Hussey/Waters and female authors

By | June 20, 2005

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 Bronte

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.