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English literature curriculum - ill-conceived, theoretical and banal

By Sophie Masson - posted Monday, 28 February 2005

The usual stoush over education guarantees the usual old left wing-right wing divide, arguments about po-mo, deconstruction and so on. I'd like to bring the matter back to a more realistic level - the level of schools themselves.

I have contact with schools all over Australia, on a few levels. First of all, as a parent of now-teenage children, including a son in Year 12 this year who is doing Extension English I and II for the HSC. Second, because I visit schools frequently in my capacity as a writer, give workshops on creative writing to kids from a variety of backgrounds: from one-teacher country schools to vast city schools, from private girls' only schools to rough-end-of-town schools, from Muslim schools in Auburn to Aboriginal students' special extension classes. I've done this over a number of years. And here are my own personal thoughts on the matter of the presentation of literature in English, in schools.

First of all, I think that teachers in general do the very best they can, with an often abominably-conceived, theoretical but banalised English curriculum. Most of them absolutely hate the new HSC and its heavy emphasis on theory, themes and so on, rather than character, story, and response. They simply do not understand the (heavily-diluted) po-mo, deconstructionist, structuralist theories that lie behind it. They are just as much at sea as the kids. But they are bound to do it. There is a huge burden on them to comply with curriculum rules and what has to be accomplished in a year.


I have found many wonderful teachers, in all kinds of situations, in nearly all the schools I've visited. Those who have the capacity to do so, rebel against the spirit if not the letter of the ridiculous stuff they have to do, and present all kinds of extra stuff to their kids, and encourage them to think laterally. But those who have less capacity struggle against the tedious nonsense about “values” and “deconstruction” but without the ability to get beyond it. The HSC English curriculum to my mind is the most patronising yet dry, one-size-fits-all Mickey Mousisation of the French theorists' ideas, filtered through any number of second-raters that one could imagine.

Some of the things kids have to do just beggars belief. For instance, last year in English my son had to take The Crucible (which he loves, and thoroughly responded to) and compare it to an ad for some weight-lifting gym. If it wasn't horrible, it would be hilarious, and in fact it's both.

As a writer as much as a reader I was outraged by this stupid, insulting and utterly irrelevant attempt to equate these two things.

Never mind saying Shakespeare is the same as Neighbours, this was of a level of magnitude of idiocy - and of, I believe, subsconscious hate and envy of writers themselves - that is simply mind-boggling. I have no objection to people looking at ads as part of English, though I think this is considered of much more “subversive” world-shattering importance to the middle-aged people who construct the curriculum, than to young people for whom such things are ho-hum, and that they can perfectly deconstruct all on their own thank you very much. But to compare The Crucible with an ad - what possible use does this serve, if not to say that they are the same, as they can be compared?

The constant harping on “values” - by which is meant values of patriarchy, or what have you - dulls and blunts kids' reactions to literature. Why in the name of God do they need to browbeat kids about what to think, and how to interpret a work of art? I've listened to my kids and their friends discuss books they've loved, with great fervour, intelligence and understanding. They simply detest all this corralling of creativity into “values”, it's so damned Victorian: despite the fact the people who construct these things obviously think they are so daring and subversive. Damn it, don't they think it's them who are “the dominant paradigm”? In my experience, the really bright kids who love literature simply mouth the stuff they have to in order to pass exams, and rebelliously, in their own minds, cleave to their own ideas. And they avoid English at university like the plague.

Those who will go along with any orthodoxy - and that's been so at any age and time, because literature is simply a way to getting good marks and going to uni - will do just what is required of them and reproduce the Mickey Mouse cut-rate Derrida, Foucault and McLuhan without a care in the world. And the kids to whom literature might speak - if character and story were emphasised and not the “values” - the kids who are not academically inclined or gifted necessarily, but who might well respond to books if they were presented in an interesting way, the kids who more and more are staying on in Year 12 - well, those kids are all at sea. They find English both boring and hard. They do not understand theory and they don't give a damn about it. And so an opportunity is lost.


What's more all this focus on values and themes is not only uncreative but is limiting. You can study less “texts” because of it. You get to read less. You are exposed to less. Why do kids need more exposure to TV shows? Why can't they be challenged? In my workshops and talks, I challenge kids with things they may never have seen or heard of before - and they respond very well. They know when they are being patronised. And they don't like it.

There are good things in English too, of course. The Extension 2 aspect - the creative one, when you can write say a short story, script or whatever - is an excellent opportunity to do some real creative writing. I would have loved it as a kid. But even that is hedged around with silliness. It's not good enough to write something brilliant, you have to “explain” it in the terms some dumb-cluck theorist might understand, i.e. rabbit on in your proposal and outline “values” and so on.

Looking at a related subject, drama, you can see where English has gone haywire in recent years. Xavier is doing drama too for the HSC, and the difference is staggering. They actually read and do in drama, they don't just theorise. They are looking at the Greek plays, at Shakespeare, at revenge tragedy, at Australian drama too, like Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. They are entering the world of the play, and of the playwright, both in reading and performance. No-one is hanging albatrosses around the necks of the writers or of the responders. The freedom is irresistible, and the pleasure. The kids work twice as hard in this area, and seem much more stimulated, than in English.

So basically, when I read Wayne Sawyer's piece, it didn't surprise me at all. The banality, pomposity and wilful blindness displayed in it - the sickening superficiality of his observations - the way in which English, in which literature was reduced to some crude propagandistic tool for him - is symptomatic. It is what plagues English. It is what plagues many teachers. It is what plagues kids. And it is what plagues writers and all lovers of literature. It's certainly not going to make literature attractive. And that's a great shame.

So bring on the enquiries, I say! Don't replace one dusty theory with another. Don't swap orthodoxy for orthodoxy, but for God's sake, admit there is a problem!

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First published as a blog on Troppo Armadillo on February 15, 2005.

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About the Author

Born in Indonesia of French parents, Sophie Masson came to Australia at the age of five, and spent her childhood in both Australia and France. She is the author of more than 30 novels, for adults, young adults and children, and is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines, both print and online, all over the world. Sophie Masson's latest novels are The Phar Lap Mystery (Scholastic Press) and The Hunt for Ned Kelly (Scholastic Press). She is a regular blogger at Writer Unboxed.

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