THE only mention of William Shakespeare in the national curriculum for English appears as an example sentence in the glossary: “Because I am reading Shakespeare, my time is limited.”
This is no accident. The national curriculum for English almost completely neglects the Western canon. Instead, students study advertising and “digital texts”, and the curriculum is saturated with “social studies” content, which is irrelevant and inherently ideological.
It was not always so. In the 1950s and 60s, classic literature was at the core of school English education. David Copperfield, One Thousand and One Nights, The Odyssey, Black Beauty and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appeared in readings for 12-year-old students.
The classics have stood the test of time and include some of the best examples of writing and storytelling in the English language. They should be a foundational element of school English.
Since the 1970s, however, curriculums in all states except NSW make no mention of classic literature.
The classics also have disappeared from school reading lists. The Victorian Premier’s Reading Challenge listed 1700 books for Year 6 this year but only 20 can be classified as classics, including CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Most of the rest were contemporary fiction published in the past decade.
The national curriculum continues this trend. Although it does not include a reading list, it frequently alludes to certain types of readings — for example, “contemporary” or “everyday” texts, “media and advertising”, “digital texts”, and texts from “different historical contexts”.
Rarely does it allude to Western classic literature. The only stories of European origin that it refers to are Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella. There is a reference to European “representations of dragons” in Year 3 and a handful of uncited quotations of poets such as Tennyson, Burns and Blake, but that is the extent of the treatment of the Western canon. Instead, there is a large amount of content relating to “ethics” and “social movements”.
An optional “content elaboration” in Year 9 suggests “debating the reliability of the coverage in a range of news media of a contentious issue such as commercial logging of old-growth forests”.
Another suggests “presenting arguments that advance opinions, justify positions, and make judgments in order to persuade others about issues such as the importance of maintaining balance in the biosphere”. Another “content elaboration” in Year 5 suggests “investigating the qualities of contemporary protest songs, for example, those about indigenous peoples and those about the environment”.
This overtly political ethics-related content has no place in an English curriculum. It detracts from the foundational elements of English — reading, writing, spelling, and grammar — and deprives children of the opportunity to read classic literature at school.
Classics should not be regarded as the preserve of a perceived academic elite. From Shakespeare onward, most classics gained popularity precisely because they were capable of appealing to wide audiences. Though written in very different times and very different circumstances, they remain classics precisely because they continue to connect to today’s audiences.
From Dickens’s satirical critiques of the cruelties of Victorian society, to the witty dialogues of Jane Austen, to the timeless plots and impassioned monologues of Shakespearean drama, there is something in classic literature that can appeal to anyone.
These works are also useful as reflections of Western culture, as literary exemplars, and as a standard for “good” literature and writing. They should be a core part of English education.
If Australia must have a national curriculum, the federal government should remove the social studies content from English, where it is irrelevant and detracts from English as a discipline. It should offer support and guidance for teachers and parents to introduce students to the greatest writing of the English language.
Stephanie Forrest is a research scholar at the Institute of Public Affairs, which has released Australia’s F-10 English Curriculum: A Critique, available at ipa.org.au/publications.
The publisher Walker Books has great teaching notes which have been based on the Australian National English Curriculum and have a strong focus on multimodal learning and use of web 2.0 tools. They can be downloaded ...
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