Wouldn’t it be lovely if, while we are in the process of drafting an Australian National Curriculum, we could ditch the subject title ‘English’?
I mean, what reasons do we have for keeping the name? I know it represents an important connection to our English/colonial literary heritage, but does anyone really think that changing the name of the subject is going to slow the study of Shakespeare, Keats or Austen? And I realise that some people will be saying ‘but it is about studying the English language, hence ENGLISH!’ But surely what we do in this subject is about more than studying language…just like the study of ‘Visual Arts’ is about more than studying design elements.
I see a lot of room for connection between subjects like English, Visual Arts and Music. To me, these school subjects all have in common the study of
- how meaning is made using signs/symbols
- how people express themselves
- how to reflect on expression to better understand the world
Currently the increase in multimodal texts has meant the expansion of English, and some would say the study of sounds and visual ‘language’ in English constitutes a colonisation of sorts…English seems to some to be taking over the material of other subjects! On this point I disagree – there remains in English the special project of studying works/pieces/texts that are grounded in WORDS. The fact of the matter is that many forms of expression that use words also engage with other sign systems. Words are spoken, and heard. They are written and seen. They are illustrated. They are enacted. The subject title ‘English’ just doesn’t encapsulate all of this for me.
The other problem with the English subject label is that it lacks an emphasis on the creative element of studying words. It would be inconceivable that subjects in the creative arts – Visual Arts, Music, Drama etc – would focus on learning technical aspects of their craft at the expense of engaging in art-making. Yet, this scenario is all to prevalent in contemporary English classrooms. We study novels, poems, films, as well as technical aspects of language, but the actual crafting of original texts is neglected. While Major Works in the creative arts subjects constitute 50% of their respective HSC courses, English only requires students to complete one out of six exam sections on creative writing, and this is done as a first draft in 40 minutes Although ‘Composing’ is supposed to make up 50% of the English course, much of this is done in the form of ‘composing’ texts such as essays to prove what has been learned about other people’s texts!
It is because of this that I would love to see English renamed ‘Language Arts’, and the processes of responding and composing renamed studies of ‘theory’ and ‘practice’.
The study of words should be a joy. For this to occur, students who are learning about words must also get elbow deep in making their own texts. It should be messy, experimental, personal and forgiving practice – like what you see in an Art room. And if we can teach students about words in a way that helps them to express themselves and understand the world around them, they will want to learn more. Of this I am sure.