Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of English


This thesis presents an analysis of the prescribed texts on the NSW Higher School Certificate English syllabi between 1965 and 1995. These and the strategies that inform their reading, are not examined in the manner of literary criticism but as an expression institutional practices and cultural discourses. The selection and study of these texts played an important role in the construction of literary and cultural 'truths' in Australia during the second half of this century.

This study traces the origin of the selection of these texts to principally two sources: Cambridge English, as it was first practised in the U.K. by F.R. Leavis and his colleagues from the late 1920s, and later adopted into some academic circles in Australia; and American New Criticism, derivations of which similarly flourished in the Australian academy from the 1950s. One implication of this is that those parts of the Australian academy which wielded power within secondary education sources from the 1960s to the 1990s were intent on looking overseas — towards the U.K. and the U.S.A. — for literary guidance and direction, rather than being attentive to developments in writing and criticism that were occurring here, one consequence of which was that the formation of the 'citizen' within the NSW education system at this time was modelled in large part upon expectations that were foreign to social realities in Australia.

Within NSW education a hybrid of Leavisite criticism and American New Criticism developed between 1965 and 1995, which was taken by academics, teachers and students as the 'norm' and 'truth' in literary interpretation. This hybrid dominated most aspects criticism and reading. The thesis attempts to generate explanations for this domination. Having first sketched in what we consider key theoretic and literary considerations as background to our discussion, it scrutinises, for example, the composition and influence the English Syllabus Committee, which was responsible for text choice, nomination and review. It reveals that this sub-branch of the NSW Board of Studies largely comprised academics from the same sandstone universities where Leavisism and New Criticism were so unswervingly adhered to. The study looks, too, at different Senior English syllabi show that again the reading and critical practices of Cambridge English/American New Criticism are evident, and entrenched in, these official directive documents from the Department of Education. It also examines the texts themselves to disclose that their choice privileges these same literary regimes. Finally, it discusses how the Holy Grail high school education in English, the HSC exam, reinforces these values and practices.

The study concludes that the HSC prescribed texts for English from 1965 to 1995 are but a singular expression of broad cultural and institutional phenomena. Their selection and how they are studied conceal an array of power plays and ideological standpoints go to the heart of our understanding of what is 'literary' and why it should be so.