Comment: Toss brickbats at Gen Y and you miss the bigger picture

As a new school year begins, we cannot afford to let education in Australia slide back into archaic elitism, writes Craig Hildebrand-Burke.

If teaching is to be truly effective, those who practice it must not be dismissive of the young and resistant to change, writes Craig Hildebrand-Burke.

That Christopher Bantick’s piece in The Age today railed against the loss of cultural values in Generation Y should come as no surprise. And while it may be easy to dismiss his lamentations as those befitting an out-of-touch teacher fearful of changing times, Bantick unfortunately reflects a wider trend in education toward obsolete curriculum unable to move with the times.

Bantick shamefully drives a wedge between the practice of teaching and the students, while simultaneously proving ignorance of the generation he is in charge of instructing. His call for an elitist, archaic teaching in schools unfortunately only supports the culturally stagnant direction of the curriculum authorities around Australia.

The hypocrisies are legion. A year ago, Bantick called for the banning of Love in the Time of Cholera for its exploration ‘of an incestuous sexual relationship between a septuagenarian man and a fourteen year old girl’ yet then demanded the introduction to classrooms of the banned book Tampa, likening its portrayal of sex between a teacher a student to Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Bantick’s confusing statements about young people ‘who lack the capacity to actually know when something is art, and worthy’ is the very stuff of outmoded teaching. His scattergun approach to dissecting and dismantling Generation Y takes in Leonard Cohen and The Rolling Stones (1960s onwards), Ang Lee (1980s onwards) Kurt Cobain and Melina Marchetta (1990s), and finally Josh Pyke, as his rare and token evidence of 21st century culture.

The understanding of the generation Bantick teaches is nonsensical at best, and reprehensible at worst, given that soon he will receive another induction of students awaiting critical direction in their final years of schooling. Were this mentality confined to just one teacher in one school, then perhaps we might dismiss these ravings easily.

Unfortunately, Bantick’s points find a welcome home in curriculum authorities. When he called for the banning of Love in the Time of Cholera, the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority decided to review the placement of the book on text lists in the state. Never mind that this book is indicative of the ‘elite, serious literature’ that Bantick promotes in his latest endeavour, the authorities were fearful enough of the content to consider removing it.

Authorities such as the VCAA increasingly show a resistance to the alternative perspectives, in favour of retaining inert relics that are taught for the sake of tradition, as dictated culture to the distanced youth. Novels by Dickens, Bronte and James, plays by Shakespeare and Wilde, poetry by Tennyson and Owen are routinely circulated so as to propagate the canonical, to keep students studying the same elitist, authoritative texts deemed worthy enough. On the rare occasion alternative perspectives are offered, they end up with a short life span.

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which explores Western culture post-9/11 through an Eastern perspective, was removed from the Year 12 list until an uproar from teachers had it reinstated. Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming had only three years before being unceremoniously dumped. Despite Amsterdam’s bleak portrayal of the future winning The Age Book of the Year in 2009, it was not good enough to remain on a text list longer than A Christmas Carol.

Even when Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus was listed, it was categorised as ‘multimodal’ - a broad label that also includes films, comics, and spoken texts -  shortchanging students with a rigid structure that only allows one multimodal text per school. This is all evidence of an inflexible, limiting focus that promotes an old-fashioned view of culture and marginalises the alternatives.

This rigid, snobbish attitude toward education is damaging our future generations through the stagnancy of curriculum authorities, unable to distinguish the differences and merits between highbrow and lowbrow, new and old. Teachers like Christopher Bantick are indicators that too much of education is populated by those afraid and dismissive of the young and resistant to change. As a new school year begins, we cannot afford to let education in Australia slide back into archaic elitism, nor allow our children be castigated as moronic and uncultured by those charged with the duty to foster and educate the young.

Craig Hildebrand-Burke is a writer and teacher from Melbourne.

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