Agreeing with Kevin Donnelly

10 Jul

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, and I have just one word for Australian Education Minister Julie Bishop today: buffoon.

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.

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7 responses to “Agreeing with Kevin Donnelly

  1. Ken Watson by email

    July 10, 2006 at 10:20 am

    As usual, you hit the nail on the head. I’m just too busy at the moment to make [detailed] comments that [may] go [to] the ever-larger readership of your website. I’ve still not managed to produce my list of 20 (or was it 50?) best books. But one of them would be a novel by Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage. If you haven’t read it and his Famous Last Words, hunt them up.

    edited by Owner

  2. TheBizofKnowledge

    July 10, 2006 at 10:21 am

    I just wanted to agree with you that there are definitely some very moving pieces being published in blogs today. I don’t believe that the delivery method of literature (print vs. electronic) has much of an effect on the words themselves. Horatio’s words are profound and moving in any medium.

  3. AV

    July 10, 2006 at 10:25 am

    Teaching Chinese literature in an English class? Stop muffling the canon!

    I am what is called a “weak atheist” theologically, and I have to confess to being a “weak atheist” when it comes to the question of whether literature (vis-a-vis other forms) has as an intrinsic quality the power to do anything. Especially given that “literature” is itself such a slippery term. And that’s why Donnelly’s simplistic diatribes about how these texts over here will give students valuable insights into the Universal Truths of Human Nature (TM), but these texts over here won’t, really irritate me.

  4. Ninglun

    July 10, 2006 at 10:35 am

    You’d object to Ezra Pound’s “Cathay” then? Or this? Or be annoyed with T S Eliot for writing bits in Italian? Or not want anyone to read Tolstoy? I am happy for all those to be in English classes.

    I see we agree about Donnelly’s “simplistic diatribes” though, and I understand what you mean by being a “weak atheist” on the “power of literature.” Yes, I too have read the arguments about culture and being a commandant at Auschwitz, and the ensuing scepticism about culture. Reading Ruth Kluger is a good corrective to that.

    I don’t regard literature as somehow sacred, or a substitute for the sacred, like Bloom or Leavis or even Matthew Arnold; but I do know the pleasure that something a bit challenging does lead to, even in students who may have been cynical or negative at the outset. In fact, that has been one of the great joys of teaching English. I am also pomo enough to know what you mean by “literature” being a “slippery term”, but I still find some experiences in text really are more satisfying than others, and really don’t think this is just a matter of mere subjectivity (another slippery term). You might look at my own “canon”, not meant to be anything other than idiosyncratic, at the tab on the top of this blog.

  5. Ninglun

    July 10, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    Teaching Chinese literature in an English class? Stop muffling the canon!

    I now suspect this may be ironic…

    See Julie Bishop’s Brain. 🙂

  6. The Poet

    July 10, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    Random thoughts…

    I recall vividly ‘teaching’ ‘The Merchant of Venice’ to 9E5 in a western suburbs school in the 60s. It was the ‘school edition’ which meant that the naughty bits were missing, making it difficult to listen to the then new-fangled cassette tape version of the play. Partridge’s book ‘Shakespeare’s Bawdy’ filled in the gaps for me.

    Henry Maz*** would sit there, perplexed, along with 41 classmates as we laboured on. Act and scene summaries were completed each Thursday period 6, as dictated by the Head of English, so that exercise books would look filled by busy students. We eked out the play from June to November, in time for the annual examination, salivating at the thought of ‘Juliius Caesar’ for the School Certificate.

    I recall Henry taking me aside one day after a period of traditional grammar and asking me why we had to drill the difference between an adverbial clause of condition and an adverbial clause of concession. I thought carefully and answered: ‘Because Mr E****** says so, Henry. He’s my boss, you know’. Henry nodded sagely and walked off. I’d condition him and his mates like Pavlov for the examination so that my class would not score significantly worse in the grammar section of the paper than the other two classes at the ‘modified’ end of the syllabus.

    Henry went on to be a boilermaker, I believe. I think he would have been a ripper of a boilermaker.

    When ‘outcomes based education’ oozed its way out of Thatcherite Britain it was seen as the brainchild of the Right wanting to reduce learning to ‘measurable outcomes’ that could provide a sound basis for assessing learning and reporting to parents. It was, therefore, with a sense of breathtaking irony that I watched ‘Sunday’ and saw the likes of Dr Nelson attacking OBE as if it were a product of the loony Left.

    I also think that KD might have done better than to make his political point in the context of personal tragedy. Lacking in taste, I thought.


  7. AV

    July 10, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    When ‘outcomes based education’ oozed its way out of Thatcherite Britain it was seen as the brainchild of the Right wanting to reduce learning to ‘measurable outcomes’ that could provide a sound basis for assessing learning and reporting to parents. It was, therefore, with a sense of breathtaking irony that I watched ‘Sunday’ and saw the likes of Dr Nelson attacking OBE as if it were a product of the loony Left.

    OBE–while not exactly the “brainchild” of the Right here in WA–was first introduced by the Right-wing Court Government (and particularly while Colin Barnett held the education portfolio). Not that that is an argument against it, by the way, but it should be pointed out that, for all the grandstanding of Howard, Nelson and Donnelly, there are not a few figures on their side of politics who support OBE. (Not least of which is Julie Bishop herself).

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