Politicians really have no place in the classroom. Reading news that Education Minister James Merlino had ordered the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority (VCAA) to review its text selection process for VCE English classes almost made me choke on my coffee.
According to a report in The Age this month, Mr Merlino requested to extend the guidelines of text selection to ensure that the views and sensitivities of cultural and religious groups are considered.
If Minister Merlino’s request is taken seriously, then English, literature, drama and theatre studies might as well go the way of typewriting classes; consigned to history, irrelevant in our fast paced, hyper-politically correct world.
Literature, by its very nature, questions, critiques and examines the assumptions we often mistake for truth. How much poorer would we be if it weren’t for the rich tapestry of words woven from writer’s pens over centuries?
Our answer sits somewhere in the Dark Ages, when most of society laid dormant due to illiteracy. Few thought or even questioned their place in the world and power structures that defined it. Words carry power, and history tells us that when we deny words and ideas we confine ourselves to a dangerous ignorance. Ironically, in an age when information is at its height, we are becoming scared of words, concerned more about the power they have to offend rather than the power they have to enrich our lives. By caving into such a fear, we reduce ourselves.
This is why Merlino’s request is dangerous. What world are we presenting to our students if we censor them from ideas we fear? We can surely not accept a framework that unapologetically seeks to kill the very nature of literature.
I cannot think of any text that might not be considered slightly offensive according to the doctrine of a particular religion. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet would surely be off bounds given the young couple’s double suicide, not to mention the acts of murder and the bawdy sexual references. Brecht’s Life of Galileo, with its devastating spotlight on the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, would certainly be called into question. And forget studying Billy Elliot in middle school, god forbid the references to homosexuality.
The dark and beautiful work of Edgar Allan Poe would surely offend the evangelical sensitivities of certain sects. Greek tragedies, complete with pagan references to ‘false idols’, would be in direct breach of the first commandment, while even seemingly innocent fairytales like Cinderella might offend those with sensitivities to witchcraft. It appears a ridiculous proposition, but remember that some Christian schools have banned Harry Potter from their bookshelves due to the series’ indulgence in warlocks and witchcraft.
The issue should never be the text studied. The question lies with how it is approached. A good classroom encourages students to carefully inquire into the various ideas, values and themes flowing through texts. A good teacher will make it clear that no text in itself is inherently offensive, since the defining factor depends on how it is interpreted. Is To Kill a Mockingbird a dark insight into the racist nature of human beings, or is it an inspiring tale teaching the virtues of justice? Is it both?
Denying students the opportunity to find such answers for themselves consigns them to the bigotry of low expectations. In an interconnected world where there is a wealth of sinister and pernicious material in the dark corners of the internet, there should be absolutely no question about equipping students with the skills necessary to critically discern material. Adorning English classrooms with divinely sanctified bubble wrap does not prepare future generations for what is out there.
Throughout this development I could not help but be taken back to my second year teaching. My year nine English class were denied the opportunity to study Phillip Gwynne’s Deadly Unna? A confronting story about an interracial friendship set in a fictional town in South Australia. Gwynne’s brilliant novel provided an accessible window for students to examine the hard questions about their country and its unresolved race relations. It posed questions about what it means to grow up in a society fractured by prejudice, ignorance and division. It helped to reveal truths that my students did not discover, since they were denied the chance to do so. They remained ignorant on the subject, but at least they didn’t offend anyone. Right?