No Dickens for Australian Teenagers | Why school Latin is not “nostalgic fantasy”

by Stephanie Forrest on June 30, 2014

Earlier this month, I argued in The Australian ($) that the English curriculum for all Australian students should not be left to a small group of hand-picked ‘experts.’ I pointed to our existing English curriculum, with its lack of Western literature and grammar content, as an example of what happens when the experts have their way.

The next day, a response ($) was published in The Australian from Mr. Gary Collins, the President of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE).

AATE was one of the key groups involved in creating English for the Australian Curriculum – a government-funded resource which provides materials for ‘English’, including outlines for units like “Living with trash,” “Consumer culture,” and “Protest.” You can view it here.

Mr. Collins kindly sent us the full unedited version of his letter. A part of it is excerpted below.

…Later in the piece, Forrest asks where writers like Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens are to be found in the curriculum…

Most works by Milton or Dickens would be best left to Years 11 and 12 and even there they need to be carefully chosen. I’m currently participating in a book club reading of Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son but 35 years in high school English classrooms tells me that I could never have successfully sold it to the majority of teenagers [emphasis added].

This illustrates the problem perfectly. It is a shame that some people have so little faith in school students that they don’t consider them capable of appreciating the great English literary Classics. If they never have the support, encouragement, or opportunity to read Dickens, then of course it will be difficult to ‘sell’ it to them!

On that note, the UK government recently published the new updated GCSE reading list for English Literature (for students aged 15-16). Scroll down to page 14, and you will find that works like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and (indeed!) Great Expectations are prescribed texts, along with various plays by Shakespeare.

Apparently teenagers in the UK are considered capable of reading Dickens, unlike their Australian counterparts.

Why school Latin is not “nostalgic fantasy”

Christopher Pyne’s recent announcement that Latin will be one of the 11 languages other than English covered in the national curriculum is encouraging.

Not everyone, however, has been celebrating. Ten days ago, The Courier Mail in Queensland ran headlines labeling the move “absurdus maximus.”

According to journalist Tanya Chilcott, it is “patently absurd” to place a dead, “irrelevant” language like Latin on the curriculum alongside major world languages like Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic.


And Van Badham in this article in The Guardian is also clearly opposed to the move. She describes Pyne’s move as “the Coalition’s latest nostalgic fancy” and even claims, “Latin and Greek are a means of demarcating privilege through a shared language of educational exclusivity.”

This is not the case. In fact, Latin is taught to students from disadvantaged backgrounds in struggling schools in inner-city London because it instils the very skills that overcome disadvantage.

In Victoria, Latin is currently offered by a number of different schools, ranging from Melbourne Girls Grammar, to Alia College, to Dandenong High School.

In this article ($), Yasmin Haskell, a Classicist from the University of Western Australia, argues that studying Latin opens up “a dizzying double vision of familiarity and unfamiliarity.”

As this article from The Spectator and this one from The New York Times argue, studying Latin can have many benefits.

Reading, Watching, Listening

This month, John Roskam wrote this article in The Australian Financial Review ($) on taxpayer-funding of arts degrees.

There were a number of responses, including this one – again by Yasmin Haskell, the Classicist who wrote one of the pieces on Latin above. She asks ironically, “what public benefit can flow from our young people studying Plato, Virgil, Shakespeare, Goethe, John Locke, Adam Smith, or god forbid, old Javanese?”

We couldn’t agree more – students should study Plato, Virgil and, Shakespeare. The problem is, relatively few humanities faculties across Australia still offer units on them anyway. Instead, most have a variety of equally-subsidised ‘social studies’ units.

Dan Hannan wrote two fascinating and very relevant articles for The Telegraph this month. In this one, he discusses the slow decline of the UK Liberal Democrats and the reasons for their crushing defeat in the recent EU elections. (For more on this, see Nick Cater’s recent piece here ($)).

In this one, Dan discusses the legacy of Magna Carta. Responding to this article by Owen Jones, he describes it as “the Anglosphere’s defining text” and “the Torah of the English-speaking peoples – the text that sets us apart while, at the same time, speaking universal truths about the human race.”

Last of all for this month is this fascinating essay on the success and future prospects of Western Civilisation by Bryan Caplan from George Mason University, published on Library of Economics and Liberty.

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