The Victorian Association for the Teaching of English (VATE) annual conference titled “Now, Gods, Stand Up For Bastards”, eponymously named after Edmund’s outcry from Shakespeare’s Edmund in King Lear, featured a variety of speakers and workshops to speak along the theme of “individuals who take the contrary line, who will not or cannot swim in the mainstream [or] view the world from a different perspective.”
However, the conference program which was held on the 30th November to the 1st of December this year, drew ire from some, including The Australian’s Dr Bella d’Abrera from the Institute of Public Affairs. D’Abrera questioned what ‘political activists’ were doing at a conference about English teaching. Critics essentially raised the question: what does social justice and politics have to do with education?
Thomas Mann, 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate argued that “everything is politics” – and this includes education. Whilst it may be convenient to pretend that there is an impermeable wall which divides the world of schooling from the world of politics, perhaps we would be doing a disservice to our students if we were to take this approach. Blatantly segregating politics from education contradicts the Australian Curriculum’s goals that graduating students need to be able to think critically and independently. As Cudmore (2017) implores: “In whose interest is it for our future citizens to be politically ignorant and apathetic?”
The refusal to expose students to different ideas, branded as provocative or too radical, for fear of corruption via osmosis is absurd. This year alone, has brought many contentious issues to the simmer – marriage equality laws, euthanasia laws, the changing future of work, immigration bans, dual citizenship, the legalisation of marijuana, the displacement of refugees around the world, economic trade deals, informed consent, free speech, gender workplace diversity, nuclear threats, national security… These are social issues that affect all of us, including the students in our classrooms. As James Bayard’s post (September 14) articulated: whilst teachers should be cautious of where to draw the line on opinion-based discussions, we still need to have these discussions.
Slee (2011) suggests that we think of the schooling process as an apprenticeship in democracy. Students need tools to engage with and understand the political process, so that they can be fully informed and active members of a civic society. Thus, education has a significant role to play in developing engaged citizens with critical thinking skills ready to participate in society. Rather than being tarred with the brush of being factionally ‘political’, media literacy and the ability to the structural workings of our global society are natural prerequisites to participating in the 21st century.
Moreover, it is a startling thought that in this modern era, American President Trump’s tweets can have more influential impact than fact-driven, fair-minded reporting. The respect and confidence garnered by expert evidence, transparency and the replicability of findings is diminishing. The blurring between fact and fiction, relative truth and “alternative facts”, becomes more and more fuzzy.
There seems to be a retreat to subjective views and ideologies, where policy, media and the interpretation of ‘truth’ are entirely disconnected. Our students rely predominantly on social media for their information – these platforms act as a metaphorical ‘hall of mirrors’ for young people, reflecting back opinions which confirm their prejudices and biases. Without critical thinking skills, students fall victim to passively accepting what they read, hear and are exposed to without testing its validity and establishing a reasonable truth. And so, this form of passive ignorance renders students vulnerable to attack, manipulation and control.
Gillian Triggs, former President of the Human Rights Commission, suggests that young people nowadays generally do not understand common law and the limits of the Australian Constitution. As a result, mendacity and contorted facts form the basis of many misconceptions and fallacies, and the effects of these lies are everlasting.
‘Fake news’ is prolific across social media platforms such as Facebook, constructed to garner attention and ‘clicks’ regardless of the accuracy of news stories or information. The collapse of the traditional news model is rapidly changing our contemporary environment – Facebook and Google, two of the most profitable companies in the world – do not fall under our country’s media laws which dictate local content regulation. So, as Ben Eltham importunes: “How can we teach critical discernment in an era of facile journalism, ‘shouty’ soundbites and an ‘anything goes’ social media environment? And how will this affect the health of our democracy?”
Emily Frawley, VATE president, believes there is a need to question how the world works and the individual’s empowerment to shaping their own lives – and that “these ideas are fundamental to the study of English, where literacy is not only the ability to read, but to read critically and reflectively, and make informed opinions on the fictional and real-world texts [the students] encounter” (Trevino, M 2017).
All teachers, and English teachers in particular, are in a unique position to help our students navigate fact from fiction, and build crucial 21st century skills of collaboration, critical thinking and communication. The new VCE English study design reflects this need, with a more well-defined focus on the analysis of the quality of reasoning, and to heighten awareness of the ways in which language and argument are used to manipulate and persuade individuals. The hope is that our graduating students are sceptical of the information they come across in the outside world, that they can be confident participants in the increasingly digital world, and are able to discern truth from viral clickbait and inaccurate material.
English is not just about spelling, grammar and punctuation. It is about challenging ideas, representations, and beliefs. It is an instrumental subject to teach students how to speak up, as well as listen to others.
Language is a powerful tool – and it has everything to do with politics.
Cudmore, G 2017, ‘We must provide our students with the tools to engage and understand the political process’, Education HQ Australia, 3 November 2017, <https://au.educationhq.com/news/43911/we-must-provide-our-students-with-the-tools-to-engage-and-understand-the-political-process/>.
D’Abrera, B 2017, ‘How our teachers score top Marx’, 4 December 2017, The Spectator, < https://www.spectator.com.au/2017/12/how-our-teachers-score-top-marx/>.
Slee, R. (2011). The irregular school: Exclusion, schools and inclusive education. London: Routledge.
Trevino, M 2017, ‘Teachers’ association under fire for bringing politics into classroom’, 27 October 2017, <https://au.educationhq.com/news/43662/teachers-association-under-fire-for-bringing-politics-into-classroom/>.