AUSTRALIA: Humanities face global crisis

The growing emphasis in schools on basic English literacy to better prepare students for the workforce has led to a crisis in university humanities faculties around the world, according to an international group of academics. The academics claim the teaching of English in schools has become too focused on basic literacy and examinations, and a new approach is necessary.

They have set up a global network of educators to reinvigorate teachers of English so students are inspired and encouraged to develop their creativity. The Arts, English and Literacy Education Research Network argues that schools could blend the teaching of English subjects with classes in visual arts and drama to reduce the emphasis on its instrumental role in schools.

The network was formed by academics and teachers from countries across the globe, including Australia, America, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. As well as network coordinator Dr Jacqueline Manuel, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Sydney, they include Professor Tony Adams and Sue Brindley of Cambridge University’s school of education, Professor Jeanne Gerlach, dean of education at the University of Texas, Arlington, and Professor Jeffrey Wilhelm who teaches English and is director of the Boise State Writing Project at Boise State University.

Manuel said the network’s aim was to bring together teachers, researchers, policy-makers and others in the fields of the creative arts and English. She said English teaching had become too instrumental whereas the world of the 21st century needed young people who had problem-solving and thinking skills that the humanities can provide.

“In America especially, English has become a dumping ground for testing and has led to the idea that literacy and English are synonymous,” she said. “Meantime, in Australia, a great industry has grown up around coaching kids for exams, particularly for those in the final years of secondary school; what is being lost is the fostering of ideas of imagination and creativity.”

The network planned an international response to put English “back on the map as a subject that is about more than preparing students for the world of work”, Manuel said. The goal was to foster, support and disseminate research in arts, English and literacy education to promote excellence in teaching in these domains across all educational sectors.

Although there had been a renaissance in English teaching in the 1960s, this had been overtaken by claims that schools were failing to make students literate. The result was an emphasis on basic literacy and a switch away from teaching literature with its capacity to engage the imagination of students.

“Members of the network are involved in a wide range of research and publishing activities in the fields of English, drama and other creative arts,” she said. “These collaborations involve international network members and many focus on the place of English in the contemporary curriculum, the consequences of narrowly-defined assessment and testing regimes, and the development of curriculum models that more fully integrate learning in the English and the arts.”

In an address to a colloquium at Sydney University on 16 February Manuel quoted University of Sydney professorial research fellow Peter Freebody's observation that “we seem to have forfeited our understanding of the past as a filament connecting us to the future”.

“That filament, for us as English educators, has been – and is – the continuous task of helping our students to wrestle with, address and make choices about the kind of life they are living and are to live; the kind of person they want to be; the kind of society they want to be part of and shape; and the kind of values and truths that they embrace and embody…and to do this as individuals and in relationship with each other in an increasingly pluralist world – a world that too often ignores and devalues the place of the arts, creativity and the imagination,” Manuel said.

“We aim as teachers to enact what has been a driving principle of education since Socrates – the notion of the examined life. English is the place – perhaps, increasingly, the only place in the secondary curriculum – to keep asking the questions about what matters when it comes to living, values and meaning – even though many have observed that such questions have been ‘pushed to the margins of professional respectability in the humanities where once they occupied a central and honoured place’.

“If the material, spiritual, relational and other conditions of people’s lives asre mediated and made sense of through language, then it is English that must be the safe home for formulating, sustaining and legitimating authentic inquiry into these abiding questions: the place where we can enter into a dialogue with the writers, the film-makers, the historians, the artists, the philosophers and others – addressing each other, as Kronman has said, ‘in a long, unbroken conversation about the most important matters in life, a conversation that has both the continuity and variability all real conversations possess’.”

Among the many publications produced by network members is one that Manuel says is particularly relevant to the network’s vision: Drama and English Teaching: Imagination, Action, Engagement, edited by Anderson, Hughes and Manuel (OUP).

The network is planning a major international conference in July next year to bring together leading educators in English and the arts from around the world, drawing especially on members of the international network.

* A copy of Manuel's address will be available on the AELE network website this week