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Required Reading


Teachers who lack an adequate understanding of the history of their discipline are in danger of suffering from what British educational theorist G. H. Bantock referred to as the parochialism of the present.1 Without such an understanding we are inclined to see current educational policies and practices as the natural and perhaps only possible way of doing things. We are also likely to fall prey to prevailing educational fads and academic theories unthinkingly and to meekly fall into line with new bureaucratic dicta because we lack an adequate framework for evaluating these developments.

An understanding of the history of our discipline allows us to question, critique and evaluate not just the past but the present, and to think about possible futures. In presenting us with some insights into the teaching of literature in Australian schools since 1945, Required Reading presents all those interested in the subject with a timely reminder of the value of an historical perspective.

However, historical perspectives can offer at least two potential traps. The first is post-lapsarianism – the view of the past as a golden age against which the present can only be seen as a period of loss and decline. Required Reading helps us to avoid falling into this trap by documenting the manner in which the study of literature since 1945 has become more broadly inclusive and thus much richer in terms of the authors and texts studied. Literature has clearly moved from being simply a colonial outpost of British culture to a subject that offers students the opportunity to experience and interact with diverse voices from around the world.

The other potential danger of a historical perspective is to fall into the trap of what British historian Herbert Butterfield once called the Whig interpretation of history.2 In this view, history is seen as a continual march of progress from an unenlightened past through a better present to a brighter future. Required Reading prevents us from also falling into this trap.

A number of the essays ask us to consider whether in recent decades we teachers of literature have lost focus on certain important aspects of literary study. In particular, some chapters ask, has the influence of cultural studies and what Terry Eagleton called political criticism,3 with their interest in the social function of literature and the relationship between texts and contexts, led to a neglect of the aesthetic in the study of literature?

Joyce Carol Oates, in discussing the adaptation of her short story ‘Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?’ (which, by the way, would have made a good sub-title for Required Reading) into the film Smooth Talk, has this to say:

All writers know that Language is their subject; quirky word choices, patterns of rhythm, enigmatic pauses, punctuation marks … Of course we all have ‘real’ subjects and we will fight to the death to defend those subjects but beneath the tale-telling it is the tale-telling that grips us so very fiercely.4

Of course language is a social and political practice, but, especially in literature, it is also an aesthetic practice. Like other forms of aesthetic practice, the best literature has the capacity to transcend the concerns of a particular time and place. Some chapters of Required Reading ask us to consider whether in our attempts to make the study of literature relevant to the here and now and in the over-privileging of context in the study of literature we are in danger of neglecting those aspects of literary works that transcend specific contexts.

A number of the essays in Required Reading encourage us to avoid both the post-lapsarian and Whig views of the history of literature by reminding us of the persistence of certain challenges teachers have always faced and continue to face in the teaching of literature. I refer specifically to the obstacles that rigid syllabuses and external examinations pose for those of us who wish more than anything for our students to be gripped ‘so very fiercely’, in Joyce Carol Oates words, by the ‘tale-telling’ of literature.

In asking us to think about where we have been, where we are going and, most importantly, where we wish to go, Required Reading should be required reading for all teachers of literature.

Rod Quin

1The Parochialism of the Present. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

2The Whig Interpretation of History. London: W.W. Norton and Co., 1965 (originally published 1931).

3In Literary Theory: An Introduction. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 198.

4‘Smooth Talk: Short Story into Film’. New York Times, March 23, 1986.

Required Reading

   by Tim Dolin, Jo Jones and Patricia Dowsett