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Speech to the Australian Literature Roundtable dinner, Canberra.

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Australian Literature Roundtable - Dinner

Monday 6 August 2007 Parliament House, Canberra


Last year, The Australian newspaper conducted an experiment.

It submitted to publishers and literary agents, under a false name, a chapter of the novel The Eye of the Storm, by Australia’s first, and to date, only Nobel Laureate for Literature - Patrick White.

The chapter was rejected by every one of them.

One went so far as to refer the author to a book on how to write fiction.

What does this experiment say about the state of literature, more particularly Australian literature?

Does it reveal what is going on in our publishing houses -

Or perhaps in our Universities and schools?

Tomorrow’s Roundtable will seek to examine the current state of Australian literature -

And consider how we can preserve and develop its place in the life of the nation.

And it is timely.

Next year we celebrate the centenary of the establishment of the Commonwealth Literary Fund by Alfred Deakin in 1908 - which was originally a benevolent fund for ageing or infirmed authors and their families.

It was expanded by Prime Minister Menzies to encompass fellowships, support for publishers and literary journals.

And in 1973, the fund was taken over by the Literature Board of the Australia Council.

I hope that out of tomorrow’s deliberations, steps can be taken to maintain and build on the status of Australian literature.

While this responsibility rests with many guardians of Australian literature, I do congratulate the Literature Board of the Australia Council for organising this roundtable.

Our universities have an important role to play in nurturing our literature, as do the publishing houses.

But it’s in our schools that most Australians first come across the nation’s literature

As the Minister for Education, I am keenly aware of the need to ensure our schools play their role in ensuring Australian literature is not overlooked by the nation.

Young people have their first opportunity at school to examine the great works of the English-speaking world, and discover the characters and creatures of Western literature.

The canon of Western literature forms the bedrock of our cultural inheritance and retains its value across the centuries.

The lessons and values inherent in these great works give all generations an understanding of the cultural values that underpin our laws, institutions and society.

This is why it is important for our schools to ensure young Australians are given the opportunity and encouraged to develop a knowledge and love of some of the classic works of Western literature, including Australian works.

In teaching classical literature, we open a window onto the triumphs and tragedies of times gone by.

More than just developing higher-order literacy skills, we share the history and the heritage of our past with future generations, and we hand down a sense of the ages.

In this sense, William Shakespeare is just as relevant today as he was in Tudor times.

Richard III and Julius Caesar, teach us an important lesson about the danger of despotism, whilst Macbeth is a thesis on betrayal.

And in twentieth century English literature, George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four is the standard work on totalitarianism, while Animal Farm, through its parody of the Russian Revolution, demonstrates the corruption of ideas.

These great works reveal the importance of the battle for individual liberty, the foundations of democracy and the role of social norms in the functioning of society.

An excellent example of this last inheritance - the social norms of the day - is illustrated through the works of Jane Austen.

Austen opened a door on late 18th and early 19th century England to provide a valuable insight into the social history of that age.

Great literature also presents ideas with eloquence, and provides models and examples by which students can develop their skills of expression.

English common law formed the foundation for our legal system, English literature has bequeathed to us a literary tradition from which we have moulded and developed our own.

From the early work of Watkin Tench, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, to the works of Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally, Australian literature builds on and continues to add to the works of the English-speaking world.

Australian literature can be characterised by the emergence of a distinctly Australian voice and sense of identity.

Every young Australian should share in this important heritage and schools should

ensure students are given every opportunity to discover them.

I am an unapologetic supporter of the view that the classical works should form a prominent part of English classes in Australian schools.

As Peter Craven put it last year, “it’s important that we hang on to the idea that some pieces of work have got more going for them than others”.

The protection of our literary past is not just about ensuring that enough students study Henry Kendall, Banjo Patterson and Xavier Herbert.

School students should develop a love of literature and learn to interpret that literature through the prism of their personal values and through the norms of our society.

They shouldn’t be forced to interpret literature through particular political or ideological perspectives.

Critical literacy is one of the more unfortunate developments in Australian school English classes in recent times.

The idea that all texts must be continually seen in terms of class, gender and race can actually discourage students from reading literature.

As Luke Slattery has noted, critical literacy has been embedded into most state and territory English syllabuses.

This problem was illustrated a few years ago when Sophie Masson wrote of her son - then studying HSC English - having to take Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and compare it to an advertisement for a weight-lifting gym.

As Sophie said: “If it wasn’t horrible, it would be hilarious”.

Another example - a student in Queensland was asked to write a feminist critique of the German fairy tale Rapunzel.

I quote: "Even the title Rapunzel is not left without the gender assumption. For example, the story title Rapunzel is in fact the name of a vegetable, therefore reinforcing the gender roles of women as a vegetable, which can be linked with cooking chores deemed to be a woman's profession."

That student received top marks.

Give me a break! Why can’t The Brothers Grimm just be about a young maiden imprisoned in a tower where love and goodness triumphed over evil.

This problem of how literature is taught, as opposed to how much is taught, is one of the most insidious problems in the teaching of Australian literature.

An appreciation of the best literature should be an essential part of schooling.

There is a legitimate concern that our core literary canon and our major contemporary writers no longer carry the weight they should within our education systems, and that there is a decreasing knowledge of core texts.

Responsibility for the selection of literary works for school study remains with the state and territory government and non-government authorities.

Nevertheless, the Australian Government can take a leadership role by identifying issues of national concern and by promoting higher educational standards and achieving greater national consistency in schools.

The Australian Government’s aim is to make the content and standards of the curriculum delivered in Australian schools transparent and open to scrutiny by students, teachers, parents, and the community-at-large.

Last year I released the report “Year 12 Curriculum Content and Achievement Standards” by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

This report provides the first Australia-wide picture of what is expected of students taking five subjects: English, mathematics, chemistry, physics and Australian history in the final years of secondary school.

The study found significant differences between states in curriculum content, assessment and reporting of student results.

The study found that there are 18 different senior English courses available for students wanting to continue to tertiary studies.

Does this wide variation best serve the interests of students?

It is a disturbing trend that in Queensland, for example, the number of students studying English or English Literature dropped from 93 per cent to 80 per cent of year 12 students over the past decade, while the number of students studying the softer option of English Communication rose from 2400 to 8500 students.

The teaching of English is essential in all primary and secondary schools. A crucial aspect of the teaching of English should be the study of literature - particularly in the senior years.

The Australian Government announced in this year’s Budget $13 million to develop core curricula standards for Year 10, 11 and 12 subjects by 2009 - for English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Australian History for Years 11 and 12, and for English, Maths, Science and Australian History for Year 10.

From 1 January 2009, States and territories will be required to meet these core national standards.

I want to see the study of Australian literature given greater prominence in schools across Australia.

It is gratifying that many young people still love to read, we only have to look at the recent sales of the latest Harry Potter book to see that.

However, we need to build upon this enthusiasm to also introduce students to Australian literature.

The ability of the teacher is of crucial importance.

A talented teacher can bring stories alive and fire the imagination, while others can make the same topic dreary.

The Australian Government believes that our teachers deserve to be energised with quality professional development.

Our new initiative, Australian Government Summer Schools for Teachers, will include a specific two-week professional learning programme on the teaching of English, as well as other core subjects

This should be an opportunity to remind teachers of the need to instil in our students an appreciation of Australian literature.

We need to encourage publishers to look at the potential markets for Australian writers, domestically and internationally.

I have been concerned to find that a large part of Australia’s literary heritage is out-of-print. For example, I was looking for the Billabong series by Mary Grant Bruce as a gift for a nephew - and found they are out of print. I was brought up on these books!

I was speaking to my brother just then and he was lamenting the fact that he can’t buy a copy of his childhood favourite “February Dragon” by Colin Thiele, for his little boy, he had read it so many times he knew it off my heart as a boy. Not available!

We need to preserve our distinctly Australian voice and stories, our intellectual and cultural heritage.

We must give children access to Australia’s inheritance.

The living past and the lessons we can take from it should be nothing less than a unique and joyous learning experience.

The authors, books and plays that students should study has always caught the imagination and encouraged debate.

Tonight, I am pleased to announce that the Australian Government will donate $1.5 million as an endowment towards the establishment of a chair in Australian Literature at an Australian University.

There are currently only two chairs - only one is permanent and I am seeking to establish another permanent chair.

I will be inviting universities to apply to host this position.

I hope that this Roundtable can provide some guidance to not only Australia’s schools, but our universities on how we can ensure young people have access to Australian literature for generations to come.

The Government is keen to consider practical ideas that aim to ensure that the nation’s literary tradition is fostered and appreciated.

I look forward to your deliberations.

Media Contacts: Ms Bishop’s Office: Murray Hansen 0417 886 155