Issues In Educational Research, 3(1), 1993, iii-v.


John Hall
Curtin University of Technology

Andrew Sooby
Murdoch University

The great debate

Readers of this journal will probably be aware of the rowdy debate that has been going on recently in the Higher Education Supplement of The Australian about 'new theory' (what we will refer to loosely as post-structuralism) in the humanities. We believe some aspects of the debate are highly relevant to readers.

Apparently it started more than a year ago when Judith Brett (1992), a teacher of politics at La Trobe University, argued that "for too long academics have written mainly to earn approval among their peers, instead of looking toward a wider audience". At first glance this would appear to be a variant of the common slur that academics live in ivory towers and are not accountable enough to the average taxpayer. But it goes further.

Brett identifies two ways in which the writing of academics in the humanities (and, for all intents and purposes, social sciences and education) is constrained. The first has to do with 'institutional requirements', eg our needing to win the approval of employing authorities and those who bestow promotions by convincing them of the worth of our scholarship, which translates into producing respectable writing in books and appropriate journals (like this one!).

Moreover, according to Brett, it is this institutional pressure which prevents academics from envisioning a "fully imagined audience" and, with few exceptions, from fulfilling the role of "public intellectual". Brett continues in a crucial passage:

Never ... need academics think about an audience outside the hierarchy within the discipline, never need they think about the relationships of their work to a public. The use of technical language, or jargon, so characteristic of academic prose, has its origins here - in the need to indicate to higher authorities that one has mastered the current literature. Once, such technical language was motivated by a positivist dream of a language which would describe rather than constitute reality. That dream has faded but the technical language persists and proliferates. (Our emphasis).
Brett's view turns out to be deeply ironical, and reveals the second source of pressure on academic writing: the need to win the approval of peers within one's chosen paradigm, and to withstand (or, if possible, ignore) attacks from outsiders.

For example, it could be argued that the reason why the "dream has faded" has much to do with the powerful challenges to established traditions in the humanities and social sciences emanating from the French philosophers associated with semiotics and post-structuralism. However, as subsequent contributions to the Australian have demonstrated, the 'new' theory is often couched in language "so obscure, so introverted that it blocks rather than illuminates meaning" (Trinca, 1992). The Trinca article attracted a number of responses in the Supplement, many of these in defence of post-structuralism, and in the ensuing ten months the debate continued, at times in a remarkably heated manner - until the present when hostilities have subsided.

There are two aspects arising from the debate we would especially like to draw to the attention of readers:

  1. the fundamental bases of traditional intellectual enquiry are being challenged by post-structuralism (and other sources, such as ethnomethodology, critical theory and feminism); 'traditional' academics in the field of education would be well advised to acquaint themselves with the terms of this challenge; and

  2. academics may also need to take up a defensible position on the "public intellectual" issue and, as far as we are concerned, this would include consideration of whether/how to make one's paradigmatic discourses accessible to the others.
Therefore, to sum up our response to 'the great debate': we are rather glad it has happened because, we believe, it has served to remind us that no matter what our theoretical/paradigmatic affiliations in educational research are, we do need at least some of the time to understand and be understood by others; and, even more importantly, that we should have serious doubts about devoting ourselves to a research approach (or professional way of life) which prevents us from addressing the big issues in education and in life.

This edition

We are pleased with the variety, quality and readability of the papers in this edition. The first, by David Pyvis, speaks to at least one of the issues raised above. Some readers may find it to be a little light hearted (or even sacrilegious in terms of its a&erence to established educational research traditions), but for us it raises important questions about language and literacy in a delightfully irreverent manner. Alison Gregg's paper is also an historical piece on language and literacy matters in Australia; it too will appeal to a wide audience. In her paper Anne Chapman views mathematics as a linguistic process, demonstrating the potential of a social semiotic framework for providing fresh insights into what it means to teachers and learners to 'do' mathematics (or any other subject) in the classroom. The last paper, by Ruby Avotri, reports on a curriculum innovation in Ghana that has surprising outcomes; in doing so she raises issues that will be relevant to curriculum implementation elsewhere.

Readers will note the inclusion of several book reviews in this edition. We compliment Andrew Taggart on this initiative, and encourage readers to work with Andrew to ensure that it will be a regular feature of IIER in the future. Hopefully, a "letters to the editor(s)" section will be our next addition. We invite you to make this happen!

A thematic edition next

As our way of observing the International Year of Indigenous People, we are devoting our next edition (to be published in November) to Aboriginal education. We will work with Aboriginal educationists in editing this issue. Contributions on this important topic should be forwarded as soon as possible and will need to reach us by September 30 to be considered for publication. (Contributions on other topics will be considered for future editions.)

Watch this space

We have it on good authority that negotiations are underway for our colleagues in Institutes of Educational Research in both the Northern Territory and New South Wales to join with us in the production of future issues of IIER. At this stage we do not know what form this might take, but we are excited by the prospects of such a collaborative enterprise.


Brett, Judith (1992). Our hidden thinkers. The Australian, January 25, p.25.

Trinca, Helen (1992). A bit of plain speaking on some academic narrativity. The Australian, August 5, p.13.

[ IIER Vol 3, 1993 ] [ IIER Home ]

About IIER and WAIER 1993

John Hall
Curtin University of Technology

Andrew Sooby
Murdoch University

IIER Editorial Advisory Board 1993

John Hall, Curtin University of Technology
Andrew Sooby, Murdoch University
Len King, Edith Cowan University
Annette Patterson, Murdoch University
Collette Tayler, Edith Cowan University
Dale Mason, Edith Cowan University

WAIER President 1993

Andrew Taggart
Edith Cowan University

The views and styles expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily shared by the editor or members of the editorial advisory board.

Copyright © 1993 WAIER

Published by the Western Australian Institute for Educational Research (WAIER), Perth, Western Australia. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written permission from WAIER. Desktop publishing (1993) by Clare McBeath. Printed (1993) by Printing Services, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia.

ISSN 0313-7155

Please cite as: Hall, J. and Sooby, A. (1993). Editorial. Issues In Educational Research, 3(1), iii-v.

[ IIER Vol 3, 1993 ] [ IIER Home ]

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