Julie Bishop’s third-hand knowledge of English teaching

08 Oct

Revised and reorganised 9 October. Now with a small anthology of Aus poetry!

Rather than read the reports I went straight to the guru herself.

The serious question needs to be asked whether it is time for a common model curriculum across the country. I think this is a debate that we must have. Let’s open the lid on what is being taught in our schools, and how, and have a debate on what could be taught and why.

Parents are right to be concerned with courses of study that would have students deconstructing that trashy reality show Big Brother, rather than learning the classics of Australian literature like Banjo Paterson, or Shakespeare. Contemplating a movie poster rather than analysing Patrick White?

And students should not be forced to interpret Shakespeare from a feminist or Marxist perspective. They should bring their own interpretations and values to these works of literature. History and geography classes should not be allowed to slide into political science courses by another name.

I wonder what she means by “analysing Patrick White”? Could that include wondering in what ways his homosexuality affected his life and work, or why he came to detest Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal government quite so much? Perhaps the movie poster is safer. But then it would be too much for Julie to contemplate that visual literacy is quite a serious pursuit. There is so much ignorance in these few lines that I don’t know where to begin. Obviously Julie hasn’t read any literary criticism for the past forty years, if indeed she ever has. She just has no idea at all what English Studies actually is, and how it is practised throughout the English-speaking world.

She is naive too. In 1959 we were presented with a Marxist interpretation of Wuthering Heights in a standard history of the English novel by one Arnold Kettle. Except we weren’t told it was Marxist. Is that better? It entered the “conversation” through which we worked out our (ahem!) **own** interpretation of Wuthering Heights.

Look, I happen to love Banjo Paterson, who is apparently a classic of Australian literature along with Bill “Wombat” Shakespeare, but he’s actually a rather second-rate poet, I’m afraid.

And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

That is as vague a set of images, as clunky a rhythm, and as automatic a rhyme as any minor poet of the 19th century ever produced. But his work is fun and has its place, and I have always taught it. Interesting that she does not cite Henry Lawson or Mary Gilmore, even though Mary Gilmore is arguably a better poet than either Paterson or Lawson, and Lawson deeper than Paterson, though he wrote some awful poems too. Paterson was an interesting war correspondent and a powerful myth-maker. Possibly the best Australian poet before Slessor (who totally rubbished those lines from “Clancy of the Overflow” I recall — wouldn’t “glorious wonder” do just as well as “wond’rous glory”?) was John Shaw Neilson. Brennan has his moments, but does not appeal to me greatly. (Yes, I studied Aus Lit.) You will find a few samples over the fold below.

Paterson was at least a better poet than Scotland’s William McGonagall, allegedly the world’s worst poet, whose work I have also taught on occasion.

‘Twas in the year of 1866, and on a very beautiful day,
That eighty-two passengers, with spirits light and gay,
Left Gravesend harbour, and sailed gaily away
On board the steamship “London,”
Bound for the city of Melbourne,
Which unfortunately was her last run,
Because she was wrecked on the stormy main,
Which has caused many a heart to throb with pain,
Because they will ne’er look upon their lost ones again.

Wuthering Heights, to come back to the subversive English lessons of 1959, has of course been read in wildly different ways by many people ever since its publication in 1847. It was thought wild and immoral by the Julies of the 1840s and 50s, and would have never been found in any respectable classroom, let alone a respectable home. To many it was, indeed, trashy. Now it is a Great Classic. What is wrong with tracing the different ways the book has been read through the years, preferably with actual examples of criticism? What is wrong with working out WHY those readings take the direction they do, which has to do with the values and beliefs of readers, surely, and ought to be part of the way advanced senior English students form their own views of the work, assuming of course they read the work itself several times? Isn’t that properly called “education”?

That’s my real complaint about senior English right now. There isn’t time to do it properly, but it sure is worth doing, and it has nothing to do with being “forced to interpret Shakespeare from a feminist or Marxist perspective”. What it is about is seeing from what perspectives particular readings of Shakespeare (or Wuthering Heights) have emerged; in fact students are being to asked to enter a community of discourse that has been going on since long before they were born, but which they need to know their way around if they are to be truly educated readers of literature and criticism. Do visit HSC Online: Introduction to Module B: Critical Study of Texts: “Students who choose the Shakespeare play explore its literary qualities and the ways in which different readings are possible and imply different values that may be realised through different productions… Students [who] choose [prose fiction] explore its literary qualities and different readings of the text, and reflect on the values implied by these readings… Students [who] choose [film or drama] explore the ways in which [their text] represents ideas. Students explore the distinctive qualities of the text and the ways in which values may be realised through production… Students [who] choose one of the following poets for study… explore the distinctive qualities of each poem in the prescribed selection, the ways these poems reflect the poet’s concerns and literary style and the values implied in different readings of the poetry…” This is bad? At least one Shakespeare play must be studied somewhere in the course.


  • Canons to the right, canons to the left…
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Penguin Classics: Wuthering Heights for much more detail on Leaving Certificate English 1959. “Dumbed down? Pull the other one! In fact I think my student has to work much harder than we did in 1959. I hope she ends up being as glad to have studied Wuthering Heights as I have been.” I am happy to report she loves the book still six months on; having to read feminist, psychoanalytic, Christian and Marxist critiques of the novel has made her more, not less, enthusiastic about Emily Bronte! The prefaces to that edition are also good models of current practice in English Studies; to enable my student to benefit from them was surely one of my tasks as an English teacher. Died-in-the-wool conservatives will be pleased to know that readings from the 1611 version of the Bible were part of our study too, helping the student (of Chinese background) pick up allusions and also helping her recognise the biblical style.

A tiny anthology of Australian verse

Australian Bards And Bush Reviewers

Henry Lawson (The poem is part of a legendary public stoush between Lawson and others, particularly Paterson. See also Poem: Borderland by Henry Lawson)

While you use your best endeavour to immortalise in verse
The gambling and the drink which are your country’s greatest curse,
While you glorify the bully and take the spieler’s part —
You’re a clever southern writer, scarce inferior to Bret Harte.

If you sing of waving grasses when the plains are dry as bricks,
And discover shining rivers where there’s only mud and sticks;
If you picture ‘mighty forests’ where the mulga spoils the view —
You’re superior to Kendall, and ahead of Gordon too.

If you swear there’s not a country like the land that gave you birth,
And its sons are just the noblest and most glorious chaps on earth;
If in every girl a Venus your poetic eye discerns,
You are gracefully referred to as the ‘young Australian Burns’.

But if you should find that bushmen — spite of all the poets say —
Are just common brother-sinners, and you’re quite as good as they —
You’re a drunkard, and a liar, and a cynic, and a sneak,
Your grammar’s simply awful and your intellect is weak.


Mary Gilmore

I have grown past hate and bitterness,
I see the world as one;
But though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.

All men at God’s round table sit,
and all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

The Poor, Poor Country

John Shaw Neilson

Oh ’twas a poor country, in Autumn it was bare,
The only green was the cutting grass and the sheep found little there.
Oh, the thin wheat and the brown oats were never two foot high,
But down in the poor country no pauper was I.

My wealth it was the glow that lives forever in the young,
‘Twas on the brown water, in the green leaves it hung.
The blue cranes fed their young all day – how far in a tall tree!
And the poor, poor country made no pauper of me.

I waded out to the swan’s nest – at night I heard them sing,
I stood amazed at the Pelican, and crowned him for a king;
I saw the black duck in the reeds, and the spoonbill on the sky,
And in that poor country no pauper was I.

The mountain-ducks down in the dark made many a hollow sound,
I saw in sleep the Bunyip creep from the waters underground.
I found the plovers’ island home, and they fought right valiantly,
Poor was the country, but it made no pauper of me.

My riches all went into dreams that never yet came home,
They touched upon the wild cherries and the slabs of honeycomb,
They were not of the desolate brood that men can sell or buy,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.

* * * * *

The New Year came with heat and thirst and the little lakes were low,
The blue cranes were my nearest friends and I mourned to see them go;
I watched their wings so long until I only saw the sky,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.

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23 responses to “Julie Bishop’s third-hand knowledge of English teaching

  1. Bruce

    October 11, 2006 at 4:53 pm


    I don’t actually recall making a personal attack, rather I remember questioning an action. Can understand how it may be viewed as a little inflamatory though 😉


  2. AV

    October 11, 2006 at 10:41 pm

    Ninglun makes an excellent point: writing is a skill, yes, but teaching is also a skill. And too often that is forgotten.

  3. ninglun

    October 14, 2006 at 8:52 am

    Good to see Bruce got my message. See Am I as Boring as Bat-Crap or What? + comments there.

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