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Politics in the classroom: A riposte

By Paul Sommer - posted Friday, 11 February 2005

Professor Wayne Sawyer’s editorial in English In Australia (No141) has caused a stir. That is not unexpected. He writes about the need for Critical Literacy approaches to English teaching especially in response to political events. His criticism of the Howard Government is explicit.

While the views in the editorial are his own, he writes with the support of The Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) council. An editorial is, after all, the right place to present a personal opinion - especially when it is from such a distinguished and experienced educator as Professor Sawyer.

The shrillest voice in opposition has come from Kevin Donnelly. He has sought to promote the AATE journal, English in Australia, as undermining traditional approaches and wanting to turn students into “politically correct new age warriors”, rather than as promoting debate. He neglects to mention that he has also been given space in the journal to present his point of view.


Nevertheless, he is right in identifying a much more critical approach to texts than when he or I, went to school. This is uncontroversial to many and to do otherwise would be to disadvantage our students. Times have changed. It is a complex world, especially for our students. Social theory, curriculum writing, and teaching methodology have made attempts to recognise the fact.

Such a critical approach would encourage readers to ask a few questions about Donnelly’s opinion piece and the front page article (The Australian February 8).

Why should they be horrified that educationalists should have political opinions and are prepared to engage in public debate? What does it say about the education systems, the government and the media?

Why is Professor Sawyer depicted as “peddling political views” when Donnelly’s latest book was published by, and available online through, an overtly political group in the Menzies Research Centre?

Why have repeated attempts to publish comment, such as in “Letters to the Editor” in The Australian, about Donnelly’s attacks on AATE failed, and he is repeatedly given prominence?

AATE promotes free speech. We encourage students to think and develop their own opinions on matters of importance to the Australian community. In this spirit, we support Professor Sawyer especially when he expresses what he clearly says are his own views not those of the association. Isn’t this the point of democracy?


There is a broader picture.

Teaching literacy, with clear implications for English teaching, is much more than decoding words through recognising sounds and much more than rules and their correct application. Teachers know this.

Some attacks by Donnelly and others, all have an element of nostalgia about them. The first is an historical nostalgia that ignores the fact that we, as English teachers, have moved beyond whole language, phonics or any method as sufficient in teaching literacy skills, and into Critical Literacies.

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About the Author

Paul Sommer is the President of The Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE).

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