August 1, 2014

Australian universities

Education and its discontents

By Russell Marks
Education and its discontents

Recently The Monthly published online a collection of excerpts from real history essays by undergraduate university students. ‘A Rich History of Failure’, by pseudonymous author ‘Professor Neve R. Stenning-Stihl’, prompted a minor flurry of debate and criticism on Twitter and other internet forums.

While some readers laughed, others expressed concern; still others, disbelief. To clear up any confusion: the excerpts contained in ‘A Rich History of Failure’ are real excerpts, by real students. Professor Neve says they were collected from “diverse sources over about 15 years – and thousands of students”, some of whom were international and ESL (English as Second Language). Most, though, had been educated right here. The truth is that few international students enrol in Australian history courses.

Professor Neve – whose true identity is unknown, to preserve the anonymity of the excerpts’ authors – intended the piece in the tradition of that famous history of Europe in the Spring 1983 edition of Wilson Quarterly. She finds teaching both overseas and local students “an enriching and exciting experience”. “There is nothing like that flash of understanding that happens when you see things from different perspectives,” she adds. “It’s called education.” Anders Henriksson subtitled his Wilson Quarterly piece ‘Life Reeked with Joy’; Professor Neve was similarly motivated.

Some respondents expressed concern that by publishing the excerpts, The Monthly had appeared to “punch down” for cheap laughs or exploitative sneer. If that's what 'A Rich History of Failure' does, this criticism would have a strong philosophical basis. Proper journalism, which is what The Monthly hopes its readers expect, speaks truth to power or holds it to account.

Hopefully we weren't “punching down”. Humour was indeed one of the main justifications for publication, and as Professor Neve says, “these are the flashes of joy and delight in the long and tedious task of masking hundreds and hundreds of papers”. But funny is debatable. Did we laugh at The Castle’s Kerrigans, Shane Jacobson's Kenny? Or with them?

Humour can prompt more sober reflection. Tutors and lecturers of humanities students in Australian universities worry and sometimes despair at the writing standard among school leavers. What has the school system being doing with them for 12 years? The blame game – university teachers blame high school teachers, who blame primary school teachers, who blame parents, who blame schools – is unhelpful, but there are questions worth asking. Business-sponsored studies often find widespread functional illiteracy among Australian school leavers.

There aren’t many resources in higher education to help a student who’s managed to qualify for university without the ability to confidently write a sentence, let alone an essay. Then again, there aren’t really that many in schools either. Any question about student literacy should and often does lead further questions, about resource allocations and Gonski, public/private divides, teaching methods, curriculum and basic education philosophies. It's clear from comments prompted by the publication of 'A Rich History of Failure' that there are strong feelings about education; what's less clear is whether the current policy balance is working in the interests of the nation and those it educates.

Maybe ‘A Rich History of Failure’ is about these questions. Then again, maybe it’s “not really indicative of the level of undergraduate writing,” as Professor Neve suggests – “just those times when there are slips of the tongue, pen and mind.”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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