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How to teach 'vampire' students

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom StoppardIn a middle-of-the-road Comprehensive high school, somewhere on the Australian coast, a student teacher is bravely taking a year 12 English lesson on Transformation. Hamlet, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead are the texts, and I'm the qualified teacher down the back. In front of me is a Venn diagram, illustrating the themes of Order (Hamlet's Elizabethan world, when not out of joint) and Disorder (the shambolic world of R&G)

The class is a shambles too. iPods and mobiles rule, and the girl in front is discussing her new 'vampire' boyfriend. 'Have you seen the new werewolf?' she whispers to her friend. 'I think he's cute. His eyes are like, bright blue, and he wears his hair back, like he's just been running. He's in 12B. I can't take my eyes off him.'

In her other life she's Guildenstern. She finds her place. '"Give us this day ... ". What's this "Give us this day" business?'

'"Our daily bread",' says the student teacher. 'It's the Lord's Prayer.'

'But why does he keep saying it?'

'"And forgive us our trespasses."' A pause while he thinks. '"as we forgive those who ... those who ..."'

I'm reminded of Percival Wemys Madison in Lord of the Flies, gradually forgetting his home address, which was taught to him by far-away and long-ago parents.

He rallies.

'It's talking about religion, and the absence of a God to look after you, when things are no longer tickety­-boo.'

He's doing his best, trying to teach abstract ideas in a difficult play about a postmodern world, where he himself is a player. The current English syllabus is awash with the theories of postmodernism and relativism, theories which have stalked the university cloisters for a long time now. Earlier on, the vampire girl airily told me that her opinions were of equal value to those of the 'Creators' of the texts (Shakespeare and Stoppard).

The lesson ends. 'Things are looking up,' I say, brightly, as we dodge our way back to the English staffroom.

'Yes, but they still ignore me,' said the student teacher.

'You could always tell them to sit down, shut up and listen!'

He gives me that look generation Y reserves for the dinosaurs they occasionally encounter. He feels sorry for them, he says. He can remember being 17. Horrible. An identity thing. Their identity, he says, is really important.

More important than the HSC? It seems so.

Next morning, driving to school, I listen to Dr Clive Hamilton, discussing his book, The Freedom Paradox, on Radio National. The Me generation of the '60s and '70s, he says, has produced children who act on immediate impulse, rather than on the basis of their own individual will. This has unleashed self-centredness, leading to moral relativism, an absence of rules to live by and deep anxiety.

Definitely the disordered side of the Venn diagram, I think.

We need a new metaphysic, he says.

This sounds like a religious Esperanto. I've taught English in a lot of schools. I've taught religious studies, too, and have found out that values, like language, don't stand alone. They're inextricably tangled up with the culture and religion of the society they occupy, even if the time-honoured prayers have been sloughed off and barely remembered.

One of these values is education, and many Australian citizens not born in the Western world, unenlightened by post-structural ideas, and never part of a Me generation, often respect it. Their children work hard for coveted places in Selective High Schools and, as they enter year 12, give a nod to postmodernism, if that's what the course requires — unaware of the rot that's set in, in the state of New South Wales.

Must drop a note to the student teacher. The line he wants is, 'As we forgive those who trespass against us'.

Eleanor MasseyEleanor Massey is a long time English teacher who now works casually in NSW schools. She is a freelance writer, with a number of published articles in such magazines as The Big Issue, Good Reading and Wet Ink.

Topic tags: Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, hsc, post-modern, clive hamilton, The Freedom paradox



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Existing comments

Thanks Eleanor, I'm not an English teacher but Director of Faith Development, I teach RE .. Identity at Yr 12!!! You've said like it is! Gen Y (students * teachers) is such a different/challenging yet exciting scene. I'll be sharing this with my fellow strugglers! Thanks.

Mary Murphy | 03 March 2009  

This postmodernism is now ifluencing Catholic schools. Last year I came across seveal English essays from various Catholic schols throughout Queensland which asserted that objective truth did not exist and, therefore, any religion and its accompanying moral system based on this outmoded concept (Catholicism being the prime example) would be indefensible.

TERRYOBERG | 03 March 2009  

This article brought to mind the moving and bitterly satirical passage in Charles Dickens' Bleak House, in which Jo the crossing sweeper, a vagrant boy, dies while attempting to repeat The Lord's Prayer, a couple of words at a time, as the kindly doctor says it for him. He only gets as far as "Hallowed be -- thy --". He has never heard it before.

Dickens wanted his audience to be appalled -- it saddens me that, 150 years later, so many people find the educational conditions described by Eleanor to be perfectly acceptable. It's not necessarily a question of religious belief. It's a question of denying students proper access to their own culture.

Cassandra | 03 March 2009  

Thank goodness, as a maths teacher I did not have to deal with that postmodern rubbish. The square root of two is irrational, the number of primes is infinite - the Greeks told us these things more than 2000 years ago and they will still be true 2000 years from now.

Thank you Eleanor, for an insight into how the other half (of teachers) have to live. I trust that in your evaluation to his university, you suggested that this young man was not suited to teaching and would be better studying finance or economics where he could say and do whatever he liked and remain a teenager for the rest of his life.

Frank O'Shea | 03 March 2009  

Well I, for one, think the student teacher is on the right track.

It seems to me that the mistake many people make when disparaging 'postmodernism' is to assume or behave as if it's a theory that was invented, then disseminated. Really, it's a body of theory that has been developed to describe features that evolved during the past few decades, relating to how people (often, young people) view the world, think about the universe and interact with their environment.

One of the primary and most challenging features of postmodernism is the idea that no-one 'owns' truth - often (mistakenly, in my opinion) cited as 'There is no truth'. That's an interesting idea and gets under the skin of those with a more 'modernist' perspective, who feel that truth should be 'given' to us by those who know better.

The challenge for teachers and others is not to refute or overcome postmodernism, but to find ways to work and interact meaningfully, within a postmodern framework.

Incidentally, for the most part the Christian churches have failed spectacularly in this realm and shows no signs of reversing this.

Charles Boy | 03 March 2009  

My understanding is that it is most usually cited as "there is no standard" - of excellence, of merit, of quality. So the sublime words of Keats or Tennyson are no more worthy of admiration than the meanderings of a rap artist or the sentiments in Sex and the City.

Mind you, my elders and betters probably said the same thing to me about 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Leaving Home' half a century ago.

As I say, thank goodness for mathematics.

Frank O'Shea | 03 March 2009  

It is very heartening for me to hear teachers in Catholic School experiencing the difficulties. The students are sent there by their parents. I teach in a state school where values are diverse as the planets of our solar system.

Terence Pestana | 03 March 2009  

Frank O'Shea - I would see questions of 'standard' as being subsequent to questions of truth. If no-one owns truth, then who is this academic to tell me the works of Wordsworth or Blake have more value than the lyric to this Justin Timberlake song?

Such people would be best encouraged to distinguish between 'liking or disliking' (a matter of taste) and 'appreciation'. It is valid to 'dislike' the works of Shakespeare (or Lennon/McCartney), but one would do well to appreciate the immense contribution they have made to our culture, both 'pop' and otherwise.

I'd argue that it works the other way too. One who both enjoys and appreciates the works of Shakespeare or Lennon/McCartney could do well to find things to appreciate about the art of rapping or TV soapies, rather than offering sweeping disparagement.

Charles Boy | 04 March 2009  

I sympathize but : humility cannot be taught only learned by experience . The student's words claiming her right to a personal opinion are valid; but display her paucity of thought. I hope we can use the economic downturn to teach them modesty.

michael | 04 March 2009  

its a good artical. but is his not real so i'm not like it. can you please tell me vampire is real or not real give me the answer to my website ok bye

saj | 29 May 2009