Monday, February 14, 2005

Grindings from the Sawyer-mill

The row over Sawyer has stirred up passionate, intelligent discussion about the present and future of English in schools. There's a series of threads at troppo armadillo.
At barista, I've had a lengthy and pleasant exchange with David Tiley, who thinks Sawyer has been hard done by, and offers a generous interpretation of the offending article.

Sophie Masson at troppo takes the conversation in a new direction. From her experience in schools, she reports that many English teachers writhe in the toils of the new curricula. What they're supposed to do is teach 'subversive' readings: the tilt is unmistakably Utopian Left. Sceptical, readers? Have a look at the Education Department in Tasmania's account of 'critical literacy'.

Sophie Masson and others compare this doctrinal dryness with how kids they know actually read. For teenagers, plot & character & theme are the 'natural' way in, and what they discover using those traditional methods are sufficient cause for delight. But when this approach is stomped on in English at school, potentially good students avoid it at university.

How did we get here? The answer, folks, is long and complicated and scholarly and as yet incompletely researched (especially for Australia) but here's the nutshell version.

First, we divided English into a subject focussed (allegedly) on language and another focussed on literature. The language subject then became a combination of how to analyse texts for their content, how to conduct an argument, elementary ethics . . . you name it, anything but language. As one teacher said to me: "I love English - you can do whatever you like." In literature, we stopped teaching appreciation as the basis for criticism and began to teach Theory which builds a wall between the rhetoric of writers itself and their readers . (But even before that happened, the number of students taking literature at matric level had dropped by about 75% over about ten years.)

A bit of wider history. Literary education before the 19th century was continuous with the tradition of rhetoric that began (in the West) in ancient Greece. It combined the study of language with logic and history. 'Rhetoric' was the system used to analyse writing, as well as to teach it, so that someone who learnt in this way could feel that their efforts and the writer's were part of the same general enterprise. Already by the 18th century, logic had migrated across to philosophy, but the agenda remained broad and integrated. Typical of the 18th century, Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres combine literary history and criticism with the history of language. The lectures also include formal instruction in both the basics and the more advanced techniques of writing good prose. Blair's program may look not too unlike ours - until you start looking more closely.

Students today- those who go on to university - know very little history of any kind and virtually no literary history. They are unaware that language itself has a history. They completely lack a vocabulary for describing prose. If it has big words, it's 'academic', if it comes from before (say) 1950, it's 'old' - or in extreme cases 'olde'. Their repertoire of stylistic descriptions runs from 'flowery' to 'staccato' and back again. They may (sometimes do) genuinely love language, but as yet it's an inarticulate love.

So what do they know? They know that English is about having opinions and that (in whatever) fashion these opinions must be backed up. An opinion sincerely held, along with a wave at a patch of the text, amounts to an impregnable position, since everyone has a 'right' to an opinion. Those who have suffered under reach-me-down theorists have entirely predictable opinions. If there is a woman in the text, she will be examined for signs of oppression. If the writer appears to discriminate (at all, between any class of phenomena) s/he will be 'elitist' - and so on. Tellingly, it is only an exceptional student who can accurately paraphrase a short passage of prose. Most dig into the body of the text in search of 'issues', and drag them bleeding into the light. It's about 'issues of sexuality' they say. Which? one asks. And so their education begins.

Do I exaggerate? Here's Dr Tim van Gelder, talking about students at the University of Melbourne.

A couple of years ago I set a mundane homework assignment for my class of about 50 mid-level Arts students. They were to take one of the course readings - a chapter from How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker - and return in a week with a one page essay, in which they had identified and evaluated the author's main argument.
Students in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne are among the most
talented and privileged in Australia. They ought to have found this basic exercise in critical reading to be quite straightforward. Yet, when I graded their essays, I found that almost none had even done the task, let alone done it well.
Most had just produced a kind of haphazard summary, little more than a random
selection of interesting ideas from the text. There were very few attempts to engage critically with the author's argument. Indeed, most students were not even aware that were not doing the assignment as specified. This was a multi-level failure of critical thinking!
(Sorry Dr Tim: I've tried and tried to fix the lineation.)

As a university teacher, my problem with the matric syllabus has been not so much its politics as its signal failure to do what I believe the community rightly expects it to do: for English, teach students to write, read and analyse at reasonably advanced levels.; for Literature, teach the reading of literature. Before I'm mown down by anecdotal exceptions, - yes, of course, there are excellent students and excellent teachers but I believe the general standard is deplorable, and that efforts to deliver social justice through the English teacher are both futile and destructive. It would not matter (for my purposes) if the prescribed authors were Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott. I am certainly not in favour of "back to" thinking: the Blair stuff is offered as illustration, not as example.

We need to start thinking about a 21st century curriculum which will neither efface the past nor turn away from the present. No way this government will do that, and it wouldn't be any better under the other lot. Those of us who deal in words need to figure it out - I'm thinking about alternatives to the way things are done at university, and I'd happily work with others interested. I have taught school, designed and accredited subjects, examined, sat on Boards etc.

More - and more relaxed - later.


At 9:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In opposition to theory, as stated by the late S.L.Goldberg:

“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 realize what the world is and what people are, and to live with both as realistically and as fully as they can”.

My email is:
If anybody wants the full article in which I defend a liberal/humanist view of literature, let me know.


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