Cultural literacy rules
24th June 2012

On the ABC's The Drum I argue the case for cultural literacy - as opposed to standardised tests like NAPLAN.

 Australia's national literacy and testing regime NAPLAN has been and gone for another year, and again critics have raised the usual complaints: standardised, high-risk tests unfairly stigmatise poorly performing schools and pressure teachers to teach to the test, and some schools exclude children who might drag down their results.

While such criticisms are valid, there is another more important complaint that needs to be aired. Forcing NAPLAN on schools and classrooms enforces a narrow and sterile view of the curriculum that undermines the type of broad and rich education represented by music, literature and the arts.

In primary school, at a time when children should be introduced to myths, fables and legends, folk and classical music and significant sculptures, paintings and other forms of art, the curriculum has been narrowed as the focus is on teaching one dimensional skills devoid of any worthwhile or lasting content.

Such a utilitarian view of literacy and numeracy runs counter to what the American educationalist ED Hirsch describes as cultural literacy. Cultural literacy refers to the vast reservoir of ideas, names, events, dates, movements and works of the imagination and science that distinguishes one culture from another and that enables each one of us to participate in public discourse and debate.

Each day, in the popular media, examples abound of sayings and references that constitute cultural literacy such as 'he met his Waterloo', 'it's his Achilles heel', 'turn the other cheek' and 'Pandora's box'. More contemporary Australian examples include statements like, 'more front than Myers', 'more trouble than a Werribee duck' and 'back of Bourke'. Not knowing what such things mean condemns one to ignorance.

The various subjects that make up a balanced and enriching curriculum also contribute to cultural literacy. To study art is to encounter the great masters, beginning with ancient Greece and Rome and extending to medieval and more recent times. Examples include the Elgin Marbles, Michelangelo's David, Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, Rodin's The Thinker, Monet's Water Lilies and more recent works by Australian artists associated with the Heidelberg school.

To understand and appreciate music there is also a corpus of works and composers that constitute essential learning whether the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Britten or Australian composers like Percy Grainger. While not immediately utilitarian or able to be measured by a test like NAPLAN, enjoying and appreciating music enlivens the soul and speaks to the imagination in a moving and profound way.

Defining literacy in a reductionist and superficial way also ignores the vital importance of literature. Primary school children need to encounter the myths, fables and legends that constitute the Western tradition, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, Norse fables, stories by the Brothers Grimm, and traditional fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and the Ant and the Grasshopper.

Such stories and fables teach children about overcoming adversity and dealing with the emotional and psychological problems we all encounter and have to deal with. Many traditional fables also provide moral lessons and help children develop a much needed moral compass to decide right from wrong.

Increasingly, children are bombarded by electronic media and the internet. Mobile phones, e-readers, lap-tops, computers are all conspiring to ensnare children in the here and now and to reduce learning to edutainment a form of education based on what can be easily digested and that avoids any form of strenuous concentration or application.

By ignoring the need for cultural literacy, children are also denied the knowledge, values and skills so necessary for understanding oneself and for learning how to deal with and relate to other people. No wonder bullying, self-doubt and feelings of insecurity and isolation are on the increase.

Politicians like Prime Minister Julia Gillard and School Education Minister Peter Garrett defend NAPLAN on the basis that such tests will lead to higher standards, improved productivity, and a more competitive economy. Ignored is that such tests promote a superficial and narrow view of education and deny children the chance to be culturally literate.


Responses to this Post

Teachers in Canberra are reported to be "opposed" to the granting of more autonomy to principals with regard to money and staffing. The Australian Education Union is fiercely pursuing this issue and encouraging the staff in particular schools to "bloc vote" against it. The supposed reasons given by union publicists are that class numbers will increase, and money for all purposes will be reduced. There is no basis for these claims at all and none is given by those union officials making these claims. It is blindingly obvious that the union is concerned only about its own power base. They would much prefer that funding stay very centralised in (Labor) government hands and within existing bureaucracies where they have a great deal of influence- even in NSW where the Liberal government is still in early days as regards the political colour of the education department.
Teachers need to wake up and realise that the union has a direct interest in retaining outdated procedures, dumbed-down Left-slanted curriculum. Both NSW and ACT need a huge new broom!-and very soon.

Vivien Johnson
Macarthur, ACT

In past years students at high schools had to sit end of term exams which covered the subjects Art, Music, Plays and poetry, Greek and Roman Mythology- and even Religious studies in government schools as well as church-based ones as well as Maths, English, Science etc. This ensured that these subjects were taken seriously and regarded as valid parts of our culture. Today,testing and exams have been discarded almost entirely. Naplan will never be an adequate replacement for them.

Vivien Johnson
Macarthur, ACT

To claim, as you do, that "gay marriage " will give additional respect to Marriage - is strange. The activists who are promoting gay marriage admit freely that the whole concept of heterosexual marriage is what they seek to demolish. They know-as in Orwell's 1984-that if you can succeed in destroying language - taking away the words, or assigning them new meanings then you are changing perception. What they want is for homosexuality to be given equal status of normality to heterosexuality. This is akin to accepting deafness or blindness as equally valid "lifestyles" to having sight and hearing. I would suggest that the Long March of all these delusions through universities and media will eventually come to an end, just as they have in the past.

Vivien Johnson
Macarthur, ACT



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24th June 2012

On the ABC's The Drum I argue the case for cultural literacy - as opposed to standardised tests like NAPLAN. Australia's national literacy and testing regime NAPLAN has been and gone for anothe...
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