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Plus ca change

February 17th, 2005

At Troppo and elsewhere, there’s been a lot of discussion of postmodernism, the English curriculum and so on. Nothing appears to have changed[1] since the last round of this stuff nearly three years ago, when one of my early posts began:

The postmodernists have been copping it from all directions lately, mostly in relation to their claimed infiltration of the High School English curriculum in New South Wales and elsewhere.

fn1. Nothing except that linkrot has long since consumed all the links, and the comments are similarly lost

In a post a while back, I pointed out three good uses for postmodernism:
”(i) Therapy for recovering Stalinists
(ii) A harmless target on which right-wing pundits can vent their rage
(iii) Some theoretical content for degrees in “communications”

In a marginally more serious vein, I’d like to say that the ‘old’ English literature curriculum displaced by postmodernism is, in my opinion, no loss. The basic task of students in the old curriculum was to learn to write literary criticism, mainly focused on Shakespeare in drama, and on Dickens and other C19 writers in prose. I object to this on the following grounds:

(a) The resulting literary criticism was very bad
(b) The world has more than enough literary criticism
(c) The favored writing style was ornate rather than efficient, and produced bad habits that universities then had to weed out
(d) Arguments about works of art are almost inevitably sloppy and illogical; and most importantly
(e) The subject inculcated a hatred of literature in the majority of students.

On the whole, I think deconstruction of TV ads and sitcoms is far less harmful and might even be beneficial.

Update: Not surprisingly, I managed to annoy both traditionalists and postmodernists (a minority in the world of political blogs, but there are some around) with this post. Read the comments thread, which is great as always, but also check out Jason Soon for a statement of the traditionalist position that’s a lot better than you can find in the newspapers and Don Arthur for a reasoned defence of postmodernism. I think Don’s a bit too charitable to the PoMos, but I agree with his basic point. The problem with postmodernism in High School is that it’s too highbrow. To be done at all well, it requires a level of cultural knowledge and epistemological sophistication that is not feasible for a high school student, very rare in high school teachers and not all that common among postmodernist academics.

The big weakness of the traditionalist position is the assumption that critical and analytical skills are best learnt through the critical analysis of great works of literature. This seems inherently implausible, and I can’t say that the old curriculum did much for critical skills. It seems much more reasonable to learn by criticising familiar material with a relatively mundane purpose, like ads, newspaper articles and even sitcoms.

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  1. February 17th, 2005 at 22:27 | #1

    It is a great deal easier to say what we don’t want to see in English teaching than to specify what we would really like. It is easy to make fun of any kind of pendantry whether of the Leavisite, New Criticism, or POMO variety. Gifted teachers may triumph over the most awful syllabus and bad teachers may wreck the most enlightened course. In my own experience, I was fortunate with two English teachers in a private school some decades ago and my fourth child who has just completed HSC was well served by two English teachers in a public high school.
    No doubt some evolutionary change in English teaching were necessary but the intrusion of advanced theory is objectionable on a number of grounds, some of them concerned with the deficiencies of the theories themselves and others concerned with the contingent fact that many of the reformers have decided that it is their duty to be social reformers of a particular kind in addition to their function as teachers of literature.
    These various concerns need to be kept separate, partly to ensure that novel or unfamiliar theories and methods are evaluated on their merits and not on political grounds, also to avoid the chaos of talking about everything at the same time.
    My problem with the new theorists is to find out what they have to offer that is new, helpful and robust. This position is not anti-theory, it is based on the theory of Wellek and others and it finds expression in a particularly good statement by two Australians, Richard Friedman and Seumas Miller. These matters are something of a minority interest but I have taken the trouble to put a deal of this material on line.
    For Wellek http://www.the-rathouse.com/Revivalist_winter.html
    Wellek’s critique of ‘the new nihilism’ in literary studies http://badanalysis.com/catallaxy/index.php?p=627
    For an extended summary of the critique by Friedman and Miller http://badanalysis.com/catallaxy/index.php?p=632
    For some views of my own:
    On the theory of literature http://www.the-rathouse.com/popunchanged.html
    Review of Howard Felperin on deconstructionism
    http://www.the-rathouse.com/bartdeconstruct.html

    I will not elaborate on my views of the political agendas of the progressive reformers, except to say that they should require and encourage their students to apply the same critical approach to their own views that they expect them to apply to the status quo.

    Quite likely I don’t have serious differences with John ‘Huggy Bear’ on this topic, and I like some of the last para.
    “The big weakness of the traditionalist position is the assumption that critical and analytical skills are best learnt through the critical analysis of great works of literature. This seems inherently implausible, and I can’t say that the old curriculum did much for critical skills. It seems much more reasonable to learn by criticising familiar material with a relatively mundane purpose, like ads, newspaper articles and even sitcoms.”

    Yes, we are not trying to produce literary critics (that is a good point made by Richard Hough in a brilliant critique of university English some time ago in the collection “Crisis in the Humanities” circa 1965) but we do want kids to have contact with a range of literature including some of the classics and some contemporary works. We hope that they will enjoy some of these works and discover that many of the classics are not just great works of art but incredibly readable. We also want to equip them with some of the skills and knowledge required to understand what the writers are about, like scanning poetry and understanding the various metrical forms. As for the criticism of ads, newspaper articles, sitcoms, that may have a place as a complement to literary studies, especially for those who have no flicker of interest in the worlds that are opened up by good books. But I wonder what can be done in class, both at school and at uni, for people whose minds and interests are somewhere else.

  2. February 18th, 2005 at 09:02 | #2

    On the topic of sending up schools of lit crit, the classic is probably “The Pool Perplex”, a collection of essays purporting to represent the exegesis of “The House at Pooh Corner” from various points of view ranging from the Marxist to the Leavisite.

    Closer to home, would people like contribute to a list of important Australian critics and commentators?
    In addition to James McAuley, how about the Palmers, the Greens, A D Hope, Brian Penton (not an academic but a tireless journalist) and that Catholic fellow in Melboure who wrote “Cutting Green Hay” (the travails of dementia) and on the theory side, John Docker. Luke Slattery, Imre, Craven, Dessaix.
    Someone raise my blood pressure by nominating Meaghan Morris.

  3. John Quiggin
    February 18th, 2005 at 09:15 | #3

    Is Imre in this league as a lit theorist? Not that I have any particular reason to doubt it, but the other names are familiar from the broadsheet press, where I’ve only ever encountered Imre in his sub-PJ O’Rourke mode.

  4. February 18th, 2005 at 09:30 | #4

    Post Modernism is harmless enough as is, just an intellectual fashion statement for bored middle class half-educated dilettants. But it has two pernicious effects, both harmful to Pr Q’s side of politics:
    intellectual: discrediting the Left by making it look like it was in the thrall of pretentious wankers, esp in the minds of intelligent scientsts & artists that used to give the Left the edge (compare Hemmingway, Haldane & Russell to Derrida, Foucault)
    ideological: disorienting the Left towards Cultural, rather than Class, War. This was always going to be an unpopular playing field with the masses.
    So if Pr Q does not mind the fact that Po-Mo made New Left “cultural constructives” look like a pack of bloody fools who were more into wanking than politicking then I suppose it was ok.

  5. Paul Norton
    February 18th, 2005 at 09:49 | #5

    A recent book about Western Sydney by left-leaning post-modernist scholars contains a statement along the lines of “Western Sydney is a slippery and contested concept”. Taking up Jack’s point, I wonder to what extent the incidence of this sort of thinking in parts of the left is a factor in the Federal Coalition’s recent electoral gains in that neck of the woods.

    One point that needs to be remembered is that issues arising from non-class differences and conflicts such as those of gender, race, sexuality, etc., are not simply “cultural” in the sense that this term is often used. However there seems to be a tacit conspiracy between some high-profile champions of these issues, culture warriors of the New Right and class warriors of the Old Left to frame such issues in cultural-political terms, to the detriment of a serious understanding of the real and persistent realities of material and existential disadvantage, risk and limited life-chances which exercise the minds of serious feminists, anti-racists, queer rights activists and their supporters.

  6. Paul Norton
    February 18th, 2005 at 09:53 | #6

    Having stepped on some toes on the left foot, I must even things up by drawing attention to the latest folly of the Colonel Blimps of the Culture Wars in the US. It’s in this morning’s Age, at:

    http://www.theage.com.au/news/Opinion/How-Dirty-Harry-turned-commie/2005/02/17/1108609342686.html

  7. John Quiggin
    February 18th, 2005 at 10:07 | #7

    Jack, I agree, but

    1. From my perspective, the best thing to do about pomo is laugh it off

    2. As I mentioned, it’s better for the left than Stalinism. The fans of Derrida and Foucault were mostly drawn from those who previously went for Althusser or at best Sartre, not followers of Bertrand Russell.

  8. Katz
    February 18th, 2005 at 10:32 | #8

    As Madame Roland lamented upon the scaffold, “Oh Liberty what crimes have been committed in your name.”

    So one may cry “Oh POMO…”

    But excesses vitiate neither liberty nor postmodernism.

    The central insight of postmodernism must be beyond dispute for all who have liberated themselves from the thrall of every form of teleology, eschatology, chiliasm and determinism.

    That is: there is no master text.

    This makes eminent good sense. It also liberates a torrent of nonsense.

    Caveat lector.

  9. February 18th, 2005 at 11:02 | #9

    “there is no master text.”
    Nice work Katz! Popper’s theory of conjectural knowledge in a nutshell.
    In my opinion the deconstructionists would never have got off the ground if Popper’s epistemology and cognate ideas had spread more widely before the 60s and 1970s.

    Taking up John’s point on Imre Saluszinsky, as a Hawthorn supporter he has been obliged to maintain a fairly low profile in recent times, but years ago he published a book of interviews with a dozen of the leading lights of high theory. Of course that does not make him a theorist in his own right but he did speak the language fluently enough to keep the interviews rolling along. It must have been remaindered because I have a new copy (when I get it back from my brother in law). It does not appear in the catalogues at several Sydney unis, nor does Google turn it up.

    By the way, if you really want to get to Tim Blair, ask him how many premierships Collingwood have won since 1958.

  10. Katz
    February 18th, 2005 at 11:18 | #10

    Thanks Rafe. The academic whose name you were trying to remember was Vincent Buckley.

  11. michael.burgess
    February 18th, 2005 at 12:10 | #11

    Jack et al underestimates the negative consequences of Post Modernism and political correctness. A good example of the damage it does is the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a Dutch politician who is a tireless and extremely brave fighter for Muslim women’s rights in the Netherlands. She made the film submission with Theo Van Gogh who was then murdered and mutilated in public for his sins. Sick of the way members of the Dutch labor party (which she belong to) and other western liberals refused to engage with the issue of violence and exploitation of women in Muslim communities (they kept telling her she was to critical and western men also committed violence against women) she finally switched sides to the conservative party in the hope that they would actually do something. The reality is most people especially academics appear to need to attach themselves to rigid ideologies and with the demise of Marxism postmodernism and political correctness fits the bill very well.

  12. Dave Ricardo
    February 18th, 2005 at 13:11 | #12

    Michael, this thread is about po mo in the English curriculum, but your mind is so one-tracked you make the connection to the, no doubt fasciniating, but totally irrelevant, political choices made by a Dutch Muslim woman.

    Your own choice of discourse is po mo in itself. I hope you see the irony.

    By the way, Michael, what do you make of the business of that Israeli diplomat and Ruddock’s daugher? Do you think he might have been hoping to get a few state secrets whispered across the pillow?

  13. michael.burgess
    February 18th, 2005 at 13:51 | #13

    Dave, I was responding to the discussion on postmodernism and the suggestion that it wasn’t really that big an issue- as for changing the topic you seem to have no problem changing topics to engage in your usual anti-Israeli nonsense. Unless, the diplomat was engaged in industrial espionage (I have not as yet read up on this issue) I have no problem with any spying activities that he might have been involved with. For given that Islamic extremist and pro-Palestinian groups are allowed to act freely in western countries, one would hope that Israeli intelligence was keeping tabs on them.

  14. Dave Ricardo
    February 18th, 2005 at 14:16 | #14

    Michael, Michael, Michael, …. I am, hand on my heart, pro-Israel … why did you construe my question as anti-Israeli? You’ve hurt my feelings. I was just asking what you thought of it all. It does seem strange that this spy went after Ruddock’s daughter. What could he get from her? (I mean, what intelligencve could her get from her?) It’s as not though Ruddock discusses ASIO’s activities over the breakfast table with his family. At least, I hope he doesn’t.

  15. Michael Harris
    February 18th, 2005 at 22:36 | #15

    “On the topic of sending up schools of lit crit, the classic is probably “The Pool Perplexâ€?” — the author of that (Fred Crews) has since written “Postmodern Pooh”, which is well worth reading. Whereas for him, “The Pooh Perplex” was a fun joke of a book to write, “Postmodern Pooh” was hard work for him, and it’s an angry book. But it’s a blast to read, very funny send-ups if you know the things he’s satirising. (It comes across as a series of academics competing for whose “voice” is the most “marginalised”.)

  16. James Farrell
    February 19th, 2005 at 19:52 | #16

    Paul, what’s wrong with ‘Western Sydney is a slippery and contested concept’? It’s a concept and it’s certainly slippery. I don’t know how contested it is amongst, say, sociologists (and the contest wouldn’t excite me much personally) but I can well imagine it might be.

  17. gordon
    February 20th, 2005 at 14:20 | #17

    I don’t even know what Postmodernism is. But I do know that I was disappointed with my son’s high school English courses. So was he. In the end, he simply analysed the teachers and gave them what they wanted. For one, it was feminism. For another, it was metaphors. Since several (female) teachers despised males and always gave higher marks to female students, he hit upon the subtle device of sketching little flowers in the margin of examination essays. Since students were identified by number in exams and the papers were marked by a variety of teachers, he reckoned this statistically improved his chances of being mistaken for a girl and consequently getting a better mark. I looked at the texts for prose and poetry, and I can understand that he was completely turned off English by the trash which was set, particularly in years 7 – 10. It was only in Years 11 and 12 that an occasional “classic” – eg. short stories by de Maupassant or Maugham – penetrated the veil of mediocrity and political correctness which enshrouded the English Dept., and by then the damage was done. No worthwhile poetry at all.

    Several things are clear to me about high school English. First, we don’t know what we want to achieve with it. Second, we are achieving bugger all. Third, we appear to be either deeply ashamed of our own cultural history or pig-ignorant about it. Fourth, English has become a sump for incompetent, prejudiced teachers.

  18. February 21st, 2005 at 15:56 | #18

    Fred Crews may be smarter and funnier, but my exemplary pomo readings of ‘Polly Put the Kettle On’ are just a click away here.
    Useful for students and parents alike.

    Bruce

  19. February 21st, 2005 at 16:03 | #19

    Aargh! Don’t follow the signature link in the previous comment. This is what comes of new-fangled cutting-and-pasting. I have nothing whatsoever to do with Bill Gates, truly. Firefox rules!

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