The news that academics from Queensland University of Technology are demanding that the selection of texts recommended by the national curriculum should “better reflect the sexual diversity of the classroom” provides us with more evidence that academics are more interested in engaging in political activism than they are in imparting the knowledge and wisdom of great literature.
To put books into pigeonholes based on the class, race or gender of the author, the subject matter of the book, or the identity of the student, is disastrous. All school students should be exposed to great literature, because the great books speak to each and every one of us about our human condition. They speak to us about being rich, being poor, being happy and being sad.
The ideas and themes treated in great literature are universal, not particular, and they have endured and will continue to endure for generations because of their universal appeal. There is a reason why the Globe Theatre in London was able to put on Shakespeare’s plays to a full house in 37 languages, including Maori, Urdu and Swahili.
The idea that books should be chosen according to the students’ background or sexuality is patronising. It is essentially telling them that they don’t possess sufficient imagination to read books that do not in some way reflect their own lives and environment. It is like saying that because the experience of a 15-year-old Australian today is different to that of a Scottish king in the 12th century, they should not read Macbeth.
The books that we devour as children and in our teens form us. They shape our world, they give us insight, and they teach us to use our imaginations. The total dependence on a thoroughly modern invention, identity politics, to analyse texts means that all this precious insight and experience is lost. It is an enormous loss that results in serious problems and raises serious questions. The greatness of these books will remain undiscovered and unexplored if they are only read using one viewpoint.
We cannot weed out bad ideas and develop the good if we insist on restricting our thinking to the unsophisticated classifications of race, gender and class. Society cannot continue to progress if we choose to observe the world through such narrow and limited prisms. This monomania and obsession with identity politics is impoverishing rather than enriching the students, who will hardly be motivated to read any of these books, if all they are going to hear in the classroom is the same old tropes of class, gender and race.
This is a problem with which Mark Bauerlein, English professor at Atlanta’s Emory University, has long been preoccupied. Author of the bestseller The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), Bauerlein has seen student numbers falling rapidly in the humanities. The reason, he says, is because of the predominance of identity politics in all disciplines related to the humanities.
He believes that it is because identity politics is a downer. Students will say, “You’re going to sit and talk about (Ralph Waldo) Emerson and how racist he is? I don’t want to take this class! I don’t want to hear so much negativity.”
Identity politics is a negative. It is not a positive idea. In the words of Somerset Maugham: “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”
Both QUT researchers behind the paper Queering Senior English are employed in the faculty of education, where everything is examined through the lens of class, race and gender. It’s hardly a secret that humanities are hotbeds of identity politics or what is sometimes referred to as “the identitarian Left”, which now defines itself, and engages with others, through the prism of identity rather than on the basis of ideas.
History as a discipline in Australia, as taught at university, has already been destroyed: it has been turned into a vehicle for political activism. As revealed in the Institute of Public Affairs’ audit Australian History’s Last Stand: An Audit of Australian History Teaching at Universities, the fact that Australians laid the foundations of one of the world’s most successful liberal democracies, which has achieved unprecedented levels of personal freedom and social equality, is simply not being taught to students.
Of the 147 history topics taught across 35 universities, a total of 102 deal with the themes of class, race and gender.
This effectively means that three quarters of all topics that purportedly focus on Australia’s past do so through the modern lens of identity politics. Sadly, it seems that English is going the same way, which is a tragedy for every Australian child, regardless of class, race or gender.