Current/Recent Reading List

14 January 2007

Curriculum Sans Content

I had a couple of thoughts to add to the discussion going on at Wyfe's blog about "theory" in English Departments. In the comments, reader Michael referenced a new book by Michael Berube entitled What's Liberal About The Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education. I haven't read the book, but recently read a lengthy review of it in the November "The New Criterion" by Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory U. (registration is required to read the review on the TNC website).

I take it that Bauerlein is a conservative (gasp), and that Berube is a moderate liberal. Bauerlein's review contains some positive comments, including an acknowledgement of what Michael (the blog reader) says about Berube's evenhanded approach to theory. His chief criticisms, however, include Berube's acceptance of the notion that it really doesn't matter what you are teaching, as long as you are teaching kids to "open your minds, face verbal challenges, keep complacency at bay, and play fair."

Bauerlein has no problem with these practices in the classroom, except that they seem to become goals of a liberal arts education in and of themselves . He says, "This is today's fallback position for liberalism in higher education. It used to push curricular innovations such as 'opening the canon,' but those enthusiasms faded years ago. Now, shying away from content, it emphasizes forensic ideas and content-less habits such as critical thinking."

Ah, critical thinking. In case you ever wondered if the practices and ideas of the ivory tower really influenced public education, look no further than that loaded term. Go to any workshop, or heck, any teacher's meeting, and you will hear the mantra "Our kids just don't know how to do critical thinking anymore!" (as if the concept had a centuries-old tradition of usage). The Kool-Aid, it hath been swallowed.

In English especially, one can see the effects of this contentless "critical thinking" in the way state curriculum goals are written. There are rarely any specifics. Instead, the goals are written like this: "The learner will be able analyze a variety of fiction and non-fiction texts of increasing complexity from personal, social, and critical standpoints." For the last three years of high school, the goals include some mention of world (10th grade), American (11th grade), and British (12th grade) literature, but no specific works, authors, or eras are required to be taught. Our ninth graders take a state-mandated test at the end of ninth grade English that is, essentially, a reading aptitude test sprinkled with some questions involving literary terms. Why? Well, the curriculum for ninth grade demands that no particular texts or authors be taught during the year (not even Romeo and Juliet). Hamlet, Harry Potter, or Beatrix Potter; it doesn't matter, so long as we are hitting those critical thinking skills.

Well, I have and will continue to call hogwash on this concept. No one reads in order to improve their "critical thinking" skills, nor do they derive any moral benefit from concentrating on such abstract goals. Books, plays, or poems are not life-altering if they are approached in such a cold manner. In my experience as a teenager and college student, reading Huckleberry Finn or Macbeth stimulated me to think because I was moved by them (and, I was a slothful student who was, fortunately, forced to read them), not because of the reading skills the teacher was focusing on. Whatever "critical thinking" skills I learned came from my encounters with rather incredible content, and not the other way around.

Nor do such emphases really invite someone to wrestle with the traditions or aesthetic norms that have shaped so much of who we are (this is true, it would seem, even for those who want to repudiate them).

I would not want our state education boards to legislate what should be read in every classroom title by title, because some teacher autonomy and flexibility is important. But there are a few titles that should be in the curriculum, and certainly some authors that every student needs to encounter. And, since curricula is updated every few years, if reading Shakespeare no longer seems important to our society, say fifty years from now (ha!), then replace him with someone who has similarly stood the test of time. I just don't think we should continue to leave the English curricula, nor the testing that is based on it, in a completely free-floating content-zone.


locomotive breath said...

I agree.

Joel Crum said...

As an author (strictly an earnest hobbyist, you understand. They pay me for writing things that computers read.) what you said about being inspired to think by Huck Finn resonated.

I wouldn't want people forced to read or think about my books. People should want to read those books and the thinking should flow naturally from the reading. If I'm not capable of achieving that then I'm a bad author. If we accept that English teachers must focus on critical thought then we are assuming the entire cannon of classic literature was written by bad authors!

Michael Bérubé said...

His chief criticisms, however, include Berube's acceptance of the notion that it really doesn't matter what you are teaching, as long as you are teaching kids to "open your minds, face verbal challenges, keep complacency at bay, and play fair."

Hey, thanks for reading Bauerlein's review, and for referencing my book. If you do get around to reading the book itself, though, you can gauge for yourself whether Bauerlein's criticism of me is accurate on this score. Because I just don't see any passage in the book in which I say or suggest that it really doesn't matter what you are teaching. Likewise, Bauerlein faults my version of liberalism for being all process and no content, but in order to do so he has to excise or ignore whole chunks of chapters six and seven in which I explain precisely what I think liberalism stands for and why.

Til then, best wishes--

School Master P said...

Dr. Berube - thanks for taking the time to comment on my wee little blog. I promise to try and read your book some time between now and summer, and will post about it when I do.

Joel - good luck with your earnest hobbying. I hope people will want to read your novels enough one day to make them curriculum requirements!

LB - thanks for sparking all of this discussion the last few days.

Michael said...

Schoolmaster P, this is the Michael (not Berubé) who recommended the book on BAW's blog. I think you'll find Michael B's correct in his assessment of Baurelien's review. I'll be interested in your reaction.

BTW, love your blog.

School Master P said...

Thanks for the kind words, Michael.