Gen Y, Literary Elitism & “Serious Culture”

Melbourne private school teacher and literary curmudgeon Christopher Bantick argues that Gen Y don’t understand “serious” Australian culture. Writing for The Age, Bantick believes that Gen Y’s engagement with popular culture over the classics will lead our nation to decline:

The vanity that is lauded as virtue pervades the culture to a corrosive extent. Young people have lost the capacity to actually know when something is art, and worthy. Instead, they hang on every word of their latest celeb mouthing inanities….

So who’s at fault? Schools need to do more about bringing a little elitism back into the awareness of culture. High culture: fine art, opera, serious drama and music that requires patience and understanding needs to be embedded into the curriculum.

In Australia, elitism is a dirty word. But maybe our jingoistic egalitarianism has gone too far with the sense of cultural equity. Who knows what a sonnet is, a partita, a motet, or who was Goethe or Christopher Marlowe? As for ballet, forget it. There are many other examples.

Bantick celebrates the fact that he teaches “classically demanding literature” at a private school, adding that his course is “elite, consciously so.”

Classical texts are worthy subjects of education for sure. Yet Bantick seems to be wilfully ignorant of the sociology of Australia’s education system. The arts that he celebrates are important, but no less so than newer and alternative modes of literature and art. Bantick gives an off-hand comment that most ballet, opera and theatre performances are less expensive than a Rolling Stones concert. This is totally ignorant of the fact that not all Australians can afford Rolling Stones concerts, let alone young kids from poor or working class backgrounds.

Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell and colleagues have shown the various ways in which the education system is already set up to favour the elite interests of the ruling class. Without a trace of irony, Bantick is claiming to support a better education system to maintain Australian culture, without specifying what this means: largely White, upper class, Anglo-Australian culture. Part of the way in which wealth is maintained is through elite cultural activities that are out of reach for the average, working-class Australian child.

Should the classical arts be made more available to Australian youth? Yes! Should this be at the expense and ridicule of other artistic and literary expressions? No!

Bantick’s elitist rant completely disregards that vapid celebrity culture is not a youth monolith. Adults also participate in this form of entertainment. Yet celebrity culture is not the only type of popular culture that youth participate in and create. Young Indigenous Australians and migrant-Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds do not see themselves in mainstream Australian culture. They find ingenious ways to remix culture, using technology and hybrid expressions of Australian and their minority identities. There are comics, blogs, vlogs, street art, zines and various other elements to youth culture that speak to marginalised youth who currently have no access to nor representation within mainstream culture.

Fellow teacher and writer Craig Hildebrand-Burke argues against Bantick. In a passionate defence of Gen Y’s engagement with literary texts, Hildebrand-Burke sees culture as a fluid and meaningful process.

This rigid, snobbish attitude toward education is damaging our future generations through the stagnancy of curriculum authorities, unable to distinguish the differences and merits between highbrow and lowbrow, new and old. Teachers like Christopher Bantick are indicators that too much of education is populated by those afraid and dismissive of the young and resistant to change. As a new school year begins, we cannot afford to let education in Australia slide back into archaic elitism, nor allow our children be castigated as moronic and uncultured by those charged with the duty to foster and educate the young.

Hildebrand-Burke’s article is thoughtful and inspired. Read it in full on SBS News.