Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why Reading Literature Is Essential

One of my colleagues (and, I'm proud to say, my former student teacher) Sam Cornelius has given me a homework assignment. He found this piece by Nancy Atwell, "A Case for Literature" and assignment to weigh in. Atwell's concern is that the powerful forces pushing for national curriculum changes do not recognize the merits of reading literature because it does not satisfy their interests in profiting from more expensive curricula, more expensive testing, etc. She cites some research that shows that independent reading literature, and lots of it, not only increases reading proficiency, but is one of the best predictors of over-all academic success. At first glance, this is preaching to the choir, and I don't know how I'm going to satisfy Sam's assignment.

Luckily, the very first commenter on the comment page, Tomliamlynch, after claiming to agree with Atwell, writes, "English education has never had a convincing rationale for teaching literature; thank heaven for writing, as at least a teacher knows when a student does it! Literature has always been--and continues to be--use-less: it doesn't have a clear use that translates into a value for non-literature-teachers... Teachers don't know if and when students really read. They can't know; reading is wonderfully private."

Oh boy.

First of all, we don't teach literature for its own sake. Literature, on one level, is entertainment, just like films or music or any other art. We wouldn't expose a student to a famous painting just so they can say they've seen it. Similarly, when I teach a book (or a film, or a short story) my focus is always beyond the text itself. Now, that work of art can do many things, and I'm hesitant to tier them because they're all important, so these are not in a particular order.

Literature, like any art, teaches its appreciators how to participate in that art in the future. Tomliamlynch alludes to this by making a connection to writing, and that's certainly one part of the value. Reading makes students better writers. But if that were the limit, that a piece of literature might allow a student to become a professional novelist someday, we would be devoting far too much time to prepare such a tiny fraction of the population that we would be criminally negligent. But reading literature not only allows a student to participate in the art form as a creator, but as a different kind of consumer. Beyond simple comprehension (essential, but merely foundational) a reader or literature learns to make connections between a work and other works in that medium, in other media, in their own lives, in their culture, and across cultures. A bad reader can understand that Jack and Jill go up the hill to fetch a pail of water. A good reader asks why these two children are going up to get a resource that's usually found a lower elevation, what the task says about their socio-economic level, what the pairing might imply about a familial or romantic relationship, what the language might tell us about the time frame, how this might be different in another country, culture, or time, and what this might relate to in the reader's own life. These processes might be private if the student is reading at home, and eventually I want my students to be able to do this on their own, but as a teacher it is my role to make sure these processes are public, conscious, and intentional.

These skills are not useful in some tiny, compartmentalized way. Last night I was sitting with a couple dear friends arguing about the TV show Lost. All of the language we were using came directly from specific and targeted instruction provided by out English teachers. But these skills don't just allow us to interpret other art. They allow us to interpret Narrative with a capital "N". Whether I'm trying to follow the story of the debacle of the health care bill making its way through the Congress, or studying the way The Big Bang produces a singularity, then energy and time, then later matter, or the process by which the used car salesman evaluates his costs and benefits as he negotiates with me over the price of a '91 Isuzu, I need to be able to interpret a narrative.

Which brings us to the greatest virtue of literature (I know I said I wouldn't tier these, but I lied): We are stories. In fact, we are stories within stories within stories all the way down. If I can't understand the arc of a plot, the influence of a character, the consequence of a choice, the vagaries of fate or coincidence, then I cannot understand my self, my family, my faith, my community, my culture, my country, my world, or my universe. Try teaching history without narrative. Every discipline has a history. For that matter, try successfully teaching science without narrative (imagine teaching the water cycle without sequence). The skills one acquires when learning how to interpret literature cross over into every other field. In fact, if there is some kind of brain injury or developmental disorder which prevents a person from understanding all stories, I would bet that person also cannot be successful in any other field. (Somebody do some research on this for me.)

It should also come as no surprise, consequently, that people who do not know the same stories have trouble relating. Our culture is a composition of our stories. On the surface it just might seem like a person can't get the clever jokes on The Simpsons, or some off-hand Biblical allusion tossed out in a conversation. But it goes far deeper: if a person doesn't know the same stories, they can't understand another person, validate (or even fully respect) their decisions, or work effectively with them toward a common goal. Find two people in a crisis situation working toward some shared goal at the base of Maslow's hierarchy (a subsistence farmer in a third world country and the Peace Corps volunteer who's come to help provide emergency relief) and I'll bet you'll find two people telling each other stories. They are interpreting each other's literature, because if they don't they will only understand even the most basic needs from their own cultural contexts, and will not be able to make larger plans or connections.

This sounds hyperbolic, but without narrative we cannot make meaning of our life experience. In short, without stories, life is meaningless. The more stories we are exposed to, and the more skilled we become at interpreting those stories, the more meaning we can make.

Education without literature (on paper, encoded digitally, filmed, etc.) is not only diminished; it's pointless.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Who's More Condescending, Liberals or Conservatives?

Gerard Alexander, an associate professor at University of Virginia, is sure to get lots of play with his piece in today's Washington Post, "Why are liberals so condescending?". I really hoped he could shed some light on why conservatives are far more reasonable than they appear to liberals. Instead, he makes one of weakest logical arguments I've ever heard, so much so that conservatives who cite it will be condescending to liberals and participating in a parody of themselves. I'm not sure if Alexander is in on his own joke, though.

I have great respect for my conservative friends who make reasoned arguments. More than once I've had to backtrack or concede points to them, much to my chagrin. But Alexander's arguments betray these intellectually honest conservatives by playing at the lowest kind of ad hominem exchange: "You call me a doodey-head? Well you're a bigger doodey-head!"

He goes to great lengths to show that liberals have often criticized conservatives for not being interested in evidence, then fails to provide anything but the most selective anecdotal data. He even goes so far as to say, "I doubt it would take long to design a survey questionnaire that revealed strange, ill-informed and paranoid beliefs among average Democrats." If it would be such an easy task, why doesn't he do it?

I would argue that measuring condescension isn't easy at all. Where is the line between claiming that an opponents views are incorrect and condescending to him? Ironically, one of the consistent conservative attacks against liberals is that we are too PC, too willing to see both sides of an issue, while conservatives claim he mantle of the people who can easily identify right and wrong and call it as they see it. Apparently, when they do this, it's folksy, while when liberals do it it's condescending.

Alexander even brings up Nixon and Reagan's "Southern Strategy", and subtly acknowledges that conservatives played on racial fears to get elected, but then says "survey research has shown a dramatic decline in prejudiced attitudes among white Americans in the intervening decades." This does not necessarily mean conservatives have abandoned the strategy entirely, though it certainly argues that they should. It might merely explain why Senator Trent Lot lost his job for claiming a segregationist would have been been a great president, while Senator Harry Reid gets off for complimenting a black president for weaving in and out of a "negro dialect". Conservatives called this a double standard. Is it possible that they have more ground to cover to earn back the trust of black voters than Democrats? I think it would be a more fair criticism of the Democratic Party to point out that they only did the bare minimum to position themselves as the party that was sightly friendly-er to African Americans to reel in that large voting block without doing enough to show their allegiance to them. But then, I'm an ideological liberal, not a politician who needs to get re-elected.

And that's the central problem with Alexander's piece: Without the survey data he claims would be so easy to acquire, he can make no distinction between liberal voters and liberal politicians. Politicians are in the game of persuading people, and it isn't persuasive to say the opposition is probably correct. Of course both sides claim the other is incorrect. Alexander points out criticism of "ideologically driven views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel", but forgets the conservative punching bag of the so-called "liberal media". In fact, he even forgets the fact that a concerted effort was made to make the term "liberal" a slur, and that Republican strategist went out of their way to try to re-brand the Democratic Party as the Democrat Party, which they found to be more derisive.

Now, I'm not arguing that conservatives are more condescending. I don't think a good poll on this would be so easy to come by (and the little, non-scientific poll on the Washington Post page is a good example of a bad way to measure it), and I'm not qualified or resourced to conduct one. But if we're going to follow Alexander's entirely reasonable advice at the end of the piece, to think twice and listen to one another, then starting the process with a selective history of partisan name-calling seems to me like a really bad way to get that discussion going.

But maybe that just sounds like more condescension coming from this liberal.