It is no wonder the head of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English would defend critical literacy. Writing in The Australian on July 25 ("Deconstructing the Curriculum", Letters), Paul Sommer argued the approach does not represent a "radical notion" and that critical literacy is part of the mainstream in the US and Britain. Wrong on both accounts.
Critical literacy represents a radical shift in the way literature is taught, or not taught, and the way children are expected to read. The cultural heritage approach is based on the conviction that all children have the right to encounter those literary classics that say something profound and lasting about the human condition.
Especially in primary school, the emotional and psychological wellbeing of children depends on a rich and steady diet of those myths, fables and legends that explore elemental emotions such as bravery, selfishness, greed, sorrow and love. In secondary school, it is also vitally important that students learn to value and to read with discrimination the literary canon, from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare, from Jane Austen to David Malouf.
Advocates of critical literacy, on the other hand, argue that everything is a worthwhile text for study and that there is nothing privileged about the classics. According to Terry Eagleton, an English disciple of theory who subsequently recanted: "Value is a transitive term ... we may in the future produce a society [that] is unable to get anything at all out of Shakespeare ... In such a situation Shakespeare would be no more valuable than much present-day graffiti."
Whereas literature was once read for the joy of reading and for its aesthetic and moral influence, a critical literacy approach asks students to deconstruct texts in terms of power relationships. In the words of a Queensland curriculum document, education is no longer about accepting received knowledge; instead, students are taught that "knowledge is always tentative" and how to "deconstruct dominant views of society". Students are also taught to "critique the socially constructed elements of text" and how "the consumer of a text is positioned and the possibility of who may have been marginalised by authors".
Of course, good English teaching has always had a sharp political edge. Nobody could read Blake's poetry or the works of Swift, Dickens and Orwell without coming face to face with the power of rhetorical language and the ills and injustices of Western society. Where critical theory goes one step further is to embrace a left-wing, politically correct view on social and political issues, especially those related to sex, ethnicity and class.
Advocates of theory associated with the AATE regularly criticise Australian society as bourgeois, patriarchal and Eurocentric and, notwithstanding the lip service to critical thinking, there is little room for students to disagree.
Sommer is also incorrect when he says that critical literacy is the mainstream in the US and Britain. An analysis of the English national curriculum and the Californian English-language arts content standards documents finds literature pre-eminent. Not only are students expected to read a wide range of literary genres, including myths, fables, legends, poetry, drama and fiction, both classic and contemporary, they are also expected to evaluate technical aspects, such as alliteration, assonance and rhyme.
Australia's approach to teaching literature is the opposite of that of the US and Britain. In Tasmania, literature disappears under the heading "Communicating, Being Arts Literate" and students are asked to "construct and deconstruct arts works". In the West Australian curriculum framework document, students are asked to "analyse how texts and ways of reading encourage certain ways of thinking and ignore or marginalise others. They understand the way in which stereotypes can reinforce preconceptions about certain social groups and may serve the interests of some groups and disadvantage those of others."
The Queensland English years 1 to 10 syllabus is awash with the dense and convoluted jargon associated with what the document describes as "a sociocultural-critical model of language". Students no longer simply read, instead, they are asked to "understand how discourses influence the interpretation and construction of textual representations" and to "demonstrate understandings that, while texts invite particular meanings, alternative meanings are possible".
Luckily, not all academics agree with the AATE and teacher educators such as Sommer. As Melbourne University academic S.L. Goldberg argued: "People are more likely than not to go on being interested in people, as much as they are in abstract theories and ideologies, or impersonal forces, or structural systems, or historical information, or even the play of signifiers. So it is more likely than not, I'd say, that people will go on valuing those writings that they judge best help them to realise what the world is and what people are, and to live with both as realistically and as fully as they can."