February 14, 2005 | Graham

I am one of Wayne Sawyer’s ‘failures’

Associate Professor of English Wayne Sawyer appears to believe that English teachers have failed because some of their students voted for this Liberal government. If that is the case, then I must be one of the most spectacular illustrations of that failure.
I was fortunate enough to have access to one of the best liberal educations in Australia. During my four years at the University of Queensland in the late ’70s I spent my entire time within the English and French Departments completing an honours degree in English Literature…and last year I voted for the Howard government.
Not once during that time do I recall anyone suggesting that the study of literature (might as well implicate the french teachers as well) led to a tendency to vote one way or the other. Perhaps they did teach historical determinism in Dan O’Neil’s Marxist literary criticism course, but I avoided that, as well as feminist literary theory – I regarded them as being two dimensional intrusions into the mainstream of useful literary theory and criticism, and not worth spending time on.
For me, the beauty of literature was that it could take you outside your time, circumstances and self and present you with dilemmas that though strange were also familiar. It also made you accutely sensitive to the overtones of words and the cultural and semantic resonances that they bring with them.
I’m wondering what courses Wayne Sawyer took, because if there is a serious charge of failure here, it must be that his teachers, not those of a later generation, failed. If he had been properly exposed to the wonders of Western literature from Homer through to The Shipping News, how could he have written what he has written?
There are numerous defenders of Sawyer, and a common theme in their defence of him is that because he was speaking in a private capacity, criticism of him amounts to censorship. In fact, this defence itself amounts to censorship. If criticism equals censorship, and censorship is wrong, then criticism must be wrong, making the expression of contrary opinions impossible.
It is this very attitude – hostility to contrary opinions – which has made Professor Sawyer’s comments contentious. In an ordinary person, this would not amount to very much. It is common for people to be bigotted and biased, and it is their right to be so. However, that does not mean that bigotry and bias have no consequences. There are some professions where they have no place. Judges, for example, should be fair to all and interpret the laws without importing their own personal agendas.
Teachers of English similarly have a duty to be fair and unbiased in their dealings with their students. It is not their role to push a particular political line. Rather it is their role to expose their charges to the complexity and richness of human thought, and help them to explore it. This is a matter of professional competence.
The issue with Professor Sawyer is not whether he has a right to say what he has said, but whether, having said it, he could be regarded as being a competent teacher of English.

Posted by Graham at 6:51 am | Comments (10) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. In Contrast,
    When Nelson and Andersen claim that hordes of leftwing teachers in universities are tuning out left wing idealist we should take their claims seriously?

    Comment by alphacoward — February 14, 2005 @ 10:09 am

  2. Sawyer would seem to confirm the attempt, if not the successful execution…yes.

    Comment by Graham Young — February 14, 2005 @ 10:33 am

  3. My understanding is that Professor Sawyer was lamenting the lack of critical thinking which, from his perspective, was displayed by an electorate which ignored the Government’s lies, lack of ethical principles, and corruption and returned it to power. Whether you agree with his analysis or not, your reduction of his thesis to a simplistic enjoy art for ist own sake vs art is a chore debate misses the point. Sawyer is arguing that any comprehensive liberal arts education should enable people to undertake careful and astute analysis. At no point is he arguing that it’s an either/or situation. Surely part of the enjoyment is in the understanding which comes from the insights provided by clear and careful analysis.

    Comment by Barney Langford — February 14, 2005 @ 5:30 pm

  4. My argument is nothing to do with art for art’s sake: it is that Professor Sawyer displays a lack of critical thinking. He seems to think that because he has reached a particular conclusion then everyone else who has been properly educated in English will reach the same conclusion. In doing this he shows an inability to understand the many intelligent, well-educated people, well-intentioned people who chose to do something different. He also shows an inability to understand that he might be wrong.
    A proper understanding of English and its literature would give him a much better appreciation of the varieties of human thought and the wide range of possible right and moral actions.

    Comment by Graham Young — February 14, 2005 @ 5:43 pm

  5. Truth, lies and post-modernism

    As Mark Bahnisch observes below, the confected furore over Wayne Sawyer’s silly editorial has now given federal Education Minister Brendon Nelson a pretext to launch an enquiry into teacher education. Readers will recall from multiple previous posts (h…

    Comment by Troppo Armadillo — February 14, 2005 @ 7:54 pm

  6. Just a quick note in defence of Dan O’Neill, who’s a mate of mine and a lovely bloke. What you would have got from his course if you’d been at UQ in the last decade or so really would have been traditional literary theory with a massive dose of Aristotle. There couldn’t also have been anyone in the English Department in recent years who’d be less sympathetic to po/mo. I’m basing the comment on the content of his subjects on what he taught from the late 80s onwards. I’m not sure, Graham, whether you meant he taught a specific course on Marxism in the 70s. He may have. I don’t know.

    Comment by Mark Bahnisch — February 14, 2005 @ 8:36 pm

  7. Mark,
    I always liked Dan, just never did any of his courses, and it wasn’t meant particularly as a shot at him. If something is billed as Marxist literary criticism, then you are pretty sure of what you are going to get. I also think that Dan would have a pretty good appreciation that educated people could sincerely disagree with each other without either being stupid. I certainly wasn’t including him in the Wayne Sawyer category.

    Comment by Graham Young — February 15, 2005 @ 9:12 am

  8. It is possible to go over the top on this whole thing, but it is probably worth reiterating that Sawyer did not actually say what people are ascribing to him. He asked a series of rhetorical questions, which admit a number of different answers.
    Here is his defence:
    “Associate Professor Sawyer, who teaches at the University of Western Sydney, defended his article yesterday, saying “this is not about teachers becoming Leftist politicians in classrooms”. And he said the article, an editorial in the journal, was his opinion rather than the position of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English.
    “This is about the idea that students have to be able to analyse language and be critical of language and that’s an important thing for citizens in a democracy to be able to do,” Professor Sawyer said.
    “And I was throwing down the gauntlet to the idea that if we are going to create critically literate citizens in a democracy then the last two elections, in particular, have been run around the use of language.”
    He said the Howard Government had used language effectively, coining emotive phrases such as queue-jumpers for asylum seekers. He said political material from both major parties could be analysed in classrooms when teaching critical literature to students.”
    I suspect that he and I would agree about virtually nothing, but I don’t like the smell of a beat up.
    I object to the fact that one writer in one obscure publication developed a huge and surprisingly intense media and political response. I think he is being demonised. He has become an object of fantasy and spite.
    This week we find out that Sawyer is being used as a reason for an enquiry into teacher training. There’s more to it than that, but he is being cited as the example.
    A professional association does have the right to run whatever opinionated editorials it likes. Sawyer is not a judge but an academic.
    We have solid evidence that he is a poor writer, but we know nothing about him as a teacher.
    I am much more worried about the revealed mindset of the Federal Minister for Education than I am about our English teachers.

    Comment by David Tiley — February 15, 2005 @ 10:16 am

  9. I agree wholeheartedly with David.
    Thanks for the clarification, Graham. I think the Marxist subject must have disappeared before I went to UQ in 86.

    Comment by Mark Bahnisch — February 15, 2005 @ 12:34 pm

  10. Mark,
    David makes two classic errors of literary analysis. Firstly he relies on a secondary text rather than the original, secondly he regards the writer’s interpretation of what he says as being superior to any other reader’s.
    David tries to get Sawyer off the hook by saying that he asked a “series of rhetorical questions” to which there are a “number of different answers”. David’s choice of words betray his anxiety to help Sawyer. Rhetorical questions differ from normal questions in that they are asked when you expect that your audience will agree with you on the answer. They’re not open and do not admit of a number of answers (apart from those given by hecklers, which is the risk you run with rhetorical questions).
    I have copied a relevant excerpt below so that anyone can read the primary text and and see for themselves what Sawyer said. Of course it would be preferable to link to the whole article, but it has been removed from the AATSE website! I’m sure George Orwell would have approved.
    They can also use the primary text to compare what he said with what he said he said in the Australian article, and see just how good a reader he really is! Mind you, having been exposed on the front page of the national broadsheet, I’m not surprised that he would be trying to put the best gloss on it.
    “English for the last ten years – not least in the pages of this journal – has trumpeted the cause of critical literacy. Critical literacy holds as its central premise the education of the student to be able to ‘suss’ out how they are being worked over – by advertisers, by politicians, by the media. We’re told that the government was re-elected by the young. If so, a fair proportion of that group by now must have graduated from a ‘critical’ education. What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical generation that those who brought us balaclava’d security guards, Alsatians and Patrick’s Stevedoring could declare themselves the representatives of the workers and be supported by the electorate? Two days after the election, Howard declared that ‘We do not treat blue collar workers with contempt’ while highlighting the ratcheting up of his workplace ‘reforms’ in the same speech. What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical generation that that kind of language gets itself re-elected?
    Every Australian school student for a number of generations now has studied some version of English. Even those who graduated before critical literacy became a norm in this country were exposed to a subject which had as its core a commitment to humane values and a sense of the ethical. Three years before, Howard had headlined the non-existent children overboard, he had put race firmly on the agenda as an election issue and cynically manipulated the desperation and poverty of our Pacific neighbours. What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical, ethical citizenry that that kind of deception is rewarded? Howard declared public education had no values and in the same sentence declared that institution too ‘politically correct’. What does it mean for us that a citizenry could not only buy that, but apparently miss the oxymoron?”
    I’d love to do a critical analysis of the whole piece, but doubt I’d have the time. It is riddled with the same verbal tricks of which he accuses Howard and others.

    Comment by Graham Young — February 15, 2005 @ 2:23 pm

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