kidattypewriter

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On sounding like a pompous git, #451: letters to the paper

The Oz had a shocking editorial last weekend about how the New South Wales English syllabus needed more Aussie literature, or something like that. Anyway, that prompted me to send in the following email to their letters page. It never got published, so here it is for posterity:
Dear editor,

In your Saturday editorial (Weekend Australian, September 20-21), you claim that "there cannot be too much emphasis on Australian literature". You also write that the English Teachers Association of NSW reasonable criticism of the latest attempts to politicise the English syllabus is "in a word, nonsense."

Your editorial is, in a word, nonsense.

The literature of Australia, the nation, is two hundred years old. But all Australian writers draw on much older, more substantial traditions - principally the tradition of English literature, which is over one
thousand years old. One Australian playwright you mention is David Williamson: he writes in the shadow of a much greater English playwright, William Shakespeare. You also cite Banjo Paterson, a popular bush poet; but he writes in a tradition that has been shaped by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by Byron, by Tennyson, and by Thomas Hardy. Clearly, any emphasis on the study of Australian literature that caused these writers to be sidelined or ignored would be 'too much emphasis'.

Your peevish criticisms of the ETA are horribly misguided. It is regrettable that the ETA felt the need to use such language as 'hierarchies in generic form' when describing ministerial suggestions for the syllabus. But their criticism is sound: any course for high-school students that focuses on Australian literature purely for the fact that it is Australian, and not for the inherent qualities of the writing, will tend to either mislead the students, or put them off literature altogether. The basis for any English literature syllabus should not be a bastardised, inward-looking cultural jingoism; rather, it should be a humbling, outward-looking curiosity, that explores and discovers. In such a spirit of discovery students will find their true strength. In the words of an (English) poet, Tennyson, who you would do well to read: 'To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'

Yours sincerely,
Tim Train
I wondered about closing with a Tennyson quote, but I figured my sounding like a pompous git would give the editors something to sympathise with.

24 comments:

Rachel said...

Sick 'em, Timmy!!

nailpolishblues said...

You are going to make the most wonderfully cranky old man.

Mindy said...

You probably used too many big words and confused them.

Dale Slamma said...

Would you like me to knit a cardigan for your cultural cringe?

TimT said...

I think a cardy would perfect the cranky old man image. Curmudging in my Cardy. (That's a good blog name, methinks...)

Steve said...

Nice letter Tim, but of course I say that as a person who has never met a piece of Australian literature he could describe as more than "passable". Most I just detest.

Dale Slamma said...

Goodness Steve, you can't have been reading very widely.

Anonymous said...

Dale, you are correct, but I must say in my defence that my dislike of Australian cinema has a lot to do with it. If I have no interest in the type of stories or perspective on life that they bring,there is little incentive to read the novels that have often been the source material. I have always felt that Australia is a great place to live, but for whatever reason it tells stories about itself that are just terribly uninteresting (to me).

Steve

TimT said...

My general feeling is that there's no reason for a special focus on Australian literature in the English syllabus. I suppose it could be considered appropriate to focus on Australian literature to give students an appreciation of designated 'important' events in Australian history, or to introduce students to local culture (notwithstanding the difficulties that typically arise when politicians decide from their own ideological backgrounds what is important in Australian culture and history). But I think as a general rule, isn't it just best to introduce students to good writing, and not worry too much about the background?

It just seems to me to be overly protective and politically questionable to mandate an exclusive focus on Australian writing in the English syllabus. And at any rate, that editorial in the Australian that I link to is just guff, a misguided attack on 'postmodernism' in order to offer some justification for their argument that the English syllabus should have a strong focus on Australian literature.

Dale Slamma said...

Hey Tim I'm not sure anyone said that Australian literature should be studied exclusively just that it should be studied. It is astonishing how many people assume that no Australian author has ever written a good book, I blame Bryce Courtenay for this.

I found the comment John Dale made in the Australian interesting -"If fiction is, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of the road, then by reading Australian literature we learn who we are. If our own writers are not given the opportunity to be read and studied by students then culturally Australia is a much poorer country."

TimT said...

Well at the Australian, they argue that "there cannot be too much emphasis on Australian literature". If you take that rhetoric seriously, then students wouldn't be studying anything but Australian literature.

Perhaps I should have been more careful in my choice of terms, but by exclusive, I meant 'set aside', 'set apart'. I'd just be happy for the English syllabus to be entirely general, focusing on analytical and critical skills. I don't see any real need to create a specialised interest in Australian literature in students - if they are interested in reading, they'll find out about Australian writers anyway. If they're not interesting in reading, then what could be worse than encouraging students to read as a kind of cultural duty to their country?

Besides, there are many ways for a student in NSW to learn about themselves through literature. If they wanted to learn about their cultural background, for instance, they should probably read Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Dale Slamma said...

I think Australia has a problem with how it values artists and artistic practice (I'm including writers and writing in that category)and that it would be beneficial to encourage students to engage seriously with Australian fiction, poetry, art and music. I do not think it would be a good thing for younger Australians to feel that any artistic endeavour they pursue is without value, meaning or resonance. This is why I encourage the study of Australian literature.

PS What do you imagine Chaucer has to do with the cultural background of the average NSW student? I did not imagine that you were racist.

TimT said...

The average NSW student speaks English.

Dale Slamma said...

That does not mean their cultural background is English.

TimT said...

Indeed, but English is our national language, and we are discussing the English syllabus. I think that constitutes a good reason for studying texts that have been formative in the development of modern English.

Dale Slamma said...

I do not think the formative texts should be ignored but I do not think that that is where the studying should end. It would be like teaching art history and stopping at cave paintings.

TimT said...

I do take your point that an English syllabus should encourage students to value and engage with Australian writers. I'm sure this is one of the better justifications that could be used in order to have a focus on Australian literature in the syllabus, though even so one wonders, why should students be encouraged simply to value Australian writers? Why not extend that to writers in general?

However, I think I'm becoming all together too prescriptive here. My quibble was with the Australian editorial and their particular arguments.

TimT said...

Isn't there a danger in setting a number of modern texts, that politicians/English teachers end up setting those texts that appeal to them personally, and that satisfy their personal ideological prejudices, rather than those which have more lasting cultural values? I remember at school in Balranald we were made to go to a series of plays and films with titles like 'Crooked Mick of the Speewah'. It's easy to see how a few misguided politicians in the 1970s and 80s could mistakenly foist their own enthusiasm for outback Australian romances of this sort on students who really found very little of relevance or interest in them.

Dale Slamma said...

I would hope that they would be more professional than that.

Alison Croggon said...

I remember, back in the days when Victoria had an HSC, being forced to study a book called "Diary of a Welsh Swagman", all about an itinerant worker who travlled around the Western District of Victoria and wrote excerable englyns. I hated it with a passion, it was paralysingly dull, as was our Man. It was obviously included for its local worthiness. Three decades later, my son is presently protesting loudly about a book he is being forced to study in Year 8 English, by an Australian author, which has been included for its multicultural worthiness (it's about an Afghani refugee). His objection is, too, that it's boring. He pointedly took the graphic novel Persepolis to school and showed his teacher - who was quite sympathetic, and had already given them some readings from the Arabian Nights to vamp up the psychic static - what a good story looked like.

This kind of stuff is totally misguided. Everyone is going to disagree what "good writing" is, but books included for their value as English comprehension exercises or for reasons of social or nationalistic worthiness are totally counterproductive. There are, in fact, lots of good Australian writers, and a lot of students don't know anything about them. I was very shocked, after a couple of weeks in Switzerland at a conference on Australian literature, to find that Swiss academics - and secondary teachers! - were much better informed on our literature than many of our English teachers (and consequently, much more interested). But the first emphasis should be on pleasurable reading. If you get kids enjoying books, you're half way there. And it won't be fostered by boring them with indifferent texts about worthy themes, even if they are written by Australians.

Cor, touched a nerve there, TimT. End of rant.

Alison Croggon said...

Actually, not quite the end... it's not cringe to introduce students to English classics (or classics in translation - teens love Bulgakov and Dostoevsky and Gogol). What it can do - because most of these books are actually fabulous books, which is why they are considered classics - is foster the imagination and passion of a child. Wuthering Heights and Jane Austen are up there as vastly popular books among teenagers, as is Romeo & Juliet - right up there with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings (facts drawn from a survey of actual reading habits a few years ago by the Centre for Youth Literature). Young people are passionate, and respond to passion. Not all of them will be readers, but those who do read - or might - don't respond well to being patronised. And Chaucer - ribald, funny, human - can open the pleasures of reading up as much as anyone - if well taught, which is the huge caveat. Sadly, pleasure in reading is the aspect that often disappears in secondary school. The thing is, curiosity follows pleasure, and learning follows that.

Promise I'll go away now. Definitely a raw point with me!

TimT said...

Thanks for your excellent rant Ms Croggon! You say what I tried to say in my letter, only with much more eloquence and passion than I was able to muster. I especially like your point here:

Young people are passionate, and respond to passion. Not all of them will be readers, but those who do read - or might - don't respond well to being patronised. And Chaucer - ribald, funny, human - can open the pleasures of reading up as much as anyone - if well taught, which is the huge caveat.

forlorn said...

If I may also be allowed a rant...

What is interesting about John Dale's comment is that it begins with an analogy for the reading experience, but then goes on to conclude that it is the Australian writers who should be given the opportunity to be studied rather than the students who should be given the opportunity to study the Australian writers.

The primary aim of any education system must be the intellectual development of its students and any decision about texts must be based first and foremost on the needs and abilities of the students. There is, of course, absolutely no reason why Australian works cannot be chosen to meet these objectives (and there are many Australian works on the NSW HSC syllabus which are being used in this way), but they should be chosen with broader learning outcomes in mind and not simply because they are Australian. And, indeed, just as John Dale found an image from Stendhal particularly germane to a debate about Australian culture, students also have the imaginative capacity to find that works that are quite far from their own experience (Chaucer for instance, but also works that are not from Anglophone cultures) can help them to articulate their own experience and to develop their creativity. A strong curriculum needs to ensure that there is a suitable balance of both.

What really disturbs me about all of this is the characteristic cynicism and dishonesty with which The Australian seems to have reported this story. Looking at the ETA's submission (which is available on its website), there is no way an intelligent reader could possibly come to the conclusion that the ETA is opposed to the study of Australian literature or to increasing the number of Australian texts on the curriculum. There is also no reasonable way one could deduce that English teachers believe that Australian literature is confined to "bush ballads" or that "bush ballads" are not a worthwhile literary form in their own right. Indeed, I really don't see how anyone could reach any of these conclusions without first setting out to wilfully misread the report. The primary concern of the report is with the specific proposal that has been drafted for a new unit on Australian literature and the lack of clarity as to how that new unit might fit into the existing curriculum. That is not an unreasonable query to make and it is certainly a very different matter from objecting to the study of Australian texts. Far from objecting to an increase in Australian texts, the ETA actually closes its report with suggestions as to how more Australian works might be set within the parameters of the existing curriculum.

Of course this sort of garbage is to be expected from The Australian, but what is surprising is the lack of professional courtesy and respect shown to secondary school teachers by the people The Australian quotes. It is especially disappointing to see this from the academics.

(With apologies to Tim for the length).

TimT said...

Heh, well there's no way I'm going to criticise others for comment length, not after my latest blog post!

Email: timhtrain - at - yahoo.com.au

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