The specificity of English Literary Knowledge as a curriculum subject

Year: 2016

Author: Sawyer, Wayne, Mead, Philip, Doecke, Brenton, Yates, Lyn, Mclean Davies, Larissa

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper will review some conceptual debates about the purpose and form of English literary studies in the curriculum, both from within perspectives and changing views of those working in English, and from debates about knowledge, disciplines and curriculum purposes more generally. The first half of the paper will take up the issues as seen from within the literature and history of English. Traditionally subject English cultivated sensitivity towards language and a capacity for critical and imaginative engagement with literary works (Hunter 1988; Mathieson 1975). This understanding of English has come under severe critique from those challenging the privileging of a literature-centered English as an educational and ‘moral technology’ (Eagleton 1985) and of a select body of texts as ‘literature’ (Beavis 2013; Morgan 2007). These critiques of such ideas of ‘literature’ typically advocate a more inclusive focus on cultural expression through media forms and non-traditional ‘literary’ texts (e.g. Buckingham & Sefton-Green 1994), thus expanding and reformulating the literary field. This has prompted debate about the purpose of subject English, and the relationship of literary study to literacy teaching (Frow 2001; Green 2008). While literature remains a component of English in Australian schools, questions about what constitutes literature and the purpose of literary study–whether it is essentially an aesthetic pursuit, an instrument for personal growth, a vehicle for instilling social justice dispositions, a component of national cultural heritage, or an elite pursuit that distracts English teachers from a proper focus on basic literacy (Peel 2000, McLean Davies 2008, 2011) - contest any assumption of a homogeneous educational field. The second half of the paper will discuss the kinds of questions about the specificity of English suggested by recent sociological arguments about knowledge and curriculum and as an extension of a recent project whose focus was history and science (Yates, Woelert, Millar & O’Connor 2016).