When the Federal Minister for Education Christopher Pyne announced his National Curriculum Review in January this year, one of the changes he knew he wanted was more emphasis on the virtues of Western civilisation.
Pyne’s choice of Kevin Donnelly as one of two people to head the review was controversial but made his intentions crystal clear. Donnelly is best known for his opposition to to an increasing emphasis in Australian education on cultural diversity. He wants more emphasis on what are called Judeo-Christian values which really means Christianity with a touch of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Donnelly’s final report, prepared with co-author Ken Wilshire, delivered on that goal this week.
In May this year University of Sydney issued a press release announcing that the chosen literature expert for the review was its Professor of Poetry Barry Spurr. This press release was unnoticed by the media but was met with dismay by some NSW English teachers who were aware that Spurr had been an opponent of their new English curriculum that is still to be fully rolled out in NSW. Spurr is not an experienced school teacher although he had written cribs and textbooks for the old curricula.
From Pyne and Donnelly’s point of view, Spurr was a perfect choice. Along with Donnelly’s chosen history reviewer Greg Melleuish, he contributed to an Institute of Public Affairs monograph opposing the Gillard government’s National Curriculum in 2011. Pyne launched that report making it clear that if elected, the LNP government would not accept the National Curriculum.
Today. New Matilda has published extracts from the Sydney University email account of Spurr. Those emails reveal the private thoughts of the man who was chosen to advise on what Australian students should learn in their English classes.
The quick messages to his friends and colleagues reveal the attitudes lurking behind the polite public face of a conservative and religious traditionalist.
Spurr was one the last people to wear an academic gown for lectures at Sydney University, where he has been teaching poetry for 38 years. Before that he was an organist scholar and tutor at St Paul's College at Sydney University.
His own recent research interests are the influence of religion in the work of the conservative modernist poet T.S. Eliot and representations of the Blessed Mary in poetry. Both are worthwhile studies but a long way from the world of most young Australians.
Spurr's views are reflected in the final National Curriculum review report
The National Curriculum review’s final report reflects the thrust of Spurr’s findings. His constant refrain is that there is a lack of “rigour” and “robustness” in the National Curricula. What this means in practice is that he prefers a canonical and historical approach to the study of literature which is based on a list of authoritative texts, most of which were published in England. Like other conservatives, he is bitter that his canonical approach has been widely critiqued and rejected by English teachers and researchers around Australia over recent decades.
Spurr wants more emphasis on the Bible as a text and far less emphasis on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature and texts with a relevance to Asia. He wants students to study lots more poetry, pay more attention to the moral qualities of literature while at the same time placing less emphasis on the critical exploration of cultural assumptions.
Spurr acknowledges that it is important to develop a ‘mastery of different belief systems’ but the only belief system he mentions as being of value is Christianity. He also stresses that it is important to learn about belief systems before critiquing, rather than responding and critiquing while you learn.
Few would disagree with Spurr that the Bible is an important English language text and that it can be used to explore ‘literal, metaphorical and allegorical’ language. At my school in the mid 20th century, we memorised part of the Bible every term and I can't say it did me any harm. (We also had never heard of Dreaming stories.) But how much Bible study is relevant to contemporary Australia where many students are not Christians is open to debate. Spurr is not just talking about senior students here. He wants Australian children in their earliest years of schooling to learn English through Bible Stories.
He argues that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders literature has had a ‘minimal influence’ on global English literature. (In his emails he wrote that it had 'no influence'.) He constantly refers to its lack of importance. From the point of view of an orthodox canon established over more than a thousand years this is obviously true. But it does not follow that Australian children should not study literature that reflects the experience and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In fact, many would argue that it is critically important that they do so.
The final report refers to the need to depoliticise the curriculum. It quotes Spurr’s dislike of three themes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture, Asian connections and Sustainability that run through the national curriculum. In normal educational circumstances, the effectiveness of these themes would be evaluated as the curriculum is tested in practice. Spurr’s political aim is to replace the current ‘socio political concerns’ with the ‘moral and spiritual dimensions’ of a Western literary tradition.
Keep creative writing firmly in check
Spurr's supplementary report reveals a more detailed glimpse into his imagined reformed classroom.
He refers to ‘extraneous” elements that interfere with the teaching of the canon. He wants more memorisation and correction of poor enunciation of English, including the tendency of Australians to insert an upward inflection at the end of sentences.
He complains about too much emphasis on enjoyment, which he does not believe is necessarily part of learning literature. "The idea of pupils as ‘creators’ of literature in English needs to be kept firmly in check" he reports. Students’ own works should not be valued too highly.
While he would not necessarily get rid of the use of indigenous Dreaming stories , they should not replace Bible stories for young children who should also study the classical myths, Middle English and Chaucer with its ‘flavoursome vocabulary”.
Australian children’s literature should be taught in relation to its English inheritance. He mentions twentieth century favourites such as Seven Little Australians and the Silver Brumby series but makes no mention of contemporary Australian children's fiction books.
Spurr supports a balanced curriculum across all literary forms but constantly complains that there is not enough of poetry, by which he means the great English poets such as Donne, Milton and Wordsworth. (Some English poets are already taught in nearly all Australian schools.)
He wants less emphasis on contemporary texts. The only contemporary Australian dramatist mentioned is David Wiliamson. He is not opposed to studying Australian literature but warns against "tendencies to insularity and parochialism” and advised that a “narrowing over-emphasis on contemporaneity” should be “curtailed." He also objects to extracts and believes that on all but rare occasions, students must read whole novels and plays.
He welcomed a focus on ‘enunciation’ (an Australian speech problem, generally), but advised that this should go beyond “correcting mispronunciation and inaudible speech and so on – not simply encouraging good enunciation. English teachers need to work to correct, “Tics of contemporary Australian speech” such as the rising inflection at the end of sentences.
Spurr does not hide his disdain and disapproval for the English literature teachers and researchers who developed the curriculum document. He refers to a “random grab-bag of authors and texts” and a “chaotic jumble" of texts. He picks up on references to texts needing to be ‘relevant’ to students like a schoolmaster marking an essay.
One gets the sense that Spurr is a man who is passionately engaged with the authors of his choice. A literary studies university student who shared his interests and values could undoubtedly learn much from him. But he’s a man that feels his preferred world is under attack and that the National Curriculum has downplayed his preferred tradition in a way that is ‘exclusivist’. But his own choice involves the reimposition of a tradition that diminishes other perspectives.
Spurr seems to have no practical grasp of how a contemporary English syllabus is constructed or what it would be like to be in an Australian classroom in 2014.
Spurr's world is a narrow one, which is perhaps why he claimed to be unable to think of any literary texts that were relevant to Australian students' connections to Asia.
As a choice to review Australian curriculum for classrooms of the twenty first century, the selection of Spurr was poor but politically calculated. When you think about how Spurr privately thinks about those he refers to as 'Abos', 'mussis', 'sluts' and 'whores', we are reminded of why English and History teachers committed a huge amount of time to moving curriculum away from its old, uncritical focus on the Western tradition that is Spurr's comfort zone. Racism and sexism are always lurking in its underbelly.