Australian PM criticizes high-school literary studies

There’s been some interesting anti-post*ism articles in “The Australian”: recently. Today, Giles Auty suggests “Top Marx for Our Educators”:,20867,18874034-601,00.html, and Steve Lewis and Imre Salusinszky report that the “PM canes ‘rubbish’ postmodern teaching”:,20867,18878087-601,00.html. Auty’s article is a cranky and sometimes ill-informed invective, so i’ll pass over it, but Lewis and Salusinzsky’s report leads down an interesting path…

Now, I’m not in Australia at the moment, so I haven’t been following this story, but Lewis and Salusinszky report that Australian PM, John Howard, has been criticising high-school English curricula that focus not on literacy and literature, but on ‘critical literacy’: critiques of effects of power supposedly embedded within texts. Lewis and Salusinszky write:

The criticism of teaching standards followed “revelations in The Weekend Australian”:,20867,18818644-2702,00.html that a prestigious Sydney school, SCEGGS Darlinghurst, had asked students to interpret Othello from Marxist, feminist and racial perspectives.

“I think there’s evidence of that (dumbing down) in different parts of the country … 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 syllabuses,” Mr Howard told the ABC. (link added)

There’s nothing inherently objectionable about asking students to interpret Shakespeare from Marxist, feminist, and what I presume are meant to be not racial, but postcolonial, or racially-aware, perspectives, so long as the students are only told to do it because it’s a valuable intellectual exercise. However, the wording of the assessment task in question, reprinted in _The Australian_, goes a little further:

“In your answer, refer closely to the prescribed text and explain how dramatic techniques might be used to communicate each reading. You must consider two of the following readings: Marxist, feminist, race,”

Like many essay questions, it’s lamentably unclear, and appears to anachronistically suggest that Shakespeare may have used dramatic techniques to communicate Marxist or feminist perspectives. It’s also difficult to imagine how, forced to think themselves inside two of the left-wing readings mentioned, a student might have enough scope left to mount a sustained criticism of even one of those readings, should they choose to.

Reporter Justine Ferrari gathers some fine comments condemning the approach to literature that the assessment task suggests. “Les Murray”: “said literature should be removed from school curriculums, which, in the words of US poet Billy Collins, teach students to strap poetry to a chair and beat meaning out of it with a hose”. I heartily agreee with him. Murray continues: “Students are being taught to translate (poetry and literature) into some kind of dreary, rebarbative, reductive prose for the purpose of getting high marks.”

Rolling out the big guns, Ferrari even gets a quote from Harold Bloom, who says: “I find the question sublimely stupid … It is another indication that literary study has died in Australia.” This may not be especially significant, though, since as far as I’m aware Bloom thinks literary study has died _in general_.

Back to Lewis and Salusinszky’s article, and we find Peter Morgan, convenor of the “European Studies program”: at the University of Western Australia, weighing in sagely:

Professor Morgan said the English literature syllabus in Western Australia was being replaced by a course called “Texts, traditions and cultures”, which had led to a large degree of dissatisfaction and low morale among teachers.

“Literary theory covers a broad range of cultural and social theory from Marxism to post-structuralism, feminism and queer theory,” he said. “It’s very obscure. It encourages students to use buzzwords and jargon to cover up that they have no idea what they’re talking about.

“Teachers are disappointed they are not teaching literature any more. They feel the subject has been hijacked by those who want to teach about race, gender and Marxism, rather than about literature.

And it’s here that Morgan pinpoints the problem. Literary studies still _includes_ literature, but it’s not always easy to say that literature is what it’s _about_, any longer. The omnipresence of the various kinds of theory described here, in most courses of literary study, draws attention away from texts, their aesthetics, and the concrete facts of their creation (such as their place in their authors’ lives), It makes literary studies into a study of labour issues, race-relations, queer issues, and often as not a shrill and incessant whining about the deleterious effects capitalism and neo-liberal governments have on artistic expression. Rather than appreciating literature, students are encouraged to treat it as a ground in which to go on a treasure-hunt for sinister motives underlying all of modern life and culture.

Such study might be necessary, in the sense that a well-rounded society ought to have it secreted in some forgotten academic niche, but it is indeed dreary. It works against a love of literature, though literature is a loveable thing, both sublime and beautiful. Universities, I suppose, might be permitted to massacre literary studies as they like. But in high-school English courses, where encouraging literacy ought still be one of the goals, driving students to think of reading as dreary is destructive in the extreme.

*Update*: Sorrow at Sills Bend has a different take on the “Literary Studies Argy-Bargy”:, and her post is a goldmine of links (a linkmine?).

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.