Friday, April 21, 2006
Australian Prime Minister thinks Literary Studies is Dumb
Sigh...I don’t know if I can adequately explain, to Valve readers, what’s been going on in the Australian political scene in the leadup to today’s furious media debate about which literary texts ought to be taught in schools and universities in this country and how the ones selected should be presented to students. A thumbnail sketch might mention that history teaching (particularly Australian history since European settlement) is a perennial bone of contention between Left and Right, and that last week JM Coetzee, Les Murray and Harold Bloom all commented publically on what literary studies in Australia ought to be (and perhaps also that there is presently a major political scandal unfolding here around the payment of $300 million in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein, which government ministers are dealing with by claiming they hadn’t read the relevant documents.)
Be that as it may, literary studies has at long last arrived as a political football to be idly kicked about for the amusement of the highest in the land, and not before time - it was getting a bit boring having to be jealous of the historians and the sociologists and the cultural studies people, who seemed to be hogging all of the best governmental tellings-off. Well, today the Prime Minister helpfully shared his opinions on the matter.
I mean I feel very, very strongly about the criticism that many people are making that we are dumbing down the English syllabus.
Well I think there’s evidence of that in different parts of the country. I mean when the, what I might call the traditional texts are treated no differently from pop cultural commentary, as appears to be the case in some syllabus, I share the views of many people about the so-called post modernism. I think there’s a lot of validity in that. But in the end you do need to have a syllabus and a curriculum set by an independent education authority. I just wish that independent education authority didn’t succumb on occasions to the political correctness that it appears to succumb to.
I think that’s a view supported by a lot of parents and grandparents out there. We’ve got the Western Australian Government I think talking about outcome based education.
Well I mean that is gobbledegook. What does that mean? I mean we all understand that it’s necessary to be able to be literate and coherent in the English language. We understand it’s necessary to be numerate and we also understand that there’s high quality literature and there’s rubbish, and we need a curriculum that encourages an understanding of the high quality literature and not the rubbish.
There you have it...my first response, after I got the excited hyperventilating under some semblance of control, was to wonder if His Darkness always sounds this vague and poorly-informed on whatever subject he’s holding forth upon, and I only just noticed because today that happened to be something I know about. (as Zoe suggests, the interesting vagueness might be a strategy that’s somehow bled across from other subjects.)
But after that I gave in to the old, bad hermeneutic habit of looking for meaning and purpose regardless of surface indications that not much exists.
Howard says he doesn’t want literary texts to be taught in a postmodern way, which (giving him the benefit of the doubt) I take to mean that he doesn’t want students exposed to poststructuralist critical theories, whether they are political or formalist in orientation. To teach critical theory, it seems, is to ‘dumb down’ the syllabus.
I am no fan of critical orthodoxies myself, and find postmodern literary theory only mildly interesting, but I’m kind of stunned to think that introducing kiddies to (say) dialogics could be thought of as a technique for extra-dumbing them. (Unless by blowing their minds into dumbness?) Howard’s standards of intellectual rigorousness must be pretty ruddy high!
Or possibly he’s worried that secondary education produces reductive and oversimplified versions of complex and difficult theoretical concepts - Bakhtin for Utter Frigging Idiots et cetera. That’d be a surprising worry for the PM to be nursing, but reasonable. Glossing the finer points of literary theory must be difficult to manage in secondary school, but I think it’s better on balance to avoid presenting literary texts, even the ‘high quality’ ones, as if they’re fundamentally above and separate from the shaping pressures of history and culture. I think that which particular theoretical viewpoints are presented to students doesn’t matter terribly much – what does matter is that texts should not be read in an artificial vacuum or handled with kid gloves. All this achieves is the solidification of unspoken assumptions, always politically and historically shaped, into unexamined and unquestioned “common sense,” and that’s a problem, because it hinders the reader’s understanding of what a text does and how it functions.
In principle the teaching of literary texts alongside simple introductions to major streams of thought in literary theory and literary criticism is probably quite a good thing, just as long as it’s always clear that the theoretical stuff is a means to thinking in a more effective and organised and directed way about the actual text. As long as the text isn’t reductively seen as a kind of blank support useful mainly for displaying critical theory in action, then there can be no legitimate objection to acknowledging literary theory in upper-level literature courses.
I suspect however that the PM is really annoyed by two notions: firstly, that recent movies and plays and lyrics - “rubbish” - (Clueless, Gattaca, the songs of Paul Kelly) are just as worthy of sustained studently attention as the “traditional texts”, which we have to assume is Shakespeare and the Great Tradition. It’s a slightly odd line for Howard to be taking, given his fondness for taking cheap shots at the “elites” and the “intelligentsia”, but there it is. Secondly, he also appears to be irritated by the thought of a multiplicity of politically based theoretical approaches, each of them somehow equivalent or exchangeable (I think this is what he means by postmodernism) rather than by formalist literary theory as such. And I think he would be more or less alright with feminist/Marxist/ postcolonial interpretations of “rubbish” but he draws the line at anything but gushing reverence for the Western canon. Why? Presumably because he believes that to do so artificially imposes shifting meanings upon the Classics, which by the definition he seems to want to impose, are fixed and impermeable. To me, drawing that kind of interpretative line between high and low is far more of an inappropriate politicising of the syllabus than teaching innocent children about semiotics.
(The Sydney Morning Herald wrote about this too, but they spelled Lyotard’s name wrong; Peter Craven in The Age thinks the PM has a point, unbeknownst to himself. You may also want to look at Margaret Sankey’s diverting, but hardly new, suggestion that John Howard is something of a postmodern phenomenon himself when it comes to strategic manipulations of the concepts of truth, knowledge, and power. The version of this post which I put up at Larvatus Prodeo yesterday has a juicy 70+ comments thread that should give you some idea of what normal Australians think about this subject.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept of a head-of-government type making comments about the canon. But one thing I want to point out is that I think the various comments about “right-wing postmodernism,” popularized I believe by Josh Marshall after the “reality-based community” comments, missed the mark or took the bait, so to speak. It has always seemed to me that those leaked comments were designed to incite the media and punditocracy into a self-contradicting apoplexy. The epistemology, such as it is, is best explained by simple cynicism.
"firstly, that recent movies and plays and lyrics [...] are just as worthy of sustained studently attention as the “traditional texts”, which we have to assume is Shakespeare and the Great Tradition. It’s a slightly odd line for Howard to be taking, given his fondness for taking cheap shots at the “elites” and the “intelligentsia”, but there it is.”
In the U.S., I associate this with classic anti-Semitic tropes—you know, fulminating about the elite intelligentsia that at the same time wants to take away “our heritage” and make us forget who we really are etc. I have no idea what it would mean in the Australian context; is it possible that Howard imported it along with other rhetoric? Or it is more likely home-grown?
Wow, that is amazing.
Since he’s talking about secondary school rather than the university level, I can’t help but think that it’s empty rhetoric. Politicians often like “get tough” as a rhetorical gesture because it sounds good and doesn’t require anything specific actually be done.
I was trying to figure out how “outcomes based assessment” came into this, though. It sounds like the PM is dissing that too. (Isn’t “outcomes based assessment” a bit of a conservative calling card in the U.S.?)
What Jonathan said.
I think you are reading more into it than what he actually said. He really doesn’t say anything about how literary texts ought to be taught. Instead, he seems entirely concerned with what literary texts are taught.
It’s nothing more than the old complaint (in the U.S. at least) that Superman comic books are not as worthy of being taught to students as Shakespeare.
He seems concerned that the syllabus is being dumbed down by teaching kids pop culture.
I really can’t say whether there is any evidence of this in Australia, but if it were true I think he might have a point.
To me, this is not an outrageous and controversial statement.The Prime minister seems to be defending the idea of literature and protecting it from becoming a joke. Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia basically say the same thing and “Blah” is right to point out that this is an old complaint. It is even a boring one. But it will continue to be a complaint by people who do not want childen deconstructing comic books until the energy required to care is completely depleted.
I think teaching Mythologies is an inspired choice. Hell, if you’re going to “deconstruct” pop culture, may as well learn from the best, right? With that said though, there’s something (positive) to be said about having the canon shoved down your throat, and leaving the comic books for a future time. See every debate on the Great Books curiculum ever for the ensuing complexities and contradictions of this position.
I was weaned on comics and loved them. I love pop culture.
But for me it would have been nice to have someone who was truly excited about great books teaching me in High School. And I’m not saying that the Mythology in comics is not something that is interesting to explore. But children will read and understand comics on their own. They need a guide for King Lear and if they have a good one they may not think its “shoved down their throats.” They may find it fun.
Yeah, Chris, me too to all the above. I should have clarified something in my above post though; I was talking about Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which one of the posters in Laura’s other blog mentioned was being taught to the advanced lit. classes in Australia.
My bad Roger. The capital “M” mythologies should have triggered Barthes. I am not opposed to bringing some “theory” into the high school classroom. I am opposed to, as the Prime Minister suggests, teaching pop culture just to make the students pay attention. I’m sure students don’t need a professional to reinforce their already active and healthy interest in reading Manga.
Firstly I can attest as a student at an Australian secondary school in NSW currently doing the HSC is that whether or not the pop culture is the problem one thing is clear, English in the HSC is dreadful. It’s taught with an eye ( or both) turned towards marketplace skills. The essays we have to write are formulaic to say the least, we are sometimes even given statistics on how our essays should look like ( i.e, quote at least six times a page etc). There are fairly simple rules for getting a very good mark in the HSC and clever and experienced teachers simply teach to the test based on this. The syllabus is extremely poorly written and is in parts almost indecipherable. The course has a lot of poorly concealed political content, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but gets repetitive after a while because it’s so simplistic. The game we are expected to play is to do a “reading” of a text based a simplistic and hastily taught version of Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, absurdism etc. Emphasis is constantly put on “language techniques” taken in isolation so that the overall meaning of the text isn’t adequately explored.
I was a bit puzzled by the outcomes-based education comment, as well. There is a bit of a dispute going on here around curricula that try to differentiate forms of assessment from what is being assessed - i.e., if you’re trying to assess a student’s command of scientific knowledge, then recognise that the fact that they can’t, e.g., write a grammatical English essay on a scientific topic doesn’t mean that their *scientific* knowledge is difficient, and design your assessment to reflect this principle. Some people have taken these principles out of context, and tried to assert that English grammar are no longer important in the curriculum, etc. - perhaps this is where the bleed into “outcomes based” education comes in… But others probably know more about this issue than I do…
Howard’s main issue, though, seems to be that he is affronted by what he perceives as the elevation of popular culture to the same level as “classics”, and also believes that fewer “classical” texts are assigned than in the good ol’ days. And, of course, there’s the reds-under-beds fear of relativists in the classroom…
The idea of “literature”, particularly the novel, occupies a somewhat privileged place in Australian culture. The old argument was between teaching English literature and teaching Australian literature, which for the conservatives didn’t exist. In the new argument, conservatives now grudgingly accept that there is a bit of Australian lit. (Patrick White OK, but don’t mention the homosexuality). But the sticking point now is reading practices beyond a somewhat limited and dated notion of the ‘literary’.
The idea that ‘postmodern’ and ‘poltically correct’ can be used as insults was directly imported by the conservatives from the US (rather than from dear old Mother England). But these terms take on completely different meanings in the local context.
I do not think it is an old or boring complaint given T. Srcavan’s comment. In fact, C. Hellstrom echoes the complaint by implying that literary studies in Australia has now been turned into a joke.
The problem is that Australia is trying to copy the U.S., which has used the study of popular culture or an emphasis on literary theory to prove to the public that “new things” are being produced (to justify funding for research), to bolster enrollment (e.g., students will likely prefer reading comic books to reading Shakespeare), and to keep students happy (which helps when faculty members are evaluated by them).
All of these are based on assumptions that are hardly questioned: that one can replace reading Shakespeare with reading comic books, that literature has to be taught and read only in school (and that readings have to be graded), that the “literary canon,” Shakespeare, and people like Bloom represent the “elite” and that commercialized pop culture and literary theory represent the “marginalized,” that there are “political” reasons for emphasizing “tradition” and the “canon” while there are none for emphasizing contemporary literary theories and pop culture.
How will it end? I think Shakespeare will be taught in a more mechanical manner in the future ("do this type of reading” and then “that type of reading") until his works will ultimately disappear from the curriculum. As more people who spent more time watching television come into the school system, comic books will take over. After that, even comic books will disappear. Ultimately, what will be taught in such classes will be what large corporations sell. And then we will realize what “elite” really means.