Funnily enough I was talking about such things last Saturday at my Glebe breakfast – and we didn’t have latte or chardonnay, nor were we weaving baskets. I was asked what I thought of the current (“new”) HSC course. The questioner, a writer and academic, had also been singing the praises of Flaubert’s sentences, savouring them in French as well as in English translation. How much more a literary tragic can you be? (And I say that with respect.) He went on to say he was rather impressed with the “new” HSC English, watered down as it is in terms of theory, because he was finding students much more open to thought and better prepared than they used to be. Depends who you ask, doesn’t it?
The worst thing you can do in my opinion to English studies is to pickle it in brine or turn it into a nostalgia museum.
So I find the discussions going on between the National Curriculum people and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English appropriate, well-informed, and intelligent. They are in that respect opposite to today’s editorial in The Australian which I find plain dumb and very badly informed.
Like most Australians, we thought the point of English classes at school was to teach children to read and write properly and to understand literature. Alas, we stand corrected. As Justine Ferrari reports today, the organisation representing Australia’s English teachers’ association, in responding to the national English curriculum, recommends that "meaning making in and through language, across a range of forms, media and expressions, should be the core organiser of the curriculum."
Quite. Read it again – it gets muddier every time.
In our view, and undoubtedly that of most parents and students, the national curriculum did a good job defining literature clearly as "plays, novels and poems … cinema, television and multimedia … poetry, picture books, multimodal texts, short stories and drama, and a variety of nonfiction forms such as biography."
The English Teachers Association of NSW, alas, sneered at the definitions as "nebulous". Instead, they suggested "the term culturally valued texts as a definition of literature."
Culturally valued by whom? Teenagers at the lower end of the class who prefer Big Brother to Oscar Wilde? Or, more likely, progressive teachers who find it easier to play films than take students through the themes and characters of Pride and Prejudice?
The NSW teachers want the national curriculum to be about "other models of English such as personal growth, cultural studies and critical literacy as that is how teachers understand and have operated within the subject". The best English teachers are happy to focus on their subject, but those who want to be social engineers and cultural warriors dominate these teachers’ associations, which are becoming irrelevant.
Teaching grammar, which promises to be a vital improvement in the national curriculum, was dismissed by the NSW teachers as having "no influence on either the accuracy or quality of written language development for 5 to 16-year-olds". As grammar has not been taught widely to Australian students in a generation, that claim is dubious in the extreme.
The papers also push hard for assessment that is "inclusive of the full range of students" and for teachers to be given wide scope to select materials to be studied in the interests of "equity".
However worthy the teachers believe this approach to be, it is precisely students from disadvantaged and non-English-speaking homes who have most to lose from such a defeatist system. Many disadvantaged students, and some from affluent homes, do not have access to good books and are not encouraged to read by parents.
English teachers who truly value their professionalism would encourage a rigorous curriculum, taught with expertise, that provides all students with the best possible written and verbal communication skills and an appreciation of literature. This is the best way to set disadvantaged students up for life.
The Rudd Government must ignore the push to impose the worst of current state-based systems on to the national curriculum.
Where can one start? Perhaps by pointing out that the words singled out for praise in paragraph three in fact paraphrase (and mean much the same as) the words roundly condemned in paragraph one. Nor do I find anything arcane in "meaning making in and through language, across a range of forms, media and expressions, should be the core organiser of the curriculum."
But then I wrote twenty-six years ago:
I am concerned here with theory at a fairly low level of generality; or, putting it another way, I am in search of models and procedures which might make my practice more effective, more critical, or more broadly based… In all of this I am making the following assumptions about English teaching:
1. Language creates and orders meanings, personal and social, outward and inward. Language is the primary means of creating, expressing and interpreting the self, in the context of society and history. Language is also a means of ordering and interpreting reality. While there are many difficult theoretical questions raised by the idea that language constructs the self and reality, we cannot give up the idea that in doing so language is more than merely self-reflexive.
2. Central to English teaching is the learner as meaning-maker, a participant in the network of meanings that constitute our culture.
3. In using and studying language or other means of meaning-making in a variety of contexts and realizations, the learner grows more competent, more aware, and less helpless.
Glossing that eleven years ago I said:
My own position (and that of many I suspect) has been an evolving one. Rather than earlier approaches being absolutely displaced by later ones, I have tended to keep what works from many perspectives. So when I embraced aspects of the process or whole language approaches, it was because these opened up the range of things students could do; but I continued to look at sentence grammar, paragraphing, spelling and so on. Teaching of grammar and style was enhanced by reading in the areas of stylistics and language variation in the later 1970s and 1980s, and these were in turn strengthened by the genre pedagogy of the early 1990s. An abiding concern of most English teachers has been critical reading; the meaning and scope of that has been enriched by insights from Freebody and Luke, Kress and Hasan, to name a few.
I am all in favour of teaching the classics, keeping in mind that the idea there were “classics” in English is surprisingly recent. There were no English departments in universities anywhere until the late 19th century, and very few until well into the 20th century. I am also in favour of enabling students to negotiate all the forms and media we/they confront in the real world. I think that is called “literacy”. It has also been called (by Hemingway) “crap detection.” Very handy when reading the Murdoch press.
And that will do for now. Just as the Oz is simply regurgitating today, so I have responded to their past eructations. Check the appropriate tags and categories in the side bar. Here is just one example: Here we go again 2 (December 2007).
I get so tired of their threadbare bitching.
Read the AATE submission for yourself: national-english-curriculum-framing-paper-aate-response.