Elite girls school ‘kills the study of literature’

15 Apr

What a stupid, stupid story! It beggars belief completely that anyone would be surprised by this, or even call it news! Where have these people been for the past five years: under rocks?

ONE of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare’s work, Harold Bloom, and the nation’s pre-eminent poet, Les Murray, have declared literary study in Australia dead after learning that a prestigious Sydney school asked students to interpret Othello from Marxist, feminist and racial perspectives.

“I find the question sublimely stupid,” Professor Bloom, an internationally renowned literary critic, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale and Berg Professor of English at New York University, said yesterday.

“It is another indication that literary study has died in Australia.”

The question was an assessment task in March set for advanced English students in Year 11 at SCEGGS Darlinghurst, an independent Anglican girls’ school in inner Sydney. Considered one of the nation’s leading schools, it charges almost $20,000 a year in fees for senior students.

Yes, every school in NSW is probably asking similar questions in Year 11 and Year 12. I have doubts about the way this one has been framed; I think it is far better for students to be asked to read actual examples of criticism of, say, Othello after they have read and discussed the play in order to examine how those critics have read the text and why they have read it that way. That, it strikes me, is perfectly legitimate. They might discover that Harold Bloom is an old goose far too influenced by Freud and a cockeyed notion that Shakespeare is somehow a sacred writer.

My main complaint is that this approach, while commendable, is far too time-consuming to be done properly, and that is not the fault of SCEGGS or any other school. It is this potted treatment that the constraints of the examination system make inevitable that I object to, not the enquiry itself. Indeed, I do not see how anyone even slightly informed about the nature of literary study in the 21st century could avoid the fact that a multiplicity of critical approaches to literature exists, and that students of literature must be asked to examine that.

The sensible and bleeding obvious point is saved to the last paragraph of The Australian’s muckraking report: “The president of the English Teachers Association of NSW, Mark Howie, said the assessment question was in keeping with the syllabus – that students develop a personal understanding of the text and can relate to the notion that it can be interpreted differently in different contexts.”

Indeed if SCEGGS was not asking such questions that would truly be a scandal, as it would mean the school was remiss in preparing its students for the HSC.

See also my English and ESL Blog.

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4 responses to “Elite girls school ‘kills the study of literature’

  1. Renegade Eye

    April 16, 2006 at 7:21 am

    Bloom doesn’t really say how it should be approached.

  2. Lisa

    April 16, 2006 at 9:32 am

    urgh! Stupidity!!

  3. marcelproust

    April 19, 2006 at 2:44 am

    I know this is not exactly on topic, but what do you think of:

    which is the vexed question of the HSC treatment of community languages. In particular, the contortions which the tribunal goes through to find that the use of “background” courses for (asian) languages which are all very difficult for (non-asian) students is not discriminatory against an asian (chinese) student on the rather far-fetched ground that it is (in my opinion extremely remotely) possible that a non-asian expatriate could be caught by the same rule.

    A more brief report is in the smh at

    ? (this started as a question, after all)

  4. Owner

    April 19, 2006 at 9:11 am

    The question becomes vexed indeed when the “background” is Chinese but not Mandarin — Shanghainese or, even more interesting, Cantonese.

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