Wither English Education
Russell Degnan

Amidst all the talk of a new year 12 English curriculum I wanted to go back to a comment Kate made on Larvatus Prodeo last week. I didn't have time to comment when it was written, but it (somewhat inadvertently) gets into the guts of a debate that tends to spend a lot of time talking about irrelevant side-issues -- like the class texts for year 12 students.

"All this talk of state schools being Bad Things pretty much forgets that it’s only in recent times that our country has had pretty near universal literacy… thanks to state-based, cheap, education.

"I mean, if choice is so wonderful, why even make kids go to school at all? If parents want to choose to keep their kids home to work in the family business, why not? That’s a ‘parent choice’ too, isn’t it?"

Her first point isn't actually very accurate. A claim of "near universal literacy" needs a very low benchmark before it becomes true. It is hard to gauge how well the really poor students can read, because they become very adept at finding ways of avoiding reading; but I do know that my English class in year 12 never discussed the texts because over half the class either didn't or couldn't read them. My school wasn't good, but neither is it atypical. Students with insufficient literacy to read two syllable words were and presumably still are commonplace.

Nor is cheap education purely a state-based exercise. What it has been, is an urban phenomenon -- hence its final rise to encompass all parts of society. In 16th century Netherlands, the Brethren of the Common Life educated many including poor, fatherless students like Erasmus or Gerard Mercator. Scotland of the 18th century was similarly educated under religious, and then state guidance. Speaking of the late middle ages, Denys Hay states that:

"If the incentive was there, it seems it was not very difficult for a child to get a reading and, hence, a writing knowledge of the mother tongue."

But that...

"For the vast majority of European men and women that apprenticeship was to farming, and education largely passed the peasant by. He had no use for it."

It really isn't important who provided the education. What was important was the understanding of why that education was deemed important, in many places, at many different times. A private teacher, 14th century Mantuan, Vittorino da Feltre summarised it as well as anyone ever has:

"Not everyone is called to be a lawyer, a physician, a philosopher, to live in the public eye, nor has everyone outstanding gifts of natural capacity, but all of us are created for the life of social duty, all of us are responsible for the personal influence which goes out from us."

Florence was perhaps the best and earliest example of this, but it was widespread throughout the city republics as in the preamble to this Venetian statute of 1551:

"In every well-ordered city, as is this city of ours by the grace of God and the prudence of our ancestors, every effort must be made [to ensure] that the youth of the city are worthily occupied, so that they do not waste in idleness but serve and bring credit to the Republic while growing up in a well-disciplined manner to their own honour and that of persons close to them. For this reason, since there is in this city a flourishing and numerous body of young people, we must ensure that the young be given an opportunity to engage in the study of letters, so that the desired end is attained."

This kind of statement also highlights another point. Namely, that public education is indoctrination. We educate our youth because we expect them to follow in our footsteps. To maintain (and perhaps reform) our institutions and values, and, in the future, to do the same for the generation that follows them. Even to the extent that education seeks to attain equality and to lift the poorer classes it is still indoctrination, merely a normative one.

What should we make then, of articles like this, containing such inspiring gems as:

"For our best students, year 12 is a forcing house and the study of great works of literature is an exercise in the getting of an ENTER score rather than wisdom."


"The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority's responsibility must be to construct a course for all students, the silent, the loud, the clever, the disengaged and the illiterate. This is what the cohort is really like; these are our 18-year-olds - all of them. All students have a place at the table despite their reluctance to embrace King Lear."

I argued here that the great failing of state schools are that they don't make adequate expectations of their students. These quotes are the reason why. Students are disengaged and disinterested in high school English, but it is the responsibility of the school, of the student's parents, and more generally of society to set those expectations.

There is a reason students are expected to do English no matter what their future after year 12. Unfortunately, whatever that reason might be has been lost amongst fights over literary theory, texts, and indoctrination. None of which have any relevance to my own failings as a student of English, or, I suspect, 99% of other students.

The number and type of texts is irrelevant. What matters is the outcome at the end of the process, and there are innumerable paths to achieve that outcome, much as there are many possible outcomes we might want to achieve. Beneath the copious and extravagantly prescriptive literature that guides our education system lies a more general goal. Might I suggest we remind ourselves what that is; and perhaps even express it in less than 59 pages or 16 mostly redundant aims.

Passing Fancy 20th September, 2005 17:28:15   [#]