Dear Christopher Bantick,
Today, I came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald where you lamented the current state of the English curriculum because you believed that it would lead to a world where “ignorance will be seen as preferable, even desirable, while serious theatre is unviable, serious literature is not published, concert programs are reduced and other forms of cultural elevation are lost.” To address this terrible state, you believed that “Schools need to do more about bringing a little elitism back into the awareness of culture. High culture: fine art, opera, serious drama and music that requires patience and understanding needs to be embedded into the curriculum.” I felt a little cheapened that you didn’t list more guidelines on what was high culture since, in late 2012, you reduced Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in a Time of Cholera as “a voyeuristic engagement where a palpably prurient interest in child sex is primary,” and I was curious to see who else you’d put here.
You may never read this blog, or this open letter to you, but in case you do, a little about me. Firstly, I am an author who lives in Sydney. In 2014, I will have two books published, my fourth and fifth. One is a collection of short fiction, one is a novel, but both are speculative fiction, a term I am sure you are intimately familiar with. I also hold a doctorate in literature. For some reason I’ve never quite figured out, the combination of the two has let me lecturer and teach, though I do the former less now with the deadlines I have, and the latter I do privately.
Still, for a long time now I have run into people like you at various schools. Thankfully, you’re not very common. After all, High School teachers have a rough job, one based on the repetitiveness of basic information, often for what I consider little money and little respect. But every now and then, I run into someone like you, someone who believes that culture is in a dive, that it has been caused by artists who are, somehow, hollow and without artistic creativity, and that they must cure it. They believe that they should “teach serious, classically demanding literature.” That they should be elitist in their choices, that they should go for the highest forms of artistic ability – so long, I guess, as it isn’t a Nobel Award Winning author like Gabriel Garcia Marquez – and that this should be a deliberate choice to save society. As you said, “Yes, it is elite, consciously so, but anything is elite if it is not pandering to the lowest common denominator. How can a book about a vacuous Sydney teenager reflecting on school, like Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi, be compared with Jane Eyre?”
Well, the two books are compared because they address the needs of two different students. It is a simple response: I assume no one told you before you started working at your expensive private school in Melbourne?
At any rate, I assume that, like most of the teachers I have met who talk like you, that deep down, your desire to teach the classic literature is based on your own desire to explore it. Understandably, you personally find little worth or intellectual engagement with young adult novels, and prefer things that speak to you as, in this case, a male in his late fifties and perhaps early sixties (I’ve based this on your photo – apologies if it is wrong, but maybe shave the beard, if it is). In other words, the same shallow motivation that you criticise Ang Lee – surely on every student’s hero list – and Josh Pyke for when they discuss why they make their work. I assume this, by the way, because of your insistence that it the classics are elite – that the work of Charlotte Bronte, Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are challenging and confounding, and require a deep, life long dedication to? Maybe that is not why you want to teach it, but I am going to assume that you have struggled with the canon of Western literature longer than I have because you arguing that studying it is somehow an act of the elite.
Which, of course, brings us back to my point about different students. Just like you and I are different teachers, there are different students, with different levels of ability with the written word, and it is the job of people like you and I to help them reach a greater understanding of it, so that they can finish their exams and move out of High School with the greatest options available to them. I’m going to do you the favour of pretending that I think you’d like them to appreciate the written word after – as I do – so they can contribute to the giant conversation that society and art is engaged in. Still, you and I might differ on that, because I’ve always thought at the deep heart of the elitist argument you are making is an idea that education should only be for those who can properly appreciate it, rather than for everyone. You know who I mean: those with the right money, the right background, the right skin colour.
Still, I feel uncomfortable noting that there are differences between Looking for Ali Brandi and Jane Eyre. I feel that by acknowledging that Marchetta’s Looking for Ali Brandi is written in a more modern, accessible hand to the youth of today than Bronte’s Jane Eyre, that it somehow pays into your argument, and makes one seem more ‘worthy’ than the other, despite the criticism that Bronte’s novel recieved at publication for culturally hollow and damning (as I am sure you know, it was not a book that recieved good attention from religious quarters at the time). Still, the truth is, the part that I found most damning about your article was that you could not acknowledge that the difference was important for your students. The mark of a good teacher, after all, is his/her ability to adjust for their students, to see what they need, what speaks to them most, and to give them work that best reaches them. In a perfect world, I often imagine that there are no curriculums at all at schools, and that students get one on one attention, and have an education tailored to them – one that drifts in and out of canon, from classics to moderns, to experimental, to cutting edge… but for the teacher at the head of five classes of between twenty and thirty students over a year, the simple math doesn’t work out. But still, you, just as I, must be aware that you can teach literature with any book, and that what matters is not our opinion of what is ‘literature’, but rather, how the student responds to it?
It was because of your failure to acknowledge that that I wrote this. The easy insults against you, such as teh fact that you are clearly a limited reader with a shallow appreciation of good writing is fun, but really just a way to pass the time.
In truth, if I were a student in your class, or a parent with a child in your care, I’d be concerned with the fact that you were using your position not to educate me (or my child) but rather to push what is essentially cultural propaganda onto me. That you were, in short, just a bad teacher.