Critical English Online

The decentring of literature

Has it happened and if so, is it an issue?

The syllabus which prevailed at junior levels of New Zealand secondary schools from 1983 until 1994 – English: Forms 3-5: Statement of Aims – is generally seen as based on a "personal growth" model of English. It linked text selection to the notion of "relevance" and included the assertion that "the mass media of television, film, and radio have extended the boundaries of what was conventionally called literature." It made "language" the centre of the syllabus and was organised around eight language modes: listening and speaking, reading and writing, moving and watching, and shaping and viewing. It asserted the importance of "oracy" and suggested an approach to programming based around the fulfilment of three aims: 1. To increase each student's ability to understand language and use it effectively. 2. To extend each student's imaginative and emotional responsiveness through language and 3. To extend each student's awareness of ideas and values through language. The word "literature" is mentioned in four out of 30 of the objectives linked to each of these three aims. Elsewhere in the syllabus, the notion of "literature" is accorded two paragraphs.

The existence of a syllabus is not a guarantee of changes in teaching practice. While the statement of aims had official status as a syllabus, a slight counterbalancing weight to its decentring of literature came from the year 11, School Certificate Syllabus, which expected students to answer questions on at least one literary genre (10%) and at the most two (20%).

The current curriculum document, ENGLISH in the Zealand Curriculum, includes a four-paragraph section, "Literary Texts", in its introduction, which includes the statement that "Among the wide range of texts included in English programmes, literary texts have an important role at all levels." It also includes references to "the wider heritage of English literature" and to the "heritage and contemporary voices of Maori". A radical feature of the document, however, and one which continues the tradition established by the Statement of Aims, was the construction of English in terms of three (equal?) strands, Oral, Written and Visual Language.While the various levels-based achievement levels for Written Language include references to "literary qualities", "historical texts" and "poetic writing", there is no specific mention of literature or literary texts per se.

Again a kind of counterbalance is provided by the Bursary Syllabus (year 13), of which 60% is dedicated to the response to literary texts and a further 20% may often involve students in responding closely to unseen literary texts. As far as the NCEA matrix is concerned, at level 1, 4 from 24 credits (17%) are concerned with a student's reported study of long and short texts (though these could feasibly be non-literary), and 3 from 24 credits (12.5%) are concerned with students response (under exam conditions) to unfamiliar texts, one of which might feasibly be a traditional literary genre. At level 3, 4 credits (17%) involve students in a critical response to Shakespearean drama, 4 credits (17%) ask students to respond critically to written texts studied but not necessarily literary ones, and 2 credits (8%) ask students to respond critically to unfamiliar prose and poetry texts. It needs to be kept in mind that the NCEA is not about courses, and that providers will be free to assemble level-based programmes that include only a sample of these English achievement standards. That is, while there are achievement standards in the English matrix that allow for a focus on literary texts, there is no guarantee that these achievement standards will be included in programmes of study in schools.

Meanwhile, in the larger context, the percentage of beginning English teachers with a literature-oriented major has declined from 75% in 1995 to 67% in 1999. (Terry Locke [2000]. "Secondary English teachers in New Zealand: a changing academic profile". English in Aotearoa 40 [May: 2000], 79-83). University English Departments report declining numbers of students enrolling for English degrees and even in university English departments, the study of literature is arguably being directed towards a cultural studies orientation.

So does all of this constitute an issue? You won't find people (yet) arguing for English courses that exclude literature. More common is the presence of people demanding that competing textualities are included in the English curriculum – media texts and now electronic texts. Symptomatic of a kind of unease among book-lovers in the old-fashioned sense is the issue of English in Aotearoa 40 (May, 2000) on the pleasures of the text. See especially the article "Words and pictures" by Rosemary Pritchard which raises questions about the presence of the "visual" in English programmes. And for a set of reservations about the current state of play from a cultural heritage viewpoint, see C.K. Stead. "The English Patient" in Metro (April, 1997), 84-90.

For articles in English in Aotearoa with a literature focus, check out EIA Index.