Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Debating Literacy in Australia: History Lessons and Popular F(r)ictions

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Debating Literacy in Australia: History Lessons and Popular F(r)ictions

Article excerpt

Snapshots Illiteracy is not only a cruel and unjust handicap, from the point of view of the individual, but a disgrace, and indeed a menace, from the point of view of society. The Duncan Report [Adult Education in Australia], 1944, p. 106.

Delinquents are rare in Christian homes. Argus, 10 May 1954, p. 5.

Illiteracy is the great Australian disease... The Australian, 8 August 1976, p. 3.

Australia's ability to compete internationally will remain seriously impeded while one in seven workers cannot read and write well enough to improve their skills ... Upgrading literacy skills in Australian workplaces is crucial to improved productivity. John Dawkins, media release, Department of Employment, Education and Training, 30 July 1990, p. 1.

Literacy was not a major issue in Australia before preparations for International Literacy Year (ILY) began in 1989. Noel Simpson, Preface, Putting Literacy on the Agenda (Canberra: DEET, 1992), p. iv.

[T]he real issue facing our schools is the teaching of functional literacy -- the ability to read and write usefully -- on a much higher level for the whole population that has been required in history., P.P. McGuinness, 'Grammar Crucial to Unlocking Language', The Weekend Australian, 3 July 1994, p. 2.

Literacy challenges

The axiom that those who fail to understand history are bound to repeat it is rarely more relevant than in the case of public debates over literacy. Teachers' work by definition concentrates on the resent. But because teaching and teacher education are characteristically defined in terms of finding the 'state of the art' -- the, latest, most scientific approaches -- it is all too easy to neglect understanding of historical contexts and influences, particularly those of the recent and immediate past.

Controversy over literacy has become a permanent fixture of educational debate and policy. With the release of a recent federal parliamentary report entitled 'The Literacy Challenge', one front-page headline read: 'Flaws in child literacy' (The Age, 2 February 1993, p. 1). Another newspaper account, more soberly headlined 'Report calls to boost to literacy study' (the Australian, 6-7 February 1993, p. 43), argued that primary school children and teacher education alike were seriously and significantly deficient in regard to training and exercise of 'literacy skills'. Other articles followed: the Age published feature articles by Margaret Easterbrook ('Primary schools failing students, report finds', 9 February 1993) and Michael Barnard ('Literacy campaign fails the written test', 1 January 1993, p. 13). The Weekend Australian followed this m turn with a feature article by Christopher Bantick, a freelance writer and educational consultant who is also Head of English at a Melbourne private school. The article was headlined more dramatically, 'Burnt by the fire of new language" but its subtitle was familiar: 'Disturbing decline in literacy skills in Australian schoolchildren' (February 13-14 1993, p. 46). Both of these newspapers have become significant players in recent and current literacy and educational debates.

The release in December 1990 of a Green Paper, entitled The Language of Australia: Discussion Paper on an Australian Literacy and Language Policy for the 1990s, followed in August 1991 by a White Paper under the title Australia's Language: The Australian Language and Literacy Policy, culminated a period of intense debate over literacy and related issues. It marked a historic moment: the explicit naming of literacy' as an object of policy, at the federal level. There is certainly reason to welcome such an initiative, given the possibility of nationally co-ordinated emphasis on literacy pedagogy and related forms of educational provision and funding. But this cannot be taken for granted as a matter simply of `enlightened' governmental intervention. Given the Predominantly economic-rationalist, 'human capital' orientation of recent governmental policy, the move to secure a stronger link between literacy and the state represents a more general strategy of bringing education within the ambit of the state and its organised forms of governmentality. …

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