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%!