Thursday, 20 April 2006

More Literary Studies Argy-Bargy

Sigh...I'm almost afraid to get into a discussion about which literary texts ought to be taught in schools and universities in this country and how the ones selected should be presented to students. But literary studies has at long last arrived as a political football to be idly kicked about for the amusement of the highest in the land, it seems, and not before time - it was getting a bit boring having to be jealous of the historians and the sociologists and the cultural studies people, who seemed to be hogging all of the best governmental tellings-off. Well, today the Prime Minister helpfully shared his opinions on the matter.

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean I feel very, very strongly about the criticism that many people are making that we are dumbing down the English syllabus.

MADONNA KING:

Are we?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think there’s evidence of that in different parts of the country. I mean when the, what I might call the traditional texts are treated no differently from pop cultural commentary, as appears to be the case in some syllabus, I share the views of many people about the so-called post modernism. I think there’s a lot of validity in that. But in the end you do need to have a syllabus and a curriculum set by an independent education authority. I just wish that independent education authority didn’t succumb on occasions to the political correctness that it appears to succumb to.

KING:

I think that’s a view supported by a lot of parents and grandparents out there. We’ve got the Western Australian Government I think talking about outcome based education.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I mean that is gobbledegook. What does that mean? I mean we all understand that it’s necessary to be able to be literate and coherent in the English language. We understand it’s necessary to be numerate and we also understand that there’s high quality literature and there’s rubbish, and we need a curriculum that encourages an understanding of the high quality literature and not the rubbish.


There you have it...my first response, after I got the excited hyperventilating under some semblance of control, was to wonder if His Darkness always sounds this vague and poorly-informed on whatever subject he's holding forth upon, and I only just noticed because today that happened to be something I know about. (as Zoe suggests, the interesting vagueness might be a strategy that's somehow bled across from other subjects.)

But after that I gave in to the old, bad hermeneutic habit of looking for meaning and purpose regardless of surface indications that not much exists.

Howard says he doesn't want literary texts to be taught in a postmodern way, which (giving him the benefit of the doubt) I take to mean that he doesn't want students exposed to poststructuralist critical theories, whether they are political or formalist in orientation. To teach critical theory, it seems, is to 'dumb down' the syllabus.

I am no fan of critical orthodoxies myself, and find postmodern literary theory only mildly interesting, but I'm kind of stunned to think that introducing kiddies to (say) dialogics could be thought of as a technique for extra-dumbing them. (Unless by blowing their minds into dumbness?) Howard's standards of intellectual rigorousness must be pretty ruddy high!

Or possibly he's worried that secondary education produces reductive and oversimplified versions of complex and difficult theoretical concepts - Bakhtin for Utter Frigging Idiots et cetera. That'd be a surprising worry for the PM to be nursing, but reasonable. Glossing the finer points of literary theory must be difficult to manage in secondary school, but I think it’s better on balance to avoid presenting literary texts, even the ‘high quality’ ones, as if they're fundamentally above and separate from the shaping pressures of history and culture. I think that which particular theoretical viewpoints are presented to students doesn’t matter terribly much – what does matter is that texts should not be read in an artificial vacuum or handled with kid gloves. All this achieves is the solidification of unspoken assumptions, always politically and historically shaped, into unexamined and unquestioned "common sense," and that's a problem, because it hinders the reader's understanding of what a text does and how it functions.

In principle the teaching of literary texts alongside simple introductions to major streams of thought in literary theory and literary criticism is probably quite a good thing, just as long as it’s always clear that the theoretical stuff is a means to thinking in a more effective and organised and directed way about the actual text. As long as the text isn’t reductively seen as a kind of blank support useful mainly for displaying critical theory in action, then there can be no legitimate objection to teaching theory.

I suspect however that what the PM is really cut about is the idea of a multiplicity of politically based theoretical approaches, each of them somehow equivalent or exchangeable, rather than formalist literary theory as such. And I think he would be more or less alright with feminist/Marxist/ postcolonial interpretations of ‘rubbish’ (leaving aside for the minute just what species of text that is supposed to refer to) but he draws the line at using the hermeneutics of suspicion on Shakespeare and the nineteenth-century novel. Why? Presumably because he believes that to do so artificially imposes shifting meanings upon the Classics, which by the definition he seems to want to impose, are fixed and impermeable. To me, drawing that kind of interpretative line between high and low is far more of an inappropriate politicising of the syllabus than teaching innocent children about semiotics.

(The SMH wrote about this too, but my post is more interesting, plus they spelled Lyotard's name wrong.)

I do want to hear your thoughts on these comments of the PM's, including whether you think it's all a bit of a storm in a teacup and a deliberate distraction from more serious subjects - and whether you agree with Margaret Sankey's diverting, but hardly new, suggestion that John Howard is something of a postmodernist himself when it comes to strategic manipulations of the concepts of truth, knowledge, and power.

More directly, I would very much like to hear from any reader with recent first-hand knowledge of either of the two main forms of English studied at Years 11 and 12. Is the syllabus 'dumbed down'? Does it include an awful lot of 'rubbish'? Does 'postmodernism' really feature that prominently, and if so, how, exactly? The PM wants education that encourages 'understanding of the high quality literature and not the rubbish' - well, how do current arrangements fail to promote that understanding?

(X posted to LP)

19 comments:

Jonathan said...

Why don't you post this at, you know, the other place?

random said...

I graduated year 12 in 2002. Is that recent enough? I agree with you, incidentally, but I think there's some value in what Howard's saying: he's obviously right that "it’s necessary to be able to be literate and coherent", and, well, that means no Derrida, no Judith Butler, etc. ;)

It wasn't "dumbed down" so much as just "dumb", honestly. Virtually all students took English -- were pressured to by the faculty -- and it wasn't streamed. The bell curve was pretty obvious in most classes, which really limited the complexity of the material. It was possible to more or less completely escape "serious literature" written < 1950 and replace it with SF, fantasy, picture books and so on. There was no focus on critical theory beyond gesturing in the general direction of themes and tropes and signs. It's a storm in a teacup, because questions like this don't matter at all at that level.

If Howard just wants competency in the English language, the thing to do is get kids reading *anything*; with constant exposure comes learning by osmosis. Let them read X-Men and Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling is a terrible prose stylist, but there were people in these classes who were almost functionally illiterate. Shakespeare wasn't helpful to them.

Kent said...

Forget whatever I was saying at LP. What random said x2!

Lucy Tartan said...

Jonathan, I didn't post it there because my impression is that few American readers are interested in Australian politics....I've seen the kinds of comments J. Quiggin's Australia-centric posts at CT attract - "why should I care about the Australian Wheat Board paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein", that kind of thing.

Maybe I'll post it & see what happnes.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lucy,

I think this is really just another bit of dog-whistling. I notice that Howard isn't specific about which texts currently on an Australian Year 12 syllabus he especially objects to (Nor does the interviewer ask for a specific example, which I think is rather sloppy on her part). It's very similar to all the other forays politicians make into the English syllabus- they're playing to a particular public perception of school teachers and the bodies which make these decisions. The actual texts themselves are immaterial. This is more about the vague division between two ill-defined groups: we, the "ordinary" people with our common sense, and them, those "elites". Howard (and conservative figures generally)gets a lot of mileage out of this division and each little skirmage, even one as slight as this, contributes to that perception of division.
Not that I don't have some concerns myself about the NSW HSC syllabus, but those concerns are largely organisational.
One last thing- Can I just say how much I enjoy your blog?

leisa.reichelt said...

I just love this: 'so-called post modernism'.

Yes, I think that JH is an accidental post-modernist. For the above quote, and also for his very fluid ideas around the concept of truth.

(then, does that just make all politics post-modern? probably not)

I don't have much to contribute on current curriculum, but I *did* do a humanities undergrad in the heyday of post modernism... still recovering :)

Kate said...

I agree with Anon. of course.

(But I always love it at LP when a commentor called R*b gets his steam up about literature. Makes me happy for days.)

Lucy Tartan said...

Me too, Kate...Anon, I liked how you put that. It is precisely about elites vs. ordinary people.

Yesterday I thought well at least it's nice to put these questions on the national agenda, however briefly and cursorily - but then this morning I read this embarrassment in the Australian - and felt actually worried that this thing could get out of hand.

And thank you very much for saying you enjoy my blog. That means a lot.

Pixie said...

Howard knows not what he is talking about. He is paraphrasing some brief from some staffer with a bee in his/her bonnet. I don't know about the Australian curriculum, I observe the NZ curriculum with completely uninformed joy in the lengths and breadths by which it stretches my sons. Left you a sculpture at my new blog.

Tim said...

Admittedly it's been ten years since I graduated from high school, but I don't recall being indoctrinated with Marxist theory. I doubt my English teacher would have known who Foucault was. Frankly, I'm not even sure who he is. I suppose things may have changed in the meantime, though. I did overhear a couple of teenage girls on the bus talking about heterotopia, but I just assumed it was a new kind of iPod.

More depressingly, I have just realised that John Howard has been PM my entire adult life.

R H said...

There'd be no talk at all from Mr Howard about this if there weren't some truth in it. That's politics.
The silly ALP aligned themselves with new-age nonsense and made a huge mistake. And they know it.

*R.H. likes your blog.
That may not mean a lot, but praise will always mean something.

There's no defence.

Lucy Tartan said...

Tim....your last sentence, well, that's the saddest thing that's ever been written here.

Let's hope he sods off soon eh.

RH, I'm glad you like my blog. You're right about praise. It is much to be preferred to abuse and acrimony.

Laura!

R H said...

I have never been abusive in my life!

Only critical.

Okay?

RH!

Hil said...

One of my sons is in Yr 11 in the ACT public school college system. He doesn't think English is dumbed down. In the introductory term just finished they studied poetry by Bruce Dawe, and The Year of Living Dangerously but largely as texts from which to study techniques in English writing. There was also a component where they chose a book to read, and gave a spoken presentation it. He chose 1984. He doesn't know what postmodernism is exactly, so if it does feature, it's implicit.

My elder son did study postmodernism at the same college some years ago, but it was in an elective explicitly titled that. He really enjoyed it.

I think Anon is right, too.

kate said...

I don't see any evidence at all that post-modernism, or any other literary theory, is being taught in secondary school. Teachers are generally too busy getting kids to read and comprehend the basics, especially in English where they have to teach everyone.

I liked the response from the Association for the teaching of English - we teach a range of texts so that children learn the difference between the good stuff and the rubbish. You can't just tell kids that Neighbours is crap, you have to sit them down and break it up, teach them how to analyse plot holes and bad acting, then they have the skills to make judgements for themselves. Secondary English isn't about teaching 1001 books you have to read before you die, it's about teaching kids how to tell the difference between those books and all the others.

(and on behalf of the historians: good luck!)

Lunar Brogue said...

Perhaps his darkness is starting to believe the messianic salivations of the conservative press. According to them, there is no topic on which their master, savant of the political zeitgeist, cannot claim authority. And with their gravitas and love, his judgement has become extraordinarily ordinary and yet ordinarily extraordinary.

So when it comes to PC as mediated through high school English curricula, look out, cos IT MUST NOT PERSIST. JWH knows the people don't want their children exposed to nonsense texts, untested by time and unrooted in any formal historical or cultural context. Give them all biographies of BRADMAN and MONASH! And send them home, or to Iraq, if they won't or can't read them (especially the natives and foreigners).

There is hope, however, that following a transition to the Jolly Windbag our children will be reading scrupulously detailed accounts of the American civil war.

Or not.

Mallrat said...

I love the fact the Australian manufactured this controversy about SCEGGS asking students to analyse Othello from a feminst, race and Marxist perspective.
it's about a guy who is ostracised because of his Arab origins, and then he kills his wife. so how not to talk about race and the status of women?

I mean, it's not like Harold Bloom and les murray actually both decided by coincidence to call the Australian's writer to complain!

But I have to say asking students to analyse stuff foorm a Marxist persepctive is bone-headed, clumsy and does open them up to charges of politicisation, which the don't need. What is a Marxist perspective? Do they mean his analytical approach? If so, better to say a sociological or class-based perspective. Or is it Marx the clinician? I asked the AETA prez about this and she said "yes, it's a valid approach, how would a feminist think, how would a Marxist think?" Well, apart form the fact there are many different sorts of feminists and Marxists, putting it in this way invites a caricature, rather than good analysis on a theme.

AThen you have to take on his solutions, and that is very fraught and asking students to take a very specific stand. Inviting them to do a class/soc take allows them to be as right OR left wing as they like a slogn as they analyse through the prism of class. Asking them to think like a Marxist

Unsane said...

I haven't come across anything ressembling indoctrination in my job as a English tutor. Not at Year 11 and 12 level.

At lower levels than this, there does seem to be a lack of proper discipline or purpose in the programme, though. I don't know if this is traceable to OBE -- I tend to think it is more likely the effect of having a market-based education system, wherein every set of parents makes the assumption that , "My little Johnny (or my little Suzy) is a f*&%%! budding genius, sparking off in all sorts of wonderful and clairvoyant directions, with regard to their obviously self-driven pursuit of knowledge. There is very little that the teacher can add to my child's innate wisdom, least of all discipline and rigour!"

So, the parents get the political system of education which they so intently lobby for: Teacher holds back on disciplining or reprimanding little Johnny for playing around in class -- after all he is "an innate genius" and one wouldn't want to interfere with the self-development process of such a rising star!

In the end, little Johnny learns nothing from his teachers, due to parental threat and caution, and so even littler Johnny can go on and blame postmodernism for his troubles!

But, the point, I say, is market driven education.

Unsane said...

I meant the problem is market driven education -- which is influenced too much by the quaint notions of those who use the educational systems.