An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Monday, June 20, 2005  

This week's ST

Hi, apologies for infrequent postings recently. Have been mad busy. Hope to resume this week.
Here's the link to Waters' original article which may or may not work (subs reqd). If anyone would like it just email me and I'll send you the text.
Not sure how long RTE keep recordings but if you can search, Waters' was on June 9th and Gemma Hussey responded with the help of one of the curriculum setters on June 10th. On the main liveline site they just keep the previous week's shows.

Joyce might be worthy, but he really is very dull

‘I don’t need the permission of Gemma Hussey or any other Hussey to say what I think about the Irish education system,” said John Waters on Radio 1’s Liveline last week in response to a letter in The Irish Times by the former minister for education. At least, I assume he was referring to Hussey’s relatives, and not calling the former minister a woman of immoral character. Mind you, he also referred to her as a “blue blouse in an ivory tower in Dublin 4”.
Waters’s talent for articulate indignation always makes for enjoyable listening. The tragedy is that his outburst proved the point that Gemma Hussey was making. When The Irish Times asked him to analyse the English Leaving Certificate curriculum, he complained in his piece about the high number of women authors on the course. From his perspective, there was a dearth of white European male writers. The absences he bemoaned included Joyce, Beckett, Kafka, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Sartre.

Waters observed: “Of the 38 writers on the comparative list, 15 are women. Not a bad thing in itself, except that whatever way you look at it, the vast, vast majority of the great writers have been male. To attempt, therefore, to achieve even a relative balance of the sexes (roughly 60/40 here) is a recipe for mediocrity and, yes, subjectivity.”

Compiling any list, whether it is of the best books, films or footballers, is difficult. Therefore, a clear sense of purpose is essential. For example, when the BBC decided to establish a list of the top 100 novels, it asked for votes on the best-loved novels. The result was that many of the authors mentioned by Waters feature towards the bottom or not at all. Ulysses, for example, is number 78.

Perhaps Joyce is one of the world’s best authors, but does anyone apart from David Norris, actually like Finnegans Wake? In contrast, people adore and re-read Rebecca, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, all of which featured in the top 20.

The reason Waters’s revered list of authors doesn’t appear on the curriculum is because they are boring, and too difficult for the immature mind to approach. If male writers are going to wander around in their berets absorbed in alienated, introspective angst, they shouldn’t complain when their worthy but dull books are cast aside in favour of the passion and romance of an Austen or Brontë.

The contrasting styles of men and women authors provide the motive behind the curriculum. The Department of Education does not pretend to put the “best” books on the course. It wants to expose students to a wide variety of human experience. While the white male has dominated literature by virtue of his education and opportunity, his narrow experience should not form the sole worldview of the adolescent reared on a cultural diet of EastEnders and George Lucas. Since women form more than half of the world’s population, their perspective is vital if well-rounded, and not simply well-read, adolescents are to be dispatched from our schools.

It is not just a matter of what subjects are explored by male and female authors, but how identical subjects are treated by them. A telling example of this is the hapless Sartre, whose omission is lamented by Waters.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir met at the Sorbonne, where in academic terms she frequently surpassed him. Lifelong partners, they wrote side by side. Typically, her reputation suffered, since everybody assumed her books were improved by his proximity. The truth is that his brooding novels are tedious, while her novels, such as The Blood of Others, or She Came to Stay, tell compelling stories in which there are tragic lessons for those who attempt to honour the existential experience and live according to a philosophical code. An academic might judge Satre’s books better, but surely they are pointless if they are inaccessible to what Waters calls “the average, general reader”?

Waters appears to criticise attempts to alert students to the importance of a writer’s culture and background when reading their works. In making this a goal of the curriculum, the department hopes that students will become “independent learners who can operate in the world beyond the school in a range of contexts”. So when they pick up a book or newspaper, or watch television, they will learn not to assume they are being told is the truth. Instead they will keep in mind that everybody has a motive, some visible, some not, when they tell a story. Knowing the agenda of the author is essential to appreciating their story.

The old Leaving Cert course taught me to swallow without question the experience of the author as fact. It wasn’t until I reached university that I was taught to examine the intent behind every text. If the Leaving Certificate teaches students to read a government manifesto with a critical eye, this is an excellent lesson.

Waters said: “What a pity for Gemma Hussey that The Irish Times has a commitment to diversity of opinion.” What a pity for Waters that the Department of Education has the same commitment.

posted by Sarah | 11:30 11 comments
Oh dear. Where to start. OK: leaving Joyce out is a disgrace. And Sarah dear it is disingenuous of you to cite Finnegans Wake - a monstrous folly that should be heard but not seen. Portrait of the Artist is highly accessible and ideal for the adolescent. And Dubliners is a perfect gem and still as fresh as the horse shit around Stephen's Green.
Reading novels for the leaving ! Are ye sane, where would ya get the time ?
Get a 10 page summary from Coles notes along with some opinions to pass off as your own and then on to Geography homework. You've the rest of live to enjoy reading if that's yer want.
To be honest, I knew I was being a bit smart mentioning Finnegan's Wake and this humble 2.2 arts graduate has managed to read and enjoy Portrait and Dubliners. I think Dubliners is the one with the christmas dinner row about Parnell which I have to confess I enjoyed all the more having heard Norris to a reading. He is a genius. (Norris, that is - Joyce is ok - give me Pride and Prejudice any day..... or at least Marquez or Vidal)
btw when I did my own leaving I was the only person in my class to dump the english poets (a HUGE part of the course) and read the novels - Old Man and the Sea etc. Piss easy and no slaving over Wordsworth which at 17 is meaningless.
I fear that you may be undermining your credentials to comment on literary matters. I take your word for it that you have read and enjoyed a A Portrait and Dubliners, but it is surprising that you think that the Christmas Dinner scene is in Dubliners, which techinally is not "the one" with anything, being a collection of short stories that are only loosely inter-connected.

In the same way that you have attempted to rubbish Joyce by making reference to his least accessible wotk, I think that you do the "English poets" (whoever they are)an injustice by using Wordsworth as an example.


just in case you cite my typo in an effort to denigrate my own literary credentials
Oh dear... I suppose I thought it was Dubliners as it was a very Dublin scene. Look, as its been at least 10 years since I looked at them, as punishment for my denigrating of the great man I will read Portrait again. Its on my desk - I will begin immediately. I am sure I will do it justice. And isn't this one of my points - its pointless expecting young ones to properly appreciate 'great' literature. Of course this is my other point - I read all these 'great' books but they didn't touch me enough to remember them properly. I can quote lines from the Rebeccas and the Pride and Prejudices. And by my own admission I am what Waters calls the the average general reader so therefore my literary opinion, ability and potential is relevant. In fact my lack of intellectual power is my qualifying factor to enter the debate on what should be on the course! I've attempted a hell of a lot more than most people (or at least the people I know) inc. Sartre, Freud, de Lillo, Ford, Kafka. Dul Dull Dull. As for poetry well.....I thoroughly approve of putting lots of poetry on the leaving cert because its the only time most people will ever read it. With regard to my dumping of the english poets I apologise if they fell victim to my exam strategy (B in honours english 1988 before you ask). However, I have to admit that I have attempted several other poets since then and was left unoved. With the exception of "not waving but drowning" and the poem I blogged on last year which I thought was amazing (as I personally I identified with it). Here's the link (haven't figure out proper links yet so cut and paste job)
Dubliners contains a story about Christmas dinner and a story about Parnell (Ivy Day in the Commitee Room). Portrait of the Artist is rubbish. An easy mistake to make. Sarah I find it hard to believe that you only got a 2.2 the academic who marked your papers was jealous of your beauty and fearful of your insight.
Why thank you Leon. When the head of the History department kindly wrote me a glowing reference it paid particular attention to the fact that my essays always achieved a 2.1. Also I was very busy in college. I was on lots of committees.
Waters, and his tiny band of white male reactionaries (who bring disgrace to the father's rights issue), are like those extremists who advocate Israeli terror, all the while saying that they are simply defending Jewish people's interests.

Young Irish men would do well to read more literature and poetry by women authors, minorities, and other voices.

There are far too many things young people need to learn, to be wasting their time reading the musings of self-absorbed, posh brats like Joyce in school.

Education is never neutral. One doesn't have to wonder too long to discover what social purpose teaching Joyce and the Anglo-Irish poets and writers -- as they are taught today -- in school will serve.
I started Portrait. Chap 1 - being miserable at Clongowes 'cos other boys are mean to him. Sad. But then that's men for you. Packing children off to institutions while their mothers weep so that other men can bully them. Chap 2 - Christmas dinner Parnell row. Here's the thing. I can see now why I remember Norris reading it, but not myself. It is very dramatic and well done but lends itself far more to an aural and/or visual experience. It's just not as good when you are reading it. So I got up and opened the black grate polish and polished the cast iron fireplace, much to M.'s irritation. But I was happy and the fireplace looks great. I'll read more today.
Post a Comment
Previous Popular Posts
Other Blogs