Australia's Prime Minister and the Literature Syllabus

"The Age" is reporting today that the Prime Minister is complaining about the modern school English syllabus and how it is being "dumbed down". In response, the paper has also printed a response by Peter Craven who states that "Howard has a point - even if he fails to understand it."

It strikes me that this is becoming an annual event - pick an item off the English school reading list and lay into it. Howard puts his argument thus: "...we need a curriculum that encourages an understanding of the high quality literature and not the rubbish." The question is, John, who's to say what is rubbish, and what is not.

I remember being taught "A School for Scandal" back in high school in the early 70s, and let me tell you, that was rubbish: a bedroom melodrama with added slapstick that the Carry-On gang did far, far better. I had no idea of how it could have related to me or my worldview at that time, assuming I had one, which is doubtful.

Now Shakespeare, on the other hand, was good, but the teaching of it was crap. How can a 15-year-old possibly hope to understand the overwhelming ambition and lust for power that fuels Lady Macbeth or Richard III? Same for the war poetry. The Vietnam War was on at the time but I suspect none of us knew anyone actually in the war, and most of us wouldn't have had anyone in our immediate family who had been to either World War II or the Korean War. We only studied World War I poetry anyway, and then it was only Owen and Sassoon; Australian poets like Dennis or Gellart or Palmer or Manifold didn't get a look in.

Every middle-aged generation complains that the literature read and studied by the younger generation is crap. It's par for the course. I remember being told on a number of occasions that reading science fiction and comics was bad for me, that I should read good books (hence my unfortunate addiction to Enid Blyton in my pre-10 years). And yet here I am reading as much as anyone else I know, other than those reviewing for a living.

It's not the product so much as the person reading it. It's not so much the "canon" as the way it is taught. Fix that and the rest will fall into place. Yes, even episodes of the worst television soap opera you can think of are worthy of study. You just have to know how to tackle it.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 21, 2006 2:28 PM.

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