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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 23. 23rd September 1973

English Dept Forum — Reflection on the University

English Dept Forum — Reflection on the University

Dear Sirs,

As I sat listening to the goings-on at the English forum last Monday, certain points occurred to me, which seemed to be relevant not only to the English Department but also to other departments. One of these points concerned the way in which English is taught: there is a discipline of English literature which must be taught as a historical sequence from ancient times to the present day.

The majority of graduates in English from VUW end up drifting into teaching careers, there being nothing else for them. Yet what they learn at varsity is of little or no relevance for the teaching of English: at schools they can manage Shakespeare and a certain amount of modern writing only. What school pupil relishes Milton, Pope, Dryden or Swift? Yet this is what students get shoved into them here, rather than being allowed a general course in English, which would include modern writing (something which is not at present taught). But I would suggest that there is a very good reason why we observe this phenomenon..

The basis of the problem is that all the present teachers of English at this university appear to have studied English themselves as a part of the process of historical development. The orthodox approach is to start with Chaucer and end the study of English literature at the year 1900 so why should it not be continued? The graduates of the system are only capable of teaching English as literature according to the same patter, as a process of historical development.

Thus English literature is a continuing study, with the literature being the basis of English leaching from school pupil, to university student, to teacher, who imparts the same material to the pupil to begin the cycle all over again.

Obviously the cycle continues because there is no-one with enough courage to step-in and stop it. English literature continues to be studied, but it achieves nothing: the cycle is rather like the case of a cat chasing its tail — running round in circles and never getting anywhere. But I wonder where else this phenomenon may be observed in this university — the phenomenon of the orthodox approach to a subject being continued, regardless of whether it is realistic or worthwhile, purely because it is the orthodox approach?

There is no doubt that students of economics will be able to recognise an example — Econ 201, a course which with a 60% failure-rate (in 1973) acts as a particularly effective bottleneck for students. The justification for the material in this course is that it is orthodox economics theory — in fact that it produces a patiently unrealistic model on the basis of some ludicrously unrealistic assumptions is not important.

Under these circumstances, is it any surprise that universitites continue to be elite institutions? Courses are taught, for little or no real point, with material that is of little practical significant, purely so that the next generation of teachers will be able, in turn, to teach it to the next generation of students. Some people decline to accept such rubbish, yet it appears as a justification for a sizeable proportion of what passes as education. Acceptance of the orthodox approach can be, in many cases, a precondition of advancement in a subject, yet all too often the orthodox-appraoch is pointless, stupid, irrelevant, or quite devoid of meaningful content.


E. Fenton.