I was at a conference this week where emerging scholars in the creative arts – mainly writing – presented their work in progress. The word ‘neo-liberalism’ kept popping up. I had no idea what it meant so I looked it up in the Macquarie dictionary app I have on my phone, but it wasn’t there. I googled it and I now know what it means. Neo is new and the liberalism is with no restrictions. Free trade is an example. Another is the removal of protective tariffs. So that is economic theory explained.

But the conference was a creative writing works in progress conference and its theme was ‘things’. The speakers who used the word ‘neo-liberalism’ excluded me from their work as they used in and amongst a stream of other words I did not know – well not in the context in which they used them. The neo-liberal word using speakers made my head hurt, made me yawn with boredom and made me feel … not nearly smart enough to be there.

Neo-liberalism in our school system – that is a freeing up of the rules of learning – has not served us well. I worry that a whole generation of young people has been left unable to express itself. Incapable of putting their thoughts on paper. Unclear about the basic rules of English expression they write in jumbled puffed up wordy non sentences and illogical unsequenced paragraphs. They can talk but they are struck dumb when it comes to writing.

I am marking essays written by my first year university history students and I want to weep as I feel them stumbling with words. I know what they want to say but they cannot write it. I have stopped correcting their mistakes. Instead I take a paragraph each one has written and I edit it. I substitute precise words and I rearrange phrases. I make every thing agree and I add an eloquent sentence to show them just how beautiful expression can be. I attach dangling clauses to their subjects, I delete unnecessary adverbs and I remove apostrophes – they love apostrophes.

One of my students approached me after a tutorial. He told me he knew how he wanted to argue the essay topic he had chosen but that he just couldn’t make the words come out.

I am so frustrated. I want them to do well.

I feel angry. Neo-liberalism in education has not worked for many of them.

I feel scared. They are all training to be primary school teachers.

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