THE Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission’s website took its place yesterday alongside Shakespeare’s King Lear and W.B.Yeats’s poetry as an examination topic for the NSW Higher School Certificate. Students taking their final Advanced English exam were offered a choice of “texts” to analyse, including the ATSIC site, drawing criticism that its inclusion was an insult to the classics.
A spokeswoman for the NSW Board of Studies said ATSIC’s abolition in March was no reason to remove the website from the curriculum and examiners had checked to make sure the site would remain up long enough for students taking yesterday’s paper. “Geoffrey Chaucer is dead – should we automatically drop him from the prescribed text list?” she said.
Literary academic Barry Spurr said that while there was an argument for studying the website in history or cultural studies, it was not appropriate for students of English. “The fact that it’s in (an exam) with texts that are well-established classics of English literature suggests that it is of similar standing – this is a wilful devaluing of the classics,” he said. There has been sharp disagreement across Australia about standards of schooling in English and the rise of postmodernist “critical literacy” theories that treat literature as just another text to be subjected to politicised analysis. Dr Spurr, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Sydney, said he felt the creators of the ATSIC website would be “as surprised as anyone” to find their work as an English set text. Their purpose presumably was to promote the indigenous cause, not produce literature, he said: “Put it in history, put it in cultural studies.”
After five years as a prescribed website, ATSIC will surrender its place next year to the Australian War Memorial.
Question nine read: “Your class has been exploring the question, ‘What makes the multimedia text, ATSIC website, interesting for critical study?’ Defend your response through a critical evaluation of the ATSIC website, analysing the construction, content and language of the text.”
In this “critical study of texts” section, students could also choose almost identically worded questions about King Lear, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Yeats’s poetry…
A Board of Studies spokeswoman said the choice of the website “was based on the website’s structure, language and content, not on the ATSIC organisation … it features a very wide range of multimedia communication tools”.
Dr Spurr said he detected greater caution about standards in English generally, but the ATSIC website simply did not belong.
Matthew Knowles, head English teacher at Gilgandra High School in central NSW, said: “I tend to agree with him that it doesn’t have anything to do with literature. (The critical study of texts section) is about looking at texts from a postmodern perspective, or a Marxist perspective or a feminist perspective. It’s about applying critical theory to a range of texts rather than looking at them as exemplars of literature.”
Really this is getting so boring. I have tried to find out how many students actually do the ATSIC Website as distinct from King Lear, say, or Yeats. I suspect the more conservative choices are actually more popular, if only because most teachers prefer to go with what is familiar, a bit like Barry Spurr really, though they may not all have his eccentric preference for medieval Christianity in both theory and practice. And yes, I am sure the ATSIC site was an ideological choice, on the grounds that being informed about Aboriginal Australia is desirable for Australians, just as the choice of the Australian War Memorial next year is also an ideological choice but so, it may be argued, are all the other choices in this section. Someone somewhere has selected certain things for ideological reasons, whether consciously or (more dangerous) unconsciously; it is just that we avoid the word “ideological” when we happen to share the ideology.
Obviously the ATSIC Site is not in the same order of things as King Lear, and frankly I value King Lear more highly, which is not to say that it is a waste of time to study the ATSIC Site critically. In fact such study could prove very interesting indeed. One would after all have also read Hamlet or The Tempest in other parts of the course, as at least one Shakespeare play MUST be studied.
Funny that, precisely the same number of Shakespeare plays as I studied for the Leaving Certificate in 1959. King Lear was thought to be too hard for us; we did Julius Caesar, which is a fine play, now usually studied in Year 9 or 10.
Is it surprising that English Studies might have moved forward since 1959, that some people might have actually thought about what is appropriate for citizens of a functioning democracy to be able to do with and about language? So much comment about the alleged pomo evils of English these days is just rampant nostalgia really.
My problem with the NSW Advanced English course is not the worth of what it studies, or the expansion of what “critical reading” means to include context, values, and the interaction of reader and writer. Those are advances, in my view. However, I do find it too ambitious given the time available.