Skip to Content

Features Australia

Dumbing down NSW

The omission of great Australian writers from the NSW English syllabus is nothing short of scandalous

4 February 2017

9:00 AM

4 February 2017

9:00 AM

What do Mary Durack, Christina Stead, A. B. Facey, Xavier Herbert, Les Murray, Thomas Keneally and Clive James have in common? Yes we know they are all celebrated Australian writers whose work is or should be on the bookshelves of every book-loving Australian.

Facey’s unforgettable autobiography has never been out of print since it was first published in 1981. Mary Durack’s King’s in Grass Castles may not be as popular as it was half a century ago, but it is undoubtedly an Australian classic and is still essential reading for those who wish to know something about the development of the Australian north and the pioneering families who laid the foundation for the Australian cattle industry. Capricornia, the flawed masterpiece of Xavier Herbert also deals with the early days of the deep north. Christina Stead is arguably the most important Australian female writer of the first half of the 20th century. Keneally, Murray and James are still churning out, with astonishing frequency, works which will stand the test of time.

What they have in common, apart from the vitality of their writing, is that not one of their books is set for study on the NSW HSC English syllabus. Not one.

To understand how such flagrant omissions have occurred one has to turn to the NSW Board of Studies Syllabus document English Stage 6 Prescriptions: Area of Study Electives and Texts.

I doubt if a more poorly written document has ever emerged from any bureaucratic swamp anywhere in Australia. Don’t take my word for it – go to http://www.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/syllabus_hsc/pdf_doc/english-prescriptions-2015-20.pdf and be prepared for 35 pages of mind-numbingly, turgid, repetitive explanation of the underlying (and I use the word in its loosest possible sense) rationale for the syllabus.

The omission of these celebrated authors (and there are many others who are also scandalously absent) is not by accident. Nor is it due to the shortage of books which could be used to introduce students to the riches of Australian literature. The absence can only be due to the desire to inculcate in our children a distorted view of the emergence of contemporary Australia.


It is no exaggeration to say that the distortion can be compared to the sort of thing that the Chinese government gets up to when it refers to the ‘4th of June incident’ which the rest of the world knows as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The syllabus is shaped by a perverted ideology which simply ignores the achievements of our predecessors and focuses on one single issue.

That the aborigines got a rotten deal for the first 150 years after the arrival of the British is beyond dispute and it is important that we remember it when trying to find solutions to the problems that our ancestors left us with. But those same ancestors created one of the most successful, prosperous and vibrant nations there has ever been and we should not lose sight of that fact.

But the NSW Board of studies isn’t interested in the successes. Durack, Herbert and Facey all wrote about the hardship that was the lot of most people 100 years ago. Sure, life was hard for the Aborigines, but those authors show that it was no picnic for most Australians and the pioneers who brought economic development to the outback were brave, resourceful and generally hard-working and we are all the beneficiaries of their pioneering work.

The NSW Board of Studies doesn’t quite see it that way. The ‘texts’ which they want our children to study regarding Australian history include Why Weren’t We Told by Henry Reynolds who is of course one of the leading exponents of the black armband view of Australian history. If Reynolds’ book is to be studied, then why not any one of the excellent books by Keith Windschuttle presenting an alternative view?

Instead the Board of Studies would like students to look at Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller, the films Ten Canoes and Rabbit Proof Fence, the television documentary Go back where you came from and The Stolen Children Their Stories by Carmel Bird. Just to make sure that the Board is not accused of parochialism it has also recommended The Small Island, a novel about racism in post WW2 Britain. Is there a pattern there, or am I just a bit oversensitive?

Now that he has a Nobel Prize, it can only be a matter of time before Bob Dylan pushes one more Australian writer off the list of books set for study. Perhaps it is all part of a global conspiracy by structuralists and semioticians who fail to see literature as something to be savoured. According to the Board, when reading anything, students should ‘explore various representations of events, personalities or situations. They evaluate how medium of production, textual form, perspectives and choice of language influence meaning. The Study develops students’ understanding of the relationship between representation and meaning’. That is from page 20 of the aforementioned document and there are over thirty pages of this uninspiring nonsense.

Could the Board of Studies not have found room for one of the 39 books of Clive James on its list of set texts? At his best, his memoirs are funnier than Bill Bryson’s (who is on the Board’s list). His essays in, for instance, ‘Cultural Amnesia’, are masterpieces of insightful concision and his poetry would receive much greater recognition were it not for the success of his humorous prose.

Why is Thomas Keneally absent from the set texts? I suspect that it is for the same reason that Helen Garner isn’t considered an important writer. They both have a more balanced and nuanced view of Australia’s people. Neither subscribes to the narrow self-righteous views of the left wing ideologues who seem to infest the corridors of academia and bureaucracies throughout the Anglosphere.

Of the four novels by Australian writers to have won the Man Booker Prize, which is on the NSW Higher School Certificate set texts list? Is it Schindler’s Ark (Thomas Keneally), is it True History of the Kelly Gang or Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey), or is it The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan).

Yes, you guessed it. Not one.

Just because a novel wins one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English speaking world doesn’t mean its good enough to meet the exacting standards of the NSW Board of Studies.

Tony Letford’s Yarri and Watungka was the winner of the 2015 Spectator Australia Thawley Essay Prize. The 2016 winner is announced on this week’s editorial page


Show comments
Close