The Age of Appreciation: Reading and Teaching Classic Literature in Australia in the Early Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

THE word 'appreciation' has probably now lost the power it once had to denote sensitive, sympathetic and detailed reflection and commentary on a piece of literature. Its currency as 'liking' or 'gratitude', whether in the vulgar-genteel register of a Kath Day-Knight, or the formulaic courtesies of a modern office environment, has dulled its analytical edge and weakened its evaluative authority to the point where it is difficult to think of 'appreciating' a writer's work as an intellectually serious operation at all. And this despite the fact that the term still retains much of its older, more rigorous meaning when applied to the visual arts, and to certain areas of the general culture--wine-tasting, for example--where both pleasure and discrimination are highly valued. Why that particular gap has opened up between literature and the fine arts over the last forty or fifty years is a nice question. What is fairly clear, though, is that the terms used to describe more reflective and analytical dealings with literature--terms like 'criticism' and 'interpretation'--are not now, and perhaps never were, perfectly interchangeable with 'appreciation'. And for that reason a closer acquaintance with the term's provenance and meaning is likely to contribute to our understanding of past reading paradigms and practices, especially as regards the reading and study of literature.

Ralph Spaulding's recent work on the teaching of poetry in Tasmania in the first half of the twentieth century usefully highlights the currency of the term 'appreciation' in the discourse of primary and secondary school English education at that time. Its emergence reflects the gradual trend away from a philological to an aesthetic emphasis in the teaching of literature, a trend that was associated with the vaguely defined 'New Education' movement in Britain and the colonies in the late nineteenth century (175-79). (1) One striking feature of 'appreciation' as it was invoked in the school contexts he deals with is its stubborn resistance to precise definition or easy application. Many Tasmanian teachers' understanding of the concept, he argues, was limited (180), and furthermore 'few [inspectors] suggested specific strategies to enhance appreciation in the classroom' (184). But by 1920, there were in fact several textbooks available in Australia that did contain excerpts, commentary, activities and exercises explicitly designed to foster literary appreciation, and some of these were recommended for use. Precisely how much actual classroom use was made of such resources, in Tasmania or other states, would be difficult to establish with certainty (let alone how effective they may have been), but it seems reasonable to suppose that where such a book was explicitly recommended by an examining authority--as, for example, Pritchard's Training in Literary Appreciation was in Tasmania (187)--the uptake across the system would have been significant.

Some of the difficulties teachers experienced in understanding and applying appreciation in the classroom may also have had to do with its conceptual ambiguity. 'Appreciation' has a complicated history in the nineteenth century, made more so by its shifting relationship to an older and even more complex concept, that of 'taste'. Reduced to its essentials, by the end of the century, 'appreciation'--which was sometimes equated with 'taste' and sometimes opposed to it--had come to mean an ability to enjoy good literature; and it had begun to circulate widely as one of the chief goals of a literary education, both within the school system but, even more emphatically at this time, within the 'self-improving' culture of worker education and university extension. (2)

Because of its entanglement with 'taste', the presence or absence of the word appreciation is not an infallible guide to meaning. Even well into the twentieth century, a reading adviser like Arnold Bennett, in Literary Taste (1909), could use 'taste' more or less interchangeably with 'appreciation,' in the sense of enjoyment rather than judgement: as a taste for literature rather than taste in literature (13-21). …