Preacher-Teacher Man?

The phrase of course is courtesy of a previous column by Andrew Bolt lamenting the politicisation of education. In a week when education has had a few headlines – with Dr Nelson’s proposal for a National Leaving Certificate exam being almost universally dismissed as impractical and ill-conceived (and undermined by the Minister’s own claim that it would probably not happen during his occupation of the office but rather in his lifetime), it would be tempting to dismiss the controversy over school English as a vehicle for inculcating politically correct views in students as another populist beatup. However, it probably isn’t, though the article by Associate Professor Wayne Sawyer in English in Australia has certainly been used for political capital. Before forming a view, it’s probably worthwhile reading the article itself.

I’ve previously argued that history needs to be taught more rigorously. I’d be opposed to accepting non-standard forms of written English as acceptable, though pedagogical methods that move from non-standard English to an appreciation of standard English are fine. There’s a basic equity argument here. One of the arguments against using “Black English” as legitimate in Californian schools was that it would further disadvantage African-Americans in the job market. No doubt the daughters and sons of middle-class professionals will pick up standard English, and to suggest that it’s socially just to accept non-standard written expression from those who do not grow up in a climate that fosters literacy is to me just stupidity.

The Queensland Government’s curricula and aims in its New Basics Project include developing critical literacies. There is no doubt that it is important for students to be able to understand different types of texts and formats, and to be able to negotiate various learning outcomes through the use of a range of media, including the internet. Contrary to the rhetoric that surrounds the notion of “critical literacy”, a lot of this sort of pedagogical theory and practice is actually driven by a desire to equip students to work in an environment where much information and its manipulation is done online. So it’s important not to underplay the vocational motivation of different pedagogies in studying language.

The other perennial issue is whether High School English ought to be about appreciation of the “great books”. My answer would be yes and no. Yes, it’s important to expose people to the riches of the English language literary tradition, and no, this should not be done in a boring and uncritical fashion. As I understand it, Shakespeare is still on most Senior curricula, and indeed this is probably a secondary issue, as the advocates of educational conservatism can attack and have attacked different methods of engaging with the Bard as “deconstructive nihilism” or whatever.

There’s also no doubt that educational theory from the 1960s and 1970s onwards has been influenced by ideas of empowering people to function as citizens, and also following thinkers like Paolo Freire, to perform a liberatory function. In itself, there’s nothing new about this – as I wrote in my post on history, John Stuart Mill was only one of many classic Nineteenth Century liberals to suggest that education would make democracy work. What appears to be at issue is whether fostering critical thought is done in a partisan manner. I suspect that the response to Sawyer’s piece is overblown – he could be read as just saying that he’s disappointed that people aren’t more engaged with politics, and that the education system has failed in creating citizens. Clearly his words were ill-chosen, and if he is suggesting that schools should be hotbeds of partisanism, then I disagree with him. But I don’t disagree that education should have a critical function. Of course it should. No-one should argue against teaching future citizens to think critically and to subject orthodoxies and truisms to rigorous examination. Nor should discussing politics be offlimits in the classroom, providing that the discussion is sensitive both to students’ understanding and to impartiality. During the Iraq War, for instance, primary teachers I know found it necessary to discuss the situation in classrooms with children of Islamic faith, and others found children were quite frightened by all the talk of war. This calls for intelligence and sensitivity on the part of teachers, but in itself should not be problematic. We can’t artificially cordon off schools and the children who learn there from the broader society.

Here again, as with the debate over literacy methods and phonics last year, I suspect the key is to get a balance in what works in teaching strategies and what their overarching goals should be. The first question ought to be answered through research and evidence, and the second is a matter of legitimate public debate, but such debate ought not to be harnessed to achieving political advantage for any political party. So, as a lot of us said last year as well, the over-politicisation of the bugbear that education is politicised, by itself does nothing to ensure that education is more soundly based.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Willy G
2022 years ago

What does it say about Sawyer’s critical faculties that he recites verbatim every leftist shibboleth of the past few years?

Why, he might ask his students, did Patrick’s security guards wear balaclavas? As a symbol of oppression? Or was it a well founded fear of violent union thugs identifying them for later retribution?

His students might like to move past the ‘uncritical’ claim that children were never thrown overboard? Read about SIEV 7 for example.

And perhaps he could ask his students what benefits might be had in a standardised national curriculum? Bit like rail gauges really – different doesn’t always mean splendidly diverse.

For parents worried that the 3Rs should mean reading, writing and arithmetic, not refugees, reconciliation and revisionism, Sawyer is the sum of all fears.

Anyway, how come voting conservative shows one to be a victim of herd-think? Why is it so unthinkable that a whole bunch of people out there might already be questioning orthodoxies and truisms? Like, say, the age-old assumption that Labour would ‘naturally’ represent the interests of Tasmanian forest industry workers? Maybe even the grey matter sitting atop a blue collar is capable of ‘critical thinking’, rather than ‘critical of John Howard’ thinking.

How about teaching kids what the Constitution, the bicameral Parliament and the Westminster system are. Not what to think about them. Maybe then they could be critical political thinkers, rather than cynical polemicists channeling Margo Kingston on a bad day.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

I say ram the dreamtime into em at school and uni, so they can wake up when they leave! Of course, according to numbat in a previous comment, the slow ones can always drop out in the meeja.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

What is ‘critical literacy’, exactly? It’s a new term to me.

According to Sawyer, ‘critical literacy holds as its central premise the education of the student to be able to “suss” out how they are being worked over

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rob, here’s a link on “critical literacy” in the Australian educational context:

http://www.education.tas.gov.au/english/critlit.htm

The Tasmanian Government uses the term “learnings” in its policy. I must say this word as a noun is a bugbear to me. “I had some learnings today”. Aarrgghh! Anyway, it’s one example of how managerialism and bizspeak conspire to devalue and impoverish the language.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Mark, thanks for the link. I hope you don’t take it seriously? It’s unadulterated crap. I could drive a conceptual and philosophical truck through the gaping holes in the arguments presented here.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

Educating kids to navigate their way through a career path that involves versatility that many of their teachers never envisaged (and still don’t) should be paramount. The great foibles and passions expressed in rich English are beautiful in themselves as insights into humanity and as historical constructs. History and the evolution of culture is the aspect of education that I find students have little interest in or consciousness of – sometimes I think they live in an everlasting present.
The other day I was talking about the beginnings of ballet – I realised they had no notion whatsoever of medieval social structure. A triangular diagram with the king at the apex and the serfs at the bottom with taxes and protection
moving up and down was a thin explanation for the circumstances that gave rise to the banquets and court dances in the great halls of the nobility.
So….. have you seen Braveheart? Robin Hood?
Maybe text messages etc are the mental gymnastics they need to prepare them.
Maybe it is the extra – curricular activity in which they participate that demands mental agility.
I, for example, cannot do more than one thing at a time, I notice my students can mostly do several. Perhaps there is greater value there than in an appreciation of our culture and knowledge of it’s nuts and bolts. Maybe the lessons of history are overrated and notions of process are self-evident. Perhaps life is this very instant (just add water) and it is the likes of me who are too old fashioned to live like that.

Joel Parsons
2022 years ago

I have an idea, it might seem a little radical, but maybe we can nut it out here. I would like to start an education debate with one rule: The word compulsory cannot be used. I’m over governments and academics telling us that it is compulsory that “Kids need to learn x, y & z.” I’m over them even saying that it is compulsory that students must attend school.

It would save the taxpayer a lot of money if we stopped trying to keep kids in school who don’t want to be there and instead created ways to include them when they are ready to learn.

It would save society a lot of anguish as well if there were less compulsory standards, frameworks and learning outcomes. Instead, how about we let parents and teachers work these things out for themselves. I personally like the idea of multiple accrediting bodies that schools accredit with, and then parents can choose on the basis of the school’s accreditation. So some schools would go for the very expensive and academic international baccaleureate, others would go for something akin to the current middle of the road state systems and others might go for a trades orientated accreditation. And if parents and students decide that finishing school isn’t worth the bother, good on them – I know people who dropped out at the end of Year 10 and learnt a lot more reading books from the local library over the next two years than their fellow pupils did while “completing their educations.”

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rob, I feel I’ve expressed my opinion sufficiently in the post.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

It is instructive, as you suggest, to look at what Sawyer actually said. It is couched as a set of questions; he explicitly denies that he advocates the teaching of ideology or is biassed in the classroom.

It is true that the piece comes from the Left, but a professional journal has every right to publish polemical editorials that provoke thought, and are honest about their premises.

I think it is a fair question – and leave aside the premises about world view for now. if we accept that Howard got us into a war based on lies, supports a thuggish and reactionary industrial policy, and persecutes refugees, how come the electorate still voted for him?

If we are trying to promote critical thinking able to see the language of politics as adversarial and self serving from either side of the fence, then does this suggest the education is failing?

I don’t agree with him, because high school English is just not that important, as suggested above.

I am no fan of “literacies” and the deconstruction of fairy tales in high schools. I am bemused by someone who is a successful pundit and spokesperson for English who has a writing style which is confused, overblown and repetitive. If he had spent some time on the internet, he would have learnt to keep that sort of raw draft to himself.

But I do dislike the way this has been politicised. Three articles in the Australian, all summarising his position to suggest he is indoctrinating children, a savage riposte to the imaginary position by Brendan Nelson, and a statement from Howard. Nelson gave him a serve from the floor of the House.

This smells of an excuse to attack teachers. Nelson said:

“”Dr Nelson said he hesitated to “give any dignity whatsoever to what has been written here”. But he told The Australian: “It confirms in part what is held as the worst fears of parents that often teachers are seeking to impose their own particular views which they are perfectly entitled to have, but to impose those views on students. This person is doing a great disservice to English teachers generally and their representation.””

and: “.Education Minister Brendan Nelson told parliament: “I would suggest to Professor Sawyer’s colleagues that they should review his capacity to serve in any professional capacity on behalf of any teacher organisation in Australia.””

while Howard’s line is “This kind of comment drives more people out of the public education system,” the Prime Minister said. “It only confirms suspicions that people have that the public education system lacks the balance that’s needed.

“That sort of comment just feeds a growing view in the community that the system has become too radicalised through the attitude of some teachers.”

Mr Howard described Professor Sawyer’s remarks as unrepresentative. “I don’t think for a moment he represents the views of English teachers generally,” he said.”..

It is nasty. All the man did was ask some questions in a trade journal.

The remark about “the worst of fears” is silly of course. Parents are afraid of a lot more things than an English teacher pushing the Labor Party. Sex, drugs, cars, a shortage of university places.

The Australian articles, by the way, are at
http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,12194450%255E601,00.html
http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,12190959%255E7583,00.html
http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,12202143%255E2702,00.html

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

And I find myself in agreement with all that David says!

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

“If we accept that Howard got us into a war based on lies, supports a thuggish and reactionary industrial policy, and persecutes refugees, how come the electorate still voted for him?”

If we don’t accept that, how come we’re letting a partisan political hack indoctrinate children in the name of English teaching?

rnr
rnr
2022 years ago

EP to understand David’s point you need to read the ‘if’ at the start of the sentence you quote.

blank
blank
2022 years ago

Sure, rnr, to understand David’s point we need to read the ‘if’ at the start of the sentence quoted – and the parenthetical (‘and we do’) which somehow wasn’t printed.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

A well crafted post, Mark, and good comments from David.

Sawyer does seem to be saying that the way Australians voted reflects on their education. It’s a real shame, because much of his argument is good. The goal of critical literacy is important to democracy, whether you like the term or not. Perhaps rhetoric would be a good term, and would resassure people that it’s not fashionable lefty nonsense.

The point Sawyer should have been making with his examples of children overboard, core promises and so on, is that citizens are exposed to ever more calibrated professional spin form political parties, and soothing humbug from corporations, and people need to be taught to see through it. How they ultimately vote depends on their values and interests, and on what the Opposition does and promises.

In principle, it should be permissible to claim that that a population has been duped into voting for a crook or demagogue against its own interests. As I said a few months ago, if you point out the obvious fact that a lack of education contributed to the election Joseph Estrada, no one jumps up and down and demands you apologise for insulting and patronising the filipinos.

But John Howard is no Joseph Estrada, and by dragging his personal views into the argument, Sawyer only succeeded in infuriating the likes of Willy G above, who would love to think that critical thinking is just a code for left wing propoganda.

I don’t know anything about Anne MacIlroy, but she just seems to be grabbing an excuse to push her own barrow, the teaching of classics. But her dichotomy between the teaching of great writing and critical literacy doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny. Didn’t Orwell show, in everybody’s favorite essay, that the classics are classics because they are paradigms of clear
and concrete thinking, and thus our salvation from political and corporate gobbledygook?

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

The link Mark provided lists the attributes of critical literacy as:

‘Critical literacy includes:

* examining meaning within texts
* considering the purpose for the text and the composer’s motives
* understanding that texts are not neutral, that they represent particular views, silence other points of view and influence people’s ideas
* questioning and challenging the ways in which texts have been constructed
* analysing the power of language in contemporary society
* emphasising multiple readings of texts. (Because people interpret texts in the light of their own beliefs and values, texts will have different meanings to different people.)
* having students take a stance on issues.
* providing students with opportunities to consider and clarify their own attitudes and values.
* providing students with opportunities to take social action.’

This provides a neat encapsulation of a process of ideological indoctrination. Take a text, any text; read it, not to appreciate its aesthetic, intellectual or spiritual qualities, but to ransack it for evidence of social injustice (which is pre-assumed to exist; what a dark world these people must live in); formulate a political position in response to said injustice; go out and fight it.

This approach actually makes texts meaningless. The author’s intent, language and meaning disappear after the first dot point. The rest is just the overlay of of an ideological grid to which the text is forced to conform. Note too how hostile this process is to the text. No one is going to enjoy reading for its own sake if they are successfully instructed according to this regime.

To take some ‘texts’ at random:

* Charles Laughton’s film ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (a masterpiece of American gothic)

* William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’

* Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony

* Michelangelo’s sculpture ‘Pieta’

* This thread on this blog.

How does the process of critical literacy outlined above assist you to understand any of them? It doesn’t; it can’t. It starts off by silencing the text and ithe voice of its author in order to substitute extrinsic political values for those that speak from the text.

On a more positive note, I suspect that most children would find this process of ‘education’ so boring that they would emerge unindoctrinated, after all.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Now let’s see if we can get a glimpse of Wayne’s World of ideal Critlit down in Tassie.

“What are the features of a critical literacy approach?”-

“We deconstruct the structures and features of texts…”

“We no longer consider texts to be timeless, universal or unbiased. Texts are social constructs…….. we are able to develop opposing interpretations.”

“We explore alternative readings………… Does the text present unequal positions of power?”

“We focus on the beliefs and values of the composer…..”

“We work for social equity and change. As we begin to analyse the powerful…………….. We are able to become agents of social change working towards the removal of inequalities and injustices.”

Yeah, yeah, we get the picture Wayne and Co!

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I think you put it more neatly than I did, observa.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Is it any wonder phonemic understanding with phonics is spreading like wildfire in our schools now, so that a lot more of Howard’s little Battlers can do a bit of ‘deconstructing’ for themselves?

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

‘This provides a neat encapsulation of a process of ideological indoctrination. Take a text, any text; read it, not to appreciate its aesthetic, intellectual or spiritual qualities, but to ransack it for evidence of social injustice (which is pre-assumed to exist; what a dark world these people must live in); formulate a political position in response to said injustice; go out and fight it.’

Rob, this is scintillating stuff, but I think your imagination is getting the better of you. I don’t see anything here that says that critical thnking and aesthetic appreciation are mutually exclusive. To bring up Orwell again, think of his essays on Dickens and Kipling. They are both aesthetically attuned and critical, and, far from being boring, they’d have be the most entertaining and lucid critical writing you could read. Some texts are obviously going to raise more political issues than others (e.g. Beethoven’s 7th), but as Gore Vidal (another engaging writer) has repeatedly shown, just about everyhthing has a political dimension.

The dot points are awfully turgid, but on the whole they are a reasonable description of what I try to get my undergraduate economics students to do, and what I have enormous trouble getting stsudents from, say, China to do. It’s just about being engaged, active, and questioning, as opposed to taking what you read at face value. Including what I tell what them myself. If I wanted to indoctrinate my students I would take almost the opposite of this advice.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

But, James, the exhortation here is not to critical in the intellectual sense. It is to be critical in the political sense. Look at the rest of the stuff on the Uni of Tas site, and what observa posted above. To me, it doesn’t admit of any other interpretation.

And I don’t have any problems with students being politically critical of their own societies – just that it is not the business of the education system to inculcate that quality.

Also, my particular concern in this context is that these dot points (‘turgid’, as you say – a horrible combination of bureaucratese and pomo polspeak) supposedly describe an approach to teaching English. Applied to a work of art, they simply kill the text, kill the author and kill any chance that the unfortunate students will gain any real appreciation of what he or she is looking at.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I must confess that my initial reaction to the Tasmanian website was that it was Derrida/Foucault lite. As I said on the history thread, (and this is similar to the point Jen makes), you can’t teach people a critical understanding of the significance of historical events at University level unless they got an understanding of historical events at High School. I found the academic content of the Tasmanian material rather nugatory and debased, and Rob, I’m sure if I put my mind to it, I could shoot some holes in the implied epistemological position as well. I was also surprised by some of the Queensland material (follow the link in my post) which it seemed to me had a bizarrely wrong grasp of what “social constructionism” is and having taught Sociology of Education for two years, I’d also comment that as with most students at University, intending teachers don’t always grasp sociological perspectives on ontology. But I think the rub in all this is that what goes on in the classroom is likely to be quite different from what these departmental documents envisage – one of the main complaints of teachers being that they can’t keep up with the plethora of stuff emerging from departmental sources. Before passing judgement, I’d like to know what exactly goes on in Senior English classrooms.

I do think that there’s no objection to teaching children to make intelligent critical judgements about politics as about everything else. Or are we content to have people pay little attention to politics and be swayed by bogus interest rate tables that they get in the mail? That’s what I suspect Sawyer (in a malaprop way) is saying. Like David, I think he overestimates the impact of studying English.

My main recollection of Grade 12 English is that I had a crush on the teacher and couldn’t read Thomas Hardy ever again without seeing her as Bathsheba. I did get a copy of Orwell’s 1984 for the Senior English prize, though.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

‘You can’t teach people a critical understanding of the significance of historical events at University level unless they got an understanding of historical events at High School.’

I totally agree with you there, Mark. One of my objections to the U of Tas approach is that that this kind of theorising is appropriate at the tertiary level, not the secondary. Over in the other post Ken talks about a ‘Foucault for fuckwits’ and I think that’s exactly what you see when you follow the link.

I am a big fan of Foucault but his logic, while daring, is necessarily flawed and incomplete. When he was still alive, the French epistemologists considered his only intellectual peer to be Jean Baudrillard – who wrote a book entitled ‘Forget Foucault’!

Foucault’s theories have to be balanced against competing insights and philosophies and tested against other intellectual disciplines, like sociology. That can’t be done at high school, nor should it be, since most high school students do not go on to the tertiary level. Secondary education should be about familiarising young people with the crucial landmarks of their own and other cultures, and give them a real sense of human achievement through the ages – in art, literature, science and spiritual and intellectual endeavour.

Their political opinions should be developed quite independently of the education system – which will happen anyway. I considered myself to be a communist by the age of 14 and that without the assistance of any pedagogical program. (I got over it, needless to say.)

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Agree mostly, Rob.

Except that I do think that secondary education should be critical. I doubt that’s achievable by using badly appropriated versions of poststructuralism. The other issue is cognitive development and what higher-level thinking skills develop at what age and how to foster them – which you would think educational “experts” would know something about.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Rob,

I think it’s the Education Department rather than the uinversity. Two quick points.

1. Yes, there are parts of the web page that slide into postmodernist mumbo jumbo and unfortunately make it easy to ridicule. But it’s not all postmodernist. The emphasis on authors’ intentions and motives is contrary to the teaching of postmodernists, but it seems like a good idea to me. If you don’t the stuff about social change and injustice, I don’t think they would either, but for different reasons: it smacks too much of universal truth. I think you should avoid using pomo as a catchphrase for anything you don’t like. Which brings me to…

2. I don’t like bureaucratese either, but I think it’s a separate issue, as I said in the thread about Miranda Devine and arts faculties.

3. The problem with the Chinese students (we are talking ideal types here) is not that they’re not critical of their own societies, but that they’re not critical of anything they read or hear, but tend to accept things on their own terms.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Mark’s last comment, which I hadn’t seen, seems to sum it up. Maybe there’s a convergence here.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

James, that’s not entirely fair. I’ve studied a great deal of postmodernism – in fact my MA at Melbourne was heavily influenced by Foucault, Baudraillard, Barthes and Eco. I know it when I see it.

These points –

* considering the purpose for the text and the composer’s motives
* understanding that texts are not neutral, that they represent particular views, silence other points of view and influence people’s ideas
* questioning and challenging the ways in which texts have been constructed

– are all about undermining the text. What students will be asked to do, I’m betting, is to disregard what the author or artist considers to be his/her motives and intentions and ‘unmask’ the ‘political’ discourse behind it. This is bog standard postmodernism. I’ve got a great example of it here at home – a King Penguin edition of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (great book, by the way). In the introduction, some idiot academic managed to do a little such unmasking: Conrad had the wrong ideas about Africa in particular and colonialism in general, and had the wrong attitude towards women. So the best analysis this duffer could offer his readers on appreciating a great work of literature was that the author was both racist and sexist.

Another good example is an article written by Doris Lessing (another great writer) for Granta a few years back. She wrote she was intrigued to learn that one of her books – ‘Memoirs of a Survivor – was being ‘taught’ in some university in Claifornia. She subsequently learned that the ‘teaching’ simply meant scrutinisng the text for any signs of political correctness.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Rob

I apologise if I appeared to underestimate your knowledge of this topic. Your credentials are definitely superior to mine. And the points you make above ring true.

Nonetheless I think educators in the humanities should aspire to inculcate a critical approach, which includes an alertness to political assumptions, prejudices and motives. I don’t imagine you would dismiss any such aspiration as postmodernism. So how would you characterise such an approach?

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Like Rob, I think that ‘theory’ might be best left alone until uni level English studies — and maybe even then after an introductory 1st year course. I’ve marked first year essays that attempt to apply post-colonial theory to JAne Austen (“P & P is a racist text because it doesn’t critique slavery”), and strange varieties of marxist theory (‘the silence of the servants’) — & frequently students seem unable to grasp the idea that literature has an existence apart from social theory….As far as high-school studies go (& my observations are limited to what I’ve observed at my son’s high school), I think it’s a little problematic that the teachers themselves have only a partial understanding of the various strands of post-structuralism, psychoanalytic theory and so forth that the syllabus now incorporates.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

A good question, James.

I don’t know if anyone has been able to come up with a definition of critical analysis that makes any sense, but one thing I’m sure about is that it’s not visiting your own prejudices on what you read. wen’s point about Pride and Prejudice is a good one. Whatever critique you want to make of a text, it must be firmly anchored in the text itself. If Jane Austen said ‘black people are inferior’, it’s fair to say she’s a racist. Saying she’s a racist because she doesn’t condemn slavery is a process of injecting your own meanings into the text – substituting your meanings for hers, turning the book into an extension of yourself. You’re reading art simply for the purpose of projecting your own prejudices, which means there’s really no point reading it.

Critical analysis has something do to with distance. You need to be close enough to the text to register its impact, to respond emotionally, but distant enough to be able to ask: did it work? why? how? why not? how not? Questions that I suspect an artist is not always going to be able to answer (or ever answer).

As to political motivations and presumptions, I think it depends on the nature of the text. If it’s a work of art, I think they are largely irrelevant. I’m sorry that Richard Wagner was anti-semitic, but it makes no difference to my appreciation of Parsifal. I’m sorry Wilhelm Furtwangler was not an active anti-nazi, but that does not mean he wasn’t the greatest conductor on record. I’m sorry Sax Rohmer had some daft ideas about the Chinese, but I still really enjoy reading his stories about the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu. Unless it’s something really maligant, it’s nothing to get wrapped around the axle over.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Surely you aren’t saying that what’s at issue here is whether we should pass moral judgement on writers of the past.

All I’m arguing is that the social and political outlook a literary text embodies is an important dimension of what it means. And that learning to be alert to this is a legitimate part of an education in literature.

Obviously, if Jane Austen doesn’t talk about black people at all, there’s not much to be said. But if she consistently admires landed wealth even without actually saying ‘entrepreneurs are inferior’, I think it’s worth remarking on, and attempting to reconstruct her world view generally. And to the extent that Austen played a part in articulating and transmitting that world view, it’s worth discussing, especially if by means of her place in the canon she continues directly or indirectly to shape our values and ideology down to the present.

You might not personally find this interesting, preferring to concentrate on more narrowly defined aesthetic qualities. But for others the social and political dimension is interesting and important, and in trying to get a handle on this dimension, one should not be limited to the author’s explicit pronouncements. I think it’s unreasonabele to equate such an approach with postmodernism – I refer you again to Orwell and Vidal, or Hitchens for that matter – and argue on that basis that it takes the joy out of art.

Changing the susbject, I’m not such an enthusiast that I would normally acquire two recordings of the same work, but since you’re so passionate about Furtwangler’s Fidelio, I might have to. Is this the one?
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B000056PGB/104-7332908-7034308?v=glance

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

James, no, the Fidelio I have is from EMI References with Modl, Windgassen, Jurinac and Frick, a 1953 performance. I’m sure the one you pointed me at is great but unfortunately I don’t like Kirsten Flagstad’s voice. I find it too harsh and metallic. Which makes me an operatic bunny in the eyes of many, I daresay. I don’t know what other recording you have but you might find Furtwangler a little slow.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Although to immediately contradict myself, the Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung that Flagstad recorded with Furtwangler in 1952 for EMI is the absolutely definitive account of that climactic operatic moment.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Great to see the article in the OZ attacking Sawyer provoking so much discussion and debate. As an English teacher, whose PhD explored how English teaching has developed over the last 30 years, I accept the fact that the subject deals with political issues. The works of Orwell, Dickens and some of Blake’s poetry (eg London) obviously deal with significant questions of authortity, power and control. The old idea of clear thinking was also premised on the assumption that students should be taught to be critically minded. What I dislike, and here I agree with Rob, is the way everything is now a ‘text’ and the aim is to deconstruct such texts in terms of power relationships – generally from a left-wing perspective. So much for the aesthetic and ethical value of literature. I also dislike Saywer’s assumption that no rational person could have voted for the coalition. One wonders whether Sawyer would ever make the same claims against those voting Green or Democrat? He comes across as somebody who favours the left side of politics and is plainly distressed that the electorate had the cheek no to vote the way he wanted.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Agree, Kevin. I don’t have a problem with investigating power relationships and the political dimensions to the text, but that is not what postmodernism does; or rather, it does not do so in the way that yourself and James describe. It imposes an exterior politics on the text and then forces the text to conform to a range of political meanings that are extrinsic to it.

Liked your book, by the way.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

My favourite examples of PC in English are:

Banning ‘Little Black Sambo’ as it presents a poor image of blacks.
No longer teaching Marvell’s ‘To his coy mistress’ as it treats women as sexual objects.
Deconstructing ‘Thomas the tank engine’ using a neo-Marxist critique that suggets the story reinfoces class division.
Not teaching Romeo and Juliet as it privileges heterosexual relationships.
Not teaching ‘The magic faraway tree’ as boys are physically assertive.

One could go on!

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

I think you’ll find that since the Baz Luhrmann film that “Romeo and Juliet” has probably been taught even more frequently in schools. If you are concerned with privileging heterosexual relationships you are going to have to scuttle pretty much all the canon of the literature, which is so absurd that it will not happen. Teachers who want to teach and encourage good reading habits won’t have a bar of this. Kevin I think you are pulling a rather long-bow on this.

Personally, can’t see what’s wrong with calling the work a text, that is after what is being studied, not a omniscient symbol of veneration. An author may have a remarkable vision but this does not suggest that it isn’t in someways restricted. And this does not detract from the enjoyment, e.g. I consider Dostoyevsky one of the most powerful voices but deplore his anti-Semitism.

I know its a popular game to indulge in hyperbolic descriptions, I remember at one jolly dinner we had many joke papers, including the “Sexual disquiet between Thomas the Tank-Engine and the Fat Controller” but that was more a piss-take at some of the lame children’s literature papers we were forced to listen to, waiting for the real thing.

Agree with Wen that the more comprehensive theory shouldn’t really be breached until second-year when people have read a broader range of texts and are more equipped to discuss each theory’s merits of lack of. But I also don’t think the sort of New Criticism ortodoxy that our schools had when I was studying could be a little silly. I remember when I contrasted “The Crucible” with the un-American Activities Commission I was dissuaded to just study the text. Personally enjoy studying the aesthetics of the text but that does not mean at the complete exclusion of any social context.

Seems like a storm in a teacup. Patrick White texts being out of print to me is of far greater concern than a couple of academic editorials. But then again maybe we can find a grand conspiracy for this incidence as well.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I thought The Crucible WAS supposed to be a conscious reference to McCarthyism? (I always thought Invasion of the Body Snatchers was too but was discomfited to learn that the director, Don Seigel, denied any political analogy was intended.)

But Kevin is right about Romeo and Juliet – some school principal in England did try to ‘ban’ it a couple of years ago for that very reason. Caused a huge stink. Not sure though if the ‘ban’ applied to the Shakespeare play or the Prokofiev ballet (my leaky memory says the latter).

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

It’s no as though zealous leftist ideologues (whose numbers and influence are overestimated in my view) have ever had a monopoly over censorship. God botherers and reactionaries are always trying to take books off reading lists if they might corrupt children. Critical literacy (or whatever alternative term Rob eventually endorses) should be the liberal pluralist’s answer to both of these groups.

If kids are taught to think and read critically they will be less susceptible to sexist, homophobic, racist and imperialist attitudes, or to becoming snobs by reading Enid Blyton. I don’t see that as manipulation, just an intervention that gives reason a head start against prejudice. Likewise, they will be competent to recognise political propoganda and adverstising, and po-mo twaddle for that matter.

Our critically literate society will eventually have no patience for any campaigner who want to push his values by banning and censoring literature on the pretext of protecting young minds.

Harnoncourt, Teldec, 1995, by the way.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Don’t mind the term; quite like the term. Just don’t like its constituent elements as defined.

I think I’ve exhausted my meagre store of thoughts on this subject. Off to work, anyway.

Don’t know the Harnoncourt, but anything with Barbara Bonney in it would have to have something going for it.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“Banning ‘Little Black Sambo’ as it presents a poor image of blacks.
No longer teaching Marvell’s ‘To his coy mistress’ as it treats women as sexual objects.
Deconstructing ‘Thomas the tank engine’ using a neo-Marxist critique that suggets the story reinfoces class division.
Not teaching Romeo and Juliet as it privileges heterosexual relationships.
Not teaching ‘The magic faraway tree’ as boys are physically assertive.”

Forgive my scepticism, Kevin, but can all these incidents be documented? It sounds to me like PC “urban myth”. I’m happy to be proved wrong.

As to the use of the word deconstruction, as I’ve previously argued, it is used in an incredibly sloppy way quite at odds with the philosophical intention of Derrida’s thought. This is primarily a historical effect of the (mis)appropriation of post-Heideggerian continental philosophy in US literature departments. I won’t go on about this as it’s a very big topic but it might be relevant in this context to point out that Derrida, and other “deconstructionists” such as De Man in fact focus almost entirely on the literary and philosopical canon. This indeed is one of the reasons why deconstruction was eclipsed by the nebulously named and often vapid “theory” or cultural studies approach which took aim at deconstruction among other things for being too tied in with “Dead White Males”. I do think it’s important to have some precision in these matters. I’d agree that classic literature should be taught in schools but I see absolutely nothing wrong with making Shakespeare more appealing by using films such as Baz Luhrman’s. When I was in High School we were taken to see the Polanski film of Macbeth, and also a film of Verdi’s opera, both of which enhanced our understanding of the play much more than the awful and stagey production of “Much Ado About Nothing” we say badly performed by the QTC (from memory, it’s a long time ago) in overblown pseudo-Olivier fashion. Similarly, in the 90s, the Grin and Tonic Theatre Company did great stuff for high schools in Queensland with innovative productions of Shakespeare. I can’t imagine why anyone would think that reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” is inappropriate. My recollection of High School English is that we looked at a range of literature from Shakespeare to Hardy to “One Day of the Year” and some other contemporary Australian stuff.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Mark, here’s one reference for you.

“In January the headmistress at an English school felt bold enough to refuse to let her students see the ballet Romeo and Juliet, because it was “blatantly heterosexual.” Now, the English have lost a lot in the past 50 years, but at least they still have a sense of humor, and there are a few slivers of the mass media which still cater to that sense of humor. Columnists and commentators made a laughingstock of the headmistress, with jokes about her lesbianism. One, Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn, referred to her as a “hatchet-faced dyke.” Eventually, she was forced to back down on her Romeo and Juliet decision.’

From ‘national vanguard’, USA – whatever that is. I thought it was the ballet, not the play.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Fair enough, Rob, but as I’ve argued previously on these pages, I think a lot of the pc thing has been imported holus bolus from the US where there’s no doubt that some silly things have happened. I just don’t accept that the same sort of dynamic is as widespread in Australia. I think it’s largely a paper tiger concocted by the cultural warriors for partisan reasons. I’d be much more impressed if people could come up with Australian instances of pc and schools (and about literature – not the whole debate about Christmas over again!).

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Can’t really agree with you Mark but have to sod off to work now. I’ll check back in in 12 hours.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

As a little boy, I remember being totally inspired by “Little Black Sambo” – the little guy who outwits the tigers who – deservedly – get turned into butter. Much later I learned that it’s author was a Raj-based, hill station Memsahib. She probably lifted an ancient Hindu story without attribution. Still, it didn’t do me any harm. It’s perhaps a bit culturally confused given the story’s antecedents, but I find black guys to be pretty hot.

I always thought that “Thomas the Tank Engine’ was an allegory about Welsh nationalism – just shows you how wrong you can be.

As I recall, one loopy (lesbian from memory) head teacher in Tower Hamlets (or somewhere equally predictable) decreed Romeo and Juliet to be unacceptably heterosexist (it’s actually got a wicked gay subtext – e me privately for details ). The 999,999 other curricula overseers within whose ambits the story of “uncivil blood from civil strife” is tackled, thought differently. We can worry overmuch.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Geoff, yeah, a lot of these stories also come from Britain. Whathisface the current Mayor of London and Blair’s nemesis set a lot of the ball rolling with his municipal socialism thing in the 80s. Given that we don’t have local school boards or municipal input into education policy in Australia unlike in the US and UK respectively, I remain really curious as to whether anyone can find any instances of pc
“run wild” in Australian schools. It seems to me that the documented instances of censorship or censure of literature we hear about are often Christian fundie schools worrying about “anti-family values messages” in books or whatever.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

“…but at least they still have a sense of humor…”

“…referred to her as a “hatchet-faced dyke.””

A little English comprehension test here. Why and how do the these two quotes relate to eachother?

Mind you, any teacher who told a bunch of teenage girls they couldn’t see one of the world’s great stories about adolescent passion which glamorises committing suicide because of unrequited love, is completely out of touch with her pupils, and at the very least should be reading a lot more of their livejournal poetry.

If I was on the Board of Governors, I’d sack the hatchet-faced old dyke just for that.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

I’ve never seen ANY ballet that was “blatantly heterosexual.”

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

‘As a little boy, I remember being totally inspired by “Little Black Sambo.”‘

Some famous journalist – Monica Attard? Maxine McKew? – made exactly this confession a year or so ago. I only remember thinking the story implausible. You must both have read it at a critically susceptible age.

‘I always thought that “Thomas the Tank Engine’ was an allegory about Welsh nationalism…’

Could you be thinking of Ivor the Engine? An infinitely superior product, but its nationalism was quite overt. Lawrence of Mesopotamia would know it for sure.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

OK, not *exactly* this confession.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

It strikes me that a more interesting exercise for Ken (or Troppodillo in general) than the top 10 songs stuff would be solicting top ten lists of books we read when we were little.

It’d be a lot less common that the usual blogosphere music lists and I reckon really stir up some lively but good-humoured debate.

And it’d take a lotta heat out of this particular cultural war debate once the RWDB and LWLBs realised they all grew up with many of the same books.

NB: I think series like Biggles, the Famous Five or Tom Swift should count as one entry. Unless one book in the series was really theme-shattering (like Biggles And The Summer Of Love).