New test for VCE literature sparks censorship concerns
Cast of the play, Tales of A City by the Sea, when it premiered in 2014. Photo: The Age
Education Minister James Merlino has ordered the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority (VCAA) to review its text selection process for VCE English, literature, drama and theatre studies.
A spokesman for Mr Merlino said the Minister requested to "extend" the guidelines to "ensure that the views and sensitivities of cultural and religious groups are considered".
This comes after two Jewish groups slammed the inclusion of a play on the VCE drama list, Tales of a City by the Sea, which depicted life during war in Gaza, and was written by Palestinian playwright Samah Sabawi.
Mr Merlino demanded the review after the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission and the Jewish Community Council of Victoria complained that the play promoted an anti-Israel agenda and could isolate Jewish students.
Some of Australia's most well-known authors, including some who have books on the list, have slammed the minister's intervention.
Christos Tsiolkas has criticised the review. Photo: Simon Schluter
Author Christos Tsiolkas said excluding texts that would offend certain groups put "most literature out of bounds".
He said his teachers showed him provocative literature, including works by Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Tennessee Williams. These inspired him to become a writer and feel more comfortable as a gay male.
"What scares me about the current age is that teachers may not take these kinds of risks with their students anymore because of this general fear that you can't be seen to treat young people as curious or intellectually able," he said.
"The last thing you'd want is a curriculum that will bore students."
Writer Anna Funder, whose non-fiction book Stasiland is on the VCE English booklist, said while she was not across the details of the review, testing literature to ensure it was not offensive was ludicrous.
"A lot of Shakespeare is offensive, Shylock is offensive, The Taming of the Shrew is offensive … life is offensive and literature represents life.
"Any government that tries to make a piece of literature palatable to everyone kills the thing."
However, a spokesman for the Ethnic Community Council of Victoria welcomed the review.
"We welcome any government initiatives that look at embracing the cultural sensitivities of the many ethnic groups that are represented in Victoria."
Dr Dvir Abramovich, who is the chair of B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission, said students should not be exposed to "pedagogical materials" that could "create tension and disharmony between their friends at school".
"The VCAA selection process must reflect community standards by ensuring that students are provided with plays that promote understanding of complex issues and which furnish its learners with appropriate context and balance."
But president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, Bishop George Browning, said he was concerned that the minister was "bowing to vexatious complaints".
"It is vital that the review does not lead to censorship of Palestinian voices within arts and education, even if this is difficult for some people to hear."
President of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English Monika Wagner said challenging texts encouraged students to think critically.
"It [the review] does tend to suggest that there would be a single homogenised heteronormative, culturally normative type of text that is considered acceptable. I don't know what that text would be but that's what I would be afraid of."
This is not the first time the VCE authority has been asked to reconsider texts perceived to be controversial.
In 2012, Nobel-prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera was reviewed by the VCAA after an Age columnist complained it was offensive because it "says repeatedly that screwing a child for art's sake is excusable".