OK, so I’ve criticised pretty strongly the current hopeless approach to the teaching of English in schools, most particularly in NSW, which is the one that I know about. It’s been fantastic to have this chance to express these things, and to debate it with you all, and it’s also finally pushed me to write letters to the NSW Minister of Education, the NSW Board of Studies and Dr Nelson as well(in terms of his enquiry proposal), to express my concerns and problems with it in general. But today I want to do something different, and that is, say what I think the teaching of English–and particularly English literature–in schools should be about, and how it might be achieved. I invite all readers of Troppo not only to comment on these ideas, but to come up with their own.
First of all, my over-riding feeling is that English at school, apart from the linguistics and technical aspects, which are important but not my concern here, should be about exposing kids to as wide a variety of literature as possible, to enrich and furnish the mind with a great many layers of things from which in the future they can draw if they actually do end up wanting to ‘deconstruct’. Or not, as the case may be. Not everyone wants to deconstruct, despite what many theorists appear to think.
Editor’s update [KAP] – Blogger Bruce Williams has attempted a NSW Board of Studies-style analysis of Polly Put the Kettle On, and a more serious discussion of Sophie’s post. Both are worth reading. Elsewhere, Professor Bunyip blogs a defence to my attack on his [mis?]usage of a Susan Sontag quote. The good Professor must have been reading a lot of Derrida or business management texts lately, I reckon, because I can’t understand what he’s saying. Tim Dunlop joins the debate as well, with a long post suggesting that the sorry state of English teaching is all the fault of the Howard government and the capitalist dominant paradigm!!! Tim D also reckons Tim Winton is a crap writer. I agree The Riders is a load of rubbish, but Cloudstreet is a good read IMO.
Now of course, you might say, that’s an obvious thing; but how do you get about it? You obviously can’t simply include everything; and you can’t just pile it all in, willy-nilly.
Well, the current English curriculum for the senior years in NSW–and this is particularly acute in the ‘highest’ strand of all, Extension English, but also apparent, in a boiled-down version, in the Standard and Advanced English ‘core’ courses–deals with that by imposing, as I’ve said before, ‘themes’, ‘values’ and ‘theories’ on the ‘texts’, whether novels, short stories, poetry, plays, screenplays, non-fiction (including political speeches), ads, TV shows and films. So you get a kind of thing going where a portmanteau ‘theme’ like ‘Journeys’ or ‘Changes’ or ‘Transformations’ includes a variety of prescribed texts, and are then broken up into discussion modules, which includes those ‘values’ and the framework of the ‘ways of reading’ that I quoted from yesterday–ie, critical theory. You already know what I think of that approach, so I won’t go on about it, only to say I think it’s a minority interest-approach which does not benefit most children at all.
In the past, the organisation of what literature to study was done either under type of literature–for instance novels, plays, short stories, etc–under individual authors–for instance, you studied John Donne, or WB Yeats, or Tennessee Williams, or Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen, or whatever–or in terms of movements–for instance, ‘the Romantics’ or ‘modernists’. Shakespeare was on his own–we had a whole HSC paper just on his plays. A historical context was an important part of this, and when we were studying John Donne’s poetry, for instance, we were given background not only on what was going on historically, but what the ‘metaphysical poets’ like him, were working from; and also we were given a great deal of help with understanding where the often extraordinarily arcane images and metaphors came from, in terms of symbolism and what people were doing with it at the time. That was dealt with, though, in only a couple of lessons–the rest of the time was spent on the poetry itself–the music of the words, the beauty and wit and fun of it, and our own reactions to it. There was lots of fiery discussion about it all–because Donne is not to everyone’s taste(though I loved it, that mixture of eroticism, intelligence, mysticism, irony and wit). We were not told what to think about it, we were only given the basic tools–the understanding of unusual language, the metaphysical background, the atmosphere of Elizabethan creativity–and as long as we showed we knew the poems, we were left alone to construct our own ideas on it. And when it came time to write essays on it, what you had to show was that you knew how to argue, how to write, how to construct your actual point of view in a way that was clear and even elegant, and that showed you knew your ‘text’ well. You got the marks for that, not for your opinions. The questions were deliberately constructed so as to leave that space for individual interpretation and reaction. It was really about whether you had actually read and thought about what you read, not whether you had an approved reading(of course an opinionated teacher might well slap you down for it).
It was also expected that we’d have an understanding of how literature had not, well, developed, over the centuries(because I happen to think it’s not a progression or even an evolution, not a line, or ‘grand narrative’, but a kind of mosaic in which you might find something that appeals to you–and that you are repelled by–in any time), but to give you an idea of historical context at least.
Now I happen to think that’s an excellent way to do it. But I think one thing that was missing in my 3Unit English classes in the late 70’s was a sense of literature in translation–literature which has equally influenced English literature, as well as been influenced by it. Writers, like other creative people, don’t operate in a cultural vaccuum, but equally, they’re not restricted by their culture and will often be sparked off by writings from other places. For instance, I think it’d be great to have an introduction to such things as the Icelandic saga, the classics, French and Russian novels and theatre(amongst others), French and German medieval romances–and how they related to people like Chaucer, for instance; and a whole variety of things, from the most ancient to the most recent.
Now note I said introduction. I know full well that it’s impossible to get everything in, and that’s really an ambit claim. But I think that kids at school in general should get the chance to read literature, and not have to spend their time reading dull summaries of critical theories(which is what my son and his mates had to do all the period of English Extension yesterday, read that Steven Cooper Ways of Reading Cloudstreet thing). Reading all this critical theory–which interests only a tiny fraction of kids–takes up so much time and room there’s no time or space to read actual literature. Cloudstreet is the only book you get to look at, for weeks and weeks of wearisome onion-peeling theorising. Meanwhile, you read nothing else at school.
I think you could have a core literature course, which is organised in terms of chronology–though with no ‘grand narrative’ theme to it, and no foolish stuff about whether medieval or modern is better, for instance–accompanied by some ‘interest modules’, where you could actually take something further; for instance, if you’re interested in Icelandic saga, or the poetry of the Romantics, or of a single author, or on the ways in which films have interpreted books; or on the history and development of comics; or on detective fiction; or even, if you wanted, on different critical theories, and the history of criticism in literature. With a sound basis to build from, why can’t you give kids the freedom to explore, to deepen their knowledge and interests, to challenge if they want?
The focus of such a course would be first, actually gaining the knowledge of literature itself–the thing itself, not somebody’s bowdlerised, fashionable ‘reading’ of it–and then, building on that, being able to express what you think of it, or explore it in some other way(for lots of lovers of literature detest analysing). You could approach that creative aspect of it both in a literary sense–in terms of constructing a written piece–and/or in an oral sense–for I think orality is far too neglected at school. (Indeed, I think the HSC should have an oral component, like the vive-voix stuff at Oxbridge). The idea is to give kids that knowledge of literature, hopefully to love it, and to the beginnings of critical thinking. More ‘refined’ stages could wait till uni, for those who might want to do that.
Anyway, that’s my claim staked.