Only in the world of English teaching could you leave an industry conference feeling more confused about the purpose of your discipline than when you arrived. This conference was held in February by VATE (the Victorian Association of Teaching English) bringing secondary English teachers and department leaders from across Victoria to Deakin University. The dark cloud hanging over the industry, in the form of a national teacher shortage, did not dissuade the typical good-natured banter and cheerful complaining between the mutually fatigued.
Teachers became students as the day was divided into several sessions broken by recess and lunch. Those from the independent schools made comparisons between who had done a better job of gaming their median study score the previous year through tactical enrolments and expulsions, while those from state schools looked over in envy before turning to each other with tall tales of wrangling delinquents and plucking gems from the great unwashed masses. Scattered throughout the room were a few fearful whispers of ChatGPT. As a teacher two years into his career, I was here to learn how to better teach English—but what is teaching English?
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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English is often considered the beating heart of a secondary school’s academic life. This is partly out of necessity because most states require students to complete an English subject at Year 12, which ties a school’s ranking to its English proficiency. It is also partly because success in English predicts positive effects in other subject areas. English is also unique among the traditional core subjects (Science, Mathematics, English, History) as the only subject that has art, and the appreciation of art as art, at the centre of its classrooms. The only serious encounters with art that many Australians will have in their lives will happen in an English classroom.
Despite its importance, the purpose of English is a contentious issue among politicians, parents, journalists and academics, let alone among teachers and students. There is a general consensus among English teachers that we are sick of being at the whim of culture wars, though I will posit that this is only another way of saying that we wish our culture would win. For we know that the business of English teaching, whatever it is, is important. And woe to the civilisation which fails to realise this.
As the conference began, I was about to see first-hand the confusion surrounding the purpose of English. With an acknowledgment that Deakin had stolen the land it stood on (but with no sign that it would be giving it back), we launched into the morning session. We delved into functional grammar and effective feedback, and everything was grounded in objectivity as we looked into “the mathematics of English” as the speaker put it. We pored over punctuation, syntax and spelling, and how best to teach them. Cast in this light, the goal of my profession, above all else, seemed clear: to teach students to understand the world around them and, in turn, be understood through clear communication. But where did that leave the beauty of the literature we studied? Was this beauty merely a utility that authors used to communicate? Perhaps we would find out in the next session.
The next session focused on the new VCE unit in the senior year levels, Crafting Texts (Year 11) and Creating Texts (Year 12), of which our speaker was one of the designers. As our speaker explained, the senior text lists are increasingly including shorter texts and anthologies of short stories as opposed to the traditional novel or play. This has been done to keep English engaging in view of our population’s diminishing attention span and a general lack of interest in reading books. In a step further in this direction, students will no longer be required to read whole texts, short or long, but rather a collection of excerpts called “mentor texts” centred on a generalised topic. Examples of these topics include “Futures” or “Nature” or perhaps, “Food”—the choice is left to the school, as are the mentor texts. What is concerning here is not really the unit itself—which exposes students to a variety of writing techniques and approaches to a topic—but rather the thinking behind it. The conclusion of this sort of pandering to the lowest common denominator will eventually mean the expulsion of books altogether in favour of short-form media. How short? If we take the most popular media application with teens as an example, TikTok, then about fifteen to sixty seconds. We are kidding ourselves if we think this change is a natural evolution of artistic tastes and that we, as English teachers, need to somehow keep up with it or bow down to it. Are we meant to believe nothing would be lost by reducing Shakespeare to bite-sized snippets or as if anything bite-sized could aspire to anything like the depth of a work by Shakespeare?
Many educators have given up taking an active role in the development of their students, and take a descriptivist role rather than provide any sort of prescription. In other words, we are stuck teaching students to appreciate what they are already interested in, cursed by the hangover from the academic fads of whole-language approaches and process writing that taught English teachers to “facilitate” the organic development of language and not to provide rules that would obstruct that natural growth. While these approaches have rightly fallen out with academics, they live on in schools and curricula, drawing us ever closer to the day we begin teaching Emoji 101.
I was given the impression that English teaching is not about grammar but is, above all else, about facilitating the self-expression of our students. As the University of Melbourne academic Raymond Misson wrote:
English teachers are not on about teaching single truths, they are on about capacity building, giving students the capacity to create their own set of values and their own hierarchy of truths suitable for dealing with the diversity of the texts they come across and the diversity of the world they live in.
Though it may seem ridiculous to those outside the teaching world, there are teachers who celebrate the death of the novel and the play as the predominant text forms studied in English. “Down with Shakespeare, down with Dickens!” they cry. For it is often their view that the form of traditional literature, as well as the content, is contaminated by the slew of likely -isms: racism, sexism, colonialism and so on. In their view the length of the novel or play amounts to textual mansplaining. The same teachers when forced to teach classics typically set students activities that gloss over the depth of these texts, by getting them to write and perform rap songs loosely connected to Hamlet or create blackout poetry by vandalising a page of Bleak House. That students walk away feeling as if these texts are irrelevant is often the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy held by these teachers that the classics are old, stuffy and boring—even though the boredom is the result of poor teaching due to a lack of familiarity with these texts and their milieus. And thus the TikTok-isation of English appears to them as revitalisation. For some this pandering is a cathartic release from fears that they could bring more into their classrooms than merely a highly detailed knowledge of the Harry Potter universe. A release from fear that if they had used a fraction of the time they have spent arguing Dumbledore’s sexuality on online forums in familiarising themselves with the Western canon that their classrooms would become portals to exploring truly different worlds rather than indulgent playgrounds populated by the inoffensive. It is these teachers that have raised our most recent generation to require the censorship of Roald Dahl’s use of horsey face, idiot and fat.
These new senior English units based around short mentor texts are then a double-edged blade. In the right hands, they can be an engaging way of viewing a topic from multiple viewpoints and different periods. They could also give students a cursory survey of many texts they could choose to read in full later on (unlikely, but possible). However, there is the danger that in the absence of a single authorial voice, or at least the absence of an artistic effort unified into a single text, students could be exposed to a shallow reading of texts cherry-picked according to agendas held by our more dictatorial teachers. This leaves the passing down of literary tradition vulnerable to being strangled, so to speak, in its crib.
It is no coincidence that Adolf Hitler read in a manner similar to the process set up by these mentor text units—Hitler would skim-read while choosing passages to literally rip from the books after first reading through the contents and the concluding pages to check it was suitable according to his own political ideology. It was this functionalist method that allowed him, for example, to make selective analogies from Carlyle’s biography of Frederick the Great to match his own circumstances. This approach could be seen not just in Hitler’s reading habits but also in the wider efforts of his regime, such as in the selective reading of the Bible that led to the creation of an anti-Semitic New Testament featuring an Aryan Jesus who hated the Jews. These tyrannical hermeneutics are common to all dictatorships, and are increasingly found today festering around our schools and publishing houses. Therefore, in the teaching of these mentor text units, we would be wise to heed Pope’s famous warning: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”
With the mentor text units explained, we had a brief lunch and shifted to the third session of the conference on the ethics of selecting texts. This session largely followed the party line that had been hammered into me over my two-year master’s degree at the University of Melbourne. For while the error of over-prioritising self-expression has largely subsided in the academy, another has arisen around the role of English in the cultivation of morals. Thus, I was reminded in the third session that the actual purpose of English teaching is, above all else, creating a just and equitable society. In this session, our sixty minutes of hate featured one of the usual suspects that we as English teachers need to combat by putting the right books in the right hands. Whether it is the patriarchy, heteronormativity, settler-colonialism or white supremacy the story always ends the same way and rests on the same erroneous propositions about English teaching and the nature of literature.
The first error is always the reduction of the artwork to a sociological artefact or political chess piece, whether it’s a reduction of the content of the book or of its authorship. This attitude has long been entrenched in the discipline; as Paul de Man wrote in the 1980s, English departments have become “large organisations in the service of everything except their own subject matter”. Hence, as we unwrap English teaching from these erroneous propositions let us make use of its own subject matter; namely, literature.
It should be no surprise then that merely teaching about the economic conditions of nineteenth-century England will not give students the same experience found in reading Hard Times, nor will instruction in Catholic theology give students the same experience as reading the Divine Comedy. Similarly, when we reduce a play like Macbeth to a solely feminist reading we are robbing our students of the full experience the text offers, and not heeding Pope’s warning on the dangers of ill-digested books. Bringing “theory” into our English classrooms may prove useful in illuminating the tenets of feminism, but it fails in opening the text to a reader. It is particularly fraught in ideologies with strict social programs. The students who are interested will soon find more straightforward propaganda and those who are not interested will walk away with a poor impression of what books can offer, either because they have been taught a good book in a shallow way or taught a shallow book.
The chief reason that our text lists are bloated with mediocre books is a preoccupation with author identity and reluctance to teach books authored by “dead white males”. This has led to many texts being introduced on the virtue of their creator’s identity rather than on the text’s quality. This prejudice is merely a mirror image of the one it is aiming to solve, and often results in a vicious circle where fresh prejudices form amongst students who are forced to read mediocre books merely because of the author’s identity.
This attitude to text selection largely stems from exaggerated self-victimisation. My University of Melbourne professor told me and my fellow teacher-candidates in a tutorial, “There are no First Nations authors on the text list this year so effectively Aboriginal viewpoints have been banned from being studied.” Following this logic, we can find not only evidence of systematic racism against Aboriginal people in the text selection process but also Estonians since there were no Estonian authors, not to mention the Inuits, and all the other categories of persons not included that year. But of course, under the tenets of wokery certain kinds of oppressed peoples are more equal than others. For example, even the womanhood of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, has done nothing to protect her from the charge of being a white person writing about black experiences in America. Indeed, her classic book has now been labelled racist by critics calling for it to be removed from English syllabi. Ironically, the nuance of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird teaches the exact lessons about human nature that would benefit those very ideologues obsessed with identity politics. That Atticus Finch can see the goodness in the mean-spirited and racist Mrs Dubose and call her “the bravest person [he] ever knew” simply does not compute with a fanatical mind. Then again, perhaps it is nuance itself which offends them.
Even if the social programs promoted by these ideologues were not wrapped in fanaticism and hypocrisy, there are still a number of issues that plague the prospect of treating English as moral cultivation. For even when the right books are put in the right hands there is no guarantee that students will take away the intended “message”. There is no guarantee our students will automatically identify with the Aboriginal cause in watching Rabbit Proof Fence and go on to further the process of reconciliation. We can observe this in the attempted moral betterment of Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, where despite giving the impression to the prison chaplain that he has taken to Christianity, he actually enjoys reading the Bible to imagine “helping in and even taking charge of the tolchocking and the nailing in, being dressed in a toga that was the height of Roman fashion”.
But we need not be an Alex DeLarge to have monstrous thoughts while reading. As the American academic Joshua Landy has written, there is not always a one-to-one correspondence between our everyday beliefs and those we take on in reading a book. When watching a monster film, we often find ourselves taking some satisfaction when the rationalist character is brutally killed (the one who is stoutly closed-minded to the existence of the monster until it is too late), despite the fact that our everyday beliefs concerning monsters are more likely aligned to those of the rationalist character. Even the prospect of improving a general moral faculty like empathy is dubious, and more often than not a reader may rebel, as Oscar Wilde did regarding Dickens’s moralistic tale The Old Curiosity Shop, writing: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
Despite these points, a proponent of the moralist approach to English might shelter behind an aestheticist position that students engaging with the artistry of writing is a good in itself. However, there is nothing preventing the fruits of eloquent writing from being used for evil ends. For instance, the use of euphemisms to conceal or distort ugly truths can be observed through the language used by the mafia (“we took him on a one-way ride”), the military (“significant collateral damage”), journalists (“anti-choice politicians attack female reproductive rights”) or real estate agents (“this quaint cottage is a renovator’s dream”).
I reflected on this and more as the conference came to an end and we streamed out of Deakin University. I tried to fit together in my mind the three answers I had received while trying to discern the purpose of my vocation. It was a difficult task since each member of this trinity appears to be incompatible with the others. They are also inadequate if they solely form the basis for the discipline. If it’s based on grammar, then English is too dry and does not comprehend beauty. If it’s based on self-expression, then English becomes hopelessly solipsistic and forces teachers to pander to the whims of popular culture. Finally, if English is based on do-goodery it devolves into a study of propaganda at worst, or ineffectual moral development at best.
Yet there is hope. A harmony between the different aspects of English is possible, because there once was such a harmony in the traditional trivium of rhetoric, logic and grammar which filled the educational role for society that English now does. In the trivium the objective, subjective and ethical concerns of the language arts were balanced against each other. However, there is yet another trinity that underpinned and allowed this harmony to exist, and that is the trinity of the transcendentals—the true, the good and the beautiful. Our secular society has given up on the transcendental nature of the true, the good and the beautiful and so there is no longer any social credence behind the idea that beauty is the splendour of truth, or in the famous words by Dostoevsky that “Beauty will save the world.” It is a return to transcendental truths that could bring a unified and purposeful direction back to English and save the discipline from disintegration. Or at the very least, save me from a life of teaching the art of the euphemism to future real estate agents.
Conor Ross is an English teacher based in Melbourne