Like the teaching of history, the teaching of literature in Australian secondary schools – the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ – has, for the last twenty years or so, been a topic of intermittent controversy in the media; to a much lesser extent, one gathers, in the schools themselves, where a majority of English teachers seem either happy or resigned to be singing from the same songbook, with only occasional peeps of protest at the inexorable displacement of traditional literary studies by cultural studies, with the various losses that entails. A comprehensive history of the treatment of literature in Australian schools would therefore be very welcome as a way of placing some context around the recent changes.
This book is not that history, nor, to be fair, does it purport to be: for one thing it only covers the period since 1945, and for another it does not deal with Queensland or the territories. Furthermore, it is not a monograph, but a collection of seventeen chapters by seventeen different contributors (a coincidental equivalence: some chapters are multi-authored, and some authors have written more than one chapter). One would expect there to be some problems of coherence and consistency in a collection of this size, and there are; there is also some uneven writing and poor editing. But if the book hangs together well enough, all things considered, it is partly because of its ideological uniformity: nearly all the authors are inclined to celebrate the emancipation of Australia’s twelfth-graders from the mid-century shackles of a colonial ‘cultural heritage’; and partly because a slightly artificial unity is imposed on the volume by what were presumably editorial instructions to all contributors to make reference to, and use of, a new online database. And this they all assiduously do, though its relevance sometimes seems a little forced or tangential.
The database is called the Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools (ALIAS for short). It was created by Tim Dolin, one of the editors of the present volume, and John Yiannakis, a contributor, and is based on ‘all available syllabuses, reading lists, examination papers, subject manuals and/or handbooks from 1945–2005 for Western Australia, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria’ (21). At the time of writing this review, it is still accessible on Dolin’s Australian Common Reader website, at www.australiancommonreader.com/syllabus. It is a genuinely valuable addition to the fairly minimal digital resources in this research area, and its moderately elaborate search architecture and large size make it enjoyable and revealing to play around with.
That said, the total absence of any data from Queensland or the mainland territories is more than a pity; it is a major defect in the database, and consequently in this book. The reason given for excluding Queensland is that the Queensland Senior Public Examination was abandoned after 1972 in favour of school-based assessment, which meant there were no state-wide reading lists or examination papers produced after that time. I hope it is not Queenslander-paranoia (a widespread affliction north of the Tweed) to point out that (a) there were still English and other syllabuses produced after 1972, and (b) there were reading lists and examination papers from 1945 to 1972 – nearly half the period covered by the database – which are in the archive. Furthermore – (c) – external Senior examinations continued to be available to mature-age students wishing to matriculate until at least 2005 (probably longer), and the exam papers and reading lists associated with this would also be in the archive.
In short, the large exclusion which prevents this from being a genuinely national overview is not plausibly justified; and there are some problems that flow directly from this. Several books widely used in Queensland schools after 1945, but apparently not in other states, do not appear in ALIAS (for example, Hudson’s Outline History of English Literature and Pritchard’s Training in Literary Appreciation); furthermore the statement is made by several different contributors, and notably in the two chapters by all three editors, that by the late 1960s all states had separated their English courses into two subjects, one called Expression, Communication or something similar, the other Literature or English Literature (9, 45ff.). But in fact this split never happened in Queensland. One can only hope that at least the database can be corrected and supplemented in an indefinite and un-funded future. Regrettably, though, the printed book has bolted!
But a work of this kind deserves to be considered for what it is, as well as what it might have been; and it is a substantial achievement, containing much of interest. The three editors’ introductory chapter, cryptically entitled ‘Conditional assent’ – borrowed from Frank Kermode, apparently, and used here to mean ‘assent to the power of imaginative writing on condition that it serves the always changing needs and purposes at hand’ (11) – presents a complex, though perhaps not altogether univocal, position on the nature of literary canons and their historical relation to school reading lists. It is dispiriting to find that here and elsewhere in the volume, John Docker’s simplistic and unhelpful notion of a ‘metaphysical ascendancy’ in Australian criticism is still taken seriously. So too ‘Leavisism’, another of Docker’s favourites, here used to mean not strictly ‘being a disciple of F. R. Leavis’, but more generally ‘doing close reading’ and ‘ignoring the relevance of social context to literary criticism’. Dolin himself, in later chapters, acknowledges the distortion in the term thus used, but most of his co-contributors seem unconcerned by his caveat.
Part I (of three) comprises, in addition to the Introduction, a necessary overview of the ALIAS data by John Yiannakis and a third chapter, also by the three editors, traces the evolving relationship between university English departments and secondary schools in the long succession of dominant theories and approaches to the teaching of literature after 1945. Again I sensed (perhaps wrongly) a tension between endorsing the progress away from literary aesthetics towards ever more inclusive reading lists and socio-political thematics and a more ambivalent or ironic view of that progress, one that might even entertain the prospect of a return to aesthetics.
Part II, ‘Histories’, begins on a high note with Ian Reid’s beautifully crafted distillation of much of his own influential writing on the provisional status of the literary, and the dynamic processes of its ongoing construction by the ‘circumtextual’ materials that frame it. Four of the remaining half-dozen chapters in this section, however, I found to be quite a slog. Two long co-written chapters (sixty pages in total), by Jacqueline Manuel and Don Carter, cover ‘the history of prescribed text lists in senior secondary English in NSW’ from 1945 to 2005, arguing that less has changed than one might think, even after the ‘Cultural Studies turn’ of the 1980s. The continuities, they claim, do not reside in the content of the lists which, they concede, do show ‘a steady increase in the representation of [contemporary] Australian writing’ after 1965, not to mention a much wider range of text-types, and a more ‘democratic’ and ‘transparent’ approach to syllabus and text list development; they reside rather in systemic features like prescribed lists, public examinations, and the rhetoric of the ‘Personal Growth model’ as the dominant rationale for the study of English from the 1970s on. The authors’ conclusion – that ‘the continuities in the senior English curriculum from 1911 to 2005 are considerably more striking and pronounced than the handful of attempted transformations over the course of the twentieth century’ (133) – strikes me as unwarranted by the evidence they present; as an exaggeration at best. (Furthermore – and I am sorry to keep on about this – if someone had bothered to cast a comparative glance over the Queensland border, they would have found a system largely devoid of prescribed text lists, public examinations, and even the rhetoric of the Personal Growth model, and could have considered the effects – fairly minimal, I suspect – of their forty-year absence.)
The chapter on Victoria in this section is less wide-ranging, focusing on the design and implementation of the new Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) English syllabus in 1990 – the one that caused outrage at the ‘dumbing-down’ effect of including comics and TV sitcoms in its reading lists. Larissa McLean Davies and Brenton Doecke have provided a concise history of this controversial reform, enriched by experience-based reflections by Prue Gill and Terry Hayes. The crusading tone of this chapter is a little hectic, which makes for a lively read, but the account is utterly one-eyed about the reform, caricaturing its critics (labelled the ‘gutter press’ and ‘conservative academics’) just as egregiously as, on their account, the critics caricatured the new curriculum. If there were moderate and cogent critiques of the VCE, you will not find them rehearsed here. What you will find is a lament that the reformers’ original vision of English as a form of system-wide ‘literary sociability’ could not survive the reality of a world in which, like it or not, some forms of substantive learning had to be demonstrated and some degree of competitive differentiation tolerated. It seems that only by removing every vestige of hierarchy, whether in the material being read or in students’ engagement with it, can English retain any educational value.
Not all the accounts are quite so heavily politicised. Wayne Sawyer’s exploration of his own classroom practice at several historically significant moments in a long teaching career is lucid, interesting and engaging. Patricia Dowsett’s chapter on the authority of university professors of English over school curricula in Western Australia is also highly readable, though her primary focus on Allan Edwards, who was Chair of English at UWA 1941–74 and had studied with Leavis at Cambridge, means that time is wasted wondering what kind or how much of a Leavisite he was. (Since her focus is Western Australia, the time might have been better spent wondering why F. H. Pritchard’s Exercises in Interpretation (1940) was – according to ALIAS – prescribed in WA schools for seventeen years in succession (1948–64), Pritchard having been a non-academic British author of textbooks on literary appreciation since the 1920s!)
Part III, ‘Texts, Authors, Periods, Theories’, sounds like a grab bag and reads like one. It is nonetheless the most enjoyable section, offering a series of seven case studies focusing on Shakespeare, Great Expectations, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Modernist criticism, Judith Wright’s poetry, Cloudstreet and Wuthering Heights. Various methods are used – argument, biography, anecdote and memoir – to connect the experience of teachers and students to patterns of information in the ALIAS database. The quality of the writing is, again, very uneven; some verges on the unreadable. But some interesting and, in some cases, counter-intuitive points are made about the historical presence of individual authors and works in English syllabuses. The best of this group are Tim Dolin’s two chapters. The first, on the coming of Modernist literature and Modernist criticism, advances the interesting thesis that their arrivals were far from simultaneous, finding evidence in ALIAS that the latter may have arrived first, by some forty years. The second makes dazzling use of Wuthering Heights to mount – as I take it – a subtle but powerful critique of the ideological direction taken by subject English since the 1980s, drawing on the recent work of Alain Badiou, Derek Attridge and Elizabeth Grosz to advocate the need for a revival of the now largely abandoned and despised Cultural Heritage model. As he says, ‘the assumption that faithfulness to heritage entails the surrendering of critical thought is one that must be challenged.’ (355). I could not agree more!
Since this is the final chapter in the book, it is tempting to say it provides a fitting finale. But in fact it is a slightly confusing finale, because it undercuts what most of the other contributors have either assumed or argued in their chapters, namely that English has been heading in very much the right direction since the 1980s. In the end, it’s hard not to conclude that this is really two books, one by Tim Dolin, and another by most of the other contributors, and that they don’t fit together very comfortably.