“Critical literacy” to be scrapped in Queensland schools

by John Q on August 4, 2005

My son, going into Year 12 next year, is really happy about this. I agree with him that teaching “Theory” derived from the kind of third-hand postmodernism that was, until recently, dominant in Australian humanities departments is a waste of time, and an unreasonable imposition on students who are conscripted into this course on the assumption that they are going to learn about English (the language, not the academic specialisation of the same name).

On the other hand, I don’t look back to the Golden Age of courses on (how to write essays about) Shakespeare and the Canon with any great enthusiasm either. What I’d like for my kids to get out of high school English is an ability to write well in a variety of modes and (if possible) a love of literature. I don’t think courses in literary criticism (traditional, modern or postmodern) do much for either goal. As far as love of literature goes, they’re usually counterproductive.

More on this from Mark Bahnisch



Laura Carroll 08.04.05 at 2:08 am

Fair enough, John, but how can a person learn to write if he doesn’t also learn to read?

Julie McCrossin hosted a reasonable and non-alarmist conversation on RN about this topic earlier in the week, I’m sure it’s available for MP3 download by now. Maybe your son might listen to it? I think sixteen or seventeen is perhaps a little too young to make up one’s mind on the merits or otherwise of recent developments in literary studies.


Robert Wiblin 08.04.05 at 3:02 am

Hi John, I came to Blogs, Wikis and CC at the AFOI. I study English Literature in the IB diploma and I’ve been thinking about whether I agree with this move. Our cillibus is almost entirely critical literacy based. In every case you have to point out a literary device and then describe how it helps reveal the author’s message/theme/ideas etc to the audience/reader.

If you’re good at it, it’s a fun game of ‘find the hidden meaning’. It opens you up to interesting ideas expressed by readers you probably otherwise wouldn’t read. It also forces you to analyse what they’re saying in some depth. If you’re not good at it (that’s about half of people) then you grow to hate it, and think it’s rediculously pointless, difficult and an evil plot designed by evil people in Wales (IB headquarters) to screw you around. In general I think I’ve found it engaging and fun when the books I was studying were worth studying (The Outsider) but thought it was stupid when I was studying books or which the method was not applicable (Antigone) or just not literature (Like Water for Chocolate). Nonetheless, I’ve gotten better at playing this game over time and it is sort of fun.

The problem with that article is that it has a really poorly written sentence and a blatant ‘overreading’ of a text which does not have hidden meaning and then concludes: all critical literacy is nonsense. Stupid reasoning. The fact that you can analyse the meaning of a text prosaically or read more into a text than is actually meant does not make all analysis silly. On the other hand, this sort of stuff should be criticised rather than encouraged.

Personally I agree that the balance in the english curriculum has swung too far towards meaning analysis and too far away from explaining why a text is enjoyable or well-written irrespective of what the author is saying. On the other hand, it would be dangerous for the pendulum to swing back to the point where banal writing with no reference to the author and their intention is fine (I like this book because the characters are entertaining… etc). Presumably the two should be meshed so that we can both point out the author’s message and the method that it is expressed with the reasons why the text is enjoyable.

There is no reason why students should be forced to read more into a text than is really there, and there is no reason why analysis of literature as a purely enjoyable experience should be thrown out. Hopefully the IBO will make its english curriculum a bit less stodgy in the future, but due to assessment limitations (hard to sync marking around the world when things get too subjective) I suspect they will keep it as restricted as possible!


Arnold Williams 08.04.05 at 7:25 am

Essays on Shakespeare and the Canon, or on critical reading, are NECESSARY. Anyone’s first three hundred or so essays are bilge, but unless you get through them, you don’t get to the ones worth reading. Given the tools available, how about giving him a chance to use a blog that you will read, and follow topics? There are some good essayists out there. The other day, I even encountered some decent advice on writing in one.

Or, to put it another way, writing is always writing about SOMETHING, and unless you have a something, it won’t work.


des von bladet 08.04.05 at 9:22 am

Essays on Shakespeare and the Canon, or on critical reading, are NECESSARY.

Or, to put it another way, writing is always writing about SOMETHING, and unless you have a something, it won’t work.

There are more somethings in heaven and earth, Arnold, than are dreamt of in your curriculum.


xyz 08.04.05 at 9:45 am

What I’d like for my kids to get out of high school English is an ability to write well in a variety of modes and (if possible) a love of literature.

This requirement could be satisfied by a Business Writing course and a sack of secondhand paperbacks. Though that would be an improvement on most high-school curricula, are you sure you wouldn’t like to restate your goal? Perhaps there’s no need to.

Most of my classmates back in high school agreed even then that we learned to “write” from our history classes’ critical essay assignments; as for literature we read cheesy bilge (Terry Pratchett etc.) on the side and developed interests in the cheesy bilge writers’ evident influences, or not; and got little out of English classes beyond an unfortunate and skewed hatred for the classics that were mistaught to us. Oh yes, and AP credits.


sennoma 08.04.05 at 11:00 am

John, just have the kid read Berube regularly.


Maynard Handley 08.04.05 at 3:45 pm

My English classes in South Africa 20 years ago had a section that involved showing you advertisments and teaching/asking you how the advertisers were attempting to manipulate your emotions. However it was a very small part of what we were taught.
I think a greatly expanded version of this, in particular broadended to cover political discourse, would be an invaluable addition to English classes in Australia, or, of course, Britain, the US, Canada and so on.


Arnold Williams 08.04.05 at 8:43 pm

von bladet:

Yes, there are. And that means there is always a principle of selection. The “classics” has a couple of merits going for it, including ease of reference (or, of course, ease of solving crossword puzzles, if that appeals to you).

Harold Bloom wrote rather extensively on this topic — I’d suggest he has the experience to be worth listening to.


des von bladet 08.05.05 at 4:21 am

Harold Bloom? My life is projected to be too short for the portly gnosticiciste of whom you speak. (Which is not to say that it is anticipated to be unduly truncated, by any means.)

I actually liked Shakespeare and his little friends in old-fashioned English classes, and I like Shakespeare also now, but it was the weekly essay in biology classes that taught me most of what I learned at school of the craft of writing.

The things you claim for “the classics” are, of course, pretty much the things that were previously claimed for the classical classics and we’ve been getting along just fine without those. (I was also taught Latin, and I am certainly glad my children won’t be.)


José Angel 08.05.05 at 7:59 am

“I like Shakespeare”, “Terry Pratchett is great”, there’s love of literature for you. End of discussion. If you want KNOWLEDGE about literature, then I’m sorry, there’s no bypassing criticism, and scholarship, and theory… not that everyone needs them, of course. Just as you don’t need to understand neurology to open your eyes and see. But would you go around saying “oh we can see all right, so that neurological stuff is all meaningless babble”? Well, maybe you would…


anon 08.05.05 at 11:47 am

Jos angel, I assume you are making reference to my comment above. Odd — particularly odd since you are decrying the failure of standards in education — that you have misquoted it when it is right in front of you. I clearly stated that Terry Pratchett is cheesy bilge. There is no comparison whatsoever to the works of the godlike Bill Shakespeare.

However, intelligent persons resent being told what their standards should be. And neither Bill nor his classic pals ultimately require anybody’s help, they’re that good. So I conclude it’s best to let youth read whatever they wish and find their own paths to the mountaintop.


andrew 08.05.05 at 12:41 pm

You want to teach kids neurology in high school?


DLacey 08.05.05 at 5:18 pm

My guess is, rhetoric (for the writing well in various styles) and pleasure reading (for the enjoyment of literature) courses would satisfy.

In my own case those were two of my favorites (the former in college, the latter in middle school) so I have to agree :) Would have been nice to get the rhetoric earlier so it would’ve stuck better (my writing isn’t great now as you see from this comment).

On the other hand I liked my 12th grade Humanities course which was “intro to canon” as far as that went (Shakespeare, Giotto, Hume, Dante, Camus, bunch of other (mostly) dead white guys), too.


Mark Bahnisch 08.05.05 at 10:25 pm

It turns out that the curriculum covers the canon after all. The Minister might have been too swift to react to op/ed criticism.


Wrong 08.07.05 at 7:56 pm

“What I’d like for my kids to get out of high school English is an ability to write well in a variety of modes and (if possible) a love of literature.”

Clearly, it would be nice if children came out of secondary school English lessons with a love of literature; but I’m not sure that’s a goal you can use to build a curriculum. What would, say, a history curriculum intended to stimulate ‘a love of history’ look like, or a maths curriculum based on similar goals?

Surely, the point of a literature curriculum should be to teach children how literature works – how certain ways of writing produce certain effects, why a piece of writing might be written in one way rather than another, and how they can apply these ideas to things they read. I don’t know if the critical literacy courses actually taught these things or not, but the general idea of teaching the theory of criticism in literature classes strikes me as just obviously right. If that’s not what you’re teaching, what’s the point of the classes?

I say this as someone who wasn’t taught about criticism at school and, thinking back, remembers English classes as an absolute waste of time. We were invited to read books and comment on them, with no reflection as to what sort of comment might be useful. If you want children to love literature, just give them some free time to read books. Teaching them about literature is surely something else entirely.


John Quiggin 08.08.05 at 1:40 am

Part of my point is that high school English ought not to be (primarily) a course in “literature”. I see no reason for making literature per se a compulsory subject when art, music, mathematics and science are not. The justification for making English compulsory is that people need to be competent users of their own language. Literature (in the usual sense) is part of that, but only part.

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