An Interview with Kevin Donnelly: Are We The Ulysses or the Blunderers?

Nov 28, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Kevin, Australia seems to be dealing with a host of educational issues- can you review perhaps the main issues of the past year?

Many of the issues in Australian education over the last year reflect debates in the USA.  The main one relates to the best way to raise standards and rank amongst top performing education systems – initiatives include increased testing and making results public, teacher performance pay and a new national curriculum.  One of the other major issues involves school funding; the extent to which Catholic and independent schools should be funded by government.

2)      A good quality education should encompass the Tennyson phrase from Ulysses ” to strive, to seek to find and not to yield”. But it seems that across the globe, teachers and parents have settled for mediocre, second best education, and have given up striving for quality, good writing, competence, and excellence. Am I off on this?

I’ve argued for some years that the curriculum in English speaking nations, unlike many Asian education systems, has been dumbed down.  Critics have argued that a competitive, academic and examination based system is elitist, unfair and inequitable.  In many of our schools the “fail” word has been banned as telling students they have failed, supposedly, is bad for their self-esteem.  Standards have been watered down, all are winners and children are no longer taught that learning requires discipline, hard work and that it is not always entertaining and easy.

3)      Sir Robert Menzies—what does he personify? In terms of excellence, standards and competence?

Menzies is Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister and he founded our main right of centre party, the Liberal Party of Australia.  Menzies grew up in the country and came from humble beginnings.  He always believed that education was the key to success and that with hard work, effort and application individuals could succeed.  He was also very much committed to what is now described as the Anglosphere and believed that Western civilization, especially Westminster Parliament and the rule of law, were the best guarantees of democracy and freedom.

4)      Kevin, we have never met, but I assume and presume that you, like many others, stand for excellence in education. We “may have been made weak by time and fate, but strong in will and we continue to strive to seek, to find and not to yield “.  But are we fighting an uphill battle against the forces of complacency?

Since the cultural revolution of the 60s – the time of Woodstock, Vietnam moratoriums and flower power – education has been taken over by the cultural-left with its politically correct agenda.

Conservative educators, like me, are very much in the minority and it is difficult to fight against what has become the status quo.  In Australia, though, we are lucky to have a strong and vibrant non-government school sector that is committed to academic excellence.

5)      There are some others out there of “equal temper of heroic hearts”- who are some colleagues who are still fighting the good fight?

In Australia, like the USA, the overwhelming majority of teacher educators and academics, subject associations and teacher unions are cultural-left and PC.  There are very few, like me, who are willing to fight for a liberal, humanist view of education based on Matthew Arnold’s concept of the best that has been thought and said.  There are one or two school leaders and academics willing to fight to defend the conservative cause but, very much in the minority.

6)      In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem the Charge of the Light Brigade, you know that  “someone had blundered” or made a mistake. What are some of the most egregious mistakes of the last year?

The most damaging mistake being made by our left of centre Commonwealth government is its failure to learn from overseas experience.  We are still being made to copy a highly centralized, bureaucratic and intrusive model of education based on high-risk tests, naming and shaming schools and micromanaging schools.  The very approach that has been implemented in the UK and the USA and that has failed.

7)      Who is Joe Hockey and why is he saying many of the same things that are being said about American society?

Joe Hockey is a senior member of the Liberal Party, the party of Menzies, and                                                                                         a member of our Commonwealth parliament.  He believes in less government interference and adopting more market driven approaches to social policy, where individuals, families and communities have greater control and governments stand back of and do not interfere and take control.

8)      I was never told I was “entitled” to a good education, and was fortunate enough to be able to work hard to procure one. But the current generation—what is going to happen to them after they graduate?

There are more and more students now being pressured to go to university and entry requirements have been lowered as a result – the argument is that everyone, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, has the right to a tertiary education.  Many will graduate with dumbed down degrees and have little chance of getting a job in their desired profession.

9)      Putting a bunch of courses on line- what will this do to education?

The Commonwealth government here is pushing schools and universities to adopt the new technologies with some arguing that education will soon be primarily delivered on line.  This is wrong as education is based on the relationship between the students and the teacher and computers and the internet will never replace the need for human, face-to-face interaction and dialogue.

10)  We may have been “made weak by time and fate, but strong in will”. What are our challenges next year?

In Australia, one of the major challenges will be the new Commonwealth funding model – many non-government schools are worried that funding will be cut and that it will be much harder for parents to choose a non-government school for their children.  There is also a concern that governments will increasingly micromanage schools and that schools will no longer have the autonomy and flexibility to best mange their own affairs and reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities.

11)  What nooks and crannies do we have to explore in order to “strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”?

The best way to teach resilience and a belief in being positive is to teach a traditional model of education.  One based on literary classics and a grand narrative view of history that celebrates our heroes and the debt we owe to Western civilization and our Judeo-Christian values.

For those seeking more additional insight into this discussion, go to : for a most excellent article that will also provide some background into this interview.

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