High School English In Australia

In yesterday's post on a gay Chinese novel, I wondered aloud what would happen if such a novel were published in Europe or America around the same time.  A reader wrote: "Actually, America's publishing industry was in its infancy and literature there was still coming from Europe, but erotic and ribald literature in Europe was being freely published at that time. Here's a very small example: Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France, and England 1534-1685 by James Turner and James Grantham Turner."

I should have remembered since I was required to read Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales for my HSC English in Australia.  But that was in another country and another time, and you could say that I prefer to forget all those things that they made me do in school (not that I really minded because I always drew my own lessons from that experience, and they were definitely not the teachers' plans).

Based upon my recollections, I was required to read Patrick White's The Tree of Man and Voss, T.S. Eliot's Murder In The Cathedral, George Elliott's Middlemarch, T.S. Elliot's The Wasteland, William Shakespeares's King Lear, John Donne's Sonnets among other things.  I didn't care about what my teachers told me to think and maybe Voss was wrong for fostering cryptofascist-elitist attitudes, but I do know that these texts formed my early character in life.

I came across a recent post at Troppo Armadillo in which Sophie Masson described her son's HSC English assignment.  The information in the post is rather jumbled, so I am going to extract a streamlined account of the instructions to the students:

Assignment: Reading for the book Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton.

What message(s) does Cloudstreet convey to you?  What do you see as the important themes or issues within the text?  Does it privilege a certain set of values?

The circumstances surrounding a text's production and publication, including its historical and political milieu.  It is important for you to have your own clear understanding of the text's concerns and the values underpinning it. Your reading is based on your particular context. Other readings of the text will be based on individuals' contexts and ideologies. 

Consider the following readings in your groups:

1.The approach from genre
2.A gender-based reading
3.A socio-political reading
4.Text as an examination of social identity
5.A post-colonial reading
6.A spiritual reading
7.A psychoanalytical reading

Refer to the notes by Steven Cooper and the sheet Ways of Reading Texts.

Excerpt from: Steve Cooper's notes:

This text is an approach to the study of Tim Winton's Cloudstreet. It offers a consideration of contemporary literary theory as well as a detailed analysis of the text and so may be of use in studying the text in preparation for examination.

What is literary theory and what is its relevance to text?  Late 20th century literary theory refers to Textuality. This explains literary texts as multiplistic; the single written entity is in fact a series of multiple writings that exist as a contestation rather than a simplistic and smoothly integrated whole. 

Does this apply to Cloudstreet? Certainly the stylistic form within the text, the shifting character viewpoint, the appearance of unidentified narrators might be construed as being evidence of a variety of strands of writing that we are contesting to produce a whole. Composers of text may also be said to be creating a text for aesthetic reasons or be unaware of the possibilites of alternate readings of the text.


Excerpt from: Ways of Reading Texts:

'Critical Theory'--profiles Historicism; New Criticism; Archetypal; Psychoanalytical; Feminist; Marxist; Cultural; New Historicism; Reader-Response; Deconstruction.


Reader-Response criticism insists that all literature is a structure of experience, not just a form of meaning, and therefore focuses on finding meaning in the act of reading itself and examines the ways individual readers or communities of readers experience texts. These critics examine how the reader joins with the author to 'help the text mean.' They determine what kind of reader or what community of readers the work implies and helps to create.

Deconstruction is a recent school of criticism which ventures beyond the structuralists' assumption that all aspects of human culture are fundamentally languages--complex systems of signs: signifieds (concepts) and signifiers: verbal or non-verbal--and that therefore a quasi-scientific formalism is available for approaching literature, and food, fashion etc. Deconstructionists oppose the metaphysics of presence, that is the claim of literature or philosophy that we can find some full, rich meaning outside of or proper to language itself.  Like formalists, these critics also look at the relation of a text's ideas to the way ideas are expressed ...

Remember that these are teenager students sitting for their high school certificate examinations!  No wonder Hong Kong students going to Australia complain of being lost at sea with English.  Even English-speaking American students will be lost.  Who wouldn't be?

And yet, in truth, I don't think I would have minded.  As I said, I always draw the wrong lesson.  This prescribed lesson plan is just a set of game rules, no more or less arbitrary than any other set.  Just like any other game, all it takes is to study the standard texts, deduce the rules, acquire the vocabulary, systematize the memes, practice the style and even add one or two unexpected twists to surprise the examiners who will think that you are a genius.  And this is no different than anything else that they want you to do in school (e.g. bible studies, trigonometry, chemistry, etc.).  Throughout all this, you should remember that the whole purpose of your 'education' is to decode and deconstruct as many games as possible for your future benefit.

Meanwhile, I am afraid the current crop of students is drawing the very wrong conclusions.  In fact, many are likely to be confused and discouraged by these prescriptions and directives.  Not that I disagree with the various strands of critical theory, because I clearly exhibit those tendencies and approaches on this blog.  The difference is that I had to determine them for myself after having enough experience, and I don't think I would be as receptive and appreciative while being a seventeen-year-old.

(The Australian)  The Bard Unmoored.  April 17, 2006.

WILLIAM Shakespeare's poems and plays have lived on for nearly 400 years after his death. But this long innings may have come to an end in Australia. As reported in The Weekend Australian on Saturday, the first classroom encounter Year 11 students at Sydney's elite SCEGGS Darlinghurst school have with the Bard involves not appreciating the great poet's use of language or his universal themes, but the dreary postmodern trinity of race, feminism and Karl Marx. In their very first question on the play Othello, the first Shakespearean work they read, students must use two of the three perspectives to analyse the text. 

When told of SCEGGS's English curriculum, the US literary critic and long-time foe of classroom political correctness Harold Bloom, as well as Les Murray, Australia's most prominent poet, both said the same thing: the study of literature is dead in Australia. Better to cut it out of the curriculum entirely, the thinking goes, and hope students come to it on their own than subject literature to a process that, in Murray's words, "distorts and destroys it". 

Defenders of SCEGGS's teaching of Shakespeare claim students are only being asked to grapple with the Bard's universal themes. Yes, "issues of race and gender", as they are referred to by postmodernists, are certainly present in Othello; the lead character, after all, declares "Haply for I am black". But this misses the broader point of Shakespeare's genius. And in any case, why are academics so obsessed with processing every conceivable "text" through the meat-grinder of a failed economic system still adhered to only in Havana and Pyongyang? 

It is one thing if graduate students who have already had a firm grounding in the canon of English literature want to spend a few years putting the greats through the postmodern wringer. They already have a foundation of knowledge. But to subject Year 11 students coming to the material for the first time to this approach is like teaching quantum physics to students just learning about Newton. Every year more parents flee government school systems, hoping to escape textbooks such as those being taught in Victoria that were discovered to ridicule and demean Catholicism. But as the case of SCEGGS's English department shows, it is becoming harder and harder for parents to escape state-set curriculums and theories such as critical literacy and outcomes-based education that make a mockery of learning.

While humanities education continues its long slow slide into postmodern irrelevance, Australian science still remains a bright spark. Ours is a clever country, and a new book by Thomas Barlow excerpted in The Weekend Australian demonstrates a strong case can be made that we have grown cleverer in the past decade. Between 1992 and 2002, Australian research and development spending grew by 5 per cent a year. During the same period, OECD nations averaged an R&D increase of just 3.3 per cent a year. The spending of European Union nations was particularly anaemic, growing by just 2.5 per cent annually. And while it is hardly the only cause of their troubles, it is not hard to draw a link between Europe's failure to fund new ideas and the sinking malaise gripping the Continent - especially its youth. Here Australia must jealously guard its success: while it is harder to impose a Marxist-feminist paradigm on Einstein than on Austen, that has not stopped postmodernists from chipping away at what should be the solid edifice of hard science. 

In Western Australia, home of perhaps the most controversial outcomes-based education curriculum overhaul in the nation, students are taught that scientific observations are culturally dependent. In the Northern Territory, kids are taught that "science as a way of knowing is constructed in a socio-cultural context". And similar ideas have wormed their way around Australia. No wonder an international study by the Australian Council for Educational Research found our science classrooms are becoming increasingly stale. In Year 8, fewer than one in 10 lessons were found to be intellectually challenging; at an age when students in the Czech Republic discuss how nuclear reactors work, Australian students are watching litmus paper change colour. Not surprisingly, with a populace better educated about atomic energy, the Czech Republic operates six nuclear power plants - while in Australia the debate over nuclear power is largely driven by the green movement and their allies in the progressive and tabloid press.

Whether parents pay a premium for private schools or send their kids to the government schools they support with their taxes, Australia needs to do better. Trendy theory and cultural relativism is killing the joy of learning for our young people, and threatening the nation's future competitiveness. And as the case of SCEGGS's Year 11 course shows, increasingly for parents there is little escape.