Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literature in Australian schools

As I was trawling my little collection of ideas for Monday Musings, I lit upon a paper by the late educator Annette Patterson titled “Australian literature: culture, identity and English teaching”. Bingo!  I had my answer, because it will contribute to a discussion I took part in on Guy Savage’s His futile preoccuptions blog. The discussion concerned the following statement in Michelle de Kretser’s latest novel The life to come: “It had been explained to Ash that the government funded the Centre of Australian Literature after a ministerial survey of humanities graduates found that 86 percent of English majors had never read an Australian book.”

Patterson’s article was published in JASAL (the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature) in 2012, so it’s reasonably up-to date. The article’s abstract describes says:

The development of the Australian Curriculum has reignited a debate about the role of Australian literature in the contexts of curricula and classrooms. A review of the mechanisms for promoting Australian literature including literary prizes, databases, surveys and texts included for study in senior English classrooms in New South Wales and Victoria provides a background for considering the purpose of Australian texts and the role of literature teachers in shaping students’ engagement with literature.

Patterson starts by arguing the importance of literature to cultural or national identity, stating that this link is expressly made by several of Australia’s major literary prizes. These awards, plus other indicators such as the growth in resources to support the teaching of Australian literature, demonstrate, she says, “the health of Australian literature”.

She then reports on a survey of Australian secondary teachers regarding the factors affecting their selection of Australian texts for teaching. A major factor was one of the main points I made on Guy’s blog: “the availability of the text in the school storeroom”! This was one of the reasons my son’s high school teacher gave me for teaching Steinbeck’s Of mice and men, and not an Australian book.

And then, interestingly, she provides an historical perspective on the teaching of Australian literature in Australian schools, pointing to concerns about the issue dating back to the late 19th century. She writes about the use of Royal Readers back then which included some reference to Australia but were, overall, firmly grounded in the northern hemisphere. She quotes an inspector of schools, H. Shelton, from 1891:

I have often wondered how the Wimmera farmers relish the statement in the Second Book [of the Royal Readers] that ‘it is a pleasant sight to see wild rabbits running over the fields.’ This lesson should either be struck out, or the other side of the picture be given for the benefit of young Australians.

Tara June Winch, Swallow the airMoving on in her paper, we get to discussions about texts being studied by senior secondary students in NSW and Victoria. I’m going to focus on prose fiction, though she includes non-fiction, poetry, plays and film. So, for example, of the five prose fiction texts set for the 2010 NSW Higher School Certificate, only one was by an Australian, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air (my review). Things were better in those other forms I mentioned.

Patterson focuses her study, though, on Victoria. She tabulates the occurrence of Australian texts and directors listed for study for the Victorian Certificate of Education from 2001 to 2010. Again, I will focus on the prose fiction – listing those that appear three of more times in order of frequency:

  • Henry Lawson’s Short stories (4 times)
  • Tim Winton’s Minimum of two (short story collection) (4 times) and The riders (1 time)
  • Larissa Behrendt’s Home (4 times)
  • David Malouf’s Dream stuff (short story collection) (3 times) and Fly away Peter (1 time)
  • Christopher Koch’s The year of living dangerously (3 times)
  • Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (3 times)
  • Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro (3 times)

Hmm, a fascinating list. Not a bad one, but there’s not a good gender balance here, and there’s only one indigenous writer (who happens to also be the only woman!) It’s also interesting to see the preponderance of short story collections – and that the novels are mostly short ones. Does this mean students won’t read full novels?

Anyhow, Patterson concludes that the lists she presents provide clear evidence of the important place of Australian literature in school curricula, formally at least. But, quite rightly, she notes that being listed doesn’t mean the works are actually “taken up”. Through a process which she describes briefly, she identifies only one work of prose fiction on the most popular list for the period in question. It’s Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro (which, interestingly, “was voted one of the Top 40 Australian books of all time by members of the Australian Society of Authors”), although other works, including the films Lantana and Look both ways, also appear on the list.

Several prose works appeared on the least popular list:

  • Larissa Behrendt, HomeShane Maloney’s The brush-off
  • Amy Witting’s I for Isobel
  • Henry Lawson’s Short stories
  • Julia Leigh’s The hunter (though she may mean the film adaptation, she doesn’t clarify)
  • Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
  • Larissa Behrendt’s Home
  • Beverley Farmer’s Collected stories

Disappointing, but Patterson is encouraged because:

  • more Australian works appeared on the most popular lists later in the decade indicating a “positive shift”; and
  • “top scoring students appear to be working with Australian texts” – including Beverley Farmer’s Collected stories.

In the last part of the paper she discusses the value of including the study of literature, and particularly Australian literature, in the curriculum – and the theoretical underpinnings for the arguments. They are fascinating, and clearly presented. I loved, of course, her conclusion that

In teaching Australian literature, teachers do a great deal more than teach about the quality of language or the characteristics of a genre. English teachers teach techniques for living, ways of behaving and responding, building empathy, promoting tolerance and developing responses to texts that are considered appropriate within current social and cultural contexts.

She ends by returning to her study, and arguing for the value of undertaking ongoing research into text lists, and their use.

However, I’ll return to Guy’s blog discussion and say that Patterson’s paper reveals that Australian texts are being taught in Australian schools – and have been for a long time. However, whether all schools teach them, and whether all students in the schools that do actually “take them up”, is another question. There is, in other words, sure to be some truth in the statement in de Kretser’s book, but I sure hope it’s not 86%!

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literature in Australian schools

  1. That 86% is a scary big number and surely can’t be right! From your research it seems like a good many students are reading Australian literature. I really hope that’s the case!

    • Posted too soon. Do you have a kind of set list or “canon” of sorts of Australian literature that well read folks should know? Like in the US, there is a small set of American lit that the majority of school kids read or are at least familiar with. Though schools are changing and this might be too.

      • I’m not sure we do – formally, anyhow – Stefanie. Certainly those lists don’t give the sense of one, to me, given they contain very little older material. It certainly feels like there’s an attempt to engage students with recent material rather than “teach” them our ongoing literary culture. Good question. There are pros and cons for both sides I’d say.

    • Yes I do too, Stefanie. The 86% was in a novel so hopefully it’s an exaggeration! I should have made that point. I havent read the novel yet so don’t really know the context. However, it does suggest a valid, to me, concern.

  2. I can’t imagine Australian uni students getting through high school without reading some oz YA, but I can imagine them not reading Australian literary fiction, let alone being familiar with its history, and anything resembling a canon.

    • Yes, me too, Bill. My kids generation all read John Marsden’s Tomorrow series for a start, and my daughter loved Isobel (sp) Carmody’s fantasy. They read more too, but of course I bought them their books! But, as I intimated, when it came to literary fiction I’m struggling to remember anything in high school. I remember my son doing Steinbeck and Harper Lee though!

  3. I suspect that the big issue here is one you allude to… are they reading all those short stories and novellas because they won’t read longer texts? To answer that we need to know which subject that Victorian list is for… there is English (compulsory for all students) and Eng Lit which is optional. If it’s English, not EngLit, then the course has to have broad appeal and offer options for a very wide range of student ability now that we have near-universal completion of Year 12. These students are not the same as the 3% doing Matric which was really a university entrance exam in our day, and the curriculum has to be different and much more inclusive.
    I’m a passionate advocate for OzLit as you know, but for me, the critical thing is to get or keep these young people reading. I think the #LoveYAOZ is an important strategy for encouraging readers of YA to look beyond the US bestsellers that dominate whatever book buzz there is, though of course I’d like them to have a grounding in classic OzLit as well. But let’s not kid ourselves, I’d be willing to bet that many of those students get by just watching the films, and that’s because I’ve heard young people admit to this, not always the least able as you might expect, but the really bright ones doing Maths & Chem, and who resent having to do English at all….

    • Thanks Lisa. I thought she mentioned the two levels of English courses but I must be imagining it because my quick flick through doesn’t show it up. Fair point re levels. In the HSC there was (but I’m not sure how it is now) Level 1, 2 and 3 in most subjects with Levels 1 and 2 designed for matriculation level. Many of the Maths-Science people would do Level 1 in those subjects and Level 2 English, with vice versa for Arts people.

      Anyhow, your point re YA is a fair one. We have some great YA writers who cover a variety of issues and experiences that hopefully engage students. It’s a start at least …

  4. When I was teaching English in NSW high schools in the 1970s, it was common to have students look at the number of pages in a novel and say, ‘Miss, there are [supply number] pages in this book! Do we have to read it all?’ So not much has changed.

    • Oh dear Ros. Perhaps the short story/novella strategy is not a bad one! I’d guess that with the short story collections many would just read a couple but still, that’s better than nothing.

      I should say, a little shamefacedly, that when my reading group started in 1988 we were all mothers of young children, and very quickly decided on a 300-page rule which we only broke for the summer read (which is how we did books like A fine balance and Cloudstreet)! Now we are all retired most have even forgotten that we ever had such a rule!

  5. Good news, but I think those stats were from years ago (in the book). The 90s. And who knows how long those books stay in the storeroom? They may be 20 years old!

    • I look forward to reading the book Guy. Her research would suggest that things in the 90s were probably less positive – but I still suspect that 86% is poetic licence. Still I could very well be wrong. And yes, I’d guess that the books in the storeroom could very well be that old!

  6. Having read your post and all the comments I find this interesting. I haven’t paid attention to what kids read in school as I haven’t children. I always am interested in the disappearance of texts in schools overall and also know modern texts that do exist are often described as shorter, fewer words, bigger print and more pictures than those of old. Who knows what happens with that re: Australian or otherwise. An interesting topic to be sure.

  7. I completed my VCE in 2001, and Fly Away Peter and Maestro were both texts that I studied. I can’t remember the other books (could well have included Harper Lee and Steinbeck) but I know I wrote essays on both Fly Away Peter and Maestro in my final exam – interesting that I chose the Australian books!

    • Not only interesting, but wonderful Emma that you did! I love Fly away Peter, but know I really should read Maestro. It keeps popping up.

      Anyhow, thanks so much for commenting – great to have input from someone who studied during the period in question. And also great to hear from you. I hope to be in touch soon!

  8. My high school was a bit light on Oz Lit (sounds like a hashtag, huh? #BitLightOzLit) and I did Lit in Years 10 through 12. I’m sure the syllabus has changed out of sight since then (early to mid-90’s), but I did “No Sugar” (play, Jack Davis) and “The Merry-Go Round In The Sea” (Randolph Stow) in Year 12. Other Aussie options on the WA Lit syllabus in those days were White’s “A Fringe of Leaves” and Thea Astley’s “A Descant for Gossips.” Sally Morgan’s “My Place” was on the English list, but I can’t remember which year it was meant for. My only other Aussie recollection from that time is that we gave Bruce Dawe and Gwen Harwood a good going over…and it was worth it..

    Oh yes…I did an experimental Frank Moorhouse short story in Year 10. Peter Carey’s early short fiction shortly followed, outside of class, as did a few years of my own execrable attempts to emulate his style…

    • Haha thanks Glen. Love the hashtag.

      I love hearing experiences of people who were at school in the last couple of decades. How great that your curriculum had Astley and White. (Mine had White too – Voss – but that was late 60s to early 70s.)

      I wish I’d been introduced to Gwen Harwood but I think she was coming into her own as I was in school.

  9. Hi Sue, I spoke to my 3 grandsons. They did read a lot of young Australian books in primary school-one is in his last year. The other two at Secondary school say Australian literature is not encouraged though they have a selection in the library. Last year the oldest one then in year 8 had to select an Australian poet and discuss one of his poems. They are at schools in Tasmania. Today where I volunteer as a reader’s helper I noticed in the library a selection on Australian authors and Indigenous stories. Getting back to my grandsons they are into fantasy novels.

    • Oh thanks so much for checking this out Meg with your young people. Interesting about primary school – I bet that’s largely because of Children’s book week and the book awards, along with the wealth of great Aussie children’s fiction. Interesting how it seems to change quite dramatically in high school.

      BTW both my kids, at school through the 90s and very early 2000s, loved fantasy too. My daughter loved Isobel (sp?) Carmody, among others. I think my son read more English and American fantasy writers (as I recollect.)

  10. Hi Sue, I forgot to add that the school where I volunteer at is 98 percent from African countries. My children were at school in late 70s and 80s. My daughter still loves fantasy and all her family are readers. My son unfortunately is not a reader. He does read surf magazines and David Attenborough. And by the way I read The Odyssey Homer by Emily Wilson. Fantastic and I am going to buy it for my grandsons. The two youngest are into the Greek and Roman gods.

    • A fascinating post and such an important subject. I really would have thought that there would be a really strong presence of Australian books in school curricula: perhaps a series like the Text classic paperbacks would provide a basis for an Australian canon.

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