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September 25 2005

Australian Education Minister Slays Buffy. In a move designed to preach to his conservative choir, Brendan Nelson compares Buffy to Big Brother and calls both dumb.

"All students need to be taught contemporary literacy, film and television, but we are in an environment where increasingly the kids are studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Big Brother instead of Jane Austen and Bronte," he told The Weekend Australian.

Oh, is that right, Mr Nelson? People are studying Big Brother? Are you sure you're not confusing that with "1984"?

He's been using this example for a while now and no one in the media is calling him on it. Big surprise there.

You only have to read Pell's comment a little further down to know what the real agenda is - censor the texts until they only reinforce the status quo - social, economical, moral and religious. Dim, dark times we live in, sometimes!
Well that Australian education minister is dumb. So there! *sticks tongue out at him* Sheesh.
Cardinal George Pell also warned this week that the trend to embrace "critical literacy" and abandon traditional English novels was an attempt to make students agents of social change and was placing too much focus on texts that normalised "moral and social disorder".

Yes, we wouldn't want girls who watch Buffy to think that strong women are something they want to be.

Eh, it's not that I'm advocating Buffy as a role model; but - isn't it terrible that students might be "agents of social change"!

You're right catalyst2, dark times indeed.
Deleted for spelling. Or lack of it.

[ edited by Caroline on 2005-09-25 12:01 ]
The man is an ASS. Pure and simple. I'm ashamed to think he is supposed to be representing our interests in government.
Eh, every country's got a couple. (More than that if you're even less lucky) People who would truly be happy if all countries were theocracies of the religion of THEIR choice and where everyone lived exactly according to THEIR personal standards. Morons and short-sighted bigots that history will judge accordingly. Not even worth getting mad over.
Deleted for spelling. Or lack of it.

[ edited by Caroline on 2005-09-25 12:01 ]
Anybody else suspect that this guy hasn't actually read Austen or the Brontes? Joss has.
Dreamlogic: I'm with you there. He's behaving exactly like the snobs in Austen-ian novels too. Oh, the irony..
politicans! sheesh.

[ edited by BD on 2005-09-26 03:22 ]
Not to defend the Education Minister (God no!), But it's not like he writes his own speeches. Either his media adviser or some poor schlob in his department was told to come up with some snappy speaking points designed to do nothing more than grab some media time. I guess it was a successful ploy!

ETA it's got more to do with cheap point scoring against the States (which are the jurisdictions responsible for Education and schools) which are all under Labor Governments at the moment. The Federal Government is currently a Liberal/National coalition. For the uninitiated, it's kind of like the Democrats Vs Republicans or Tories Vs Labour. I'd question whether Mr Nelson has any particular philosophy of his own regarding Education. He's sprouting the current party line as any Politician looking to hang on to his Ministerial position will do.

[ edited by blackcat on 2005-09-25 11:25 ]
While I think Brendon Nelson is so full of sh*t his back teeth float he is right about kids studying Big Brother (the lame TV series not the George Orwel concept). A friend of mine had to study it as part of her Media course at RMIT. It's the only reason I've suffered through about half an hour of the crap.

Still Nelson is just parroting the Prime Miniature's desire to return to the 50s.
I've never seen 'Big Brother,' but what is it they're studying about it? Because it could be valuable to study it from a certain standpoint. I mean, depending on how and why you're doing it, anything could provide valuable insights from studying it.

But anyway, haven't we had to hear about this Nelson guy before? Or was that someone else? I remember reading on here something about some guy from Australia dissing 'Buffy.' And I kinda agree with EdDantes, guys like this seem too easy to dismiss to get overly mad at them. It's some old fart holding up the 'classics' with reverence without realizing how and why those things became classics in the first place. Someone who doesn't seem to know how to think for himself, just remembers to revere all the things he was taught to revere.
BD, we don't write netspeak here. Please use ordinary spelling, as stated in our rules.
Not forgetting that this is the same politician who endorses the view that Intelligent Design (creationism rebadged) has a valid place in the Australian scientific school curriculum. And he's not just another politician, but one who can put such damaging, undebatable ideological positions into law. I'd rather have my kids believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I fear for free intellectual thought and debate such as you find on sites like whedonesque.
This is scary, it's just like endorsing the idea that "inteligent thinking: bad", "blind religious faith: good".

Strong female role models are scary, because they might actually make woman stronger, instead of just keeping something less than man, like a lot of people out there in the world, still wants to preach. Showing that young people can learn, can gain knowledge and assemble themselves and fight against the "forces of darkness", is another scary notion. Because the world, might have some slight - even if it's only a little tiny small bit chance - to change the status quo, and actually making the world better and more equal. Scarier than losing your cattle, is having the cattle surround you and confront you aout their demands and needs.
You go against the status quo - you're going to meet resistance by those who like the status quo. Joss has an agenda for cultural change. No real surprises here. In fact, it's gratifying that it's getting mentioned.
Culture's don't really exist - it's a heuristic. People exist, lots and lots of individuals. Many more people now have Joss to think for new ways of thinking about life, roles, and meaning - even those that don't like it.
Oh no! Not social change!
Unbelievable. And I'm not talking about Mr. Nelson's remarks, I'm talking about some of the people on this board. Read the article...nowhere does he call "Buffy" DUMB. That's a serious misreading of the article. He does advocate against dumbed-down curriculums, but that seems to be associated with a lack of literacy in Australian secondary graduates. And seriously, who on this board would say that reading isn't important? Or that it's less important than television? Would ANYONE say that?

He even openly admits that children need to be taught "contemporary literacy," which one would think would open the door to "Buffy" being used in schools. He simply seems to believe, as I do, that such contemporary literacy should be used to supplement teaching of "the classics," and NOT supplant them. Again, does anyone have a problem with this? Would anyone support removing Dickens, Twain, and Shakespeare (the Joss Whedons of their day) from a curriculum in ordder to teach television and film appreciation?

Cardinal Pell's comments about moral and social disorder are ones I do not agree with. But you have to admit, it's pretty shocking that they would slow down on teaching some of the classic novels, especially since people in Hollywood continue to mine them for ideas.

I think most of you are just having a knee-jerk reaction to anything that juxtaposes the words "Buffy" and "conservative." Oh, no! Buffy good! Conservative bad! Beer foamy! (Sorry, got lost in the moment.) But seriously, I know there are some parents on this board. Would you rather your kids go to school to learn how to read and appreciate the classics, or learn how to "read" and appreciate television? Don't have a group backlash against someone just because they're on a different political wavelength than you are.
You make some good points BAFfler, though the mention of Buffy in the same sentence as Big Brother does suggest a disdain for the show itself to me. You're right the he doesn't use the word dumb for Buffy, but if you're putting teaching Buffy in the same league as teaching Big Brother, then . . . that teaching Buffy is part of the dumbing down is implied there. At least, that is what I infer. Yes, I am assuming that he can't possibly see teaching Big Brother as a legitimate means of teaching contemporary literacy. I could be wrong there, but I wouldn't categorize this as a serious misreading.
I don't think anyone here is advocating replacing the classics with Buffy, but the implied agenda in those pronouncements was that the classics are a better teaching tool than contemporary literature...I reject that notion. Why does the vehicle matter so much to conservatives? Isn't the issue whether or not kids learn and their minds grow to the point where they can actually think for themselves? If a child's interest is better held by Buffy than Hamlet, then which is the better teaching tool? I agree that the classics will always be important, but I likewise propose the possibility that in the 22nd century, Buffy, Angel and Firefly may be viewed as "classics"! This kind of snobbery coupled with the injection of censorship will not manifest in a more intelligent and educated generation...just more bricks in the wall!
I am a parent of two beautiful little girls and a huge Whedon fan, but I think that the more meaningful problem in schools these days is not that children are not being encouraged to read per se, but rather the children not being able to relate to the classical materials. Do not misunderstand me, I am not trying to imply in any way that Bronte and Dickens do not have core themes that relate to every generation, rather that this generation does not want to have to put forth the extra effort to read something and try to understand what the author is saying without being able to identify, on the surface, with the text. There are subtext and themes and real emotions in Sense and Sensibility and in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both are worthy of study. However, given the choice, I would most definately chose BtVS. I think that if the education ministries simply took the time to analyze modern media (in all forms) that they would be able to find a middle ground about which the students could get excited and that the parents could feel comfortable.
Calledon, I similarly reject the notion that television is literature. Literature is written down...novels and poetry and short stories and play scripts are literature. If we're talking about what a better teaching tool is for a Literature class, then Hamlet is miles, even light-years ahead of Buffy. Tell me...what's so wrong with using an episode or clip of Buffy to supplement Hamlet, as a way to access the more difficult text, instead of just teaching television on its own merits?

Perhaps in the future, Buffy will have attained some sort of classic status. But as of today, that hasn't happened yet. I'm sure people went through this same debate when Hamlet was added to curriculums, but that doesn't make the debate less valid. Think of it, not as censorship, but as an evaluation process, where the wheat is separated from the chaff. Is that really something you want to circumvent? Teaching too much TV in school is more likely to lead to a less intelligent and educated generation, not the other way around.

School, as far as I'm concerned, is not solely there to teach students how to interpret, analyze, and create. It's also about exercising the brain, and I don't think it's snobbery to suggest that reading involves more of your brain than watching television. It's possible to sit and passively watch an episode of Buffy and still get the gist, but it's not possible to do that while reading. Pardon me if I prefer that students be somewhat active in their learning.

sari, it's possible that Mr. Nelson could simply have been looking for an alliterative pairing to make his words more which case, behold his success. But once again, I say that watching television can be a passive mental activity, while reading cannot be. If you're going to force me to take a stand on this, then I say that YES, supplanting active materials with passive ones in a curriculum constitutes a dumbing-down of the curriculum. That's not to say that Buffy is a dumb show (would I really be here if I thought that?), or that there's not a great deal of subtext which would prove invaluable to student learning. And I'm certainly not asserting that every book out there is more wporthy than Buffy of being taught in school. But I don't want to short-circuit learning about the human condition through time just to increase contemporary literacy.

[EDIT] Genia, read my comments to Calledon about using modern media to help students access the classics, which is a middle ground that I think all of us can agree is perfectly appropriate. However, if given the choice between Sense and Sensibility and BtVS, I would definitely choose Jane Austen over Joss Whedon--not because I believe that Austen is "worth more," but because I believe the literature medium is worth more than the audio-visual medium when it comes to developing critical thinkers. Kids throughout the ages have been criticized for not wanting to grapple with the classics...this is hardly something that's new with this generation. They're never going to learn how to access the more difficult texts if school doesn't take the time to teach them.

[ edited by BAFfler on 2005-09-25 19:51 ]
I think Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Serenity are all great works of art that work on many levels, just as the best literature does. There are so many complex themes and characters that they do deserve a place along with Shakespeare.
I agree with points from various people on each side of the debate, one from here, two from there, but would like to point a few things to keep in mind. Hamlet is only only written down because we are reading a script. It is not literature in the sense that it was written to be read. It was actually written to be seen, just like BTVS. So it follows, would studying the scripts of BTVS be more suitable? Personally, I have always wanted to drag every class I have ever taught a Shakespearian play to the theater to experience it as it was meant to be experienced...or as close to as is possible.

I agree that the classics should be taught, but they need to be taught in context. Contemporary literature and entertainment is part of that context. I also agree that television can be passive and reading is usually less so. However, considering how much TV children watch, shouldn't we be teaching them to understand that what they are watching can have content?

We tell students to think about what they are reading, we even sometimes make it seem like hard work. Then we send them home to to have television poured into them passively. To my mind children need to understand that television is simply another form of communication the content of which needs to be thought about as much or more than any other. What are these television shows telling us about ourselves and society, just like what were Jane Austin and the Brontes telling people about themselves and their society? Sometimes the message is not good, they need to be able to tell what kind of messages they are being sent.

So yea for Jane Austin and Shakespeare and for not ignoring contemporary media even if sometimes they use shows with silly names like Buffy the Vampire Slayer to do it. And of course BTVS does come up in these discussions so much because it has a silly name that can be exploited, as most unexplained irony can. That encourages people to have a knee-jerk reaction to people using BTVS as an example of what is wrong with society. If one looks more carefully at the above posts however, most people are not complaining about the assertion that BTVS should not be taught in school, but about the comment about discouraging texts that normalized moral and social disorder. Interestingly enough, Austin, Dickens and Shakespeare dealt with all sorts of moral and social disorder even while working within the censorship of their times. Often that meant using irony of course...

Irony, such a hard concept to teach. People seem to either get it or not. Most of the time politicians just ignore it so they can use the stripped down result for their own ends, whatever end of the liberal or conservative spectrum they are on.
Alliteration, BAFfler? Maybe. Your read is a legit, and a good one. I'm only saying - so is mine. Seeing his comments as suggesting "teaching Buffy is part of the dumbing down" is a legit way of reading these comments. It's not a serious misread to see it that way; it's a very supportable read.
But Buffy in the same sentence as Big Brother? It's just insulting. Let's find a happy gray area. The classics are a must, I get that, but modern day fiction (be it television, movies, and literature) will help the next generation become well rounded individuals that study all forms of fiction to build their creativism and intellect. Can't we have it both ways? Censorship is just wrong.
Great post, newcj. I strongly agree.
Interesting discussion here. Lots of well thought out comments. My view of the whole topic is a little slanted by my background as an anthropologist/sociologist. I suspect others are coming from a literature teaching background.
My comment would be that selecting which text to teach from really depends on the purpose of the exercise, and choosing the right text for the job. I suspect there are lots of manifest intentions in choosing particular texts, and also latent consequences.
Why do we teach classics? Because they're so good? Because they give us a common basis of cultural reference?
Who chooses classics and why?
The aspects of Joss' work that interests me most is that it gives us new models of social interaction (role models of a sort), it engages contemporary audiences, and it deconstructs or plays with literary (and other) conventions.
However, people without a background in What Came Before would never understand what conventions are being played with.
To be fair I'm probably assuming too much about Mr Nelson's comments and intent - but Big Brother !?. He's got a bit of reputation here in Aus.
Oh sorry Caroline! won't happen again.
jcprice, IMO you are absolutely right. We should be choosing the subject matter by what we are trying to teach. I could see choosing The Swan as subject matter if I was trying to show how television can exploit and encourage the physical insecurities that society loves to heap on people, especially women. So the question about what they were using Big Brother to teach, asked in a post earlier, was a very good one.

As far as why we teach the classics, that is also a good question that goes to the heart of so many arguments. Very often politicians have a very different reason for wanting the classics taught than literature teachers or history teachers might. The fact that all three have pretty strong reasons for wanting to see them taught is almost certainly what keeps them in school.
I think there are two issues in here for me. One is the politically conservative track which Nelson represents, hand-in-hand with Pell, which is that the content of the texts should be monitered carefully to avoid Pell's ulimate terror - making "students agents of social change and ... placing too much focus on texts that normalised "moral and social disorder". Heaven forbid that the young should become agents of social change - things might actually change!

The iconoclast in me then asks what classics they are considering. Generally we mean 19th century (or earlier), white, middle- to upper-class English authors writing in a language which is barely written, let alone spoken any more, describing events, settings and times which children have no commonality to understand them by.

"Classics" is one of those words that has a surprising amount of emotional content but also a danger word for me. The second a word with that kind of content is used in debate, I am suspicious of its intent because it is really meant to kill off debate.

"I mean, how could anybody consider not teaching the classics?" Simple answer is "I could", - but not that we teach "TV studies" instead. Yes, reading is important but perhaps the relevance and context of that reading is even more so - what about Australian authors, writing in contemporary times, what about non-white authors, what about working class views? Not easy, I know because few texts match that - especially the Australian part to date!

Up until recently, many of our history textbooks still taught that Australia was empty - terra nullius - when Europeans arrived. I know that Nelson certainly supports censoring more recent textbooks that refer to these European arrivals as "invaders" back to "settlers" despite their martial aggression and genocidal activities.

There is a deeper and wider political (and religious) agenda here which, for me is the greater concern and BtVS is just Nelson's Pawn of the Week. He will extend it into all kinds of areas (I work in the Austalian tertiary education system).

ETA: my usual illiteracy issues

[ edited by catalyst2 on 2005-09-26 14:04 ]
English teacher here. I detested the classics as a young student and still don't have much love for them now. Why? They are boring. The language is old and boring. Reading them is tedious and they often don't make much sense to modern readers. Students generally don't relate to them at all. When you can teach them alongside contemporary works with the same themes, they actually do make sense. Replace them? I'd replace a few in my curriculum if I could, but not eliminate them completely. But try and push classic literature down students' throats and don't be surprised when they HATE it. Joss Whedon's work is great contemporary literature... and Baffler, sorry but YES, published scripts are literature. End of story.

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