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English studies

The question was in an assessment task in March for advanced English students in Year 11 at SCEGGS Darlinghurst, NSW, an independent, private Anglican girls’ school in Sydney that charges $20,000 a year in fees for senior students.

The assessment asked students to write an essay explaining how Othello supported different readings. ‘In your answer, refer closely to the prescribed text and explain how dramatic techniques might be used to communicate each reading. You must consider two of the following readings: Marxist, feminist, race’.

This approach to English literature has been criticized and ridiculed – most recently by Prime Minister Howard. Indeed, today even his arch opponent David Williamson has joined in supporting Howard in attacking it. The Australian’s editorial puts the issues clearly – in the following excerpts Ms. Allum is the Headmistress of SCEGGS – her background area of expertise is in the area of curriculum design:

‘…Year 11 students have their first encounter with Shakespeare’s Othello when they are thrown into the postmodern deep end and told to analyse the play through the prisms of racism, sexism, and feminism. While many arguments can be made against this postmodern approach, the strongest one is that it does not belong in a high school classroom. If a graduate student who is well-versed in the Western canon and understands 5000 years of social and political thought from Plato and Aristotle through to John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wants to deconstruct an author through a philosophical prism, then fine. But forcing dull formulas of race, sex and class on unsuspecting Year 11 students is unfair – not so much because it dumbs down the curriculum, but because it introduces the concept at the wrong time. Neither high school students nor their teachers are equipped with the base knowledge of literature, history and politics to do justice to such an enterprise. No wonder educationalists are tossing out Beowulf for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and claiming that students are bored by the classics.

The Australian strongly believes there is much more to life than race, sex and class, and that literature is a great way to understand the transcendant themes of human existence. Love, hate, war, jealousy, greed, charity, faith, hope, despair: these are the universals of human experience, and great and ancient literature speaks to us about these themes from across the years.

Sadly, a small-mindedness has infected Australia’s education system, producing an obsession with politics and power relationships that has infected the nation’s classrooms like a mould. Those who defend current teaching methods by setting up a straw-man argument – “all we’re trying to do is teach students that there are different points of view” – are being disingenuous. For, in forcing students to accept dull interpretations of “texts” in which everything becomes political, the postmodernists exhibit the worst sort of narrow-mindedness. The first job of teachers introducing students to the works of any great writer should be to instill a love of literature and learning. And English teachers everywhere must focus more on basics such as spelling, punctuation and grammar, all of which lose out to trendy theories like critical literacy and outcomes-based education. Those who are so inclined can always study the gobbledegook later.

One of the more bizarre aspects of the controversy is the postmodern fixation on Karl Marx as an appropriate filter through which to examine literature. For one thing, he was an economist, not a literary critic. For another, his writings inspired the deaths of perhaps 100 million people around the world, and this tragedy is better learned about in history classroom. And teaching high school students to interpret literature through ephemeral “isms” is, by definition, a way to produce students with dated knowledge. While the likes of Ms Allum may hopefully believe they are teaching students to “understand what (great authors) said in the context of their day and what it is they say to us today”, it is tragically obvious what this obsession with Marx leads to – namely, students with poor skills who have had the love of books beaten out of them’.

I commented on this obsession among social scientists with Marx, in a preceding post. If one did want to use an economist to analyze the complexities of human motivation in Shakespeare (even though I am an economist, I would not) then it would be better to try Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. The reason for the obsessive interest in the crank-like theories of Marx are worthy of investigation but the theories themselves are not.

Moreover, I am not convinced that it is curriculum design that is at fault here rather than teaching directions within schools and teacher ideologies. Today I found web material on VCE English – specifically a textbook list for the subject ‘English’ and the final exam, here. They are not in themselves particularly offensive and the suggested readings seem fine. So I would like to think that the current controversy is a storm in a teacup. But I am not persuaded it is. Kevin Donnelly today cites evidence of widespread vulgarization of English curricula in Australian schools and his critique falls heavily on English teaching bureaucrats and teachers. It is a real problem.

4 comments to English studies

  • conrad

    I think a lot of it is overblown as well. I don’t see anything wrong with analyzing a book in a formulaic way — it is a technicial useful task, and in fact should teach students that writing and understanding English is a process that can be done in a structured way that follows some general problem solving (and scientific) principles (decompose, work out arguments, evaluate). I don’t really see much difference methodologically between, say, “Othello from a race perspective” or, say, “conservative economic principles from Peter Costello’s speech”.

    I also fail to see anything wrong with analyzing modern English (TV etc.) as part of a broad-based curriculum. Working out, say, the pragmatics used by judges of Australian Idol, could be a useful skill. Similarly, I wish the students I teach could understand the difference between, say, grammatical differences in conversational and written English.

  • Tess

    It’s been a few years since I had to study HSC English, but from memory analysing Jane Eyre using different ‘readings’ was one of the more frustrating things in the syllabus. Instead of analysing themes which I’ve always found interesting, my class was doing crash courses in ideas like Marxism and psychoanalysis so we could pick the novel apart in six ways – within 10 weeks.

    To me, this turned the novel from great literature to a battlefield where all these “equally valid” readings fought each other for prominence. (Not very good readings either, since we didn’t have room for subtlety.)

    On Conrad’s last two points, I enjoyed being able to analyse other media (such as the Frontline series) and agree it’s good provided it’s not that students are given.

    Why the modern curriculum seems to leave out coherent teaching of grammar is a mystery to me. I managed to go through the (non-government) school system without it – after primary school, every teacher would assume that all their students understood grammar and when they discovered that no-one did, they only had time to teach us how to deal with a particular question. I think NSW has a subject called ‘Fundamentals of English’ for Year 11, but that’s both far too late and not available to anyone who wants to study Advanced English.

  • Tess

    Correction: for “provided it’s not that students are given” read “provided it’s not all that students are given”.

  • hc

    Conrad, Tess, I agree with your comments. I have kids in the Victorian system and have asked teachers about the absence of grammar. The teachers say its not in the syllabus so they don’t teach it – but they too find it is an important gap.

    It is difficult to use language effectively (and correctly) – knowing grammar helps.