ALLEGRA BYRON witnesses the winnowing of the Western curriculum
In the final scene of Hamlet, the Danish kingdom lays in ruins: a corrupt leader bleeds to death; a poisoned First Lady takes her last breath; a young nobleman dies by his own treachery; and a fatally wounded prince, desperately seeking Truth and Justice, urges his close friend to report the true nature of things. This outward carnage and chaos mirror the deep rot within.
As dramatic as this may sound, the crumbling Danish world metaphorically parallels the disappearing, Western kingdom. In particular, our education system, fundamental to the prosperity and progress of any society, lays bleeding on all sides. The dismantling and decay (and ‘decolonising’) of education directly affects the core participants – the pupils, the teachers, the parents – most of whom have become victims of the Conqueror Worm . Often, they are too manipulated or confused or exhausted to see that the few hoarse voices protesting against the destruction of school curricula are not “mere madness” but urgently attempting to restore order from chaos, to weed out the cankers.
In most schools, two significant learning areas embedded in the curricula are English (language and literature) and history. Whilst each country offers various colours and flavours of these subjects, dependent evidently upon cultural contexts, governments, educational bodies and the public, would agree that our young people need to demonstrate competency and confidence in communicating; they need to read and write and speak and spell well. Admittedly, line-ups for ‘meet the history teacher’ cannot compete with the mad dash for the maths and English teachers’ tables at parent-teacher nights, yet most do place value on pupils knowing about their past and how that past affects their present and future. Australia, like other nations, has sought to standardise its education nationally, believing that this decision ensures equal access for all Australian children. Indeed, students deserve quality, academically rigorous, twenty-first century schools to shape them into life-long learners, allowing them to be active citizens. Noble aims. Important aims. Tragically, however, this hopeful national curriculum with all its virtuous pursuits is an “unweeded garden / That grows to seed”
“Alas, poor Yorick – I knew him, Horatio”: the disappearing texts
One value in immersing young minds in classical literature, a luminous tapestry of novels, plays, short stories and poetry, is that these works present, as Mortimer Adler once suggested, the great enduring truths of the human experience . Between the pages of ‘old books’ a reader discovers love, goodness, despair, forgiveness, longing, graciousness, evilness, beauty, honour, truth and justice. These discourses are offered through the windows of sophisticated, varied vocabulary, clever phrasing and fresh, figurative diction and mature syntax. C S Lewis believed strongly that
…the only palliative [to the blindness of our own century] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books .
Given his ability to read just about everything and then remember everything he read, Lewis had something of value to say about reading choices. Shakespeare’s country grammar school days at King’s New School also valorised the classics. The schoolmasters instructed in spoken and written Latin. During the mornings and afternoons, the diligent pupils translated biblical texts from Greek into Latin and English. They were skilled in Butler’s Rhetorik, andthe boys also studied authors such as Terence, Virgil and Horace. At breaks, mucking about in the schoolyard, the lads were encouraged to speak in Latin (a space, perhaps, to craft his witty insults?). While the drudgery of Elizabethan schoolwork is self-evident in the well-known Romeo and Juliet simile, “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, / But love from love, toward school with heavy looks”, 400 years later, contemporary audiences benefit from Shakespeare’s liberal education, clearly evident in his writings. Closer to our time, a Queensland school reader, given to 12 and 13-year olds, dating from the 1960s, aimed “to instil into the minds of pupils such a love of literature as will last beyond school-days and be an unfailing source of profit and delight” . The collections of accomplished visual artists, poets and short story writers selected for young Australian girls and boys were “compend[ia] of useful knowledge as well as a treasury of beautiful thoughts” .
Today’s modern reading lists in many schools, au contraire, shy away from classical works. They are dropping off and disappearing. Instead, the-powers-that-be scramble to introduce newly published texts into the Australian classroom, replacing the tried and tested. English teachers’ organisations across the country will openly acknowledge the deliberate decision to highlight texts that reflect the myriad of (current) voices in Australia. These ‘new’ texts have morphed into supposed ‘tools of reconciliation’ for the silenced Australian voices. Books (and the odd poem) appear as vehicles of change: to dismantle the white or male (or both) cultural norms. Now, classical literature, part of the ‘best that has been thought and said’, when evident in teachers’ unit plans, is often reduced to a gender warfare or a platform to disrupt the ‘settler myth’ or colonial injustices. Teachers are repackaged as social engineers. For example, on the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website, viewers are offered Year 9 sample student responses to an analytical essay on the ‘role of women’ in Macbeth . Thus, 14 and 15-year old students, still emerging writers, still wrestling with accurate written expression, are requested to uncover the alleged gender imbalance in an Elizabethan text. Rather than discover the beauty and craft of masterful language and storytelling, the teenagers must interrogate the play for its perpetuation or subversion of dominant power dynamics and ideologies. At Eton College – a school that dismissed a teacher for ‘gross misconduct’, that is, for daring to promote masculinity – the headmaster promised that
…the teaching of history, geography, religious studies, politics and English will change and that decolonisation will be incorporated into assemblies, religious services, tutorials and societies also” .
Across the Atlantic, a recently formed American organisation called #DisruptTexts, “whose mission [is] to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices”, claims that “white supremacy” in classrooms is real, and that teachers’ roles are to collapse the deeply embedded racism and “to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that … students deserve” . White supremacy is evident, so goes the tall tale, in our ‘worship’ of the word (rather than pictures). This angry mob of anti-Western canon protesters challenge their new comrades with the question: “Who determined that long words were the only words that could be considered complex?” Apparently, their placards proclaim, when we criticise these new ideologically-approved texts then we criticise the young people that read them.
Back on Australian soil,English teachers are trained how to present ‘culturally sensitive texts’, ones that could contain “community and/or family violence and abuse (sexual or other), alcohol and drug use, crime, explicit sex scenes” for their “literary merit” . Wide reading lists in some schools for pubescent students will privilege homosexual and/or transgender ideology. If teachers contest the use of these texts, then these questions reveal teachers’ intolerance or ‘their lack of understanding’. Often any logical reasons offered against the use of these texts are considered right wing, fascism. Do Australian educators need to fear the Eton teacher’s fate? Some parents also are too afraid to make noise. One American writer and cultural critic has identified parents as ‘tyrants’. He moans, “parents’ [sic] is an oppressive class, like rich people or white people” . It’s no wonder mums and dads feel silenced and disempowered.
Clearly, not all Australian voices are welcome in the carefully constructed, ‘progressive’ classrooms. And not all silenced, marginalised voices are being heard. Where has the treasury of beautiful thoughts disappeared? Will these new books become ‘sources of profit and delight’?
Yesterday’s battles, today
History in Australian schools has not been inoculated against the disease of rapid disruption. The outspoken Scottish history academic, Jill Stephenson, opened a recent article with these words: “No school subject lends itself more readily to political manipulation and propaganda than history” . The 2014 review of the Australian Curriculum identified an “undue emphasis” on the three cross-curriculum priorities: sustainability, the histories and cultures of Indigenous Australians and Australia’s engagement with Asia . The post-modern pendulum swings heavily in favour of this three-pronged priority at the expense of a balanced presentation of Western civilisation and its Judeo-Christian heritage. Stephanie Forrest of the Sydney think-tank, Institute of Public Affairs, found that current, Australian Curriculum-approved, history textbooks were “factually incorrect”, made “outrageous statements” and in some places presented “an environmentalist, socialist and sometimes almost Marxist agenda” . For the most part, however, the 21st century history class has textbook-styled lessons buried, and they now re-emerge as pseudo-scholarly fora, where eras and movements appear via primary sources. Teenaged students, still embryonic in seeing the broad sweep of history from its beginning, now must become historiographers, articulating academic, historical hypotheses and debating the usefulness and reliability of sources before they understand their world and its timeline. Instead of deep learning and time to ruminate, the students, too soon, must learn how to evaluate, analyse and assess the credibility of published authors. They become lost in piles of primary and secondary sources, pouring over visual and written artefacts constructed for an adult audience. In some cases, given that the standard for senior history subjects is so unattainable, the criteria just too difficult, these high school ‘scholars’ will be locked out of taking history courses in upper secondary if their grades are only ‘satisfactory’.
Further, the history units gallop at top speed. Some have one lesson on the Renaissance. The Reformation didn’t happen (apparently, as it’s not referenced in some schools). World War I can be taught in nine lessons. Capitalism is critiqued. Socialism is privileged. Teachers collide, breathlessly, in breeze-ways and hallways, quizzing their colleagues, “Have you finished — unit yet?”. They mark, meet and moderate (papers). And then they do it all again. And again.
But we need history. Despite the pundits arguing that history yawns with ‘drill-and-kill’, so many students continue to love the human stories that arise along the historical timeline. Young people lean in to hear about the ‘boy soldiers’, Trooper Harold Thomas Bell, for example, from the Australian Light Horse Regiment. He was a farmer lad from country Victoria. Although so long ago in a land far, far away, the students feel empathy upon hearing that Harry, like so many others, died from gunshot wounds after the charge against Beersheba on 31 October 1917. He was only 16. Pools of pupils will linger to talk to Teacher after class, bursting to tell her anecdotes about their Pop’s Pop or their Nan’s dad: the medals, the marches, the military. During a lesson (sacrificing the heavily prescribed curriculum requirements), the questions roll around the room, questions breed questions: why didn’t they care for the children in the factories? Did those soldiers really stop fighting on that Christmas Eve? Did Elizabeth the First have kids? Will there be another world war? How tall d’you reckon Alexander the Great was? The late NYU professor Neil Postman sighed knowing that children enter school as question marks and leave as periods. The reality? Quite simply, there isn’t the time for student-led curiosity.
Education today is a tragedy. Limping into a new year, the educational system lags with poisonous political ideologies; left-wing agendas purposefully massacre traditional values once treasured in good books and in a rich, balanced history curriculum. Recent research into educational trends confirmed that half of Australian educators believed that literacy and numeracy (and student behaviour) had declined in the last ten years . Our schools, the children and the dedicated teachers and leaders that fill them, have been betrayed by those in positions of political and academic power, those granted the privilege to lead with wisdom and discernment. We wring our hands and hearts in dismay.
And yet …
If we circle back to the beginning, where we met a disorderly Danish kingdom, like all Shakespearean tragedies, there is always a quest for divine order after a catastrophe. A godly design for all matter (from rocks to celestial beings) governed the Renaissance world: everything had its rightful place. While the noble-hearted Hamlet dies in his desperate attempt to avenge the wrongs of his world, Horatio courageously tells the Prince of Norway, Fortinbras, of the “casual slaughters” and the “cunning and forced deaths” that took place in this pursuit. We too have Hamlet-types of our time. There have been (and are) brave men and women – brilliant professors, deeply committed school teachers and leaders, excellent medical doctors, just politicians, outspoken writers and journalists and many others from all walks of life – suffering the fatal blows of our nihilistic, culture wars. The casualties include a researcher from a tropical, north Queensland university fired for telling the truth; a New York Times writer finished for critiquing critical theory; a social commentator on gender issues lynched for advocating for young men’s rights on university campuses; and a Melbourne medical doctor, practicing for 15 years, ‘cancelled’ for having opinions. Each year, the casualty list multiplies.
Of course, in Shakespeare’s story, Fortinbras claims rights to the broken kingdom. Likewise, we identify a groundswell of opposition, a collective Fortinbras of sorts, all across our nations, some in secret and hidden spaces and places, now gaining momentum and traction to battle against the disruption and destruction of education and other. They claim their right to a better education. They seek a better way for the children. While the UK has academies like the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, an academically excellent group of schools established in economically depressed northern England and London’s ‘strictest’ school, Michaela College, led by Headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, America has pockets of charter and independent schools, some of which produce their own classically-based curriculum sold globally. In Australia, tucked away out the back of Brisbane, Queensland, is the newly established Charlotte Mason College, offering families respite from the turbulent curriculum wars; a place where children meet “a feast of living books, cultural artworks and ideas” . This new Classical Liberal Arts school gently provides “an abundant life [for the boys and girls] that is good, true and beautiful” Travelling south, into Victoria, home to the controversial “Safe Schools” program, the Australian Classical Education Society, an organic collection of teachers, students, home schooling families and academics, commit to establishing Classical Education schools across the country. Thus, we have hope. We must look towards a bright future, believing that a restoration of rightful order to a disorderly Western kingdom will take place.
ALLEGRA BYRON has taught and led in schools in Europe, North America and Australia for almost three decades. She currently teaches in Australia.