Poetry's 'Formative Power': Teaching Poetry in Tasmania 1900-1950
Spaulding, Ralph, Australian Literary Studies
Poetry has always featured in formal learning programs, but both its function and importance have varied over time according to political and social needs. In his analysis of texts used in the teaching of English from the sixteenth century to 1870, Ian Michael illustrates the different functions poetry served during this period. These ranged from teaching skills--such as grammar, spelling, vocabulary, elocution, rhetoric and composition--to the more elevated aims of fostering Christian beliefs, moral and social values, and particular standards of personal behaviour. When compulsory education was introduced in the nineteenth century poetry met many of these needs, but educators were particularly diligent in describing poetry's power to instil virtue and faith in the young. In this period more liberal approaches to education evolved, underpinned by what Ian Reid calls 'Romantic ideologies' (22). In 1880, Matthew Arnold claimed that poetry was 'capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those which men have assigned to it hitherto', believing that '[m]ore and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us' ('The Study of Poetry' 171). In his Report for the same year, Arnold, then an inspector, wrote that the 'acquisition of good poetry is a discipline which works deeper than any other discipline in our schools':
Good poetry does undoubtedly tend to form the soul and character; it tends to beget a love of beauty and truth in alliance together, it suggests, however indirectly, high and noble principles of action, and it inspires the emotion so helpful in making principles operative. Hence its extreme importance to all of us; but in our elementary schools its importance seems to me to be at present quite extraordinary. ('General Report' 1880, 200-1)
Romantic ideologies had no impact on elementary education in nineteenth-century Tasmania, when the need to teach basic literacy, improve school attendance, provide school buildings and appoint teachers was paramount. In 1839 when the Governor, Sir John Franklin, established a Board of Education to control public elementary education in the colony, the main focus was on teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills and improving the moral tone of the populace by removing what an observer described as the 'evils resulting from ignorance and vice' (Austin and Sellick 16). For the rest of the century the most important teaching resources in Tasmanian elementary schools were the class readers, most of which were published in Britain and Ireland. Their contents determined the range and nature of poetry read in classrooms while their editors defined poetry's purpose and the manner in which it was to be taught. The Daily Lesson Books published by the British and Foreign School Society, for example, contained poetry 'calculated to improve the minds and characters of young persons, to promote the cultivation of a humble, contented and domestic spirit, and to lead to the more intelligent perusal of the sacred Scriptures' (Annual Report 1840, 5). The editors of readers published by the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland recommended that pupils 'be made to commit the best pieces of poetry to memory' and taught 'to read and repeat them with due attention to pronunciation, accent and emphasis' (Third Book of Lessons iii).
The subjects of poems that featured most frequently in the readers point to moral and social themes that were considered appropriate for young people: Longfellow's 'The Village Blacksmith' and Colley Cibber's 'The Blind Boy', for example, promoted the importance of Sunday worship, 'honest toil' and patient acceptance of adverse circumstances. Pupils' low literacy levels and the fact that poetry was primarily a resource for the reading lesson, and not taught as a discrete subject, suggest that most children did not have the ability or opportunity to read many of these poems. (1) Most children's only access to the poems' themes would have been by memorising and repeating poems, standard teaching practices of that time. When Thomas Arnold, the first inspector of schools, introduced a pupil-teacher system in the 1850s, apprentice teachers were examined on their ability to memorise and speak lines of poetry appropriately. This method of examining continued until the late 1880s when pupil-teachers in their third and fourth years of training were also expected to show some understanding of the poems' contents by paraphrasing passages of verse and parsing and analysing specific lines. In the elementary schools, poetry functioned as a resource for decoding language, promoting clear speech and training the memory.
Nor were English courses at the University of Tasmania influenced by current debates in Britain about the need to teach literature as literature not in a form modelled on the Classics (the study of Latin and Greek). John Churton Collins was an active proponent of this view and his criticism of the situation at Oxford and Cambridge applied equally to undergraduate courses in Tasmania:
[Literature] has been regarded not as the expression of art and genius, but as mere material for the study of words, as mere pabulum for philology ... All that constitutes its value as a liberal study has been ignored. Its masterpieces have resolved into exercises in grammar, syntax and etymology. Its history has been resolved into a barren catalogue of names, works, and dates. No faculty but the faculty of memory has been called into play in studying it. (21-22)
At the secondary and tertiary levels, passages of poetry were included in examinations to test candidates' knowledge of word derivation and the history of the development of the language. The examiners' attitude to the function of poetry in the Associate of Arts examination was clear when they recommended in 1882 that in addition to the grammar texts, 'some portion of a standard English Author should be prescribed, to be worked up with Grammar and Dictionary, just as Candidates work up their Xenophon or their Cicero'. (2) A more advanced examination to award scholarships for university study in Britain tested similar aspects of the subject. (3) And in the 1890s when Cambridge graduate William Henry Williams began lecturing at the University, the poetry in his courses served to illustrate aspects of the history of literature and the structure and etymology of the language. (4)
The 'New Education'
Developments in the teaching of poetry in Tasmania between 1900 and 1950 increased the status of poetry in the curriculum and changed the canon of poetry taught. These changes were introduced by a number of educators who were influenced by developments in education occurring in other States and overseas and whose initiatives changed the function of poetry in the learning process and affected classroom practice. Four such educators were William Neale, Director of Education from 1905 to 1909; John Andrew Johnson, Principal of the Teacher Training College from 1906 to 1931; Amy Rowntree, Inspector of Infant Schools from 1919 to 1945; and Albert Booth Taylor, Professor of English at the University of Tasmania from 1926 to 1956.
In 1904, the premier of Tasmania invited William Neale, an Inspector of Schools from South Australia, to investigate primary education in the State and make recommendations for the future. Neale was familiar with recent educational thinking based on the writings of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841), Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) and John Dewey, (5) and with the work of educational administrators in other Australian States and New Zealand. He visited thirty-seven Tasmanian schools, interviewed teachers and departmental officials, and presented his report to the Tasmanian Parliament in August 1904. Despite some opposition from the Legislative Council, Parliament accepted the Report's recommendations and Neale was appointed the State's Director of Education in 1905.
Neale's report claimed that the existing system of education in Tasmania …
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Publication information: Article title: Poetry's 'Formative Power': Teaching Poetry in Tasmania 1900-1950. Contributors: Spaulding, Ralph - Author. Journal title: Australian Literary Studies. Volume: 22. Issue: 2 Publication date: October 2005. Page number: 175+. © 1999 University of Queensland Press. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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