English in Schools isn’t what it used to be

It’s often said – nostalgically by some; in a tone of satisfaction by others – that English in schools isn’t what it used to be. Two recent publications and a new publishing project remind me how much the teaching of English (including literature) has indeed changed during my lifetime.


One of these is the latest issue of English in Australia (vol. 49 no. 2), the journal of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. It’s a retrospective edition, celebrating half a century of AATE activity. For this special number, each previous editor selected and introduced an article from the period of his or her editorship, placing the chosen piece in a context of changing patterns in the English teaching profession. The result is a lively miscellany that begins with a reflection by Judith Wright on the teaching of poetry and includes items by a range of influential educators such as John Dixon, Garth Boomer, Bill Green and Claire Woods.

It also reprints an article of mine from 1982, ‘The Crisis in English Studies’ – which, to quote from Margaret Gill’s prefatory comments, ‘challenged current academic practice and argued for a radical revision of what counted as English Literature and how it might be taught.’ Referring not only to this article but also to my 1984 book The Making of Literature and my work as a curriculum developer, Margaret remarks that I’ve had a fair bit of influence on integrating the critical and the creative in classroom practice. Although she probably overstates the case in saying that ‘Ian Reid initiated a revolution in the teaching of literature’, I’m pleased anyway that this commemorative issue of EinA puts me in eminent company, and sees ideas I’ve espoused as ‘still at the heart of the best of English teaching today.’

But ‘English teaching today’ in schools and universities is not quite what it was in 1964, when the AATE began, or in 1984, when I wrote The Making of Literature. Students tend to read different things now, and are encouraged to read them in different ways. Some of the differences may be healthy, but others are less so. Here’s a dispiriting example of an unhealthy trend: the national curriculum prescribed by ACARA puts a mandatory emphasis on certain ‘priority’ themes (Sustainability, Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Indigenous culture) for English and all other areas of study. Why should those ideologically framed themes dominate student learning at the expense of elements of western civilisation that underpin our country’s political institutions, legal traditions and cultural values?

Earlier in the year I posted some thoughts on Literature and ‘balance’ in the school curriculum, arguing that the original Literature study design for VCE English got it right 25 years ago by requiring ‘a balance between material which responds to students’ current interests and material which expands their interests and increases their knowledge’ so that (e.g.) ‘students should have experience of those texts which have become a part of various established traditions in literature as well as those which have been more recently produced.’


Another perspective comes from English Teachers in a Postwar Democracy: Emerging Choice in London Schools, 1945-65, by Peter Medway et al. A detailed study of English teaching practices and classroom reforms as they developed in three London schools, it uses oral history as well as analysis of teachers’ workbooks and students’ writing. With its focus on the everyday realities of trying to engage students in forms of communication that make sense to them, this book is a salutary reminder that pedagogy, the relationship between teacher and learner, is pivotal for understanding what has changed in English classrooms and what hasn’t.

Something that makes this book relevant to an Australian context is the fact that two of the teachers who figure prominently in it had a powerful international influence: John Dixon and Harold Rosen. (I’ve also written about both of them in my book Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies, which is cited by Medway and his co-authors.) As mentioned above, an article by Dixon is among the pieces chosen for the retrospective issue of English in Australia.

My third perspective on this topic comes from a book that’s still in preparation, called Conditions of Assent: Literature, Literary Studies, and Subject English. Tim Dolin, Jo Jones and Trish Dowsett are editing it. I know about their project because I’ve been invited to contribute a chapter. The book is based on a database they’ve compiled, called ALIAS (Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools), which collates all texts prescribed for senior secondary English or Literature courses in nearly all states from 1945 to 2005. In Conditions of Assent an assortment of scholars will interpret the data to which they’ve been given access.

As the editors are well aware, a mere list of set texts doesn’t constitute a curriculum for English in itself. But the ALIAS database, a comprehensive macro-list, can certainly provide a useful starting point for considering aspects of English in Australian secondary schools since the end of World War 2. Predictably, it shows both continuity and development in what has been prescribed for study over that period. What particular changes would you expect to emerge? Less poetry, more pedestrian prose? Fewer canonical writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes? More books about contemporary adolescent experience? More Australian literature, less British and American? Well, I won’t pre-empt any specific findings here, but some of them may turn out to be surprising.

Of course, no database of texts can yield much insight into English teaching and learning unless it’s supplemented by other information. My chapter will consider how the curriculum for literary studies has been ‘framed’ in senior secondary Australian classrooms by various factors that may constrain approaches to the listed texts. For example, does the syllabus include reference material and recommended resources? Do assessment tasks ensure an alignment between what’s officially set, what’s actually taught and what students eventually learn?


2 thoughts on “English in Schools isn’t what it used to be

  1. Ian, many thanks for the mention of our new book, English Teachers in a Postwar Democracy — and nice for my name to be tagged, too!

    I spoke to John Dixon on the phone only a couple of days ago; he and Simon Clements and Douglas Barnes are delighted that their work has been revisited and celebrated by the research. They and others — former students as well as teachers — have been led to do a lot of fresh thinking and conferring as a result of our project. Quite a few are now in ANZ, not surprisingly, and a number for some reason in Italy.

    I don’t think I’ve commented here before but I always read your posts with interest.

  2. Thanks for responding, Pete.
    While I’m sure your book will attract a lot of respectful attention in the UK, I wanted in my brief remarks to signal that it has plenty to offer to Australian educators too.
    It’s a long while since I was in contact with John Dixon, but it’s good to know – though unsurprising – that he’s still actively engaged with English teachers. He’s always been brimming with intellectual energy.

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