Anyone who follows the Review pages of The Australian will be familiar with ongoing debates over the role literature should play in the teaching of English in our schools. On one side of this debate sits conservative opinion, spearheaded by the likes of Imre Salusinszky and Kevin Donnelly, who both believe that "enduring classics associated with the Western tradition must be given pre-eminent status" in the classroom. On the other side sits post-modern argument, voiced by the likes of Mark Howie (Australian Association for the Teaching of English), who sees immense value in studying other forms of text that fall outside traditional definitions of literature.
In the past month this debate has come to a head as the National Curriculum Board takes its final submissions for the development of a "rigorous, world class national curriculum” to be implemented in 2011. To discuss the finer points of the submissions, ABC Radio National’s Ramona Koval brought together both Donnelly and Howie on the Book Show. It is this discussion in particular that sparked my interest in the matter. Previously, I thought Donelly was just another elitist cultural defender, incapable of recognising the value of studying various forms of popular culture, such as film and television, in the classroom. Now, after listening to his interview with Koval, I’ve found his views on the humanising dimension of literature compelling, and not dissimilar to my own. I now realise that we both think literature can strengthen our ability to find connections between ourselves and others, and we both believe this enlargement of sympathy can have a positive social impact that starts first in the classroom. In short, Koval’s interview fleshed out Donnelly’s overall concern about the potential “reduction in literature in the [new] curriculum”, and now I find myself sharing in Donnelly's concern.