ArticlePDF Available

Subject to reading: Historical takes on reading as a technology

Authors:

Abstract

Centre for Studies in Literacy, Policy and Learning Cultures University of South Australia I begin by extracting three historical 'vignettes' from Alberto Manguel's 'A History of Reading' (1996) to illustrate how reading is not the same thing in all times and places. Rather, I argue that reading is a human technology that, like all technologies, changes and, in turn, changes us as readers. Having made a case for using history as something that can unsettle, and even disrupt, taken for granted ways of understanding schooling, I go on to give examples from late nineteenth, early twentieth century reading curriculum materials that show the process of technological change at work in the classroom. I conclude with a brief comment on contemporary concerns around reading which may benefit from the kinds of disruptions that particular approaches to history can supply i . Somewhere in the fourth millennium BC writing probably began. In an area now know as Syria, clay tablets have been found dating from this time probably used by farmers to represent a number of farm animals -sheep, goats. This is the beginning of Alberto Manguel's telling of 'A History of Reading', a book which I heartily recommend as a tour de force of writing -a wonderful and enlightening read, and a heartwarming affirmation of the pleasures of reading itself.
Subject to reading: Historical takes on reading as a technology
Phil Cormack
Centre for Studies in Literacy, Policy and Learning Cultures
University of South Australia
Opinion, 2001 Vol 45, No 2, pp. 20-26
Contact details:
Phil Cormack
Centre for Studies in Literacy, Policy and Learning Cultures
University of South Australia
Holbrooks Rd
Underdale SA 5032
Tel: 08 8302 6471
Fax: 08 8302 6315
phil.cormack@unisa.edu.au
This publication has been downloaded from the Schooling Australia website
http://www.unisa.edu.au/cslplc/publications/SchoolingAust_files/homepage.htm.
This publication may be printed or copied in print or digital form for personal research or
educational purposes only provided that this cover sheet is included and/or the material
is appropriately referenced and acknowledged. For all other uses, contact the author(s)
directl
y
for
p
ermission.
Subject to reading: Historical takes on reading as a technology
Phil Cormack
Centre for Studies in Literacy, Policy and Learning Cultures
University of South Australia
I begin by extracting three historical ‘vignettes’ from Alberto Manguel’s ‘A History of
Reading’ (1996) to illustrate how reading is not the same thing in all times and places.
Rather, I argue that reading is a human technology that, like all technologies, changes and, in
turn, changes us as readers. Having made a case for using history as something that can
unsettle, and even disrupt, taken for granted ways of understanding schooling, I go on to give
examples from late nineteenth, early twentieth century reading curriculum materials that
show the process of technological change at work in the classroom. I conclude with a brief
comment on contemporary concerns around reading which may benefit from the kinds of
disruptions that particular approaches to history can supplyi.
Somewhere in the fourth millennium BC writing probably began. In an area
now know as Syria, clay tablets have been found dating from this time
probably used by farmers to represent a number of farm animals - sheep,
goats. This is the beginning of Alberto Manguel’s telling of ‘A History of
Reading’, a book which I heartily recommend as a tour de force of writing - a
wonderful and enlightening read, and a heartwarming affirmation of the
pleasures of reading itself.
The invention of writing was, of course, also the invention of reading - but
digging into the history of reading, is much more difficult than the history of
writing because writing leaves behind its own marks, its own traces, but
usually reading does not, so we can be less certain about how these clay
tablets were read than how they were written. (Perhaps the same can be said
for the teaching of reading compared to the teaching of writing - certainly to
the assessment of reading). Manguel uses a variety of sources, much of it
peoples’ writing about reading, or at least those parts which seem to refer to
reading – art work, texts themselves – to dig into what reading has involved
since its inception.
I’m going to take you on a few, brief dips into Manguel’s text to illustrate how
history can be read and used to help see the present as something a little
strange - more like an unfamiliar landscape. A way of making the taken for
granted in our current views of reading more noticeable.
Silent reading
According to Manguel, St Augustine, writing of his time in Milan, tells of
meeting the bishop Ambrose in AD 383 who read in silence - never reading
aloud - in other words, the notion of reading silently was sufficiently unusual
for him to comment on. Apparently, reading silently did not become common
in the west until the tenth century AD. He points out what a significant
change in the technology of reading this involved - it enabled an entirely new,
and personal, relationship with the book.
The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them.
They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered
or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing
new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other
books left open for simultaneous perusal. The reader had time to consider and
reconsider the precious words whose sounds - he now knew - could echo just as
well within as without. And the text itself, protected from outsiders by its
covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge,
whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home. pp.50-1
Manguel points out that some were quick to see the dangers of silent reading
- it literally was a sub-versive act - that is allowing for no clarification,
guidance, or correction by a supervising eye. For all the superior knew, the
reader may be day-dreaming or simply being idle - how could it be known?
Punctuation
Manguel speculates that punctuation, not needed with early pictographic
writing such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, was necessitated by this move to read
silently. He reports that by the ninth century scribes started separating words
with spaces and much punctuation was introduced to show parts of
sentences.
By the tenth century the first lines of a principle section of the bible began to
be written in red - later the first letter of a new paragraph was written in a
larger or upper case character.
Writing, reading and memory
Socrates is pretty well known for his opposition to reading and writing as
signifying much in the name of human progress (as Manguel wittily points
out, we know this because one of his pupils, wrote down his thoughts and we
can read about them today). One of Socrates key objections was that reading,
because it acted as a reminder via external marks, would harm memory and
that they would not truly know what they did not remember themselves – ‘as
men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a
burden to their fellow men’ (p.58).
And for most of its life, it seems that the technology of reading has been
attached to the idea of memory in a way that we don’t understand it to be
today. It was common for students up to the 13th century to memorise
important parts of the text and other aspects such as positioning of
paragraphs using mnemonic techniques laboriously learned over many years.
Some memorised whole texts.
According to Manguel, what happened is that in the 14th century the scholar
Petrarch suggested that the process of respectfully remembering a text - in
order to retain the wisdom it contained to be reproduced at appropriate times
– might be surpassed by a radical idea (interestingly just at the time that
reading silently became the dominant mode) that the reader should, in
Manguel’s terms… ‘neither using the book as a prop for thought, nor trusting
it as one would trust the authority of a sage, but taking from it an idea, a
phrase, an image, linking it to another culled from a distant text, preserved in
memory, tying the whole together with reflections of ones’ own - producing,
in fact, a new text authored by the reader’ (p.63).
This was to become the dominant mode of reading by the 16th century
according to Manguel. Not coincidentally, I think, the printing press was
invented in this period and made available to many what was only available
to a few in Petrarch’s time - a collection of books to read. That is books that
could be read alongside one another and considered as something related to
one’s own life – thus, it could be said, intertextuality was born.
These three vignettes illustrate a simple but still important point that reading,
as a human technology, is subject to change. The vignette on punctuation is a
case in point. The move from hieroglyphs to an alphabetic system made
differentiation of words or the concepts they represented more difficult – the
invention of spaces, and capitalisation show a technology on the move, being
changed to make it a more exact and versatile tool.
These three vignettes, however, also illustrate another perhaps not so obvious
point, that reading as a technology also changes the reader, makes new
human relations to text possible, even demands them. Thus silent reading
made possible a new relation to text, a newly unsupervised zone of private
thought and meaning. Similarly, the development of printing and the
availability of greater number of texts made different reading practices
possible – literally required a new kind of reader – someone who could make
connections across texts and be responsible for developing a personal set of
understandings independent of a single, authoritative author. It was a move
of author-ity to the reader, making that reader more important, more flexible,
and less predictable (at least in what was taken from the text).
For me such historical work shows that in defining literacy or reading the
curriculum shapes the students to itself and, in turn, shapes the teacher. It is
largely taken for granted about technologies that we use them – that they are
largely tools for our use – when they can also be thought of the other way
around – as things that change us, make us different and require different
things of us. The feminist scholar Donna Haraway (1991) describes us as
Cyborgs - part machine - where technologies literally become part of us and
the ways we behave as humans. The Walkman, the mobile phone, the
television, the pacemaker, the keyboard are obvious examples. Mark Dery
(1996) the cultural theorist, makes a similar point somewhat differently or
more provocatively when he refers to technologies as amputating our bodies,
as ‘... the relocation, in technology of an ever greater number of our cognitive
and muscular operations’ (p.234).
These are challenging and not uncontroversial ideas, but they help me to
think about reading in different ways – to think about it as a technology and
something that, in changing, impacts on us as people, as readers and teachers
and learners, requiring us to do different things with our bodies and even our
lives. Certainly, I’d say that reading is not the same thing throughout history.
It has changed, been reinvented and, in turn, reinvented us.
Let me explore the possibility of such a ‘reading’ of reading as a technology
through examining the reading curriculum in South Australian government
primary schools from 1874 to 1907.
I begin in 1874 because it is the last year of the Central Board of Education
(established in 1851) in South Australia. The Board of Education was a small
group (3-5) of part-time government appointees who were responsible for
broadly regulating and licensing teaching within the colony. The next year,
1875, saw the introduction of an Education Act which set up the Education
Department and brought schooling into the governmental embrace of a
purpose built educational bureaucracy. Thus the curriculum of 1874 comes
just before a time of change in the administration of schooling and seemed an
ideal starting point for an examination of change in the curriculum.
Interestingly from contemporary perspective, the whole of the curriculum
and the regulations for running a school could be contained in two pages in
1874 (perhaps there was a golden age of education!) including ‘standards for
the education of scholars at each class level plus seven regulations (GG 1874,
pp.589-90). Table 1 maps changes for Class I (7-8 year olds) over six years,
beginning in 1874, to subjects some of which would later be grouped together
as ‘English’.
Table 1: Class I Curriculum for Reading, Writing, Grammar and Drill 1874-9
Year 1874 1876 1878 1879
Reading First I. N. B. book
or equivalent
As for 1874 First Royal
Reader or
equivalent
As for 1879
Writing Capital and small
letters on slate
from copies on
blackboard and
from dictation
Letters or short
words on slates
from blackboard
As for 1876 Letters or short
words on slates
from blackboard.
Darnell’s
Universal Copy
Books 1 to 3
Grammar To distinguish
articles, nouns
and verbs
not included in
Class I curriculum
not included in
Class I curriculum
not included in
Class I curriculum
Drill The disciplinary
exercises
not included in
Class I curriculum
not included in
Class I curriculum
not included in
Class I curriculum
Note that in 1874 reading in Class 1, reading was based on one particular
reading book or equivalent, writing was copying small and capital letters on
the slate from the blackboard or dictation and simple grammar was taught.
In Class IV (10-11 year olds), as is shown in Table 2, there was a similar
pattern. Note in each class the presence of drill in the curriculum.
Table 2: Class IV Curriculum for Reading, Writing, Grammar and Drill 1874-9
Year 1874 1876 1878 1879
Reading Fourth I. N. B
book or
equivalent
As for 1874 Fourth Royal
Reader or
equivalent
To read with ease
and expression
from the Fourth
Royal Reader or
equivalent
Spelling not in curriculum Dictation from
reading-book
As for 1876 As for 1876
Writing Text and small
hands in copies.
Dictation from
reading lesson
Mixed or small
hand in copy
book. To copy
from reading-
book
As for 1876 To copy from
reading book.
Darnell’s
Universal copy
books, 11-13
Composit-
ion
not in curriculum To write a letter As for 1876 As for 1876
Grammar Parsing, and
inflexions of parts
of speech.
Analysis of
simple sentences
Etymology, easy
syntax, parsing
As for 1876 As for 1876
Poetry not in curriculum To learn by heart
simple pieces
To learn by heart
pieces from the
Fourth Royal
Reader
As for 1878
Drill
(Boys)
Proficiency in
company drill
not in curriculum not in curriculum not in curriculum
The regulations also had instructions about discipline - mild but firm, and
corporal punishment was regulated.
By 1876 - two years after the Education Department had begun, and in the
first new iteration of the curriculum those seven regulations from 1874 had
blown out to more than 80. The curriculum had some modification and points
of emphasis were laid out through the regulations. For example, drill had its
own regulation.
All male teachers will be required to drill their pupils at least to the extent
shown on pages 1-15 of Commander Norman’s Schoolmaster’s Drill Assistant.
… Female teachers must understand and practice class drill. In estimating the
proficiency of a school, special notice will be taken of drill. (GG 1876, p.41)
Also in 1876, a curriculum for a junior division was inserted below Class I –
these children were to learn the alphabet and simple combinations of (not
more than) four letters. Grammar was removed from Class I and now began
in Class II.
In 1878 the major change was the introduction of a new reader – The Royal
Reader. The next version of the curriculum a year later in 1879 introduced a
whole new technology for Class I – now copybooks (specially provided books
into which students must write in their best hand) were mentioned for this
class in addition to the slate. Over this six year period, two major changes
were introduced – a new reader, and the copybook which began to supplant
the slate. The new reader had a sizable impact because it determined the
curriculum beyond the subject reading. Note how in 1878 poetry in Class IV
involves learning by heart pieces from the reader, and Writing (what would
now be called handwriting) required copying of words from the reader. Also
over this period, whole subjects appeared or disappeared in the curriculum,
or had been moved between Classes.
Subsequent developments in the curriculum are too complex to show as in
tables 1 and 2. After 1879 the curriculum was regularly updated and
modified. There were iterations in 1885, 1888, 1890, 1892, 1900 and 1907.
By 1885 the regulations had expanded to 14 pages. Each subject was now
introduced with a set of ‘general principles’ which clearly explained to the
teacher some new ways in which the content was to be taught - or specifying
what was to be done and not to be done. In the introduction to the Reading
curriculum a focus was put on reading aloud.
The aim of the teacher should be to secure intelligent and expressive reading in
all classes. Pupils should be made to understand what they read, and then to
read it in such a way as to show that the meaning has been grasped. To this end,
explanation, illustration and pattern meaning must be frequent. (GG 1885, p.116)
The introduction went on to explain one classroom practice related to reading
aloud.
Simultaneous reading, if judiciously used, will be found very valuable. ... The
teacher should first read the passage with correct inflexion and emphasis, and
then cause the pupils to repeat it after him ... If he finds that they cannot give the
proper emphasis and modulation with their books before them it will be well to
make the attempt with their books closed ... Every attempt must be made to
correct the monotonous and sing-song style into which children so frequently
fall. (GG 1885, p.116)
Here we see reading shaping the student (and teacher) subject. Reading in
unison, reading with the book closed (!), reading without a regular rhythm.
Later this same introduction stated how dull and uninteresting lessons can
become when children learn their one reader off by heart (surely, at least in
part, a response to reading with the book closed). It then states that the
Education Department has introduced new readers so that students have
more than one for each year. We can only speculate what impact the supply
of new books and more books would have had on the students and the
teacher but it must have been to push reading in a direction different to the
practice described in the quote above.
In the same year (1885), there was an interesting reference to Writing lessons
in a note on drill which was no longer part of the curriculum but still subject
to a special note in the regulations. The note stated:
Lessons in drill should be frequent, short and spirited. They should be given in
the playground, except when the weather is unfavorable; and if properly
managed they will always be popular. To teach drill successfully, the closest
attention to every minute detail is as necessary as in conducting a writing lesson.
(GG 1885, p.120)
This note, which so closely links the agenda of body-shaping in drill to the
teaching of writing, demonstrates that writing too is a technology that shapes
the student subject - literally. Later versions of the curriculum (from which
mention of drill has disappeared) will include diagrams and pictures which
show in minute detail proper bodily positioning while writing and illustrate
the correct fitting of the body to artefacts such as pens and desks.
Five years later, in 1890, additional text was included in the introduction to
reading from which I include an extended extract here.
It should not be considered that a teacher’s work is completed, if his pupils can
read correctly the words of the textbook which happens to be specified for the
class. His aim should be to develop a love of reading as far as possible. With this
end in view, it is suggested that some time might be devoted to reading aloud
interesting stories, accounts of travel, or the like, the readers being selected from
the best scholars. Probably such reading might be given with advantage during
the lesson in needlework.
In order to encourage a further taste for reading, a small paper (“The Children’s
Hour”) is published by the department for circulation among scholars. Several
teachers have done useful work by establishing school libraries. (EG 1890, p.65)
This is a significant addition to the instructions to teachers in relation to
reading which, I would argue, arise directly out of the availability of new
forms of reading material beyond the class reader – something hinted at in the
1885 curriculum discussed earlier. The child reader has now changed, or at
least, new requirements a placed on top of the old. Students must now love
reading, they must read a paper as well as a reader, and select from a library.
The availability of new resources requires a new kind of reader.
This is also true of the teacher who must adapt to the new reading
technologies. Now teachers must be well read and know the best of scholars
(authors). They must select stories for their interest. They are to replace the
silence of the needlework class with reading to the students. They must
establish libraries (which meant going to the parents for donations of money
and books).
The introductions and course content vary little in relation to reading in the
next two versions (1892 and 1900) until 1907 when the formerly separate
subjects of reading, grammar, writing, poetry, speech etc are grouped under
the now familiar label of ‘English’. In the section on reading the introduction
is even longer with subheaded sections entitled ‘school libraries’, ‘silent
reading lessons’, and ‘interest in reading’. The curriculum alone now
consisted of 19 pages compared to the half page of standards for classes
provided in 1874.
Preceding the introductions to the subjects, the course of instruction now
begins with two new sections entitled: ‘The functions of the elementary
school’ and ‘The Teacher’. Compare the following to the teacher who in 1874
had to teach drill meticulously (along with writing) and ensure students
could read aloud in a pleasing fashion one reading book. In 1907, the teacher
must be four things:
1. Teaching is a vocation. The teacher is the best who teaches because he
loves the work
2. The teacher should have a thorough knowledge of what he teaches
3. He should have a deep and abiding interest in the minds of his pupils
4. In his work those minds come first in his consideration, then his subject,
then himself last of all. No teacher, however able and devoted he may be,
can add to a child’s natural endowment: but he may hope to bring all the
powers with which the child is gifted into free, full and harmonious play.
To seek to begin to do this is the teacher’s business. (EG 1907, p.43)
This is a very different teacher to the one required in 1874 - some 33 years
earlier - something like the span of one teacher’s career. The materials used
for reading, and what teachers and students were expected to do with these
materials also changed enormously over this period. Clearly the technology of
printing and being able to produce books more cheaply has been an
important driver for change along with greater wealth in the state to afford
these materials over this period.
Reading by 1907 appears to require a different kind of disciplining compared
to the tightly choreographed reading of the 1870s. The teacher must now deal
with freedom and with minds compared to the focus on the body and voice in
the earlier period. At least this was the case in reading – the curriculum seems
to suggest that writing carried much of bodily drill and discipline well
beyond the early 1900s.
For me, studying history shows how educators, politicians, bureaucrats,
young people, community members have constantly struggled over what
should count as reading. These struggles have produced particular versions
of reading and the subject English at different times - versions strongly
implicated in the play of social, political and cultural forces at work at those
times. Many times I suspect the shape of the curriculum could easily have
turned out otherwise. Why, for example, did English end up carrying so
much of the moral work of schooling, why not history, or nature study, or
physical education, all of which, at times, made claims for such a role? And
each version of English and of reading has required a different kind of
student reader and teacher of reading (Cormack & Comber, 1996).
This historical ‘reading’ of reading has utility for teachers and policy makers
today. Through an historical consciousness, we can make strange the
curriculum materials of our day, as if we were reading a document produced
decades or a century earlier. We can ask: what does that word mean here?
How is reading being constituted and what new technologies or resources are
being brought to bear on its conduct? What kind(s) of student subject are
required by the technology of reading? How is that subject to be shaped
bodily, or in terms of their attributes or dispositions? What, in turn, does that
require teachers to be and to do? In short, we can see how students and
teachers are being framed by the framework and go on to ask ourselves more
critical questions about the consequences of the new practices being required,
the traditions being lost, and the effects on the relationship between teachers,
students, texts and the community.
The recently released South Australian Curriculum Standards and
Assessment (SACSA) framework is a case in point. It says of the aims of the
English curriculum:
The English Learning Area aims to develop in all children:
the ability to critically and creatively speak, listen, read, view and write with
intellectual and emotional engagement, including imagination, passion and
confidence, for a range of audiences and contexts
knowledge of the ways language is used for different purposes, audiences
and contexts, and the capability to apply this knowledge
knowledge of and respect for diverse varieties of English, including
Standard Australian English, and the capability to critically analyse and
apply this knowledge
a knowledge of a broad range of texts and the capability to critically analyse
these texts in relation to personal experiences, the experiences of local and
global communities, and the social constructs of advantage/disadvantage in
order to imagine more just futures
capacities to apply learning in English to other Learning Areas, to life in the
wider community, to the virtual community, and in accessing further
education and training. (DETE 2000, p.127)
The first dot-point is different from some of the views of reading quoted from
a century before. We can note new requirements such as the ability to read
critically. We can also note the absences such as the requirement to love
reading noted in 1890. Has ‘emotional engagement’ replaced ‘love’ and, if so,
what is the difference – what else might the ‘emotional engagement’ require
of the student (and teacher) that ‘love’ did not? Another notable difference
among many is the inclusion of issues related to information and
communication technologies (ICTs), such as mention of the ‘virtual’ and
‘global’ community. Just as the introduction of supplementary readers had a
huge impact on the student reader and the teacher of reading in the late
nineteenth century, so too will the introduction of ICTs. Here we see evidence
that ICTs will not simply be ‘tools’ bent to traditional purposes, but that they
will change what reading is, and the ways students and teachers must be –
their bodies, their dispositions, their desires, their values (they must now
imagine ‘more just futures’ for example).
Many policy documents and curriculum frameworks provide definitions of
literacy or its component parts such as reading. I’m often struck by how
confidently they do this, as if there is an easy agreement about what’s
involved and the implications that flow from the definition. My brief
historical excursion has sought to show that we should be place in ‘scare
quotes’ around all statements and definitions of this kind. History provides us
with a way of reading such documents at a distance, and to see them as a
framing of the student and the teacher with many effects on their daily lives.
It is appropriate that I leave the last word to Manguel, who helps us to see the
ultimate unknowability of reading in a scientific sense.
We continue to read without a satisfactory definition of what we are doing. We
know that reading is not a process that can be explained through a mechanical
model; we know that it takes place in certain defined parts of the brain but we
also know that these areas are not the only ones to participate; we know that the
process of reading, like that of thinking, depends on our ability to decipher and
make use of language, the stuff of words which makes up text and thought. The
fear that researchers seem to express is that their conclusion will question the
very language in which they express it: that language may be in itself an
arbitrary absurdity, that it may communicate nothing except in its stuttering
essence, that it may depend almost entirely not on its enunciators but on its
interpreters for its existence, and that the role of readers is to render visible — in
al-Haytham’s fine phrase – “that which writing suggests in hints and shadows”.
(p.19)ii
References
Cormack, P., & Comber, B. (1996). Writing the teacher: The South Australian junior
primary English teacher, 1962-1995. In B. Green & C. Beavis (Eds.), Teaching the
English Subjects: Essays on English Curriculum History and Australian Schooling (pp.
118-144). Geelong: Deakin University Press.
Dery, M. (1996). Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. London:
Hodder & Stoughton.
Department of Education, Training and Employment (2000) South Australian
Curriculum, Standards and Accountability Framework: Early Years Band DETE,
Adelaide, p.127.
Haraway, D. J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge.
Manguel, R. (1996). A History of Reading. New York: Penguin.
Historical sources
GG South Australian Government Gazette
EG Education Gazette (Education Department of South Australia)
i This text has been adapted from a keynote given to the Annual conference of the
South Australian English Teachers Association, May 2000.
ii al-Haytham was an 11th century Egyptian scholar
... As the quotation from Kerr's memoirs typifies, what might today be called issues around literacy were more likely in the early twentieth century to be discussed in relation to the English subjects: 'reading', 'writing', 'spelling', 'grammar' and so on-and in relation to literary knowledge and sensibilities (Cormack, 2001a(Cormack, , 2001bGreen & Beavis, 1996). The discussions of these matters in the Gazette show that work around the English subjects was seen as central to the mission of the public school and a prime means of shaping the citizen in the making. ...
... (1910 June, EG, p.151) This argument was also extended to the notion that schools should develop in young people 'enduring interests' which would act as a kind of moral prophylactic against the streets and popular culture-this would become an argument for the promotion of English, and reading of certain kinds of literature in particular, as a means to this end (Cormack, 2001b). ...
Article
Full-text available
Subject English faces continuing challenges to its relevance and even its place in the school system. Of course English is not alone in this process of curriculum justification, review and renovation. Subjects disappear, change names, or change content under the same name as they respond to challenges to their legitimacy and utility. Subjects also move from a central place in the curriculum to dusty corners and vice versa. In many ways subject English is unusual in the way it has maintained its central place in the curriculum over many decades, at least in the secondary school. However, as this book testifies, the traditional role, shape and nature of English as first codified in the Newbolt Report of 1921 in England can no longer be taken for granted. Then, the Newbolt Report placed English as the site where the national culture could be brought to all children through the literature of the 'mother-tongue'. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the concept of a singular national culture, the role of English as an international language, and the relevance of literature in a multi-mediated world are all subject to critical review, subject English and with it the work of English teachers, is being re-imagined. This chapter makes the case for bringing an historical sensitivity to this process, even while acknowledging that there are many contemporary sources for such work 2 . The particular value of history for re-imagining the work of the English teacher lies in its usefulness as a reminder of the discourses that have shaped English and which remain central to its logic, and as a resource for disrupting current certainties and assumptions about schooling and school subjects. It begins with a brief exemplar of the way subject English is popularly seen at the present time, and then moves to illustrate how history can help us unsettle our present-day assumptions. The main part of the chapter considers a period in the early twentieth century when the very notion of 'Australia' was being shaped in the context of Federation and where post-primary public education was first being established as a site for training the young Australian citizen-in-the-making. This was a period of high anxiety about the older, post-primary school child (a child first labelled an 'adolescent' at this time) in relation to the effects that social changes and the development of street and city cultures could have in the new nation. The chapter argues that then, as now, these anxieties were often related to issues of language and literature that were central to the production of school subject English.
... If nothing else, this demonstrates the potential fragility of curriculum and pedagogical practices that educators may hold dear from time to time. I have argued in another place (Cormack, 2001) that the move to silent reading arose in part out of the different resources made available in the classroom that required a different shaping and examination of the student. However, my focus here is to remain in the first decade of the twentieth century and to consider what other subject positions were being made available by the curriculum of the period. ...
... The 1907 Course of Instruction (Education Department of South Australia) was the first to group formerly separate subjects of reading, spelling, grammar, language, poetry etc under the heading of 'English'(Cormack, 2001) although the term 'English' had been used as far back as 1885 as an over-arching label for 'composition' and 'grammar'. Thus in SA government schools, English was a primary school subject before it was a secondary school subject, an issue that has not been fully explored in curriculum histories of the subject (for comment on this see Patterson, A 'English in Australia: Its emergence and transformations' inPeel et al., 2000, p.291). ...
... Characters, writing, reading and/or literacy are all regarded as technologies (Plato, ca. 360 B.C.;Havelock, 1981;Ong, 1982;Manguel, 1997;Cormack, 2001). Typography and fonts can also be regarded as a technology (Clair & Busic-Snyder, 2005). ...
A History of Reading
  • R Manguel
Manguel, R. (1996). A History of Reading. New York: Penguin. Historical sources GG South Australian Government Gazette EG Education Gazette (Education Department of South Australia)
Simians, Cyborgs, and Women
  • D J Haraway
Haraway, D. J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge.
Writing the teacher: The South Australian junior primary English teacher, 1962-1995
  • P Cormack
  • B Comber
Cormack, P., & Comber, B. (1996). Writing the teacher: The South Australian junior primary English teacher, 1962-1995. In B. Green & C. Beavis (Eds.), Teaching the English Subjects: Essays on English Curriculum History and Australian Schooling (pp. 118-144). Geelong: Deakin University Press.