English curriculum wishes..

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.

This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
53 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Hi Sophie,
I agree with much of what you argue and in my thesis I argue a very similar case. What follows is a summary of what I dislike most about what, over the last 20 years or so, has become the new orthodoxy as a result of what some term RLT -radical literary theory. I admit here that adherents of theory (teacher academics, subject associations and boards of study) have often never studied RLT in any depth and simply pick up versions that are often bastardised.

Literature is unique in what it is and what it seeks to do; I dislike the way literature is reduced to ‘text’. Studying Neighbours is not the same as studying Orwell’s 1984.

Literary works can be analysed as cultural artefacts, but to do so destroys and misrepresents what is most precious. The aesthetic, spiritual and moral value of literature needs to be safeguarded.

Not all interpretations are of equal value or worth; some are wrong! Not only did the author intend to say something (not always successfully), but there is the actual literary work. To say that Hardy endorses the view that Angel was right to get rid of Tess because of her past is to misread the novel. Hardy wanted to highlight Angel’s hypocrisy. Reader/response theory, deconstruction, feminisim and neo-Marxist approaches have some worth, but don’t throw the babay out with the bathwater.

There is a literary canon associated with the Western, Judeo/Christian tradition that has had a profound impact on our culture and the nature of the disciplne. It represents a worthwhile study in itself.

The canon is not exclusive and it is not set in stone. My experince of literture at school and university since the 60s is that we studied a wide variety of literature from different countries. Myths and fables, for example, included Norse legends, Greek fables, European favourites and Chinese stories. At Uni we studied Russian, Greek, American, Australian, English, Indian, Italian, German and Norwegian literature.

Literature should not be restricted to what is immediately contemporary and relevant. There are some absolutes that, as long as we are human, cannot be denied. Greek tragedy (love, ambition, guilt, sorrow, the nature of fate) is just as relevant now as it was when it was written.

There is a place for clear thinking and a study of power/authority/control in the subject of English. But don’t destroy good literature by interpreting it as something it was never intended to be.

It might be difficult, in a time of SMS, computers and chat rooms, to get students to actually read an extended literary work, but when I taught, most students enjoyed a challenge.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Sophie, I want English teachers to teach their students to write in short paragraphs that can be read on-screen.

Luis
2022 years ago

The way English is taught at schools reminds me of dissecting a frog in biology class many years ago. One puts the frog to sleep, opens it with a knike, has a peek at inside and doesn’t learn much about biology or frogs in general. The final result is that the frog dies.

I can take a literary work, break it to pieces following literary theory, second guess the author’s intentions (with some times hundreds of years separating my and the author’s cultures) and derive no enjoyment of the novel, play of poem. End result: the literary work dies.

What about going back to ‘just reading’ and making my own interpretations and conclusions? It may be considered too radical…

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Being a bit of a bore about the mechanics of writing, I reckon that a greater emphasis on close, close reading would be beneficial to all aspects of writing & not just the ‘creative’ side. In the (mainly adult) creative writing classes I teach, we take a few short stories & go over & over & over them, discussing every little thing – narrative voice, point of view, why this particular tense rather than that, the effects of using indirect rather than direct speech,etc, etc,. It’s also a lot of fun – the ‘what’ inevitably becomes the ‘why’…

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Sophie

My experience with learning English at senior high school level was pretty much like yours; mostly a positive experience and not excessively prescriptive (by contrast with the present regime).

As Jen observed last night, I suspect there was a “golden age” of English teaching in Australia in the 1970s and into the 80s, when the old, stodgy, prescriptive approach (where you were expected to regurgitate the accepted traditional “great books” interpretation and nothing else e.g. Skakespearean tragedy is about fatal flaws in otherwise good men) had finally been jettisoned, and not yet replaced by the new fascism of even more prescriptive, half-baked post-modernism. Sophie and I (and probably a lot of other Troppo readers) were fortunate enough to complete senior high school during those two decades, and that’s probably why we’re so horrified by the apparent reversion to a new authoritarian orthodoxy.

I agree wholeheartedly with most of your suggestions, Sophie, although I have some reservations about the extent to which it would be feasible to incorporate even introductory exposure to very much of the non-English-speaking literary canon. There are limits on how much can be incorporated in any curriculum without spreading oneself too thinly and teaching students bugger-all about too much. Offering a range of elective modules, as you suggest, might be a possibility, but you’d still need to be keep it within fairly tight limits to avoid over-stretching resources. Moreover, where are we going to find the teachers with the breadth of knowledge to teach meaningfully about the french, german, Russian or Icelandic literary tradition (or individual texts), or South American magic-realism for that matter (which I’d advocate as an elective module if I had half a chance)?

I think it might be more productive to devote more time to close analysis of the text from a “mechanics of writing” viewpoint, as Wendy James suggests (any chance of a blogging comeback in the foreseeable future, Wen?). That would then articulate into a practical creative writing course component, where students “do” rather than just critique and theorise. Active and inter-active methodologies are a much more effective way of learning than the inherently passive theoretical/analytical approach (whether po mo or not).

Rafe
2022 years ago

Can we assume that the basics of grammar are being imparted and also some basic elements of verse, like scanning and the various metrical forms, at least for the upper half of the class?

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Luis, to the extent that your analogy is effective, rather than just banal and naive, it’s effective against the argument want to make. Do you imagine that biologists haven’t learned a lot from dissecting frogs; that a biologist well versed in this knowledge doesn’t still rejoice in the living, breathing animal? disected corpses, for goodness’ sake. If you’d been around in Michelangelo’s day I guess you would have berated him for ruining his apprentices’ ability to react spontaneously to the human body.

I’m just as put off as anyone else by the risible jargon and over-prescribed assignments Sophie has cited in the curriculum. And I greatly welcome these suggestions toward an alternative.

But I see no conflict between nurturing aesthetic appreciation and fostering a critical awareness that makes students alert to the social conditions under which art is produced and becomes established in the canon. My English teachers did both and I’m grateful. I’m very interested in this whole topic, and hope it remains a constructive discussion rather than a scrorn-fest for cultural conservatives and unreflective Levisites.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

I thought we were talking about literature, but as the question of grammar and writing has arisen, a couple of comments.

As someone who taught during the 70s and 80s, the more traditional approach to grammar, syntax, parsing sentences etc was attacked as obsolete, middle class and ineffective. The process/student centred approach to English meant that self-esteem and creativity was considered more important than the mechanics.

Luckily, my children did Latin and French at school and this was the only place they were taught the formal mechanics of language. Good literature, especially poetry, also helps to better appreciate the structure and sound of language.

By the way, many Uni students have never been taught how to structure a formal essay – hence all the remedial courses!

Luis
2022 years ago

James,

It seems to me that the problem that Sophie is facing is that, using my analogy, teachers are killing the frog without any enjoyment for the students. By the way, that was my experience when dissecting the frog in my school days.

Although biologists probably learned a lot killing the first few hundred frogs, I am sure they reached a point of diminishing returns quite soon. I guess that the same thing happens when dissecting texts, particularly when the interpretation is reading things that were most likely never in the authors’ minds.

The fact is that the students are put off by the approach used for teaching the subject. As a reader, I am normally much more interested in enjoying language per se and a good story that in the ‘social conditions under which art is produced’. That may make me a ‘banal and naive’ reader but hardly a cultural conservative.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

It would probably be a good idea to stick with the teaching of literature (especially but not only English literature) on this thread. The teaching of basic literacy, grammar, essay-writing skills etc raises a wide range of additional and different issues, and should be regarded as off-topic for this thread IMO.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Sophie, a couple of quick comments.

1. Studying the Icelandic sagas and Chaucer and so on presumes that teachers have been educated in these things. I don’t know definitively about anywhere else but at UQ they stopped teaching Old English and Old Norse literature etc. some time ago. I gather this is probably a wider trend. Organising a curriculum chronologically was the traditional way of teaching English at University, but the requirement to study things like linguistics and the history of the language is gone. Therefore I suspect that your desired curriculum needs far more reaching change than you might anticipate.

2. I really don’t understand what things like “3 Unit English” mean, but I assume that English in NSW is organised in discrete units or subjects. When I was at High School in Queensland, there was just English. It may be different now as the presumption back then was that most kids would leave state high schools after year 10. I finished school in 84 and that was in the process of changing then. Certainly many of the students I went through English with (the classes weren’t “streamed”) gained very little from studying literature. It’s necessary when thinking about curriculum design (at any level, including tertiary – there are lots of things I’d like to teach which are too difficult) to pitch the curriculum at all the students (of greatly varying abilities more so in many schools than at Uni) and also to think very carefully about what you want to achieve for all the students.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

It’s reprehensible that Rafe and Kevin have hijacked this thread to talk about grammar. But, while we’re on the topic…

Kevin, I’ve been marking undergraduate essays for nearly twenty years. And I’m obsessed with grammar. But these observations from Mark rang true:

‘I doubt there’s ever been a time when everyone who went through High School could write standard English correctly or well. From what I remember at School, a lot of my fellow students couldn’t spell to save their lives.’

They didn’t know what a sentence was either. But I assume they were taught in primary school like me in the early ’70s. Has research established that the rot set in at some specific date?

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Sorry, Ken. I posted that comment before reading your request. Delete if you wish.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

James

“Reprehensible” is a bit of an overstatement, don’t you think? It’s quite common for readers to go off-topic perfectly innocently, in their enthusiasm for the debate, and because they see real connections with the topic that they think are worth discussing. As moderators of the forum, Mark and I try to adopt a fairly light touch in relation to relevance, because being too prescriptive just stifles debate and squelches participants’ enthusiasm. Moreover, it might stifle the expression of valuable tangential insights. On the other hand, failing to exert a degree of relevance control leads to a chaotic and unsatisfying discussion. Sometimes it’s a fine judgment call, but labelling good faith off-topic contributions as “reprehensible” will usually be unhelpful (to civility if nothing else).

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Luis: I got a dressing-down in Year 10 for liberating a frog from Death Row, so I actually sympathise with that part of your analogy.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Dear James,

“Reprehensible”? Please note my first sentence; it contained an element of irony and I think I made the point about staying relevant in a more civil way.

Secondly, I refer to literature as a very good way to teach about the structure of the language.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

It was meant as a joke, Ken. I thought became obvious when I then started raving on about grammar myself. But I’m sorry if I offended anyone.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Further to my point above, I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me (and Ken has also agreed this is a big issue) how Dr Nelson’s enquiry (leaving aside the fact that so far it’s about teacher training and not the English curriculum and also leaving aside the federal/state issues) could possibly implement the desired changes.

As with any conservative project (and that’s what this is – even if I agree with aspects of it), it’s almost impossible to close the gate after the horses have bolted. Would you recruit specialists in Old English language and literature for University English departments? Where would you find them given that these disciplines are no longer taught in large parts of Australia and the US? How would you deal with the fact that many English departments no longer exist as such – but have either been absorbed into or replaced by Schools of Media or Cultural Studies?

Is it acceptable for the Federal Government to micro-manage Universities? – and in this case, that might have to reach down to staff choices.

I’m proceeding on the assumption that one would want English teachers who have studied English at University – in other words, the issue isn’t just what goes on in Education Faculties but also in the primary disciplines in Arts Faculties.

And what of the teachers who are convinced that po/mo and critical theory are appropriate approaches?

If these questions don’t admit of an answer, and one which takes into account the degree of intervention and infringement on academic freedom, then Nelson’s Enquiry will just be whistling in the wind – producing perhaps a few cosmetic changes – and maybe the language of a few of the curriculum documents will change slightly.

Martin Pike
2022 years ago

Riders is brilliant.

Just wanted to have my moment of petulance.

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

I THNK THE BEST WAY 2 TCH NGLH IS VIA SMS MSG.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

“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.”

Me neither. Derrida is a model of clarity in comparson. I think Bunyip was defending himself, but it’s hard to say. This is what happens when you write about yourself in the third person in a concocted, affected style.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

You’re right Dave, ol’ Prof Bunners has obviously ditched Derrida in favour of business texts, which is why he’s now gone and got his known knowns all tangled up with his known unknowns and unknown knowns, the ones we know he doesn’t know.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

There were no halcyon days. A lot of kids educated in the 60’s couldn’t spell; grammar was certainly on the way out. As Sophie has indicated there was a sterile approach to teaching english that was based on a great man/ great works/bow down you idiot kind of approach to teaching the subject which was really just as ideological as anything today.

Speaking very very broadly, of course. And before the 60’s, secondary schools simply did not educate the same proportion of the population.

However, there is a strand of purely ancecdotal evidence that earlier survivors of primary school had better handwriting and spelling. Both my grandmothers, who had very diminished educational opportunities compared to anything later, were banal writers, but even in old age they had a neat hand and impeccable spelling. I do wonder whether schools taught a much more limited curriculum but had the time to get it right.

Robert Merkel
2022 years ago

Sophie, if you really think you can convince a bunch of year 12 boys dreaming of studying mechanical engineering to appreciate Jane Austen, I might buy this. Otherwise, I think you’re confusing first-year university with high school.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

Luis;

Spot on with the frog analogy. I have often used the same.

I detested my course – International Baccalaureate HL English. I got my revenge in feeding the examiners what they wanted to read.

Going back over my notebooks, I wrote down the six themes the teacher had harped on about on index cards. I then took the four examinable novels we had, and opened them one at a time to random pages. If I found a quote relevant to one of the themes, I wrote it down.

Repeated, the process gave me 24 quotes, from 4 novels on 6 themes. I memorised them word for word and used them in my exam to spout impressive-sounding bullshit which enabled me to get a near-perfect score.

For the record, this is not how I study for law exams.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

David
If the conversation to which Parish is referring is the one I think he means, it wasn’t about grammar at all. I remember holding forth briefly but passionately about my positive experience of English and literature in 1979 and 80.

My experiences of English at school have always been positive and so I was skeptical about the seriousness of Sophie’s problem with the NSW curriculum (I do find curriculum documents such fun and never take them seriously.) Then she landed the bastard right in our laps and it shore did stink!
Sophie
advice
Move your children to the Territory immediately. But be warned, I don’t think we speak extension English up here at all and written English is a bit of a stretch especially during the wet season.
The point? Well, my point, David, is that, having had a look at the SA and therefore NT (share a rail line, share lots of stuff) curriculum for English Studies, I was wrong when I assumed there was a halcyon period during the 70’s and 80’s. (Although perhaps Aus writers and readers were riding high on a post cringe mentality.. just a thought.) Because my teachers could have worked easily to the SSABSA (south aust board of studies) English Studies curriculum document. Here is an excerpt
Learning Outcomes
1.analyse texts, demonstrating depth of understanding and engagement
2.identify the structural, conventional, and linguistic features used by authors in constructing texts
3. understand that the interpretation of texts is influenced by the interplay between what the author presents in the text, the context in which the text was generated, and what the reader, viewer or listener brings to the text.
etc etc etc
I’ve also scanned the types of assessment tasks students are required to complete.
We have an interesting array of English teachers in NT schools including one who I fall just short of idolizing. None of them, not even the fuzziest, arselicking get aheaderers would ever ask students to engage with the nonsense to which Sophie’s son is sadly subjected.

What happened in NSW? At least 5 years ago everything was OK in Vic. QLD and WA are a mystery that I can’t be bothered googling – despite my decision to become more rigorous. It is a case of ‘I will try just as hard as I possibly can so long as I don’t have to try too much’ Lou Reed, my god after Kenneth Alan Parish of course. I guess this new intellectual rigor must fall by the wayside of perfection because I just like to dance too much. Ya shoulda seen us today! But hell I got my hands on a bit of curriculum that is nowt to do with me – that’s research for ya – a budding blogger!

daz rosin
daz rosin
2022 years ago

Verse and meter would be best taught in a Music subject – that’s where I’d expect to find the best rhymes ‘n’ rhythms. Performing arts in general is where you’re going to find people who are prepared to concentrate on that sort of “traditional discipline” (Some people might scoff at this, but if you’ve worked with a few companies you know how true it is.)

If you want to study Shakespeare, go to a drama class (or at a pinch be an audience member) – don’t sit around reading it in a classroom! That’s just silly! (Who said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture?” Was it Laurie Anderson?)

English, at least in my day in Qld (Hi Mark!), was a complusory subject for the Senior Certificate, and trying to teach ‘metrical forms’ and 400 year old plays to the general population of 15/16/17 year olds is exactly like teaching arithmetic & geometric progressions, complex numbers(!) and the limit theory of calculus in “basic” senior Maths (which we did). The kids have got way bigger things on their minds at that age.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Hi Darryl, as I said at David Tiley’s place, I think I spent my whole year in Senior English either dreaming of my gorgeous English teacher Kate Abernethy as Bathsheba (we were reading Far From the Madding Crowd), wondering whether Pos would turn up or if he was off selling dope, fantasising about Samantha and looking at her legs, and in my spare time, borrowing extremely tedious tomes on Shakespeare from the library to bowdlerise for essays and exams. That’s the truth! All this was sufficient to get me the Senior English Prize and the TE Score I needed to get into UQ Arts/Law. I loved reading, but it had very little to do with what I learnt (nothing I can remember 20 years down the track) in Senior English…

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

In other words, I think we might be getting carried away with how much School English can actually achieve. Parents trying to instil in their kids a love of reading is the most important thing practically, I think. It’s interesting to note in this context the aridity of Jacques’ experience with the IB, since that’s what Nelson’s always claiming is the holy grail of senior education…

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Senior Modern History on the other hand – now that was a subject I loved, and Logic. The rest was total boredom in service of a TE Score.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Jacques Costeau, this International Baccalaureate curriculum is set internationally isn’t it? Our local lefty po mo academics don’t have nything to do with it. Yet, you say you hated it.

That’s interesting, because Kevin Donnelly has held up the International Baccalaureate as the thing that Australian students are taking up to escape from the crap they are served up in the local curriculum.

qm
qm
2022 years ago

I did English in the early 90s and didn’t have any of the objections or issues that you have highlighted. The “new english” factor of the course was relatively confined in modules – such as the module devoted to looking at the presentation of issues in the media (a supremely helpful skill for students to learn IMO).

I think that there were some real differences in the presentation of literature from school to school. My school was fairly traditional and constructed its curriculum over a course of years. So we always looked at Shakespeare, but it was the difference between looking at Romeo and Juliet in year 9 and Hamlet in year 12.

I agree that it is unrealistic to expect that people come out of high school english loving all of the books that they studied. There are several books that I studied in High School that I have not read since – and not due to the complication of literary theory. However, the subject as a whole lent a great deal to my love of reading and ability to understand nuances in literature.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

“I think that there were some real differences in the presentation of literature from school to school.”

I think you might have hit the nail on the head, QM. If you look at the NSW curriculum framework (which I linked in an earlier thread), you certainly see the imprint of assorted po mo and hermeneutic theories. But it doesn’t look all that prescriptive on its face (although the references to Ways of Reading Texts look ominous). I’m wondering whether the curriculum framework actually leaves teachers quite a bit of elbow room on how they approach “texts”, and whether Sophie’s son’s experience has more to do with being saddled with an individual class teacher with an awe-struck but unintelligent admiration for critical theory. If that’s right, Sophie might do well to march up to the school and see if it’s feasible to have him shifted into another class where the teacher has a bit more sense and sensibility.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

I was drafted a few years ago to the curriculum committee for economics of the NSW Board of Studies. One meeting was as much as I could stand. I didn’t realise before that documents could be written by committees of fifteen people. These included bureaucrats, whose main objective was uniformity in teaching, and so wanted as much detail as possible; older teachers, who wanted to make sure they wouldn’t have to change their lesons too much; and academics, who wanted to update theories but probably had unrealistic expectations. The result was the ugliest document I’d ever read, with every section, paragraph, sentence and phrase at once vague and mangled to accommodate all these interests. Imagine if a public building wqas designed like that. (Perhaps I’m naive – maybe they are.)I wonder if it would be possible to have a less prescriptive curriculum, penned by a single hand, with a unified vision. Perhaps the Board could run a competition, as cities do with architectural designs, and the stakeholders could then vote on the best curriculum.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

The point about how any form of High School English curriculum has a tendency to detract from kids’ interest in literature has also been made at Tim’s place by a number of commenters:

http://www.roadtosurfdom.com/surfdomarchives/003052.php

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Mark, it’s all very nice, for those commenters to say that ‘any form of English high school curriculum’ has a tendency to detract from kids’ interest in literature, because it has truth in it, of course–who likes to analyse what they love?–but some curricula are worse than others. I quoted you the examples from the new Extension English course–for non NSWers, that’s the very highest strand of English (as 3Unit English was in my day.) These are kids who have chosen to do Extension because they LOVE literature and want to discuss it. What this course is doing is turning off those very bright and committed kids AS WELL as those for whom English at school is merely a regrettable necessity. It limits, restricts and stifles creativity and exposure to the riches of literature. It replaces the primary material–literature–with the second-rate secondary materials, that is the boiled-down critical theory I quoted to you. It means that in Year 12, students will only have time to study ONE novel–Cloudstreet–because of all the bloody bumf they have to read on top. It is simply not an education but a restriction of choice, talent and opportunity.
I do understand there are problems in getting kids to read all sorts of things–and for teachers to teach them–but as over the course of 15 years I’ve actually had quite a lot of direct experience in schools introducing kids to myths, fiction, poetry, art, and music of all kinds that they have never come into contact with–and have experienced at first hand how excited they can get about it–I know that a lot of immobilism about the teaching of literature is just that, plus a complete and patronising underestimation of what kids are capable of.
It is total rubbish to assume that the ‘yoof of today’ are any more stupid or culturally unreceptive than we were–everything lies in the presentation of things, even difficult things. By the way, I don’t only teach the very bright and literary-gifted; I’ve workshopped with kids from all kinds of schools, backgrounds, and abilities. Obviously you tailor your thing to your audience–but even in the most unpromising of circumstances, sparks have been struck.
Yes, it might be hard to find teachers who were well-read; though I think many are. And what’s wrong with bringing in someone from outside, to teach one facet of something, say for the purpose of argument, Icelandic saga? They do it for things like creative writing, no reason why it can’t be done for literature in general.

Basically, what I’d like is for kids to have the same opportunity as I had–a kid who came to Australia from a foreign country, knowing no English at all, who ended up being published all over the English-speaking world and in translation(in Germany, Thailand and Italy, not yet in France!). Part of the reason why I was able to do so was because I was given the opportunity to read very, very widely, not only at home but at school, and inspired by a most marvellous English teacher who had no truck at all with ideologies and orthodox frameworks–I still write to her, incidentally, she was–and remains– a true marvel, full of beans, intensely curious about life, literature, always ready to challenge us. And because the curriculum at the time had room for the brilliant teacher, and the excited student. If I’d had to deal with this new curriculum, I’d have felt blasted and withered and parched by it. I’d have felt small and stupid and angry, and above all, bored out of my brain. I didn’t like school as it was, because I detest routines and being made to march to someone else’s tune. If I hadn’t had the freedom and excitement of English and Drama, it would have been truly hideous.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Hi Sophie,

Such energy, such passion. I grew up in working class, housing commission Broadmeadows and luckily, like you, I had an inspired teacher who introduced us to the richness and imagery of Shakespeare. We also had an ex-Royal Navy guy who taught us how to parse a sentence and how to recite poetry. The experience freed me to value what Oakshott terms the poetry of mankind (is that gender bias?) and to break free of the limitations of a narrow and insular environment (sorry if the last point offends those middle class, ex-private school kids who believe that working class is good).

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“It is total rubbish to assume that the ‘yoof of today’ are any more stupid or culturally unreceptive than we were–everything lies in the presentation of things, even difficult things. By the way, I don’t only teach the very bright and literary-gifted; I’ve workshopped with kids from all kinds of schools, backgrounds, and abilities. Obviously you tailor your thing to your audience–but even in the most unpromising of circumstances, sparks have been struck.”

Sophie, I never said the ‘yoof of today’ were less receptive – I was saying that the yoof of my day 20 years ago mainly saw high school as an instrumental route to a TE Score. If anything it’s probably a touch worse now because as a society we’ve adopted a much more instrumental, vocationalist attitude to education and because the stakes for kids’ future in terms of career paths and credentials needed are greater than they were.

Great teaching can always inspire – and it’s usually great teaching despite not because of any syllabus or curriculum. Dare I say that your experience probably inspires kids because of the energy and passion that I agree with Kevin you have?

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Hi Mark,

To return to where we started – inspiration is not the key. Wayne Sawyer was so inspired he wrote an editorial (since removed) bemoaning the fact that stupid voters had re-elected the Howard Government. Blame it on the English teachers for not teaching kids to think straight (?).

To teach well, you actually have to have something worhtwhile to teach. As they say when designing computer programs, crap in, crap out.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yes, I daresay we’ve come full circle, Kevin. I really sense that we’ve learnt enough about our differences to know that we do have differences but I doubt there’s much more to be gained from carrying on the argument from here.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Kev, in case you didn’t notice, though I am sure you did, “the working class boy from the housing estates who fought his way out” routine was irrepairably damaged by Mark Latham.

Best to try another shtick, eh?

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Hi Dave,

Unlike Mark Latham, I did not have God Gough as a mentor and I did not join the ALP. Walking on water is also something I have not been attracted to.

The rest is history.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

“sorry if the last point offends those middle class, ex-private school kids who believe that working class is good”

So, I gather you think working class is bad?

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I think Kevin was making the ironic point that middle-class radicals have often seen more inherent virtue in being working class than the working class ever did.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Trying again (have I actually been banned, or something?).

I think Kevin is making the ironic point that middle-class radicals have often seen more inherent virtue in being working class than the working class ever did.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Ooops, sorry, Troppo….!

cs
cs
2022 years ago

I think he’s being elitist.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

“Jacques Costeau”,

Gee, I’ve never been called that before.

“this International Baccalaureate curriculum is set internationally isn’t it? Our local lefty po mo academics don’t have nything to do with it. Yet, you say you hated it.”

What, you think pomo lefties are purely local phenomenon? That there aren’t leftie English teachers to put a spin on stuff chosen by professors in Cambridge? That there aren’t leftie writers to be carefully chosen from a list of options? That the syllabus leaves does not really prescribe a literary theory, instead leaving it to teachers?

What separates the IB from most other courses is its rigour and its system of international assessment. IB HL English is akin to first year literature studies. The thing is, I was required by IB rules to take a unit of literature in my own language, just as I was required to mathematics, one science, a foreign language, and Theory of Knowledge.

“That’s interesting, because Kevin Donnelly has held up the International Baccalaureate as the thing that Australian students are taking up to escape from the crap they are served up in the local curriculum.”

Well at least you can get a syllabus and detailed assessment criteria for the IB. They are detailed, plain, and available to students upon request. I tried the same at Sydney University when I first got there and they laughed long and hard.

As I say, what sets the IB apart is that it is tough, and far more objective because of its criteria (1-5 system). With some exceptions, all grades are assigned by assessors on the other side of the world, who know you only by your number.

I mean it’s just a really good course. I value the hard slog I went through to get my IB.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Your first post sounds like a pretty good description of how clever people have always got good exam marks in the humanities. It just shows that a deep knowledge of and love of literature are not something you can easily test for in a three-hour exam. Most of the people who got top marks in Enlish in the last two hundred years probably ended up using their skills in merchant banks. None of this has any bearing on post-modernism, frogs etc.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Hi CL, Rob is correct, I was being ironic.

More to the point,is there any thing wrong with being elitist?

We have a national institute of sport based on the premise that the best athletes must be identified and trained. Maybe we need an academic institute for the best and brightest.