The classroom: Then and now

By Antonia Feitz
web posted July 19, 1999

Literacy, or rather the lack of it, is back in the news in Australia. The federal government plans to make unemployed people attend literacy classes to enhance their employability.

Across the world many people are incredulous that anybody could possibly be illiterate after eleven or so years of compulsory schooling. So what's the problem? Teaching children to read should not really be such a big deal. Parents and teachers have been doing it for millennia now - without tertiary qualifications either. High illiteracy rates are a symptom of a much deeper malaise in education. Consider the following story:

A few years ago I ran into a man called Seraph who had been a classmate in primary school. As the son of post WW2 Russian migrants, he did not speak much English when he started school, but picked it up rapidly the way children do. Despite his name, Seraph was no angel. He was not very bright, and was frequently in trouble for his boisterousness.

We attended a Catholic school run by an order of nuns affectionately known as the 'brown joeys' from the colour of their habit. According to the mores of the times, they were quite uninhibited about caning children, especially boys. Seraph was so silly he once gave a bamboo stick he'd found to Sister Veronica - and he was the first to cop it!

He left school early and became a petty criminal. When I met him, he was facially disfigured and walked stiffly. He told me he'd been in a car accident (while on a job), and that his life of crime was over as a consequence. But he was happy. He said things were really good. Now that he was finished with crime, the detectives were nice to him and said, "Hi, Seraph!" whenever they saw him. This chuffed him greatly.

But what gave this poor man his greatest pride was the fact that he was literate. Out of the blue he said to me: "But I can read and write. Lot's of these others can't, you know. But we were properly educated, weren't we. We can read and write."

Possibly he read no more than the TV guide, and never had any occasion to write. But he could read and write, and was proud of it. Why did Seraph - in today's parlance a 'slow learner' - learn to read while so many now cannot? What is the difference in the classroom between then and now?

In the lower primary (elementary) classrooms of the fifties there was a clear hierarchy: the teacher had authority over the pupils. The curriculum concentrated on reading, writing, and maths, but also included geography and history, art and craft, and singing as well as religion and sport. If a child was not progressing with his peers he could be 'kept back' to repeat the year. Children practised their writing and did their sums in exercise books, and neatness was expected.

There was quite a bit of rote-learning: spelling lists, times tables, capital cities and even whole poems. The phrase 'self esteem' had not been coined, and the idea of it would have been dismissed as an absurdity. People in the fifties regarded esteem as something freely given to others in honour of their achievements and/or character. While it's good for people to grow in self confidence, only fools esteem themselves, especially for no reason.

In passing, note that the word 'pupil' has been replaced by the word 'student'. The change speaks volumes about the changed atmosphere of the classroom. 'Pupil' has overtones of being a minor, of being instructed; 'student' however, has overtones of being self-directed. Few little children are 'students'. Few big ones are either for that matter.

Though today's classrooms are much brighter and noisier places, they are failing the Seraphs of the world dismally. Building the 'self-esteem' of the slow learners is considered essential, but it puts the cart before the horse. The only way to attain genuine self confidence is though achievement, and this is finally being recognized.

On the 25th January this year, the Los Angeles Times' Richard Lee Colvin wrote: "Having high self-esteem certainly feels good, psychologists say. But, contrary to intuition, it doesn't necessarily pay off in greater academic achievement, less drug abuse, less crime or much of anything else. Or, if it does pay off, 10,000 or more research studies have yet to find proof.... Fretting about students' feelings has become an unhealthy classroom obsession, researchers declare in academic journals and elsewhere. Better, they say, to spend more time on something children can justly be proud of - facing algebra or becoming a super speller.... Teachers ... were stunned a year ago when only 12% of their fourth-graders were reading at grade level. Out went the three hours they spent weekly on counseling and self-esteem classes. In came more attention to the basics. Up went test scores. Last fall, 64% of the students passed. And self-esteem soared."

Surprise, surprise!

Academics and progressive teachers routinely and stupidly dismiss 'mere' rote-learning as worthless, but it is actually a very sound educational tool. Firstly it builds knowledge; secondly it is an excellent memory training exercise; thirdly it is useful; and lastly it delivers the very thing the progressives want - a sense of achievement.

American researchers are now 'discovering' what common sense already knew: children love to know things. To know your tables, to know how to spell the words in your spelling list, to recite a poem or name the capital cities of the various states is fun! And desperately needed.

I recently heard of a college student who could not even remotely correctly place Canberra, Australia's national capital, on a blank map of Australia. It's equivalent to American students not knowing where Washington DC is. Or Canadians, Ottawa. That this can occur after eleven years of schooling is a disgrace.

But process has replaced content in education. It is said ad nauseam that children don't need to know anything. They just have to know how to look things up for themselves. Only mindless dolts could assert such a stupid notion. Without an understanding of a topic - i.e. without being taught the facts - it is impossible to begin to know what to look up!

Discovering a smorgasbord of facts about, say, Anzac Day is no substitute for reading a well researched, well-organized and well-written account of it. Only after students know the facts can they ask any intelligent questions. Only then can they profitably do any private research.

Another problem in the modern primary classroom is the reduced time given to the basics, possibly the result of all the extraneous matters now required to be covered by schools. There's drug education, sex education, stranger-danger education along with brainwashing into correct attitudes about sexism, diversity, multiculturalism, indigenous perspectives, etc. And self esteem of course.

As well, the overuse of photocopies, where the child fills in missing letters instead of writing complete words, has resulted in a lack of practice in writing with the lamentable results that are only too common. It's simply not true that handwriting doesn't matter any more. With competition increasingly fierce for job-seekers, many large companies are evaluating prospective employees by such qualities as handwriting, and even table manners.

Although there are many fine teachers in the profession, it is unarguable that the quality of teachers has declined, at least in Australia. Traditionally, teaching was the entry profession for the bright children of the poor through scholarships. With the abolition of tertiary fees in Australia, suddenly there was a widening of opportunity for them. Students who formerly would have become teachers naturally studied for the more prestigious and lucrative professions such as law and medicine.

Consequently the entry bar to teaching was lowered, in some years so drastically that institutions scraped the bottom of the barrel for students. This combination of mediocre students and courses corrupted with PC ideologies, has resulted in the production of poor quality if well-meaning teachers.

Many parents would be surprised to know how blatantly ideological are many of the courses student teachers take. For instance consider the unit description of EDST 348: "Curriculum and the Social Context of Schooling" offered at the university where I work: "The unit aims to promote development of critical reflective practice by identifying links between schooling and the socio-cultural contexts; examining regressive values and behaviours such a racism and considering the initiatives required by developing inclusive, equitable and socially just schooling."

Regressive values? Regressive according to whom? Would the defence of the traditional family be considered 'regressive? Or traditional sex roles? Or the refusal to accept homosexuality as merely a lifestyle choice? Seeking clarification, I emailed these questions to the course co-ordinator. He never replied. I've found that ideologues often get defensive when challenged.

Then there's a unit called "Gender and Education" where: "Gender theories will be analyzed and evaluated within an educational context. Dominant and contesting masculinities and femininities will be contrasted and linked to equity policies. The relationship between policy and practice will be illustrated through an analysis of attitudes to homosexuality in schools...."

It is pure feminist and homosexual propaganda. "Femininities"? Femininities is more like it!

This is the biggest change between the classroom of then and now. Then, teachers upheld traditional morality and were proud of their nation's history and achievements. Now, the ideological movers and shakers, particularly feminists and homosexuals, see the classroom as a promising battleground in the Great Cultural Wars. They despise traditional morality and they hold their own nation's history and achievements in contempt, as something to be ashamed of.

When that's the agenda, who cares if children don't learn to read?

This is Antonia Feitz's first piece for Enter Stage Right. She has previously been published in Right Magazine. This is also the first time in this magazine's history someone has used the word "chuffed."


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