There’s a tiny, thrilling tingle of vindication in reading that the NSW Board of Studies has given the go-ahead to an HSC English course that studies Wikipedia. Called Global Village, the elective looks at international communication in the age of digital information, and represents exactly where modern English courses should be headed. The road has been rocky and full of murk – my own experiences with HSC English were, shall we say, markedly unhappy – but such commonsense gleams like a light at the end of the tunnel.
The problem with English lessons in the modern era has become one of direction – or rather, lack thereof. Some decades ago, both teachers and administrators began to question the conventional wisdom of teaching Shakespeare because he was, well, Shakespeare, and ever since then, the old lynchpins of English study have been strewn asunder. Despite being a devotee of the Bard, I acknowledge the sense in this: at the same time, uncertainy has undeniably arisen as to what should replace tradition, and (more importantly) why. The loss of grammatical education was the most grevious blow, while boons included the broadening of curricula to encompass film, music, TV, the internet and other such viable media. Much of the confusion, however, seems to have resulted from the question of post-modernism, viz: if anything can be legitimately studied for any reason, then how can the scope be narrowed?
Like an optometrist twirling the dials on some giant eye-checker, the NSW Board of Studies has been fiddling for a correct fit. The Global Village unit makes sense on two levels: it implies a reasonable area of focus, and tackles the problem of students trusting Wikipedia as a primary source. More than anything else, my hope is that the Board will start to require genuinely individual answers of its students, rather than prescribing the direction of their essays. This was the source of my own disappointment: in a course whose outcomes strove for independent research and multiple perspectives, there was precious little room for personal opinion. Ironically, the very breadth of potential study was at fault: the only way to process so many essays using such varied sources was to restrict the conclusions they might draw, and, as a consequence, dilute any prospect of genuinely thoughtful or detailed analysis.
Ultimately, the goal of highschool English should be threefold: to impart a functional comprehension of the fundaments of language; to foster an appreciation for intelligent media; and to encourage critical thinking. The NSW Board of Studies isn’t quite there, but if courses like Global Village are anything to go by, they’re finally on the right track.