This article originally appeared on ABC’s The Drum
Like many of you, my real education at high-school occurred outside the classroom.
I learnt about suicide when a girl threw herself off an overpass, and learnt about the ineffectual oddities of local politics when that overpass was caged, and the one 200 metres down the freeway was not.
I learnt about grief and the jarring finality of death when friends perished in car wrecks. I learnt about drug abuse when one classmate dropped acid and cut himself up with a razor in the toilets. I saw blood, knives, dope and the calamitous results of male boredom.
I saw negligent fathers preside sullenly over a small kingdom of beer and football, rungs on the ladder to adulthood. These avatars of manhood sat fat, idle and indifferent on their suede thrones, covering their apathy with the witless tenets of laissez-faire parenting— boys will be boys. Meanwhile, their wives cried in the bedroom.
I learnt about sex as some confidently galloped into the breach, while others, like myself, cowered feebly and confected excuses to avoid the loss of virginity. In this, I learnt that the stereotypes in sex ed class—of the unstoppable virility of male teens—was a sham, or at least incomplete.
Later still we would hear about murders and car chases ending in fireballs. Many nights the palm trees and bins along whole streets were set alight, the senseless motif of a local crew. But boys will be boys.
This was not the ghetto, these homes were not within council estates. These homes were mortgaged, with pools and gardens and large TVs. This was the middle-class, where spastic visions of masculinity played themselves out vigorously. Probably the smartest kids, with interested parents, avoided it all. Me? I was a rank average student, barely scraping into university, but I learnt a hell of a lot. And I’m sure you did, too.
All of which is prelude to reading a column that appeared in The Age last week by high-school teacher Christopher Bantick.
Bantick decried the inclusion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in Victoria’s syllabus as grossly inappropriate because it:
promotes carnality, excuses illegal under-age sexual contact… It just doesn’t wash that this book is included on its artistic, let alone doubtful literary merits. This is not a matter of censorship. It is a matter of what befits appropriate, edifying instruction in classrooms.
As a result of the column, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Council said they would review the book’s place in the curriculum.
To dispense my crueller judgements first: to make his argument, Bantick deploys a sickly sarcasm, perhaps something he’s regrettably adopted from the schoolyard. It was clumsily written, and—in his breezy consideration of the tragic outcome for the girl—sophistic in its argument. The death of the teenager America Vicuna is a moral punctuation mark to the perversion, and the titular “cholera” is a clue to Garcia Marquez’s notion of love and lust as consumptive sickness.
Despite Bantick’s denial, there is also the issue of censorship. I have quoted John F Kennedy’s line before, that “freedom is indivisible”. It’s a very subtle observation, expressed with admirable terseness. If our school curriculum is held hostage by unsubtle moral fervour, we will have a seriously compromised reading list. If our curriculum is scrubbed of books that have outraged somebody, we will no longer have a reading list.
This is the ruinous example we might provide students: that freedom of speech and love of literature can succumb to political expediency.
My severest rebuke, though, is reserved for Bantick’s paternalism—his guileless attempt to reconcile literature, teaching and censorship. Buried beneath Bantick’s lament, hidden amongst the sarcasm that passes for criticism, is a deep and ironic disrespect for his students. Most of them know darkness already—they have seen it, they have certainly heard about it. They have a nascent feeling for things, the pimpled underbelly of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. If they do not, it seems the classroom is a good place to discuss it.
It’s disrespectful because it’s absurd to assume that students aren’t smart enough to distinguish between the teaching of a book and the endorsement of any of the behaviours contained within it. Happily enough, the teacher is free to make such a distinction, if necessary.
Perhaps Bantick wishes his English classroom to be safe and sterilised, cleansed of the things the students already know something about. If so, the aching fault-lines between this “safe-place”, the schoolyard and the prerogatives of literature will swallow up a whole heap of lessons. Thinking back on my days in high school, it’s laughable to think that books might ever have been the problem.