Don’t ditch literature in your final year
Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and James Joyce’s Dubliners don’t make my list of “books that changed my life” but as required reading for my grade twelve English class and therefore the sole focus of my attention for an entire year, let’s just say they’ve stuck in my mind.
If I ever want to remember what it felt like to devote an entire year to reading a couple of books, I only have to grab them down from the bookshelf and flick through the curled up pages and read the number of Post-it-notes still stuck to the spine or the lead pencil scrawled in the margins; a testimony to the days, weeks and months spent poring over the content, the characters, the plot line, the history and in the case of Wild Swans, the extensive family tree printed on the inside cover.
Yes, both books eventually did my head in. Yes, I often questioned their impact on my future life, the one that was sooo hard to see from my bedroom desk. But I’m glad I read them.
At first glance literature isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But, just like a masterpiece in the art world or the speciality dish of a great chef, it’s the culmination of years of practise and development that in turn, as long as it’s got an interesting message, deserves to be the subject of someone else’s study. And what better audience than someone young enough to absorb the rhythm and skills of the writer’s style, and maybe even lend some kind of inspiration.
My seventeen year old self would probably roll her eyes at me, but it’s these things that I think of when I read in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph that New South Wales HSC students would be happier to do away with the literature aspect of the Advanced English curriculum and focus on grammar and language instead.
Bruce McDougall reports that one in six students who completed their final subjects last year, felt the exams were not fair, and another 18 per cent considered the assessment tasks too hard while Advanced English students had been the most vocal in their opposition to the structure of the curriculum.
“There isn’t an emphasis on grammar. There’s a big focus on content and so many students can end up losing the fundamentals,” one student told The Daily Telegraph.
“I would like to see more on communication so that we can be articulate in the workplace,” said another.
According to the NSW Board of Studies website, the Advanced English curriculum was devised to “encourage independent learning”, “critical thinking” and an appreciation of “cultural heritage”.
And it’s true. Pledging your allegiance to one or two books for an entire year might not seem like the most rewarding thing in the world at the time and yes, grammar and language are essential, but a solid grasp of both are the tools of a good writer and a strong communicator. Skills that are important in almost every job you can think of.
The stronger argument to be made here lies in developing a better understanding of a student’s ability or your own capacity as a student. Be honest with yourself and if you need more work on your spelling and grammar, the higher levels of English subjects are probably not for you.
But if you’re feeling confident in those areas and you’re enthusiastic about language, how bad can spending a year devoted to the writing of some of the world’s greatest writers be? At the very least you’ll have something to talk about during a dinner party.
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