Considering my usual stance on the extremely repetitive and nagging Kevin Donnelly — after all I began my 2004 review (revised December 2006) of his magnum opus Why Our Schools are Failing with the words “Why Dr Donnelly is an absolute goose” — it may surprise some that I agree with him about the power of literature to sustain us in our lives, as he wrote in the Weekend Australian (article not online):
Four years ago our son, James, was killed in a hit-and-run accident. On seeing him in the hospital, the first words that came to our daughter’s lips were “Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Not only did her words reinforce my belief that literature, more so than an SMS text or an internet blog, deals with human experience in a profoundly moving way. I also realised Amelia was only able to draw on Shakespeare’s words because years before, Hamlet had been taught.
I utterly sympathise with Amelia, but I find Kevin’s ruminations quite inapposite, given the circumstances. Surely only some kind of fanatic could think to improve this moment, confronted with an actual dead son, with reflections on the parlous state of English teaching. More Malvolio than Hamlet that, I fear.
Would Horatio’s words be any less moving if delivered by SMS I wonder? And I know I have read blogs (without making absurd claims) that “deal with human experience in a profoundly moving way.”
Nonetheless, it has certainly been my practice in close on forty years of English teaching — and yes, I was one of those teachers in the 1960s, taught indeed by Sam Goldberg himself, that Donnelly in this same article so praises — to include in my courses the best and most profound literature I felt my class could profit from, and to challenge them, whether they were “academic” classes or more mundane groups. There have been classes where the mere ability to write one’s own name has been the challenge; there have been others who have outshone me in their capacity and thirst for understanding. The Rabbit, for example, may reflect on Year 11 1999 and the choice of texts studied then, including the presence in the class of Chinese migrants coping with The Scarlet Letter, one of them by initially reading it in Chinese translation, then going on to read the original and making comments about the inadequacies of the Chinese version…
So Donnelly gets no argument from me about the value of literary study. After that, however, it all goes downhill, as he is locked into sterile arguments about “relevance” that seem to me boringly similar to many a Dip Ed pontification I heard in the 1970s. I find no problem at all in applying the same intelligence to the whole range of texts offered in the HSC, canonical or not. Of course I hope students learn to value some things more than others, but I would also want them to be able to analyse and judge everything that comes their way as skilfully as possible, including blogs and SMS, not to mention Big Brother, or even the linguistic subterfuges of our Prime Minister, or of the US President. (The Poet just sent that item.)
Oh yes, and Kevin: Hamlet is still taught. In fact I suspect it is taught to more students, given the current retention rates compared to the 1960s, than it ever was. See also, if you read blogs of course, my March 2006 entry on Wuthering Heights. And just as Kevin chose to teach Medea to students of Greek background, so have I been known to acquaint, if that were necessary, students of Chinese background with Li Bai and Du Fu and the many other glories of Chinese literature. Why, I even wrote a textbook for them… Oddly, I would put both Kevin’s and my eccentricities under the rubric of “relevance”.
See also Deconstructing Donnelly by Mark Bahnisch, a Sociologist who has previously lectured at Queensland University of Technology and The University of Queensland. He is now Lecturing at Griffith University. He is currently Lecturer in the Politics, Economy and Society Programme in the School of Arts, Media and Culture. The topic in this is another Oz article on the teaching of History.
My entry has attracted a fair bit of attention so far. Thanks for the comments. One comes from Ken Watson, formerly Senior Lecturer in [English in] Education at the University of Sydney. He has also taught at Cambridge University, the University of British Columbia, New York University and Macquarie University.