The HSC English moanings of Miranda…

26 Jul

…and her mate Barry Spurr.

From the esoteric mind of a Latin Mass Catholic HSC crib writer and a right-wing Catholic newspaper columnist comes this “objective” analysis of the 2009–2012 NSW HSC prescribed texts. Honestly, the parent who complained on my English/ESL site that “the HSC English curriculum is a load of s**t and I wonder – and I think many parents would wonder – how the study of English degenerated into mere literary criticism*” should, logically, praise the new list, if Miranda is giving it fair representation — but of course she is not.

The films, websites and various multimedia offerings that clog the draft syllabus list show that, even after six years of criticism and complaints from students, parents and teachers, the curriculum designers at the NSW Board of Studies are determined to patronise the ability and desire of high school students to comprehend great ideas and expand their minds with classics.

“There is a failure of nerve on the part of curriculum [designers],” says Dr Barry Spurr, a senior lecturer in English literature at Sydney University. “They don’t want to present the children with the difficulty of texts, or deal with difficult language … [and] historical context. It’s a failure of belief in English as a discipline.”

Even while primary school children all over the state are willingly burying their heads in the new 607-page Harry Potter book, the Board of Studies, which has apparently consulted “stakeholders” for years about its latest selections, doesn’t trust senior students to read big books.

Instead they can analyse Wikipedia, or websites about multiculturalism and the September 11 terrorist attacks. They can deconstruct the “visual images” of the German language film Run Lola Run or the US political satire Wag the Dog.

Or they can read short novels, such as the 216-page domestic violence novel Swallow the Air, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s 291-page The Namesake or 202 pages of Raimond Gaita’s biographical Romulus, My Father or the 78-page play A Man with Five Children by Nick Enright.

One of my coachees is struggling a bit at the moment with the 30-page King Lear but would probably have little trouble with the hundreds of pages of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code… Length is the touchstone of quality after all; a shame Matthew Arnold never thought of that.

Miranda also cites an essay written by a clever young chap at St Ignatius (where else?) who somehow seems to have survived the evil HSC well enough to be able to write a lucid critical essay, despite Barry’s monotonous drone about students who arrive at university unable to write essays despite years of reading Barry Spurr on how to do just that. That student complains that the official HSC English definition of “text” as “anything that makes meaning” is drivel, since obviously text should only refer to anything written with a quill pen. No, I exaggerate; he said “anything written”, which may just include this blog. One could of course point out that text really means anything woven, but I won’t go down the vulgar line of pop etymology.

My own view is that any 21st century English course that ignores the most powerful means of telling stories and conveying information that we have to hand — film, television and the computer/internet — is not only backward-looking but also irresponsible.

Go and read the list for yourselves, carefully. You will see that the real objection may be that some of the texts appear a touch “politically correct”, at least to people like Miranda Devine. If the collected columns of Miranda were set for study, I am sure she would not have complained in the least.

Meantime, HSC students from 2009 will still be able to read Shakespeare (in fact a very large number of students — those doing Advanced — have to) and Jane Austen and, for the first time I can remember, may even read Banjo Paterson. (In the past it was usually the more left-friendly Henry Lawson.) I see John Donne is back too; Professor Sam Goldberg (English Dept Sydney University mid 1960s) would be pleased! But so am I about that one…

There is not one complaint being made about this new list that was not made by the same people in precisely the same way seven years ago about the first set of prescriptions for 2001-2008 when that appeared in 2000. Experience has taught me that the reservations I had about some of it myself in 2000 were unjustified, except I still feel the course is too ambitious, but Miranda and Barry would find that very odd..

Barry managed to adapt his crib empire to it and has no doubt prospered, and will no doubt continue to do so, and despite all I have said I have made good use of Barry’s cribs myself.

Thanks, Barry. Keep on churning them out. I can’t wait to see your analysis of camera angles in Ten Canoes.

* My reply:

I wonder – and I think many parents would wonder – how the study of English degenerated into mere literary criticism.

As distinct from what? The HSC course has been “literary criticism” ever since it started in 1967; it could be argued that the current HSC is less so than the 1967 model, though that is precisely what many of its critics are complaining about.

Most of the 1959 Leaving Certificate English I did was also “literary criticism” except for the small component on traditional grammar.

Barry and Miranda remind me of all those cultural warriors of the 18th and early 19th centuries who lamented the new-fangled time-wasting phenomenon of novel reading… But they didn’t complain about English courses in schools back then, because there were no English courses in schools. Nothing but good old Latin and (sometimes) Greek.

The Rabbit summarised that history rather well a few years back in an undergraduate essay that did not get the mark it merited.

…A Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres had been established at Edinburgh in 1762 to ‘critically examine the most distinguished species of composition, both in prose and verse’. Its first professor was Hugh Blair, whose primary teaching concern was the rhetoric of religion; he sermonised about sermons. At Aberdeen English was first taught, from 1860, by the utilitarian Alexander Bain, Professor of Logic, who strove to ‘regard our English authors in a connected series, each having more or less in relation to the preceding.’ David Masson, Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at Edinburgh, had similarly historical rather than literary interests—his major work being an exhaustive study of the life of Milton—as did his successor George Saintsbury.

In England, the newly formed London University pioneered English studies, its utilitarian outlook recognising their value relative to the Classics. In 1839 a matriculation exam in English Language was offered; the University calendar recognised ‘the English language as a necessary branch of study in addition to Latin and Greek.’ It took another twenty years for an exam to be offered in English Literature. The examination question suggests the subject’s grounding in literary history, but also the movement into more critical literary studies: ‘From Homer to Scott, smiles through tears have been a favourite subject for poetical description. How are they described in King Lear?’

At this stage, Oxford, as well as Cambridge, was still conspicuously absent from English studies. It was regarded as unscholarly, and was already associated with Universities younger than itself and with the Dissenting Academies that had appeared outside the Anglican Establishment…

The secret to making English acceptable lay in making it a dead language. The study of comparative philology was becoming established in Germany under the brothers Grimm and the Sanskrit scholar Max Müller; there had been a Chair of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford since 1795. The conditions were in place for Philology to become the dominant strain of English Studies. Ostensibly, because Philology was concerned with the development of human language over time, it would embrace history, myth and culture, and thereby become the humanistic education that had been promised by Classics. But English went the same way as the study of Greek. Instead of translation and problems of language being the means to an end, they became the end…

The first Chair in English in Australia was established at the University of Melbourne in the same year as Quiller-Couch’s was at Cambridge [1912]. The University of Sydney, the spiritual home of the civilising project of the Australian wasteland, followed in 1920. Until these dates, English study in Australia had been allied to the study of Modern Languages, Classics, or History. Its first teachers were invariably Oxbridge trained, a fashion that continued well into the twentieth century…

The teaching of English literature took on a more masculine outlook with the arrival of I. A. Richards at Cambridge. His pseudo-scientific approach to poetry appealed to students who had become bored with the comparatively amateurish approach that had preceded it; his loathing of the misuse of language as war propaganda struck a chord with his students. His belief in poetry as the bulwark against the crass, commercialised modern world paralleled Arnold’s concerns about the decline of culture in the wake of industrialisation. By Richards’ time at Cambridge in the mid-1920’s the study of English Literature had been transformed from an effeminate concern, just twenty years before, into a rigorous and vital discipline. Through his sometimes devoted disciples, Leavis and the other contributors to his journal Scrutiny would influence the teaching of English in Commonwealth countries at school and university levels for the better part of fifty years, until the various literary theories, often emanating from France, challenged the ‘disinterested’ study of texts devoid of contexts. But by that time English studies was not only acceptable, but also entrenched.

Goldberg, who taught me, was a disciple of Leavis and also a powerful influence on the 1967-2000 HSC text choices, which (for the first time) included John Donne. Sam would, as I have said, be happy to see Donne back after several years absence. Not sure what Sam would have made of critical analysis of Wikipedia, but it would have been hard for him to have predicted such things back in 1964-5… Certainly one strand of Leavisite criticism via Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams leads towards mass media studies — a path I began going down myself in the 1970s — as a legitimate part of English studies. But that really is ancient history; I am sure Barry Spurr (though not conspicuously a Leavisite himself) would know all that.

See also English Studies on Wikipedia, but preferably after you have studied the site in the HSC English course after 2009. 😉

More on this blog and some on the Big Archive.


The above has dealt much with the late appearance of English as a subject at university. In schools much that we would now put into subject English has a longer history. Senior English syllabuses (in NSW at least) were on the other hand until recent years strongly linked to university English studies. For most of the period from 1965 through the 1980s Sydney University was particularly influential.

In the broader field of Australian primary and post-primary education and the kinds of reading, writing and teaching that prevailed there over the past century, see documents and articles gathered at CSLPLC: The Schooling Australia Project.

The Schooling Australia project has involved the collation of archival English curriculum material from 1901-1938. This has included primary, post-primary and teacher training curriculum material and teacher training resources from South Australia and New South Wales for the period 1901-1938 and nationally for the period of the 1930s.

One of the aims of the project was to develop an electronic resource to make the primary data and analysis available to researchers. The material collected is of significance to further curriculum and historical research regarding the development of education in Australia in the first half of the 20th Century.

This site makes available the English curriculum documents in transcribed and scanned form by year and by state for primary school English and post-primary school English. Aspects of the analysis of the curriculum materials conducted by the key researchers, Professor Bill Green, Associate Professor Jo-Anne Reid (CSU) and Dr. Phillip Cormack (UniSA) are also available on this site.

Make sure you also visit their publications page where you will find some very good articles (PDF) free to download.

I have also found “New Ways for a New Age?”: Reforming the English Curriculum in Post-Compulsory Secondary Education in New South Wales, Australia by Dr Jacqueline Manuel (1997). This section bears on what I said above:

The Role of the University of Sydney in the formation of the HSC English Curriculum

But by the time the Higher School Certificate English Syllabus, established in late 1964 by the Board of Senior School Studies, came to plan a curriculum in English for the new Higher School Certificate, a revolution had taken place in the academic study of English at the University of Sydney. This university, and its Department of English, had always been the key shaping influence of the Leaving Certificate English curriculum since 1912. In 1963 a new, dynamic, Professor had been appointed to the Challis Chair, Professor Sam Goldberg. He had been heavily influenced at Cambridge by F. R. Leavis and his followers and was the leading “Leavisite” in Australia. With a passion he sought to reform the whole ethos of English studies at the University and within the new HSC English curriculum.

At the time of writing what became known as the 1965 HSC English curriculum, a senior member of Goldberg’s Department, Professor G A Wilkes (who held the Chair in Australian Literature but – at that time – remained under the authority of Goldberg as Challis Chair and Head of the Department), was elected Chair of the HSC English Syllabus Committee by its members. But Goldberg’s influence was very strong. Soon after the curriculum was written there was a vitriolic split in the Department and the Vice Chancellor divided the Department – with the ‘Leavisites et al in one ‘department’ under Goldberg, and the latter’s enemies et al in another department under Wilkes. But within a year or so Goldberg and most of his followers had returned to the University of Melbourne (from whence they had come via Cambridge, in many cases) and Wilkes assumed leadership of the one department. But in subsequent years, Professor Wilkes never attempted to alter the basic theoretical thrust of the inaugural HSC English syllabus.

Wilkes told his departmental colleagues that the new HSC syllabus, bibliography and reading lists “meant that much of what had usually been covered in the English I course at the University would now be handed over to schools”. Virtually all of the 45 books cited in a bibliography designed to assist students in the ‘Language’ component of the syllabus were used in undergraduate courses at the University.

Compared with the previous 1953 syllabus, there was a vast jump in both the quality and quantity of texts set for the Literature component of the curriculum. The vast majority of texts set were on reading lists in First, Second, Third Years of the undergraduate program. The bulk of the texts had their origin in the Cambridge ‘Tripos’, the ‘canon’ of texts authorised by the Leavisite bibles such as The Great Tradition, The Common Pursuit, and the many articles published over the years in Scrutiny.

The Leavisite Legacy

This syllabus imported New Criticism, Leavisism, and practical criticism to the NSW senior school curriculum. The Leavisites eschewed any imposition of a ‘literary taste’ model of English teaching. Of course, in practice, they often were merely imposing their own form of ‘literary taste’ Although Leavis traced his roots solidly back to Matthew Arnold, the first HSC English curriculum was devoid of the quasi-religious cadences of salvation-and-redemption-through-literature. For the first time ever, the teaching and examining of poetry became mandatory in the post-compulsory English curriculum (from 1912 onwards it had been optional – teachers and students could select short stories and other forms of literary prose instead). The Leavisite thrust on eliciting personal, individual, ‘honest’ response to literature, uncluttered by fixations with literary history, or repetitions of “supposedly ‘acceptable’ views” of a text, or the regurgitations of dry analyses of plot, summary and character, or summaries of literary critical positions, were the hallmarks of this curriculum.

There was also a substantial section on the study of the English language – its history, its linguistic features, semantics, syntax and so on – which the Leavisite influence was unable to exclude. But in 1976 most of this was removed from the curriculum.

There were three levels in the English curriculum. Assuming that the vast majority of students proceeding to Years 11 and 12 were of matriculable calibre and that their choices of subjects and levels would be determined by student choice, the Third level course, designed for the majority of students – who would proceed to university but who would not necessarily study English at the university – was quite challenging but more ‘catholic’ in its range of texts than those found in First and Second Levels. Alongside Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck and J. D. Salinger there was also a range of Australian literature.

The Second and First levels were designed for those intending to proceed with English studies at university – the First Level was the more challenging in its quantity of texts required to be studied. The Leavisite canon was here arraigned: virtually all of the texts were on the English I and English II reading lists of the Department of English at the University of Sydney. There was Chaucer, Donne, Pope, Hopkins, Eliot, Tess of the d’Urbevilles, Sons and Lovers, King Lear, Othello, Murder in the Cathedral, Oedipus Rex, Huckleberry Finn, The Crucible, Look Back in Anger – and a tiny smidgeon of Australian literature.

For a variety of reasons, too complex to explain here, the majority of HSC students in the late 1960s and early 1970s, ended up avoiding the Third Level (later called 2 Unit General) course and inappropriately enrolling in the Second Level (later called 2 Unit) course. Since 1989 there has been a significant under-enrolment in the 2 Unit General course as well as in the most challenging (First Level, later called 3 Unit) course. In all cases, the distortion of the candidacy has been caused by imbalances and/or perceived imbalances in the marking of the examination papers in the three courses.

Go to that essay and read on. It is good background to current debates. Dr Manuel goes on to explain the origins of what is now the new HSC course in English in NSW.

Site Meter


Tags: , , ,

11 responses to “The HSC English moanings of Miranda…

  1. ninglun

    July 27, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    Great to hear from you Chris, as I recall the Class of 1986 with much fondness; but here are a few corrections: 😉

    1. It was The Britannia Hotel, then known as Beau’s, and I don’t think any of us would do that nowadays, more’s the pity perhaps. I seem to recall that followed a very long emergency study group of the 25 of you on Keats after school hours, just before the HSC. And I seem to recall you lot took me there in the first instance, rather than the other way round… But I had forgotten to mention the nature of the pub… It was also, as a matter of interest, the pub where Warren Lanfranchi met Roger Rogerson on a fateful day a few years before.
    2. I think better of Great Expectations now than we seemed to then.
    3. I haven’t read J K Rowling, though I have seen a few of the movies.
    4. Religion was always lurking, but my brand is very civilised, almost agnostic… Always handy in teaching literature, in fact, to be able to pick up allusions.
    5. My reading was in Anglo-Saxon. Don’t know Welsh. A good example of I tended to like that stuff and worked it into Year 11 or somewhere…!

    Checked your site. Congratulations on your delightfully multicultural family. 🙂

    Can a grumpy old man expect discounts in the case of illness? 😉

    I do remember (I think) you once telling me in class when I asked where the Squash Courts were — I had just been given senior Squash as sport — that they were just across Oxford Street — “and you should know where that is!” Hmmm.

    And Marcel, Chris was a classmate of Nye SC and Richard SC.

%d bloggers like this: