Donnelly the dreadful

07 Mar

I have for years now, since first reading his glib and tendentious analysis of education in Australia, harboured an open contempt for the thought of Kevin Donnelly and have despaired at the unmerited strength of the malign influence of someone who so manifestly does not know what he is talking about.

It was with much pleasure then that I read in today’s Australian Stuart Macintyre’s review Polemic fails its own test.

Dumbing Down is a book of slipshod argument, poor scholarship and meretricious presentation. It seems as if the author seeks to demonstrate the ills he alleges. The first page, “About the Author”, begins with a solecism as it recites his qualifications: “BArts”. The first paragraph concludes with a non sequitur. Donnelly suggests that school history has been reduced to “studying the local community, Princess Diana and whatever else might be considered immediately relevant”. The footnote (its numerical superscript is misplaced before the punctuation) tells us that the Victorian curriculum document describes history as “the study of the past from ancient civilisations to today’s news”.

The book alleges that students now complete their schooling and come to university unable to construct an essay. Dumbing Down reveals an inability to construct a sentence. Its author almost invariably begins his with dependent clauses, often left dangling and frequently lacking syntax.

He uses nouns (education) as adjectives; adjectives as adverbs (dozens of sentences begin with “Similar to”), plurals as singulars (“a particular criteria’) and has a fatal weakness for neologisms (“adversely impacted on”) and infelicities (“very different to”). He denounces “edubabble” but addresses, targets, impacts, details and generally verbs nouns with a singular insensitivity to language.

He mixes metaphors (so that his ladder of opportunity becomes a springboard). He quotes mathematicians insisting on the importance of algorithms but then writes himself of algorisms. He esteems the Judaeo-Christian tradition but cannot spell it (“Judeo/Christian”) and repeatedly confuses the hyphen with the slash (“liberal/humanist”) — though his transformation of Anglo-Celtic into Anglo/Celtic unwittingly captures the false unity of this collocation.

The book’s starting point is that standards in Australian schools are low and falling. The evidence here is partly anecdotal and partly based on an inaccurate reading of international comparisons. The anecdotes are alarmist and in several instances simply wrong: the decision of my own university to introduce broader undergraduate degrees had nothing to do with a lack of basic skills among our entrants. Nor do the standard international studies of student achievement support Donnelly’s claims that Australia trails well behind other countries…

…an oversimplified, alarmist and opportunist caricature of education.

Indeed indeed. My thoughts exactly! I was not so concerned to reveal Donnelly’s solecisms as Macintyre has been, nor do I have anything against the man personally, though his attacks on education strike me as those of a lover scorned in the past. As I said of his 2004 effort:

What you have in this book is a cherry-picking exercise that would disgrace an undergraduate. Armed with a stock of cliches and prejudices, and with quite a few windmills to tilt at, Donnelly lays about the past forty years with an acute lack of discrimination, quite often plainly not understanding what he is criticising.

Why does anyone listen to the dolt? Those who have listened to him have colluded in a dumbing down of discourse on education that I venture to say is without precedence in my forty years and more of association with teaching — one hundred years if you include the experience passed on to me by my grandfather and aunt.

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Posted by on March 7, 2007 in Aussie interest, Education



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