‘ Edifying instruction in classrooms?’  exploring the purpose of literary study in secondary English in Australia

Year: 2013

Author: McLean Davies, Larissa

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


In Australia each state and territory follow different practices with regard to curriculum design and assessment for the senior years of secondary education (Patterson 2008). In some places, assessment in the senior years is managed at a school level. In Queensland, this means that teachers select texts for their students to study and assessment is managed at a school level, in other states, a substantive part of the assessment is undertaken by an external body; in Victoria this  is the  Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA).  Teachers make their selection of texts from lists determined by VCAA representatives; in the standard or mainstream ‘English’ subject, four texts will be chosen from a possible 36, and in the more specialized subject ‘Literature’, six texts are chosen from a possible 73.  Given the high stakes nature of senior English—in  Victoria, a pass in a sequence of three subjects from English suite is compulsory—the text lists for English and Literature, which are published annually, cause considerable interest, and at times, public debate.

Such a debate ensued when the Melbourne Age published Christopher Bantick’s  objection  to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Love in the time of Cholera (1985), which had been  set by the VCAA for study in the literature subject for the second time in 2013. In ‘Sex with a child is not the stuff of the school curriculum’, Bantick,  senior English and literature teacher and regular media columnist,  squarely attacked the VCAA, and more specifically, its delegated panel of teachers who had selected this text, arguing that the representations of underage sex between a “septuagenarian man and a 14-year-old girl” made the text profoundly inappropriate. Bantick’s view was both supported and derided by students, teachers, journalists and academics in the usually quiet December and January holiday period.

Controversy over fiction is not new, and issues of text selection often become contentious, in Australia and elsewhere (McLean Davies 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011); at the heart of these often public discussions are unresolved tensions about the purpose of literary study in secondary schools. This paper will provide a brief review of research concerned with  literary censorship in subject English,  and will draw on the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1996) to closely analyse the recent media debate about the teaching of Marquez’s Love in A Time of Cholera. Through analysis of this and other similar cases, this paper will consider the ways in which literary study is being framed in contemporary Australian culture, and will consider the role of media and other institutions (including parental institutions) in shaping the literary field.

[i]Bantick, 2011