Much has been written in recent decades about the ever-ramifying problems, throughout English-speaking countries in the Western world, besetting the teaching of the discipline of English Literature, in both schools and universities. In the course of these critical accounts, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to what is, arguably, the most serious and urgent issue in this crisis and at the root of the explanation for it: the nexus between what has happened to “English” in the universities, where future teachers are prepared for the school classroom, and the classroom teaching that ensues from that preparation. Then, you have the progression to university study of English by some of those who have excelled at school in this new regime of the subject, to be further indoctrinated in its postmodern model at the university; and, in turn, many of these graduates come back to the classroom as teachers, to further propagate that learning—and so on, and on.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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A vicious circle (or downward spiral) has very securely established itself, enabling, on the one hand, the degradation of the discipline, through a decreasing focus on English itself; while, on the other, the subject spins ever more widely, wildly and absurdly beyond the parameters of its disciplinary character (now, all but abandoned, wilfully suppressed or—as the years pass—simply forgotten) into the “woke” world of cultural studies. In this conception of it, English has joined other Humanities subjects (such as Modern History, with which it was often paired for matriculation and in undergraduate study) in servitude to the mandated requirements of postmodern ideological correctitude with regard to such topical issues as race, gender and identity. This has occurred in the larger context of “evolving branches of cynical postmodern theory over the last fifty years”, intensifying in this century where the “absolute truth of the postmodern principles and themes” is taken for granted and enforced, as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay argue in Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (2020): “scholars and activists combined the existing Theories and Studies into a simple, dogmatic methodology, best known simply as ‘Social Justice scholarship’”. In this woke orthodoxy—“a new religion of its own”, they contend—
society is simplistically divided into dominant and marginalized identities and underpinned by invisible systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, hetero-normativity, cisnormativity, ableism, and fatphobia. We find ourselves faced with the continuing dismantlement of categories like knowledge and belief, reason and emotion, and men and women, and with increasing pressures to censor our language in accordance with The Truth According to Social Justice.
This anti-intellectual development (at the heart of what is supposed to be the essentially intellectual endeavour of schooling and higher education: the opening-up of the mind, rather than the closing-down of it) is a component of a now deeply embedded and, apparently, irreversible societal, political and media culture, in the West, of freedom-denying censorship of thought, speech and writing. This goes hand-in-hand with the disappearing of any individual who deviates from “acceptable” opinion in what has come to be known as “cancel culture”, an ever-widening, insidious oppression of freedom of thought, designed, ultimately, to reduce the human race either to utter complicity with “correct” opinion or to be ever-silent for fear of the dire personal and professional consequences of misspeaking. With breathtaking irony and hypocrisy, the febrile advocates of postmodernist wokery, lauding human rights and social justice values, decrying “hate speech” and proclaiming their commitment to “diversity”, have no compunction in resorting to criminality, threats of physical violence and outrageous defamation to destroy the careers and lives of anyone, especially of the detestable conservative kind, who fails to sign up to their manifesto.
Nowhere is the West’s commitment to these phenomena flourishing more viciously than in today’s universities, the last places where freedom of thought and expression should be suppressed and contrarian views and their holders silenced and eliminated. As George Steiner has written:
A true university serves neither political purposes nor social programmes, necessarily partisan and transitory. Above all, it rebukes censorship and correctness of any kind.
As is typical of all manifestations of fundamentalism, wokeism is founded on the belief that it alone has “awakened” to the truth, and the rest of us are in a state of either lamentable ignorance, or worse, a kind of active, secular sinfulness, both of which need to be called out and rooted out wherever they can be identified. Accordingly, we have the ruthlessness with which any endorsement or advocacy of demonised Western civilisation and its works has been silenced and excluded from universities’ Humanities and Social Sciences faculties, a cleansing process which, in turn, has spawned, in the schools, a similar but inevitably simplified and cruder version of this particular species of dictatorship of thought.
These days, with the calamitous decline in the standards of entry of would-be graduate teachers into universities (with entrance marks ludicrously below those for courses of study in professions once regarded as having similar standing and esteem in society, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and so on), the situation has arisen where the most jejunely doctrinaire of graduates, instructed in the postmodernist gospel, wind up as the classroom apostles of the new ersatz religion-substitute of wokery.
English, being the sole subject which all students are required to take for their twelve years of schooling, presents the ideal environment for the propagating of the social justice creed, a secular neo-puritanism, having several of the hallmarks of its Christian version (the self-righteousness of the Elect, and so on), but minus the component of forgiveness (not that that essential New Testament virtue was much in the line of their holier-than-thou predecessors, either, as Arthur Miller memorably demonstrates in The Crucible, his damning portrayal of the Salem witch-hunters). Accordingly, what constituted the breadth and depth of the teaching of English Literature, at the secondary and tertiary levels, for the century since the advent of the discipline as a university subject in the later nineteenth century, has now disappeared. For anyone in their seventies who studied English at school and university half a century ago, as I did, the subject as it is taught now, in both domains, is all but unrecognisable—in terms of course structure and content; but, most significantly, with regard to the approaches taken, with the view to the stigmatising and eradication of any tincture of race, class, identity or gender bias, however superficially or ignorantly discerned. Harper Lee’s classic novel (and once-popular school text), To Kill a Mockingbird, has been cancelled and banned in numerous school districts in the United States and Canada because it is allegedly racist (on the grounds that it deals frankly with issues of race discrimination), when it is, in fact, a searing critique of racism. Even so much as to raise the issue of race can bring the damning charge of racism. Such are the absurdities to which the woke classroom has been reduced.
Even those whose learning experience was a couple of decades later are struck by the meltdown of the subject and the impoverishment of its offerings today. Emeritus Professor Mark Bauerlein, reflecting on “forty years as a student and teacher of English” in America, chronicles the erosion of the Humanities by postmodern theorising since the 1980s, in The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults (2022). This, he demonstrates in detail, has gathered alarming momentum in this century.
A Year 11 English teacher, when asked at the beginning of this year by a concerned parent why her son did not appear to have any literary texts—poetry, novel, drama—for class study of English, replied:
I have been exposing the students to a range of texts that evoke emotional and social responses to allow the students to understand how these texts are persuading their audience but also to educate the students on the range of social issues that have existed over the past few years. So far we have looked at the Black Lives Matter movement, Cyber Bullying, Cancel Culture and we will finish this week looking at refugees. After that the students will be focusing on gaining a detailed understanding of the Art of Rhetoric and the structures and conventions of a persuasive discursive speech.
He does not specify the “texts” in question, but given that the social issues that are being discussed are all of contemporary interest, one assumes that “the range of texts” would be mainly sourced online and from the media—from journalists’ articles, public speeches and opinion pieces. The teacher emphasises that the reading of these will focus on how they “evoke emotional and social responses”—attention to the emotions and feelings that students can discern and, indeed, develop themselves, has become a dominant element in modern schooling, at large, with its repeated emphasis on “empathy” and, of vital importance, having empathy of the “right” kind.
For all the loudly-proclaimed commitment of the social justice curriculum to multiculturalism, diversity and inclusiveness, it is in fact monocultural, monochrome and exclusive: no empathy would be available (for example) for a pro-life conservative Catholic student, or an evangelical Christian one, opposed to same-sex marriage and trans pronouns. The woke utopia is touted as an earthly paradise of equity for all, but like the satire of Stalinist tyranny in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some animals are decidedly more equal than others. The selective-empathy obsession is, moreover, a significant element in the so-called “feminisation” of education, another component in the eroding of disciplinary standards, rigour and content and which—it is important to point out—is just as likely to be advanced by male teachers as by women.
Particularly, we note that the identified pedagogical purpose of the aforementioned teacher is to educate the students “on the range of social issues” that he has named and which are listed in full in an accompanying document, where the speech that is to be delivered (so the instruction to the students reads) should explore one of the following themes:
♦ Black Lives Matter
♦ Gender and sexuality
♦ Human rights
♦ Cultural bias
Another teacher at another high school (whom I consulted, in case this might be an exceptional example) reported that “misogyny, systemic racism, toxic masculinity and Invasion Day are evergreen topics” for such classroom tasks in so-called English study in Australia today.
Arguably, in a social studies course, or one on contemporary history, or in preparing a school team for debating, focusing on this material and these topics would be a worthy and appropriate exercise, and there is at least the concluding reference by this teacher to the Art of Rhetoric, though one suspects this is the token disciplinary-sounding sprat to ensnare (and justify) the mackerel of cultural studies. He or she would be a brave student whose “emotional and social response” to such as Black Lives Matter or refugees failed to conform to the accepted script.
Then there is the provision for Year 12, matriculation-level, study of English, also supplied by this teacher to the concerned parent, showing that textual study will indeed appear there. But we should note carefully what this consists of:
Unit 1 “Cleverman” Australian TV show [stories of the Aboriginal Dreamtime]
Unit 2 “An Intervention” by Mike Bartlett and “Sherlock” BBC TV
Unit 3 “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi [about the Islamic revolution in Tehran]
Unit 4 “Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent [the harshness of women’s lives in nineteenth-century Iceland]
Apart from the truly appalling fact that there is no poetry at all in the most senior of supposed “English” courses (a lacuna unimaginable half a century ago), all of these texts—and “texts” now includes cartoons and television programs—are twenty-first-century works. It is as if the literary past doesn’t exist. And this, too, is a very familiar strategy—the denial of history, which assists the burgeoning phenomenon known as “presentism”, that is, an uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts; the anachronistic intrusion of contemporary ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. So while a text may refer to long-ago events and situations, these will need to be construed from the perspective of today’s cultural context and, inevitably, this is most easily accomplished by simply choosing works written or produced by contemporary authors or “composers” (to use the cant term of present-day theory), even if set in previous ages.
The study of English, properly pursued, involves a balance of contemporary work and texts from the past, including the distant past, in such as the emergence of recognisably English language and literature in the late Medieval and Early Modern periods. Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century poetic masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, was once standard school and university fare.
What have these school exercises and text lists got to do with fine-tuning the essential scholarly accomplishments that the study of English was, once, supposed to nurture and achieve: the appreciation and analysis of literary texts, in the English language, across the range of five genres (poetry, drama, essay, short story, novel) and historical periods over five hundred years, and a high level of competency in the correct use of the language in which to express that knowledge and insight? The Sydney Morning Herald, reporting on March 18 on the new draft curriculum for New South Wales schools that requires English teachers “to focus on grammar, spelling and punctuation”, noted that “two out of five English teachers felt they lack the necessary skills to teach writing” (which probably means that something like four out of five do) and that the English Teachers Association commented that requiring English teachers to focus on grammar, spelling and punctuation imposed an “unnecessary burden” on them.
What is it, then, that English teachers are doing, day by day, if they are incapable of teaching writing and providing instruction on the fundamentals of writing? This is the equivalent of a Mathematics teacher and his or her professional organisation saying that they lack confidence to perform the tasks of instruction in addition, subtraction and division, and that to expect this of them would be to impose an intolerable burden on them. Tellingly, it was announced a couple of days later, by the New South Wales Education Department, that all students in New South Wales schools would be taught sign language (not a “burdensome” requirement for teachers, apparently). So, if the children are unable to read or write or speak in a remotely articulate way (such instruction being beyond the capacity of their teachers), they can communicate by signing. And why has “signing” become an imperative skill? Because, in the woke way, this will nurture empathy for the disabled, and any criticism of how this is further cluttering an already over-cluttered curriculum, that is demonstrably and disgracefully failing students in core competencies of learning, such as grammar, spelling and punctuation, is effectively neutralised because to criticise signing would be tantamount to “hate speech” against the disabled community; at the very least, a lapse of empathy.
The core aspiration of school English study (a formidable task in itself), should, so far as the teachers are concerned, have had its thorough preparation in their pre-service university education, to equip them adequately for the inevitably more simplified versions of the undertaking in the schools. Little enough time is available for any subject to receive the detailed and concentrated discipline-specific attention it deserves. So to be squandering that invaluable resource on material and work that is not central to, but a diversion from developing competency in a core discipline, is a disgraceful waste of time and opportunity.
Year 12 students—and undergraduates in English, no less—who struggle to write grammatical sentences (look at you with puzzlement when you mention that the subject and main verb of a sentence must agree in number; that the possessive pronoun its does not take the apostrophe—“Like, what’s an apostrophe?”; don’t know the difference in usage between a comma and a semi-colon, and so on)—once, primary-school attainments—are nonetheless driven by the postmodern enforcers to parrot undigested, misunderstood, pseudo-theoretical gobbledygook and make sweeping (usually, condemnatory) and ludicrously ignorant statements about the historical past which they have never studied.
The great and lamentable irony of all this is that there is no attribute of the human being that the postmodernist mindset lauds more highly than “empowerment”: being empowered, claiming back power for yourself from the range of monsters (the hetero-normative patriarchy, white supremacists, and so forth) who have exclusively possessed it with the explicit, malevolent purpose of marginalising and oppressing you. Yet these very theorists, in the classrooms of the West, have produced a stupefied, sub-literate, inarticulate generation rendered utterly powerless in that most important and powerful of human accomplishments—the ability to express yourself knowledgably, lucidly and persuasively.
With regard to the development of the sensitivities of selective empathy by focusing on topics such as the now-familiar teacher’s check-list above, it is deeply ironic, also, in the very age when so much emphasis is placed on empathetic “wellbeing” (see Raymond Burns’s article on this “cult infecting our schools” in the December 2021 Quadrant) that what truly enables people intelligently and perceptively to interpret and cope with the human experience at large and, especially, its negative elements, are increasingly withheld from students at school and, later, at university. These are “the novels, the treatises, artworks, religions and chronicles” of the ages, as Bauerlein notes, offering “models for recovery”. The modern education system, he argues, has failed to lodge these masterpieces, “the guideposts of tradition”, in students’ heads, leaving them “ill-equipped … for adulthood”. “To cut the young off from a living past”; “to neglect the masterpieces of art and ideas, epic events and larger-than-life personages” is “to deprive them of a profound and stabilizing understanding of life, of themselves”. He posits that “if they’d read one hundred good novels in their teens, the practice of interpreting Ahab and Heathcliff and The Invisible Man” would prove to be “a good tryout for relations with real and often challenging people. It might have prevented the knee-jerk responses to dissenting opinions”, fuelling the cancel culture. Instead, “a bad formation” has been taking place, for more than a generation—“anti-intellectual, ahistorical, and vulgar”—which reduces students’ attention spans and feeds “their extended adolescence”.
That the universities have failed dismally—and, of course, deliberately—for more than a generation, with regard to ensuring that such breadth and depth of reading, once associated with tertiary English study, are pursued (especially for future schoolteachers and academics) is the explanation for the incapacity (or unwillingness, if they are aware of what they are not doing) of the teachers to educate students in the disciplinary essentials of the subject and, accordingly, for the impoverishment of the education that schoolchildren are receiving in English. And this has an impact well beyond the defined parameters of the subject itself, as Bauerlein’s argument suggests. Countless students have testified, over the years, that, when they had been well taught in English, this had proved to be invaluable for them in a range of professional capacities where the preparation and close analysis of textual material was required (as in the legal profession); appreciation of a range of historical and cultural circumstances and contexts, and their influence on thought and expression were pertinent (in public service roles, in such as Foreign Affairs); the lucid and powerful use of the language, particularly nurtured in the study of poetry and the essay form (which so many journalists, for example, have valued, in times past, in the honing of their craft), and where an openness to a wide and nuanced range of human experience, beliefs and opinions was valued (in careers in medicine, politics and so on). Crucially, it inspired teachers—fired, themselves, with the passion for reading and absorbing “the best that has been known and thought in the world”, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase—and keen to share it; and, of course, future authors themselves, who had gone on to add their works to the vast body of writing in English. Good teaching in English enriched people’s personal lives immeasurably, within and beyond their professional vocations.
The truly “well-read” person is able to “read” life and its rewards and challenges, its subtleties and complexities for their own and others’ benefit, throughout his or her life, and within the broadest context of human history in its linguistic expression over the centuries, not through a narrowly focused, confined, contemporary and personal lens, eliciting a mandated response. As Bauerlein notes:
The best examples of art and literature, the astute wit of Molière and the mournful lines of The Waste Land and the beauties of Schubert’s Lieder … supply intellectual standards that give you perspective … Such things show the young what it means to grow up.
Research has revealed the reluctance and/or inability of young adults to engage in sustained reading. This bad development serves a very useful purpose for the ideologues, in the process of advancing their woke agenda, as the greatest works, more often than not, require protracted, concentrated attention as a result either of their difficulty or length, or both. All undergraduates in English, half a century ago, had to read (for example) the epic Paradise Lost (twelve books, some 10,000 lines), the picaresque novel Tom Jones (eighteen books, a couple of hundred chapters), the Victorian masterwork Middlemarch (some 800 pages), and many more large tomes besides. Now, Humanities teachers are increasingly dropping novels of more than two hundred pages (about four hours’ reading) from their syllabi, finding that fewer undergrads would read them all the way through. And when this defeatism is linked, fatally, with the idea that advocating for the value of Great Books is an elitist, white supremacist and patriarchal imposition (even if the novelist is George Eliot, who, graduating teachers in English, today, would probably have to be told was, in fact, a woman), and with the discipline-eroding strategy that “other media” are “texts” at least as legitimate for English study as printed works—so Sex and the City is as worthy of class time as Middlemarch, probably more so—the outcome is inevitable. It would be discriminatory elitism and, indeed, racist to suggest that Paradise Lost (even just one book of it, once a common study in Year 12) is as worthy of classroom work as an anthology of indigenous protest verse—which has been the sole poetry reading for Year 10 English for several years at one of Australia’s leading academic schools.
It may well be asked: why have teachers so willingly submitted, en masse, to this dumbing-down, stupefying revolution? There is the obvious argument, first, that “you can’t fight City Hall”: that the woke powers-that-be are so secure in their seats in such as the education bureaucracy and as university faculty commissars that any attempt to resist what is imposed by them could well be a career- (and, therefore, even life-) destroying strategy. But the takeover of English and other subjects by a species of weasel-word, feel-good theorising may also be an expression—and how ironic is this!—of teachers’ and teaching-academics’ reaction to the decline in respect for their profession, which they foolishly think will be addressed and redressed by presenting themselves as not mere pedagogues teaching a discipline (that is, doing the job they are supposed to be doing), but as virtue-signalling, ideologically-informed agents of cultural change on the warpath against any incorrect thinking about race, gender and identity. The old saying takes on a further, supposedly elevating element: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach are society’s woke saviours.
It is mulishly, repeatedly asserted that these kinds of criticisms are the predictable spoutings of “far-right” conservatives. No “progressive” liberal or left-leaning educator would own them, let alone a radical thinker, it is claimed. Yet the Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse shocked meetings of stridently left-wing students in the late 1960s by insisting that revolution had to be based on wide learning: “There’s a certain amount of material that every intelligent person should learn. There is no contradiction between intelligence and revolution. Why are you afraid of being intelligent?” He described, to their disgust, the “severe Prussian discipline of his own education: the classics he had to master; the languages he had to learn by exercises and constant tests … No one had any standing on which to rebel against the past—or dare to call himself a revolutionary—who had not mastered the tradition of the West.” Naught for the comfort of the postmodernist woke English teacher or academic in these observations!
Genuinely discipline-specific intellectual and scholarly competencies were, once, the fruitful outcomes of the study of English, soundly grounded in teachers’ education at university and their ability to translate that learning into the school classroom. This fruitful connection has now been utterly corrupted and replaced by a fatal nexus between the wilful white-anting of English as a university subject by social justice ideology and, knowing no other paradigm of the subject, the graduate teachers’ thorough indoctrination in it, which they are now applying, relentlessly and across the board, in the nation’s classrooms.
Barry Spurr was an academic in English for forty years and Australia’s first Professor of Poetry. His essay on the centenary of T.S. Eliot’s Modernist masterwork, The Waste Land, appeared in the April issue