May 13th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Twilight for Australia's fishing industry?

EDITORIAL: Race riots reveal China's hand in Oceania

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Defence - incompetence and bungles galore

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: A political vacuum waiting to be filled

POLITICS: WA Liberals, Nationals in self-destruct mode

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Darfur tragedy / Not all the world loves a soldier / Judicial politics / When half a glass is half empty

SCHOOLS: Great books trashed by radical teachers

RAILWAYS: A transport revolution for Australia?

ENERGY: US opens new ethanol plant every 10 days

ABORTION: National senator's key role in RU-486 fiasco

FAMILY: Co-habiting couples and child neglect

NUCLEAR NON-PROLIFERATION: Could US-India nuclear deal undermine security?

Chinese slave labour and state-sanctioned murder (letter)

RU-486 abortion drug 'deeply scary' (letter)

Motherhood devalued (letter)

What about jobs for men? (letter)

BOOKS: GENTLE REGRETS: Thoughts from a Life, by Roger Scruton


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Great books trashed by radical teachers

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, May 13, 2006
Kevin Donnelly deplores the way great literature is being belittled and sidelined in the classroom.

What do the works of Shakespeare and the television talent quest Australian Idol have in common? For most - especially Prime Minister John Howard, who argued recently that teaching of great literature is being destroyed by postmodernism and outcomes-based education - the answer is: nothing.

Shakespeare's works, as Harold Bloom argues in The Western Canon, represent literature at its most sublime and suggest something profound and moving about what it means to be human.

Australian Idol, by comparison, deals with human nature in a superficial and predictable way and, although entertaining to some, lacks the enduring and universal quality of great literature.

Not so according to Paul Sommer, president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. In defending the idea that in English classrooms across Australia everything from graffiti and SMS messages to weblogs and computer games is a worthwhile "text" for study, Sommer says: "We want them [students] to be confident with a range of computer literacies and we want them to understand that texts from Shakespeare to Australian Idol are profoundly shaped by contexts and open to a range of understandings."

Two teacher-academics, in a paper delivered at a 2005 national English teachers conference, also argue that Australian Idol should be included in the classroom and provide a lesson plan showing students how to analyse a judge's comments that one of the singers was overweight.

Welcome to the brave new world of "critical literacy". The Tasmanian Education Department defines critical literacy as "the analysis and critique of the relationships among texts, language, power, social groups and social practices. It shows us ways of looking at texts to question and challenge the attitudes, values and beliefs that lie beneath the surface."

The president of the ACT Association for the Teaching of English, Rita van Haren, describes teaching critical literacy as getting students to ask the following questions:

"Who is in the text? Who is missing? Whose voices are represented? Whose voices are marginalised or discounted? What are the intentions of the author/speaker? What does the author/speaker want the audience to think? What would an alternative text say? How can the audience use this information to promote equity?"

The task is no longer to read with sensitivity and discrimination what is written and to value what a literary work tells us about what D.H. Lawrence terms "the relation between man and his circumambient universe at the living moment".

The result? Whereas the Western canon, defined as works that best exemplify our creative urge to give shape and meaning to experience through the use of imaginative language, once held centre stage in the English classroom, the sad fact is that literature is no longer privileged. Not only are great works such as Hamlet reduced to being one cultural artefact among many, along with The Terminator and Australian Idol, but the moral and aesthetic value of literature is ignored as students are taught to analyse texts as examples of how dominant groups in society oppress and marginalise others.

As borne out by the example of Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School (SCEGGS) in Sydney, where Year 11 students are taught to deconstruct Othello from a Marxist, a feminist and a racial perspective, the joy of reading is reduced to a sterile and formulaic exercise in political correctness. Further evidence that the culture warriors of the Left have won the day is the way Tim Winton's Cloudstreet is taught in NSW senior English classes.

In notes given to Year 12 students, they are asked to analyse Winton's book in terms of each of the following perspectives: gender (feminist), socio-political (Marxist), cultural, post-colonial, spiritual and psychological.

Across Australia, the reality is that critical literacy reigns supreme. The South Australian curriculum asks teachers to develop in students "the capability to critically analyse texts in relation to personal experiences, the experiences of local and global communities and the social constructs of advantage/disadvantage in order to imagine more just futures".

In Western Australia, the new Texts, Traditions and Cultures program for Year 12 argues there is nothing universal or profound about the literary canon, as "the concept of the literary is socially and historically constructed, rather than objective or self-evident".

Teachers are told they must teach that reading is ideological on the basis that "texts and reading practices enact particular ideologies, playing an important role in the production and maintenance of social identities and reinforcing or contesting dominant ideological understandings".

In opposition to critical literacy, it is possible to argue a case for the pre-eminent position of literature. One of the defining characteristics of literature is that it deals with those existential and moral dilemmas that define what it is to be human.

Literature, unlike a computer manual, also uses language in a unique way. Reading involves what Coleridge termed a "willing suspension of disbelief" as the reader enters an imaginative world that has the power to shock, to awe and speak to one's inner self.

Human nature

Emotions such as love, despair, ambition, grief and joy are universal and, as suggested by Jung, there are symbols and archetypes that recur across cultures and across time. One only needs to read Greek tragedies such as Medea and Oedipus to realise that, notwithstanding all the clichés about millennial change, human nature is constant.

No amount of cant about readers as "meaning makers", texts as "socio-cultural constructions" and the purpose of reading being to "deconstruct texts in terms of dominant ideologies that disempower the marginalised and dispossessed" can disguise the fact that most of us read for more mundane reasons.

As S.L. Goldberg said, "People are more likely than not to go on being interested in people, as much as they are in abstract theories and ideologies, or impersonal forces, or structural systems, or historical information, or even the play of signifiers.

"So it is more likely than not, I'd say, that people will go on valuing those writings that they judge best help them to realise what the world is and what people are, and to live with both as realistically and as fully as they can."

  • Kevin Donnelly taught English for 12 years and his PhD thesis offers a defence of the more conservative view of English as a subject. His article here first appeared in The Australian, April 22, 2006.

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