EDUCATION: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
The threat to our literary heritage
, February 2, 2008
Literature, especially the acknowledged classics, deserves pre-eminent status in the school syllabus, writes Kevin Donnelly.Is there a place for popular culture, represented by films, text messages, internet chat-rooms and computer games, in the English classroom, alongside great literature? Mark Howie, the vice-president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, believes there is.
At the Senate inquiry into standards in education, Howie argued that "given the realities of the modern world (where) students are engaged with visual and electronic text every day", English teachers have to "find ways in the curriculum of bringing the two together".
I beg to differ: literature, especially the enduring classics associated with the Western tradition, must be given pre-eminent status, but that does not mean I do not understand the appeal of pop culture.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, every boy in my street in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, including me, had a hoard of comic books ranging from the Phantom
and Wonder Woman
. By the time I reached high school, my taste in entertainment had developed to include James Bond, Modesty Blaise and television series such as The Samurai
and endless episodes of Bandstand
On Saturday afternoons I caught up with the heroic exploits of larger-than-life western heroes such as the Cisco Kid and John Wayne and classic films including Ben Hur
, The 300 Spartans
The funny thing was, none of this found its way into the classroom. At Broady High, English with Mr Clayton and Mr Mackie involved Australian and English poetry, Dickens, Lawson and Shakespeare, and learning how to parse and précis and to write properly structured essays.
Thankfully, I also found my way into a reading group organised by the local Anglican minister, who introduced us to books such as Erich Fromm's The Fear of Freedom
and The Art of Loving
, Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression
as well as Plato.
Rather than the tyranny of relevance, where education relates to the world of the student, my teachers saw their role as challenging us by providing an alternative to the often materialistic and superficial cultures in which we lived.
The reality is that for many of us, growing up in a housing commission estate surrounded by a wasteland of brick and cement, often with violent, alcoholic parents, the transformative and healing power of literature provided a gateway into an imaginative world without which life may have been intolerable.
Literature not only provided an escape from the often empty and repetitive day-to-day routine, it also introduced us to an unknown world of ideas, ethical dilemmas and human emotions in an insightful and compelling way.
That literature, at its best, is far superior to popular culture represented by Neighbours
, Big Brother
, text messages or the ego-driven, self-centred drivel found on MySpace and Facebook should be self-evident.
While the texts that constitute the literary canon are re-evaluated over time, the truth is that enduring works such as Euripides' Medea
, Shakespeare's King Lear
and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard
deal with emotions and predicaments in a profoundly sensitive way, unlike Neighbours
or Jean-Claude Van Damme's action movies.
As Bruno Bettelheim and Joseph Campbell point out in discussing the importance of myths, fables and legends, literature deals with the types of heroes and archetypes that are essential for emotional and psychological well-being and maturity. Literature is also special in the way language is employed. American academic Louise Rosenblatt points to the unique quality of literature when she differentiates between what she terms an efferent and an aesthetic response.Shock and awe
The skills required to read an Ikea manual are totally different to those needed to read T.S. Eliot's poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
. The first is concerned with reading in its most literal guise: to understand information as quickly and easily as possible. But reading that requires what Coleridge termed a "willing suspension of disbelief" allows a reader to enter a world that has the power to shock and to awe, and which can speak to one's inner self.
In To Kill a Mockingbird
, Atticus Finch explains to his daughter the importance of understanding and sympathising with those around us by using the metaphor of standing in somebody's shoes. Literature, unlike texts in a more general sense, is unique in its ability to engender the ability to empathise with others.
While the humanising quality of literature cannot be guaranteed, the reality is that in entering into the life of characters, feeling their joy and suffering, and following their exploits and travails, one is made to lose one's sense of self and to value the worth of others.
Literature is essentially moral in focus, unlike utilitarian texts produced for commercial or entertainment reasons. It is wrong to suggest literature provides simplistic answers to complex ethical dilemmas, but fables such as The Iliad
, children's stories including C.S. Lewis's Narnia books and more recent works by Patrick White and David Malouf address issues related to right and wrong and what constitutes a good life.Mantra of change
Contemporary approaches to English are driven by a mantra of change. Arguments in favour of dealing with new technologies, including the internet and computer games, are couched in terms of looking to the future and accommodating the demands of the information-driven 21st century.
What this ignores is Eliot's point that continuity is as important as change. As such, the knowledge, understanding and wisdom represented by our literary heritage are essential in giving students an understanding of the present and the ability to deal with the future.
Eliot argues that the need is: "To maintain the continuity of our culture - and neither continuity, nor respect for the past, implies standing still. More than ever, we look to education today to preserve us from the error of pure contemporaneity. We look to institutions of education to maintain a knowledge and understanding of the past."- Kevin Donnelly's book Dumbing Down is available from News Weekly Books. This article first appeared in The Australian (January 19, 2008).