Monday, November 10, 2014

Let their minds fly free

I have just read yet another story about a program designed to ensure students are ‘job ready’ when they leave school or university.

The term is much-loved by the Minister for Industry, Ian Macfarlane, who is constantly promoting the idea that young people must be taught in such a way that they can step seamlessly from their education years into the workforce.

Last month, for instance, Macfarlane was planning reforms of training packages to deliver “what students need to get a job and what industry needs to enhance its productivity through access to the right skills”. A week or so earlier he was delivering “the next tranche of reforms to make the skills and training system more job-focused.”

Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne delivers much the same message, announcing a $12 million plan to encourage more school students to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) “to ensure young Australians are equipped with the necessary skills for the economy of the future”.

Now, I have no intention of arguing that young Australians should receive the training that will enable them to have prosperous and happy lives; or that more students ought to be encouraged to consider the STEM subjects.

My concern is that the balance is tipping too far the other way and that subjects that do not have any obvious pathway into employment are steadily being neglected.

In a recent article, a research scholar with the Institute of Public Affairs, Stephanie Forrest, warned of the “fall of literature”.

"We now have a national curriculum for English, and from the Foundation Year to Year 10, it contains scant mention of any Western literature,” she writes.

“In general, the English curriculum — that is, a curriculum that should arguably be concerned with teaching students to read, write, speak fluent English, understand grammar, and read literature — is far more concerned that students should become ‘ethical, thoughtful, informed and active members of society’.

“The curriculum also frequently alludes to lessons relating to ‘ethics' — particularly relating to the notorious cross-curriculum priorities: ‘Sustainability', ‘Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia', and ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures'.”

Once again, there is nothing wrong with children learning about ethics, sustainability or engagement with Asia, or in better understanding Indigenous culture, but in the past these were subjects that young people with a well-rounded education chose to pursue outside school or at tertiary level.

These are subjects which are far better ‘learned’ than force-fed in the classroom.

A nation needs scientists and researchers as well as it needs plumbers and electricians. It also needs philosophers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists. It needs young people whose minds are attuned to range over the full gamut of thoughts and ideas and to accept or reject them as they mature into young adults.

One of Ms Forrest’s most telling comments comes when she quotes ‘a representative of a prominent teachers' organisation’, who said he could not ‘sell’ the study of classic literature to the majority of teenagers.

The trouble is, no one is even bothering to try.

By force-feeding a teacher’s view of ‘ethics’ and ‘sustainability’ rather than allowing young people to develop their own ideas on the subjects, we are pushing them into narrow corridors at a time when their minds should be expanding to embrace the full richness of knowledge that gives life meaning.


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