Much of the recent debate about the school curriculum has focused on history teaching and events like the arrival of the First Fleet and the significance of Anzac Day. Students are taught indigenous culture is “sophisticated” and that Australian society is inherently oppressive and racist.
While not making the headlines as important is the way literature has also been captured by the cultural-left and how neo-Marxist inspired critical theory and postmodernism are all-pervasive.
Read any of the state and territory curriculum documents detailing what should be taught in the senior school English classroom and it’s obvious how dire and depressing the situation now is.
Instead of valuing the aesthetic and ethical quality of literature and its ability to say something enduring and profound about human nature and the world in which we live students are made to treat literary texts as cultural artefacts to be analysed and critiqued.
The South Australian senior school course states the study involves analysing “social, cultural, economic, historical, and/or political perspectives in texts and their representation of human experience and the world”.
Students are also told, “Students develop an understanding of the power of language to represent ideas, events, and people in particular ways and of how texts challenge or support cultural perceptions”. While nodding in the direction of valuing literature’s aesthetic qualities the primary focus is on developing “critical perspectives” and detailing a text’s “historical and cultural contexts”.
The dominance of critical theory and postmodernism, where texts range from graffiti and SMS messaging to multimodal texts and students’ own writing, is also evident in the Western Australian senior school English syllabus. Students are asked to “engage with literary theory” and analyse texts in terms of their “cultural, social and historical contexts”.
Reflecting the influence of reader-response theory the statement is also made students are to “enter the discourse about readings, reading practices and the possibility of multiple readings”. Gone are the days when the author intended to say something and when it was possible to argue some interpretations are closer to the truth than others.
In Queensland students undertaking the English and English Literature Extension course are expected “to ask critical questions about cultural assumptions, implicit values and differing world views encountered in an exploration of social, cultural and textual understandings about literary texts and the ways they might be interpreted and valued”.
Students are also asked to apply “different theoretical approaches to analyse and evaluate a variety of literary texts and different ways readers might interpret these texts”. The approaches listed include “the major approaches of author-centred, text-centred, reader centred and world-context-centred are ways of conceptualising changes in the theories and practices of literary study that have evolved during the 20th and 21st centuries”.
The Victorian Literature Study Design, while also acknowledging the aesthetic qualities of literature, also focuses heavily on critical theory. Teachers are told the study “enables students to examine the historical and cultural contexts within which both readers and texts are situated. It investigates the assumptions, views and values which both writer and reader bring to the texts”.
Once again, students are asked to cultivate “an awareness that there are multiple readings of texts and that the nature of language and texts is dynamic”. While many students find it impossible to read a lengthy novel (most prefer the film version) they are expected to identify the “contexts (cultural, social, historical and ideological) that may influence the construction and reading of the text”.
To expect senior school students to achieve such a task beggars belief. Such is the convoluted and arcane world of critical theory and postmodernism that even undergraduates find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand. A world where the author is dead, words have no agreed meaning and where there are as many interpretations of a text as there are readers and viewers.
The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in ‘A Defence of Poetry’ distinguishes between two types of reading, one that works on the imagination and the other on reason. Deconstructing a literary work centres on reason as students are asked to analyse the text based on abstract intellectual constructs.
Poetry, and literature in general, on the other hand, Shelley describes as “the expression of the imagination”. Shelley writes “Poetry acts in another and diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought”.
Forcing students to analyse literature in terms of theory also represents a dry and arid approach. One that denies students the excitement, joy and wonder of being transported to a world that enriches and nourishes the spirit and the imagination.
As suggested by the poet William Blake in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks in the cavern”.
Literature, properly taught, also encourages students to empathise and understand others and to better appreciate human nature. As Atticus tells Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it”.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a conservative author and commentator. His recent book is Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March.