Cardinal Pell wades into Victorian education debate

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Cardinal Pell wades into Victorian education debate


MARK COLVIN: The already fierce controversy in the Victorian education system over the teaching of English has only been increased by yesterday's intervention from the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell.


Cardinal Pell said focusing on the idea of "critical literacy" could fail students morally.


He said if an English curriculum gave young people all critique and no foundation, it left them rudderless.


But there was already anger in some quarters in Victoria about an apparent reduction in the number of books that senior English students would have to read, and some critics of the new system haven't welcomed the Cardinal's emphasis on morals.


Lynn Bell reports.


LYNN BELL: The practice of "critical literacy" involves teaching students to analyse a film, or an advertisement, or any piece of popular culture and examine the work as a text.


Greg Houghton, is an English teacher in Melbourne, and the President of the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English and he says it's an important part of the syllabus.

GREG HOUGHTON: Students, say in the middle years of school, might look very critically at the way advertising works as a persuasive medium, and learn to analyse some of the techniques that advertisements use to persuade a potential consumer to by a product.


That's extremely valuable, because students do have to be able to interpret the world in which they live, they do have to be able to understand it intelligently and to think about the way in which, for example, advertisements might place them.

LYNN BELL: But Cardinal George Pell has attacked the idea of relativism, or the belief that nothing is absolute, which underpins the practice.


GEORGE PELL: There are only sort of dominant positions, dominant power structures, there's no such thing as objective truth.



And to tell young people that you can't get to the truth of

the matter, on many occasions – sometimes it's difficult – I think is to sell them short and to tell them something that isn't true.

LYNN BELL: Do you think the critical literacy program fails students on a moral basis?


GEORGE PELL: I think it easily can, because it distracts away from the intrinsic beauty that's in literature and it can distort the study for narrow political purposes and that's often just hostility to what is seen as bourgeoisie, capitalist society or the cultural predominance of dead white males.


LYNN BELL: He advocates a return to studying the classics, but Greg Houghton says the classics haven't dropped off the reading list and students are still reading Shakespeare, and works like The Great Gatsby.


GREG HOUGHTON: It's not one or the other.


This is where English teachers are getting very frustrated, because it's being set up as though somehow or other the only thing kids are looking at are the back of cereal packets. This is just nonsense.


LYNN BELL: But in Victoria concerns have been raised that Year 12 English is being dumbed down.


Under proposed changes to the curriculum, students would only have to read one book as part of Year 12 English; the second text to be studied could be a film.



If the changes are adopted, they'd be introduced to the VCE English program in 2007.


Dr Peter Holbrook is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English at the University of Queensland.

Like Cardinal George Pell, he's in favour of increasing the number of classic books studied at high school, but he doesn't believe that should be driven by a moral imperative.


PETER HOLBROOK: I agree with Cardinal Pell that literature is an ideal vehicle for exploring moral and ethical questions. I don't think that literature is as such, a moral education, because the issue with literary texts – at least texts of any interest or complexity – is that they tend not to teach one simple moral lesson.


And this means that the idea that you can simply use literature to teach moral values is, I think, mistaken.


LYNN BELL: Cardinal George Pell says thinking critical teaching is important, but he says the ideal English syllabus must draw on the rich history of truly great writing.


GEORGE PELL: Well I do think that the great bulk of it should be fine literature. Certainly some of it should be from our best Australian writers, but certainly not just those, but the great writers in the English language whether they're British or American and not just recent or contemporary authors.


MARK COLVIN: Roman Catholic Archbishop Cardinal George Pell ending that report from Lynn Bell.






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