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The muffled canon

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Friday, 5 May 2006

What do the works of Shakespeare and the television talent quest Australian Idol have in common? For most, especially Prime Minister John Howard, who argued recently that teaching great literature is being destroyed by postmodernism and outcomes-based education, the answer is: nothing.

Shakespeare's works, as Harold Bloom argues in The Western Canon, represent literature at its most sublime and suggest something profound and moving about what it means to be human.

Australian Idol, by comparison, deals with human nature in a superficial and predictable way and, although entertaining to some, lacks the enduring and universal quality of great literature.


Not so according to Paul Sommer, president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. In defending the idea that in English classrooms across Australia everything from graffiti and SMS messages to weblogs and computer games is a worthwhile "text" for study, Sommer says: "We want them [students] to be confident with a range of computer literacies and we want them to understand that texts from Shakespeare to Australian Idol are profoundly shaped by contexts and open to a range of understandings."

Two teacher-academics, in a paper delivered at a 2005 national English teachers conference, also argue that Australian Idol should be included in the classroom and provide a lesson plan showing students how to analyse a judge's comments that one of the singers was overweight.

Welcome to the brave new world of "critical literacy". The Tasmanian Education Department defines critical literacy as "the analysis and critique of the relationships among texts, language, power, social groups and social practices. It shows us ways of looking at texts to question and challenge the attitudes, values and beliefs that lie beneath the surface."

The president of the ACT Association for the Teaching of English, Rita van Haren, describes teaching critical literacy as getting students to ask the following questions:

"Who is in the text? Who is missing? Whose voices are represented? Whose voices are marginalised or discounted? What are the intentions of the author/speaker? What does the author/speaker want the audience to think? What would an alternative text say? How can the audience use this information to promote equity?"

The task is no longer to read with sensitivity and discrimination what is written and to value what a literary work tells us about what D.H. Lawrence terms "the relation between man and his circumambient universe at the living moment".


The result? Whereas the Western canon, defined as works that best exemplify our creative urge to give shape and meaning to experience through the use of imaginative language, once held centre stage in the English classroom, the sad fact is that literature is no longer privileged. Not only are great works such as Hamlet reduced to being one cultural artefact among many, along with The Terminator and Australian Idol, but the moral and aesthetic value of literature is ignored as students are taught to analyse texts as examples of how dominant groups in society oppress and marginalise others.

As borne out by the example of SCEGGS in Sydney, where Year 11 students are taught to deconstruct Othello from a Marxist, a feminist and a racial perspective, the joy of reading is reduced to a sterile and formulaic exercise in political correctness. Further evidence that the culture warriors of the Left have won the day is the way Tim Winton's Cloudstreet is taught in NSW senior English classes.

In notes given to Year 12 students, they are asked to analyse Winton's book in terms of each of the following perspectives: gender (feminist), socio-political (Marxist), cultural, post-colonial, spiritual and psychological.

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First published in The Australian on April 22, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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