Why Australia's schools need a lift

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has decided, in this election year, that the schools must accept some, if not all, of the blame for Australia's most troublesome ill -- unemployment. Mr. Fraser was once the federal minister of education. I am told that he ran his department very efficiently. In those days, however, education had not assumed the great significance -- for either electors or governments -- which it was later to do.

A recent report from two Queensland academics, "What Australian Society Expects of Its Schools, Teachers, and Teaching," suggests that the public is beginning to perceive both schools and their practices in an enlightened way. It is a record of optimism amidst the prevailing gloom. For the Prime Minister, "gloom" means "boom," an economic boom which makes no gestures to the hearts and minds of his electorate. That the spirit may dry up like the deserts of the interior is of no significance to him.

Sometimes I have the impression that Mr. Fraser does not really approve of education, or certainly not for the great mass of the population. He has some of the characteristics of a Dickensian Gradgrind or Squeers, and the electorate is his classroom. He was educated at a private school and then went on to Oxford. He is a farmer.

Farmers in this country have always had a skepticism about an education that suggested anything but the certainties and eternal verities of this world. It's ironic, because they will buy the latest technology and look deep into the latest methods by which to make farming both more economical and more profitable.

Now Mr. Fraser has decided that unemployment has been contributed to, in large measure, by the failure of the schools to educate students for the workforce. Indeed he has suggested that education has practiced a gross deception upon the students by not equipping them for jobs that do not exist: they are unemployable. Mr. Fraser believes that schools should be manpower-oriented and that the needs of employers should be taken into account when framing curriculum. He said, in a recent speech, that "the values transmitted by the system are inconsistent with those which society expects of young people." There's a conundrum for you.

Election years always produce their scapegoats. Taxes are high and education is bad. The logic is transparent: Cut the education budget.

More so since the other embedded scapegoat of Malcolm Fraser's political mind has now reared its bearish head in Afghanistan. Increase the defense budget for a defense force that could never do anything to protect this huge island, even if it wished to. It used to be a case of "butter or guns"; now it's "schools or tanks." Tanks are mindless and, largely, that's the way Malcolm Fraser would like to see his population.

You see I have returned to my point: Malcolm Fraser distrusts education. Why? I think it is a fear that good education might cause people to question and to look critically and analytically at the policies and practices of governments. We are in for a period, I am afraid, of directed docility. The economic rationale will triumph.

By contrast, what the previously mentioned report on education shows is that there are those in the population who are willing to espouse -- and therefore want the schools to espouse -- diversity. In those surveyed there was considerable agreement that Australia, if it hoped to provide any leadership in the region, must develop schools that are committed to the increase of tolerance of diversity. The report is really very encouraging. Schools need encouragement at the present.

A community's perceptions of schools will act as a set of boundaries which those responsible for schools will acknowledge as significant guidelines within which they may feel comfortable in operating. The significant feature of the newest report is that the community, as clearly defined and surveyed in the report, is not so tied in to the currently traditional rhetoric about the failure of schools to teach what the world wanted, or, and more puzzling, what sundry different worlds wanted.

The report's authors state that their study was mainly concerned to establish the extent of consensus among employers, unionists, parents, senior teachers, and senior students about what schools and teachers should be doing. What emerges is a generosity about schools which makes it possible to believe that they are not the sources of all society's ills.

The report seems to deny the claims of some that a return to a pre-Edenic condition where authority was well established is the answer to all the problems. Vigor in present society, as it appears in the report, would seem to depend upon developing the capacity for critical analysis and the examination of current values with a view to assessing which of those values will make for enrichment of the society of the future. At the same time traditional or tried paths to learning are not cast aside for the sake of so doing.

There is a clear indication in the report that most people do not wish the schools to become like modern corporations or industries. Education has a greater responsibility than providing the fodder for economic development, particularly development related to this vastly rich country which is abundantly supplied with resources of many kinds. Personal worth and an ability to participate in the social process emerge as being more significant.

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