Post-Structuralism and the Modern Schoolgirl


Something strange happened to the lead editorial of The Australian on Easter Saturday. Instead of urging a ‘realistic’ approach to nuclear energy, praising the Queen for her longevity, or giving us a wimped-out version of the Easter story, the editorial, headed ‘ Elite girls’ school kills the Bard’ was a full-blooded attack on Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School (SCEGGS) Darlinghurst for having the temerity to examine its Year 11 English students on their understanding of the subtexts of race, gender and class in Shakespeare’s Othello.

This was followed by another editorial on 17 April ‘ Trendy education theories hurt students and Australia’ which claimed ‘the first classroom encounter Year 11 students at Sydney’s elite SCEGGS Darlinghurst school have with the Bard involves not appreciating the great poet’s use of language or his universal themes, but the dreary postmodern trinity of race, feminism and Karl Marx.’

The story was taken up by the tabloids and by the following Friday the Daily Telegraph editorialised on the way ‘the traditions of our language are under threat’ in schools.

(The kindest thing that can be said for the editorialists in this case is that they don’t appear to have chosen their target with much care. It’s pretty hard to consider Othello without understanding a few of its racist, feminist and, yes, Marxist contexts. In Act I, Scene i, Iago tells Brabantio ‘sir, you’re robbed Even now, an old black ram is topping your white ewe,’ and that Othello and Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona, are ‘making the beast with two backs’ managing to squeeze race, sex and the notion of women as possessions into a few snappy phrases.)

Clearly The Australian thinks it is onto a good thing as there was a further piece on 21 April, this time adding Leonie Kramer’s dislike of ‘the notion that you have to read, let us say Shakespeare, in relation to contemporary preoccupations such as race and class.’ It even managed to link postmodernism to Julie Bishop’s questioning of outcomes-based education.

Thanks to Sharon Raggett

There is no immediate or obvious trigger for this public campaign by The Australian and Daily Telegraph, as it simply regurgitates the well-known rants of Kevin Donnelly and other neo-cons who see Marxist conspiracies and Feminist cultural theorists lurking in every corner. Even more curious than the media stories is the claim by our Prime Minister that:

I mean I feel very, very strongly about the criticism that many people are making that we are dumbing down the English syllabus. Well I think there’s evidence of that in different parts of the country what I might call the traditional texts are treated no differently from pop cultural commentary, as appears to be the case in some syllabus, I share the views of many people about the so-called post-modernism. I think there’s a lot of validity in that. But in the end you do need to have a syllabus and a curriculum set by an independent education authority. I just wish that independent education authority didn’t succumb on occasions to the political correctness that it appears to succumb to.

Great that our PM should feel he needs to let us into his opinions about post-modernism, especially in a week when he was busy appeasing the Indonesians over West Papuan asylum seekers, sending troops to the Solomons, and attacking Labor for threatening to means test a few millionaires. Can he smell a wedge issue or what?!

But strangest of all in this odd exercise in the culture wars, is that the hatred is not directed at the hordes of unreconstructed Marxists who are apparently forcing Derrida et al down the throats of innocent State schoolchildren. Instead, The Australian vented its spleen on the highly qualified academic staff of SCEGGS.

It’s time the lads and luddites of Holt Street took a reality check.

SCEGGS is a girls’ school. Teenage boys may need some help with the concept of deconstructing narratives, but the notion of subtext and meta-narrative is so embedded in the consciousness of teenage girls that they probably invented it. Who else but a teenage girl could read an accidental glance (or lack of it) as a major diplomatic incident? What other group in society experiences so many intense emotions with such little provocation? There is a reason why so many brilliant detective novelists are women they are drawing on their recollections as teenage sleuths, uncovering how their (former) best friend managed to be alone with the only half-presentable boy in the school.

The advantage of giving Year 11 students access to the tools of critical thinking is that it gives boys a chance to understand the thought processes of their sisters and girlfriends. For the girls, a good dose of Foucault and Derrida helps them reflect on their more paranoid thought patterns.

In attacking SCEGGS the neo-cons may have bitten off more than they can chew. It is not a State school. It cannot be bullied into flying flags of convenient patriotism for jingoistic prime ministers. One of the advantages of elite private schools is that the fees parents pay gives the school the freedom to pursue excellence in the face of political bullying.

The first principal of SCEGGS, Edith Badham, had no formal education. Today the Australian Education Unions would denounce her for this, as they campaign to have staff without formal teaching qualifications banned from classrooms. However, Miss Badham’s father, Charles Badham, was the great Professor of Classics at the University of Sydney and in the years before women were admitted to uni, he taught his daughter well. Edith assisted in her father’s teaching, including the marking of papers for public examinations. It may be this distasteful exercise that later led to her dislike of such rituals.

In 1895, when the school started, there was one pupil, one teacher and Miss Badham. The ratio of staff to students did change, but SCEGGS classes have tended to be on the small side. In its early years, SCEGGS was attacked by The Bulletin for teaching nothing but ‘boating, Shakespeare and the Bible’ but girls were taught Latin, Greek and French. Because this was a private school SCEGGS for many years resisted submitting girls to external examinations, not because they would not pass, but because Miss Badham did not see the point of cramming to pass rather than learning for its own sake.

Julie McCrossin, an old girl, once said (at a SCEGGS speech night) that one of the most important things she learnt at school was that women could be in positions of authority and mad at the same time. Historically, private schools have been refuges for the eccentric and brilliant, the kind of teachers who change their students’ lives but don’t have all the correct pieces of paper.

The best example of this is easily Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack. He was one of the innovative artists at the Weimar Bauhaus who escaped Hitler’s Germany only to be interned by the British and sent to Australia on the Dunera. He was spirited out of an internment camp for ‘enemy aliens’ into Geelong Grammar where he remained, Head of Art from 1942 to 1957. Hirschfeld Mack inspired generations of students towards art and civilised values. His former students include the publisher James Fairfax and the great Australian curator and art gallery director Daniel Thomas.

As governments tighten their bureaucratic stranglehold on our schools, and politicians and their minions feel entitled to interfere with
both the administration of education and the curriculum, it’s worthwhile thinking of some of the reasons why non-State alternatives are essential to the intellectual life of the country.

Schools like SCEGGS help keep the bastards honest.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.