Critical Literacy Debunked?

From Picture Book to Literary Theory Luke Slattery hit the front page of The Weekend Australian this morning with an article on critical literacy in Australian high schools, backed up with a column on page 10, “Fading theory has no place in schools“, and a feature in the Enquirer section, “Words without meaning“.

The front page article, “This little pig goes post modernist” features Mem Fox’s book, “Feathers and Fools” as it is deconstructed in the secondary schools teaching guide, “From Picture Book to Literary Theory”.

“The culturally relativist theory, which teaches that there is no such thing as objective truth, has largely fallen out of fashion on university campuses. But the new lease of life it has been given in secondary education, under the guise of ‘critical literacy’, is a trend Mem Fox finds ‘enraging’.

And why is this trend so enraging?

Luke Slattery says that “students are not well enough acquainted with their own cultural traditions for teachers to justify dumbing down the school curriculum by treating all forms of communication literature, films, emails and even conversations as texts equally worthy of their attention”. He is concerned that postmodern theory has become stultifyingly doctrinaire in the hands of second-rate intellects.

As the parent of two high school students I can see where he’s coming from. Over the last two years discourse analysis and deconstruction has become the focus of English homework. It’s a headache for us all, getting our minds around the discourses of war, fear and loathing. Texts such as seminars, movies, web sites and television advertisements are considered alongside classic texts such as Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”. It’s been interesting, stretching and exciting, and hard work.

There’s an empowering element to critical literacy. Here on the Gold Coast students are given tools with which they can critique the implicit hedonism in the everyday texts they encounter. Slattery bemoans the attention paid to everyday “texts”. The reality, though, is that the texts of high culture – such as Shakespeare – are pulled out to equip us to engage in the English language. The English language is expressed in emails, blogs, newspapers, movies, conversations and other everyday forms of communication.

However it becomes clear that some teachers have a fixed viewpoint when it comes to critical literacy. “These are the angles you should take, and these are the examples you should provide”. It’s postmodernist technique driven by modernist ideology.

At the same time it appears as though these 16 and 17 year olds are being asked to grapple with complexities that are beyond their capacity. They could engage with this in Sociology of the English language 101 perhaps. But being asked to produce high achievement in discourse analysis at the age of 16 leads to frustration for those who are still struggling to come to terms with character, plot and writing technique.

I don’t share Slattery’s contempt for postmodernist philosophy. Nor do I agree that postmodernism has had its day. Sure, the marxism-driven analysis of the 1970s has been overshadowed by economic rationalism. But postmodernism continues to morph and will be with us in many different forms for a long time.

Other Opinions:

Ninglun, posts this morning at More Lines from a Floating Life, on The Australian’s article on the demise of multiculturalism. He notes that once again the Australian is “letting Luke Slattery loose with his parodic versions of critical literacy and the dreaded pomo.”

Gary Sauer-Thompson back in December last year wrote at :
“I gave up reading Slattery’s ignorant and ill-informed jibes at postmodernism many a long year ago.” … “It is best to ignore the chatter of this kind of junk commentary, given its unwillingness to actually engage with the texts of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault, and its penchant for tilting at cultural windmalls. What Slattery and The Australian express is the dumbing down of critical commentary in Australia and the devaluing of knowledge. ”

One Reply to “Critical Literacy Debunked?”

Leave a Reply