Literature Class Is Not Reading Class

The StudentOne of my greatest concerns about the Common Core is that it will do what so many other reforms have done: drag everything toward an average, be it a high or low one. This may well happen if literature class is turned, once again, into reading class.

Reading class emphasizes the process of reading. The Balanced Literacy versions focused on “reading strategies” and “just-right” books. A Common Core version goes something like this: During class, the students read a “complex text.” Then they answer “text-dependent questions.” Then they write an argumentative piece that uses concrete textual evidence.

In reading class, the teacher is not supposed to give presentations beyond the briefest explanations or introductions. Instead, she assists the students as they read and write. Class time is work time.

In literature class, by contrast, students do the reading at home and come to class to discuss it. The teacher does give presentations, the length and substance of which will vary. Class discussion may focus closely on certain passages or relate different passages to each other and to the whole. Questions may move from simple to complex, and they may also take unexpected directions. For the most part, basic comprehension is assumed;  the class discussion focuses on interpretation. Of course there are exceptions; certain texts present exceptional difficulties and must be read slowly in class. On the whole, though, one assumes that the reading has been done and that the class can now tackle the subtleties of the text.

In a literature class, it is understood that the teacher will offer knowledge and insights. She presents context, background, interpretations that illuminate class discussion (without taking anything away from the students). She poses questions that build on each other and that draw on past discussions. She uses judgment in this regard, weighing the good of presentation against the good of elicitation. The proportion will vary from lesson to lesson, text to text, and course to course.

That’s how it works in college courses (in literature, history, and philosophy). You don’t spend time reading in class, unless you are focusing on a particular passage. Nor do you expect the professor to refrain from offering knowledge. Some professors choose to talk very little. Others give extended (and brilliant) lectures even in seminar. The different styles provide different angles on the subject. Certain lecture courses and lecture-style seminars are continually oversubscribed because (gasp!) the students value what the professor has to say.

Now, many students in grades K-12 (and even in college) lack the practice of reading for class. They may benefit initially from classes where the main task is to read and write. Yet this is a state of disrepair. In a more robust situation, students (from middle school onward) would be responsible for poring over the reading, on their own, until they understood it. Where, when, and how they did it would be up to them. True, many students don’t have a quiet place to study. Yet it isn’t that difficult to make quiet places available (in libraries and even in the schools), provided students shut off their devices and actually study.

Poring over the reading! That is one of the most important things a student can learn how to do. I have had English-language-learner students who made drastic progress in a single year, mainly because they had grappled for hours with difficult texts at home.  Every day they came to school with more vocabulary, grammar, and grasp of idiomatic and figurative language. This enhanced their speaking in class; they were thoroughly acquainted with the subject of the lesson and could thus join the discussion.

Maybe schools need two kinds of classes: reading classes for those who don’t have the practice of reading on their own, and literature classes for those who do. If this is so, then there should be a sturdy bridge from one to the other, so that the students in reading class don’t get stuck there.

After all, liberal education involves the exchange of ideas. You can’t exchange ideas until you have ideas about something. To have those ideas about something, you need to have spent time thinking about the subject. To think about it, you must know what it contains. Not all of this can take place during class time—so, for students to exchange ideas in class (in a way that isn’t superficial), they must study more on their own.

Independent, “unscaffolded” reading—one of the end goals of the Common Core—should be the starting point, whenever possible. Provide the “scaffolds” for those who aren’t there yet, but don’t make the advanced students descend.

P.S. (June 15, 2017) People continue reading this post, four years after I posted it. Please feel free to leave a comment.

“A Way to Think for Myself As If Under Their Eyes”

This is the last of a series of comments on David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means. I expected to write two more—but then I thought it would be more interesting to choose and comment on one favorite part of the book. So I chose the fourth chapter, “Reflection, Morality, and Tradition,” where Bromwich defends and represents a tradition of liberal thought by interpreting and reflecting on Edmund Burke, David Hume, Joseph Butler, John Stuart Mill, and others.

The chapter (like the book) demonstrates a liberal tradition. It is the very discussion of Burke, Mill, and others—with intriguing interpretations of specific passages—that takes me into the tradition as it can be. I often find myself slowing down to read a passage again and think about its meaning. I enjoy this greatly.

This tradition of liberal thought has a place for the person who thinks and acts alone; in fact, group thinking has no place in it. It involves both “an irreducible respect” for oneself and a perspective on one’s existence. It can serve posterity because it is not bound by a need for immediate approval. It has what Hume calls “general utility”—which Bromwich distinguishes from the “reductive utilitarianism” that has taken over much of our educational discourse.

Bromwich’s distinction between “general utility” and “reductive utilitarianism” is immensely important. In education policy I see a general attitude of reductive utilitarianism: the insistence that schools should serve the demands of the moment and show immediate, crude results. “General utility,” by contrast, is not shrill or ephemeral. It involves a perception of something beyond our immediate circumstances, something reaching far back and far ahead. But at the same time it does not involve bowing to some imaginary standard set by others. Instead, it requires integrity of thought.

Such thought is far removed from “narrow self-regard” or what Burke calls “speculation”—the reliance on one’s own “private stock of reason.” It likewise does not come from excessive attention to the latest word. “Utter privacy and utter contemporary-mindedness have the same disadvantages,” Bromwich writes when discussing Burke. “But the latter condition may have the wider appeal. Many people have thought some time or other that it might be attractive to try to live entirely for the present moment. And in a crisis of authority, a new government may test its credit by putting this idea into practice.”

Bromwich quotes a memorable passage from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which Burke imagines the consequences of total disregard for ancestors and posterity. “By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions,” Burke writes, “the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.” (The quotation in the book is substantially longer; I regret abridging it here.)

Burke is not simply calling for preservation of cultural monuments, Bromwich points out. His argument is this: when we imagine we have the right to destroy things that others have held dear, we imagine future generations doing the same to our things. “It is a gesture of contempt,” Bromwich comments, “in which self-contempt must always be deeply involved.”

Later in the chapter, Bromwich distills the idea as follows: “A maxim Burke seems always on the point of formulating is that no generation has the right to act as if it were the last generation on earth. (It may be a corollary that no generation has a right to think as if it were the first generation on earth.)” A person does not avoid those errors by submitting to the needs of the collective. To the contrary; the errors themselves are products of group sentiment and group selfishness. “What we are witnessing here is an inversion of American individualism,” writes Bromwich. “Groups have become the contenders. And yet the groups retain the traits of the old egocentric bargainers on whom they are modeled.”

What is self-respect, then? Bromwich sheds some light on this when discussing Mill. Many readers of Mill, according to Bromwich, assume that he defends free speech mainly because restriction of speech shrinks the free market of ideas. Bromwich shows that Mill sees much more at stake: in particular, moral and intellectual courage. If one does not enter into dialogue, if one shuts oneself off from opposing or contrasting views, then one’s opinion, writes Mill, “will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

This willingness to consider other views is not the same as deference to fashion or clamor. It requires an understanding of the origins of these views; it requires some distance from the noise. One cannot consider every view that comes along; one must make choices. But at the very least, one must allow the various views to exist and be expressed. This very tolerance comes from self-respect, since it helps ensure that we live in relation with the past, present, and future, not closed off in self-certainty or self-admiration. Insofar as we tolerate, we may be tolerated too.

As usual, there is much more to the chapter than I am conveying. As I was reading it, it opened up a place for me, but also reminded me that that place has long existed and that I have things to do in it. A liberal tradition does exist, as much as it seems to have been shouted out. It is not escape or retreat, but a vivid and demanding way of thinking.

On the surface, this way of thinking seems unequal and unfair. It sometimes involves giving one’s best to those who are unwilling to receive or return the gesture (such as students disrupting or ignoring a lesson). It may involve receiving things that one can never repay—from books, from teachers, from parents. But all of these seeming unfairnesses allow for a greater distribution over time. Bromwich quotes the moral philosopher Annette Baier, who writes of “the asymmetry of care”—that is, “an extended version of morality in which there are more who are cared about than there are doing the caring.” I see more promise in this than in the benign but pat concept of “paying it forward.” After all, there’s no “it” and no “payment” here, and the gesture is not only in a forward direction.

Nor do the guides of the past disappear. Bromwich writes of a relation “to persons not only whom I do not know but whom I cannot know. If liberal education adds up,” the chapter ends, “it shows me a way to think for myself as if under their eyes, or at their half-acknowledged promptings. In doing so it suggests a way to act for something beyond myself.”

So does this book.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here. I have revised a few of them since their initial posting.

“Lists of Names Do Not Think”

Quite a week it has been: with the ninth graders, looking at the exchange between Teiresias and Creon in Antigone; with the tenth graders, concluding our discussion of Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals and starting to read Buber’s I and Thou; and with the eleventh graders, finishing up the unit on Plato, Aristotle, and Aristophanes and beginning a discussion of Hobbes’ Leviathan or, rather, an excerpt from it. That, and the election, and the city’s slow recovery from the storm, with some heavy losses (I and those I know are fine)—all of this has made for a tumultuous week on the one hand and a contemplative one on the other.

It is a treat to return to David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means and put together some thoughts on the second chapter, in which he examines the incoherent conservatism of George F. Will and William Bennett (as examples of a larger tendency). As I discuss this chapter—perhaps the most difficult to discuss, and the one that has challenged me the most—I will keep this question in mind: If a primary purpose of education is to teach people to think critically, knowledgeably, and independently, to what extent does a core curriculum serve that end?

According to Bromwich, both Will and Bennett see education and religion as a way of rescuing a dying culture. (I am using the present tense for convenience; the book was published twenty years ago.) They believe in cultural transmission—that is, the “imitative (not inventive) continuity of a tradition,” which “involves the pouring of a contained substance into a new container.” Will considers himself an intellectual descendant of Burke—but, unlike Burke, champions both tradition and the free market. “Burke himself disdained any tactic that would have appeared at once to defend an existing order and to favor the instrumentalities of rapid change,” Bromwich observes. By contrast, Will and Bennett share an incoherent philosophy and “a shallow idea of tradition.”  In addition, Will and Bennett distrust some aspect of historical consciousness—in particular, the idea that we are to some degree formed by history and must study history in order to understand ourselves.

To a degree, Bromwich sympathizes with them. Like them, he worries that a sense of the past is vanishing from curricula and culture. Yet he favors the great old books (and great newer ones) not because they constitute “cultural capital” but rather because “their good derives from their peculiar power to make us think, and the right use of that power is to reform, and not to console, the culture and society in which we are at home.” By contrast, Bennett in particular seems distrustful of the whole enterprise of “critical thinking.” (I will return to that in a moment.)

This chapter gave me a good shaking. As one who has defended “classical” curriculum and has not overtly challenged the idea of cultural capital (though I have argued repeatedly that a good curriculum encourages critical and independent thought), I am incited to sort out my ideas in a way I haven’t before.  When I began writing about education, I received a warm welcome from curriculum advocates, both conservative and liberal. Like them, I saw a lot of fads interfering with good education: for instance, an insistence on group work at the expense of focused instruction and discussion; on student choice of books at the expense of a literature curriculum; and on so-called “21st century skills” at the expense of those skills that are not of the moment or tailored to the current market.

I continue to criticize these fads. But my rationale has been mixed and perhaps incoherent. On the one hand, I have argued (like Will and Bennett) for cultural preservation. On the other, I have recognized that there is no fixed culture to preserve. Any great work of literature or art takes on new life in the mind of the reader, viewer, or listener. I have taught Antigone for four years and read it many times since age thirteen; I am still surprised by the play and still consider myself an advanced beginner with it. In addition, just as a work of literature (or literary nonfiction) sharpens the reader’s thinking, so it becomes sharper in the reader’s understanding. Consider this happening over time, and you have not only a single reader, but many, each with thoughts and responses, which then start responding to each other and influencing the course of life around them. In no way can this be collected as a set and handed down.

Yet I think I understand Bennett when, in his 1986 speech “In Defense of the Common Culture” (quoted in this chapter), he complains that colleges are “listing their objectives as teaching such skills as reading, critical thinking, and awareness of other points of view.” Bromwich takes this to mean that Bennett actually opposes the teaching of critical thinking. I may be giving Bennett far too much credit, but I interpret his words otherwise.

Bennett may have meant (in which case I agree) that critical thinking minus the substance is bunk. For good critical thinking to occur in school, students must be reading and thinking about something worthy. (Or perhaps it’s the word “worthy” that should be emphasized.) Take out that crucial condition, and you may end up with a lot of “media literacy” courses where students comment on commercials and TV programs, courses that celebrate the students’ opinions, and courses that treat literature as a sociological enterprise, with representatives from every walk of life. These are real dangers—and often realities—in institutions that proclaim their main goals as “critical thinking, awareness of multiple perspectives,” and so on. You have to dare to name works of literature that deserve attentive study.

But is that a fixed, invariable canon? Of course not. Teachers and professors will base some selections on their own affinities. In a highly educated world, such selections could be based almost entirely on affinity. But when the pull is in the other direction—away from reading, away from sustained thought—a curriculum based on “affinity” could easily encourage such rationales as “I never got into Homer, so I am not going to impose the Iliad on the kids.” Or: “Sorry, my students just can’t relate to those British poets like Donne and Blake. I’m going to bring them something closer to their experience.” It takes a great deal of attention to relate to something that isn’t immediately about you; it also takes works that call you across, the works that teach your mind such crossing.

Still, as I read the chapter, I found myself increasingly averse to the pretentious tone of Will’s and Bennett’s pronouncements. Public-quasi-intellectuals can get away with an awful lot of hollowness; the mere hint of learnedness impresses people. Here I am especially self-critical, as I  I think back on some of my more grandiose writing. Bromwich’s book eschews such grandiosity by sticking to close analysis of a few situations and texts. He criticizes Will for “studding” his text with “the names of learned authorities, whom Will brings forward much as an arriviste displays silverware, to dazzle, stagger, oppress, and sicken the visitor to his study, his emporium.”

I would be indulging in false confession if I said that I did the very same thing as Will. But I have overdone my quoting at times; what’s more, I have sometimes quoted people in arrays, as though the assemblage itself could make a point. “Plainly Will does think in lists of names,” says Bromwich, “but lists of names do not think.” I will keep that in mind for my future writing; it has bearing on curriculum as well. Lists of books do not think, either, unless the person doing the listing has thought carefully about the selection and arrangement. At that point, it’s no longer a list. (I have thought carefully about the selection and arrangement of my philosophy curriculum—but to someone unfamiliar with the works, it’s just an impressive-looking list.)

A core curriculum (that is, one that provides a foundation for further study and thought) must be thought through and shaped by the people who teach it. It may indeed start as a list (as when the novice literature instructor receives a syllabus), but once the teacher has pondered it, arranged it, and fine-tuned it, it is already something else. From there, the teacher may alter it even more, but with a stronger sense of what it is in the first place.

Give me a list of skills and a list of books, and I will find much more life in the latter—but that’s because my mind starts playing with it (if I am familiar with the books). That’s what policymakers often forget about curriculum. It can’t just be implemented. The teacher must know it well enough to become its interpreter and creator. This requires study. Study of what? Of these and other works that another teacher, likewise, has studied closely and interpreted. This is tradition in the best sense of the word.

There’s the conundrum. When a school lacks such a tradition, and wishes to develop one, it must do so artificially at first, by importing a curriculum that the teachers have not yet made their own. Such a curriculum may seem superficial and stagnant–and may even be so. The question is whether it can come to life over time, as teachers and students find their way into it. With a great deal of caution and doubt, I’d say it can, if it is good.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting  it; on November 20, I made a few additional changes to the final paragraph.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.