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It's all depths and deconstruction

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 3 August 2006

Those familiar with the controversy surrounding the way New South Wales senior school English students are forced to analyse literary works, such as Shakespeare's Othello and Tim Winton's Cloudstreet, from Marxist, gender, postmodern and class perspectives may be forgiven for thinking that the effect of such a politicised view of English is restricted to that state.

Such is not the case. Across Australia, the traditional approach to literature - based on teaching students to read with sensitivity and discrimination and to value the aesthetic and ethical value of the classics - has been reduced to a stale and empty analysis based on what the cultural Left defines as politically correct.

In Queensland students are asked to "examine the gaps and the silences in a text which admit other, marginal readings; for example, the contradictory attitudes to the working class in Charles Dickens's Hard Times or in Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V  and to deconstruct Shakespeare's Macbeth, "to foreground a number of Jacobean ideologies that are naturalised in the text; for example, patriarchal concerns with order and gender".


Queensland students, when reading a novel by D.H. Lawrence, are also asked to critique "the operation of binary oppositions that privilege a particular version of masculinity" and to produce "an eco-critical reading of a selection of the poetry of either William Wordsworth or Les Murray".

In addition to the jargon - gaps and silences, deconstruct, binary oppositions and eco-critical - there is also the fear that students' love of literature is being destroyed as they are forced to mimic dense and difficult theoretical perspectives more suited to postgraduate study than years 11 and 12.

Similar to NSW, the West Australian English curriculum asks students to respond to texts "using different theoretical frameworks (Marxist, post-colonial, feminist, psychoanalytic)" and to "check for consistency, contradiction and privileging of some ideas over others".

While emphasising the need for a close reading of literature, the Victorian senior school Literature Study Design argues that how one defines literature is subjective and states that students must respond to texts using a number of perspectives including "Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytical, reader-response, deconstructionist, postmodern".

The South Australian Curriculum, Standards and Accountability Framework English document also adopts a politicised view of English, one where "students learn that language transmits cultural perspectives, including gender, ethnicity and class; and who or what is or is not important" and where being literate "involves an understanding of the past, present and possible future relations between language, power and society".

Instead of valuing literature for its own sake, the belief is that language is about power relationships and, as a result, one of the key aims of English is to develop in all students, "a knowledge of a broad range of texts and the capability to critically analyse these texts in relation to personal experience, the experiences of local and global communities, and the social constructs of advantage/disadvantage in order to imagine more just futures".


Not to be outdone, the Queensland years 1 to 10 English syllabus says, "a sociocultural-critical model of language underpins this English curriculum" and, as a result, students must be taught to analyse texts in terms of how more dominant groups in society use texts to silence and marginalise others.

The Queensland English Extension (Literature) Senior Syllabus provides one of the more egregious examples of how literature has been subverted when it announces that present radical approaches to literature "have called into question historical notions that literature is a corpus of highly regarded texts".

In opposition to placing the author centre-stage, believing that literary texts have something lasting and profound to say about human nature and that words have an agreed meaning, the Queensland syllabus designers put forward four different models of literary response: author-centred, text-centred, reader-centred and world-context-centred.

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First published in The Australian on July 22, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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