1968.

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