The study of novels and poetry is essential for senior secondary students

By Rosemary Ross Johnston

The serious dumbing down of the senior English syllabus in NSW will have significant repercussions for students, employers, writers, poets, and Australian culture.

The changes have been widely criticized. The worst ones are the reduction in texts to be studied, the study of both novels and poetry becoming optional and the formerly non-ATAR English course now becoming assessable for the ATAR. My colleague Don Carter, who in a former role led the team developing the non-ATAR course, is greatly concerned by how this will affect students, as is Jackie Manuel, who has examined these changes in detail here on this blog.

Yes we understand the importance of STEM education and why it needs special attention these days. Also it can’t be denied that film, media and digital texts are part of today’s technologies so should be studied. And bottom line, these changes to HSC English will save money by cutting marking time.

So why worry about our HSC students skipping novels and poetry in their final year of school? What have novels and poetry got to offer in today’s world?

So much, so very much.

Why studying  novels and poetry should be compulsory

The intensive study of multiple texts, written from diverse points of view and cultural heritages, gives a vicarious glimpse of the worlds of others. Literature is the ultimate virtual reality.


In a novel, and without fancy gaming scenes and movement, sound effects, actors and cinematography, literary worlds (and plot and characters) are built by a writer using one simple tool, the infinite arrangements of an alphabet consisting of a mere 26 letters, and are then sustained and grown by readers’ imaginations.

Intensive study of novels grows awareness of how words can be used and manipulated, in both positive and negative ways, and helps us learn how we, and others, respond to such words, as well as how we can use them. Forensic study of novels, delving beyond the top layer and investigating how language creates characters and conveys feelings and emotions somehow sparks all senses; hearing, seeing, feeling, touching, smelling. Observing and studying people both like and unlike ourselves in crafted case studies in a created world provides resources that mature our understandings of our own world.

Exploring how novels and poetry (I’ll come to poetry in a minute) work, not only breeds creativity, that highly sought-after attribute when everyone is talking ‘innovation’, it also expands awareness of other perspectives, ways of thinking, and needs and problems. A novel can change cultures and bring about social change. Think about the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said on meeting author Harriet Beecher Stowe, ‘So this is the little lady whose book started a big war.’ He was of course referring to the American Civil War.

This lowering of standards by NSW represents a lowering of expectations and is a sad reflection of our impoverished educational philosophy. It’s a scary repeat of the scrapping of grammar decades ago.

In a few years we’ll (suddenly!) discover that Australian students are lagging behind world standards not only in literacy and reading and writing skills but in cultural literacy, creativity, nuanced thinking and the ability to critically analyse language.

The more people and experiences we are exposed to, actually, and virtually (and I repeat, literature is of course a virtual reality), the more we learn to respect others and respect difference. As David Parker notes, novels are ‘sites of the culture’s deepest moral questionings’; Simon Haines writes that they are sites of ‘ethical reflection’.

This is the ethical reflection of deep literacy, not just respect but a generous and intimate understanding of others that makes us hope for their wellbeing. Writing about the novel, Martha Nussbaum says that ‘respect for a soul’ is ‘built into the genre itself’. In other words it makes us more empathic, more collaborative, better teammates. It makes for more flexibility in thinking, more agility in considering how things can be done.

And some of our most beautiful novels can be challenging and need a guide (good teachers!) to introduce us to them. I’m thinking of Tim Winton’s opening lines in Cloudstreet – ‘The beautiful, the beautiful, the river’, and David Malouf’s description of the sea in Remembering Babylon:

It glows in fullness till the tide is high and the light almost, but not quite, unbearable, as the moon plucks at our world and all the waters of the earth ache towards it ….

Extended exposure to creative imageries such as these encourage a similar ache, and the capacity to listen with the mind as well as the ear, to see with the spirit as well as the eyes. Creativity is contagious; it jumps from one thought to another, from one imagination to another, from one mode of expression to another.


Poetry is the literary genre that first attracts children into language. Think of ‘Round and round the garden/Dancing teddy bear’ and ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’: rhythm and rhyme, sound and imagery. Poetry is important both for philosophical and pragmatic reasons, both for self enhancement (life enhancement) and for the skills it grows.

Poetry breeds and cultivates and demonstrates succinctness of expression, depths of thinking that generate a creative climate of shared human-ness – humanity. It uses words like Russian dolls; open up one word and another one tumbles out, wrapped in thoughts and feelings and scattering other images along the way. Advertisers and jingle writers know and love this, and we need our children to understand how it happens.

Poetry is like a theorem; a few words can express a deep thought. I’ve used this example before, but it’s just so apt:


This world of dew

is but a world of dew,

and yet …oh, and yet.    

Koyabayashi Issa (1763-1828)

The words are so simple, we know what each one means. But what is this famous haiku actually saying? It feels repetitive, unfinished. It’s like saying an apple is an apple, and the ‘and yet’ repeated at the end means – what?

These words stand on the surface of a complex thought, above not just one idea but many (philosophical, creative, intellectual, universal, particular) that may provoke, delight, and/or unsettle. We know what ‘dew’ is ( the dictionary says it is ‘moisture condensed from the atmosphere especially at night’) but this simple definition unravels into other ideas pertaining to moisture; water, morning, dawn. These in turn tumble into thoughts about dawn as being a new day, as being either a fresh start or a despairing start (or both), and moisture and water as both that which assuages thirst and as the moisture of tears and sweat, sorrow and exhaustion, or sometimes of great happiness and pleasure.

So, almost subliminally, this invites the reader to take a thought plunge into both the profound delights and the profound sadness of the world and indeed of human existence. And whichever way we read this, as delight or sadness, or both, or neither, there is always the ‘and yet’, the something else, the other side, the perhaps holy or perhaps unholy concomitance.

Poetry – using the magic of sound as well as sense – energises rigour of thought and the imagination that recognises and engages with the enigmas and the puzzles of the ‘and yet, oh and yet.’ It acknowledges and accentuates the wondering (and the wonder).

And Australian poetry! The line of a simple ballad is with me every time I look up at a starry sky: ‘And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars’. Simple, some say trite, I say tapping into and enlarging the experience of being human, of being part of a mind-staggering universe.

If young Australians don’t have to study it, will they know such poetry exists? They may miss John Shaw’s Nielson’s delicate ‘Love’s coming’ (a wonderful antidote to the current deluge of lovers on reality TV); and Judith Wright’s “five senses’ that ‘gather into a meaning/all acts, all presences’; and Lionel Fogarty’s ‘sweet peace crowned country’ and Martin Harrison’s morning song, ‘As early as this – it’s just after dawn – you’re overwhelmed by the glimmering of things’; and Paolo Totaro’s cry against war when a child picks up something that looks like a pomegranate: ‘Where did it come from, that winsome hand-grenade?’

Studying novels and poetry is needed in this new global world

Most of all, intensive study of novels and poetry grows a willingness to engage with ambiguity. Think of that ‘world of dew’ again. We haven’t got all the answers and our point of view is not always right. And the idea of ‘right’ may always be ambiguous.

Think about quantum theory and the theory of relativity. The position of the observer is always disruptive and time is not absolute.

I have heard whispers of the idea of ‘unknowing’ creeping into educational discourse, and applaud this. Part of deep engagement with novels and poetry helps us to understand that we just don’t always know and that we need to acknowledge our unknowing. This is not a deficit, but a part of growth. Life is profound and mysterious; in philosopher Cora Diamond’s words:

There is far more to things, to life, than we know or understand. Such a feeling is tied to a rejection of the spirit of knowingness often found in abstract moral and social theorising.

It is this that helps individuals to commit to a moral order beyond the self and to connect, with integrity, to community.

By cutting the need for high-level study of a range of novels and poetry are we really equipping our students for global futures?

NESA, please rethink this decision, which is not grounded on pedagogical principles or research, and is contrary to the feedback received from so many experts.

Our students are worth more than this.


Rosemary Ross Johnston is Professor of Education and Culture at UTS, and is the Director of the International Research Centre for Youth Futures. Her latest book, Australian Literature for Young People, is currently in press with Oxford.





Last week (end of March 2017) NESA did a back-flip and announced a new ruling “to clarify the requirement to study a novel in Year 12 in English”.

Read about it here.

6 thoughts on “The study of novels and poetry is essential for senior secondary students

  1. Frank Golding says:

    Sounds like special pleading to me, I’m afraid. I come across intelligent young people all the time who say quite bluntly, ‘I haven’t read a novel since I left school, and I hate poetry,’ when I probe a little further, I’m often told the reason for the turn-off was that they were forced to study stuff that made no sense and had no connection with the lives they were/are leading.

    Making something compulsory entails making the teaching of it spectacularly good and worthwhile, not just good in the minds of those in the industry but in the minds and hearts of those who are forced to study it.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Frank. Yes, I guess this is special pleading – because we are selling our young people short when we cut their options in such a drastic way. And we are also selling ourselves short as a nation. Our technological future will flourish in a creative and culturally rich climate. Indeed the same topics that fascinate and entice poets and novelists are those that fascinate and entice scientists. I love the work of Brian Greene, Brian Cox and Neil de Grasse Tyson. They all use ‘story’ to talk out their complex messages. Greene is an astrophysicist at Columbia who is studying time and the nature of reality: time, he says, ‘is in the eye of the beholder.’ Greene’s work is the stuff of storytellers –he talks about black holes as possible ‘gateways to other universes’ – and he believes in the deep connections between science and the arts and philosophy and spirit. Indeed he is currently working with a rap artist, and rap of course is a type of poetry. So is popular song – consider some of Sting’s lyrics.
    We are living in a world that values creativity and minds that can slide across disciplines – not only interdisciplinary but transdisciplinary. Just when science is shifting from what Greene calls ‘the outskirts of culture’ into the heart of culture (where it needs to be), do we want to chop another part of our cultural heritage that reaches back to the ancient Greeks? (Poetry in all its forms was at the heart of their culture). Why do so many writers across the disciplines use quotes from poems or novels to introduce their chapters? Because of course a few short words can express deep thoughts that are going to be explicated in the chapter – or that help to explicate..
    Through this curriculum we will be telling students that novels and poetry aren’t important to warrant their attention. Without such cultural knowledge – as well as knowledge about what language can do and how it does it – will Australian young people be able to hold their own in this exciting world where science and the arts are coming together?

  3. Ania Lian says:

    I am not sure that any subject in schools that cannot claim to be relevant to all, is taught “spectacularly” well. This does not mean we cant improve. Novels and poems can be seen as irrelevant, and yet the same teens run to see movie after movie. So stories are not irrelevant, we are stories. Our children bear the impact of the extent to which we know this. Observer is not so much a disruptor but a creator. So we are not outside the stories we read or live, we are their makers. No need to “teach resilience” – a better way is for students to explore the stories they live by – and their tools – through the stories of others. That is why we have the frontal cortex: to run scenarios in our heads before we enact them. And rather than do so uninformed, stories and poems give young people access to “conversations” (history) into which they were born and the tools for understanding their own role in them. Am I optimistic that the decision will be reversed? No. As for progress in teaching novels and poems, well we all know what stops innovation, no need to comment there. We have outliers everywhere who worked their way through English PhDs and have solutions. I look forward to their impact.
    Ania Lian

  4. Thank you, Ania, for your comments. Yes, story is the essence of how we make sense of our lives, and helps us to understand and make sense of the lives of others. And as you say we are story-makers from those first ‘show and tells’ in Kindergarten. Story and identity are so entwined.
    Novels expose us to the identities and stories of others that may be separated from where we live by language, history, geography, and time. They make possible a sort of cross-generational, cross-cultural equity. I really like your sentence; ‘stories and poems give young people access to “conversations” (history) into which they were born and the tools for understanding their own role in them.’ Yes!
    And you bring up the idea of resilience – I agree. This is an excellent point – and one that is so important. The stories we read and the ways in which we use language help to grow us into our own story, encourage denser and more profound ways of thinking, and grow a sense of relationship to both past and present that helps strengthen a sense of identity. Pat Dudgeon, the National Mental Health Commissioner, speaks about the importance of identity, culture and community to mental health. We learn about these, beyond personal experience, through books and the stories told by others, of others. And is so doing we learn about ourselves.
    This is why our Centre has launched the UTS Australopedia project – working with schools and communities to encourage storytelling across the disciplines through a digital encyclopedia created by children connecting with their communities, collecting oral histories, seeking out local Indigenous histories and languages and exploring geography and environmental issues. Indeed, it is a storytelling project.
    Thank you again, Ania.

  5. Frank Golding says:

    Maybe I was not clear. I am not arguing against the importance of literature. And I must add that while I meet lots of people who never read novels and ‘hate’ poetry (and often say they were turned off at school), I’ve never met anyone who does not like a good story. I was arguing that if you make any area of the curriculum compulsory, you have a special obligation to teach it exceptionally well. My fear about compulsion is that some teachers will coast into mediocre teaching by virtue of having a captive audience.

  6. Thanks Frank -. I totally agree that good teaching is always paramount, and school is indeed a captive audience. Yes, ‘compulsory’ is a heavy word; perhaps we should think of it rather as being ‘essential.’
    Thank you again for your comments..

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