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Making the Good Reader and Citizen

The History of Literature Instruction in American Schools

“Making the Good Reader and Citizen” was a 2-week Summer Institute for Teachers hosted online by the University of Texas, El Paso from July 10 – 21, 2023.

It is supported by a 2-year grant (October 2022- September 2024) from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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During the program, we investigated the history of secondary-school literature instruction (focusing primarily on the twentieth century) and, more specifically, educators’ and school reformers’ changing conceptions of what constitutes a “good reader.” 

To do so, we traced two competing traditions in the teaching of secondary literature. One, associated with progressive education, is student-centered: it emphasizes the role of literature in the student’s social, moral and personal development. The other, text-centered, is academic: it values content-knowledge or skill-development and sees literature as a pathway to scientific, self-disciplined modes of thinking that are also vital to the civic good. Each draws on different theories, has led to different teaching methodologies, and has different relationships to standards and assessment. 

Boy reading to woman
Detail from cover of “Teaching English in Wartime” (NCTE, 1942)

Over time, the two schools of thought have alternately come in and out of favor, for reasons we will explore. Often, teachers have transcended the binaries and embraced student-centered and text-centered approaches simultaneously, but education policy and state and national standards have made these binaries as stark today as ever. Understanding literature teaching today as part of a long history – one that too few scholars and teachers know – will offer perspective to contemporary controversies that shape our participants’ work.

TItle page Literature as Exploration
Title page of Literature as Exploration (1938)

These often radically opposed schools of thought were tied to larger national events and ideals relating to literature, culture, and the civic good. For example, responding to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, Louise Rosenblatt’s enormously influential Literature as Exploration (1933) argued that “the study of literature can have a very real, and even central, relation to points of growth in the social and cultural life of a democracy.” In contrast to didactic approaches that used literary texts to inculcate patriotism and appreciation of “the American Way of Life,” Rosenblatt and her followers considered literary study as an essentially civic experience or “transaction”; by having student-readers identify with diverse points of view and debate interpretations, the classroom itself could be a laboratory for democracy and humanistic values.

By contrast, a formalist or “New Critical” approach to literature instruction became en vogue for much of the Cold War. Its influence over K-12 English teaching, like its birth, stemmed from an anxiety that the nation was losing its standing in the global political economy. Proponents of the New Criticism saw the practice of close reading and analysis – apart from the political and social context of the author, text or reader – as a pathway to stronger civic and national welfare.

Understanding Poetry, 3rd edition(1960)

In our institute, joined by a diverse and distinguished group of visiting scholars, we explored how our current moment fits into this longer history of thinking about literature, society, and teaching. In investigating competing conceptions of the civic role of literature instruction in creating “good readers,” we investigated: 1) how historical events have compelled the fluctuations; 2) the role assessment has played; and 3) the impact of technologies of literature instruction on enacting and challenging these conceptions (including the high school canon and teachers’ lesson plans). In developing a richer, deeper understanding of literary studies and our profession, our participating teachers prepared to serve as stronger leaders in their schools and all the more effective and creative practitioners in their classrooms.

Over the course of the institute, participants worked with program faculty and K-12 education leaders to develop projects to bring the work of the institute into the classroom. Following the summer program, the institute is supporting dissemination activities, including presentations at professional development workshops and regional and national conferences.