Opinion: We can’t teach democracy by sidelining literature in school

Opinion: We can’t teach democracy by sidelining literature in school

By Rebecca Guerrero, Vanessa Sanders and Jonna Perrillo

In 1938, on the eve of World War II, revolutionary literary scholar Louise Rosenblatt claimed: “All teachers have the professional responsibility – and should demand the opportunity – to share not only in developing the curricula of their respective fields but also in shaping the total educational environment.”

To Rosenblatt, advocating for changes in and beyond the classroom was not just about professionalism; it was about democracy. Teachers could hardly prepare students to be engaged, creative citizens if they themselves failed to contribute. 

This was especially true, in her opinion, for English teachers, who were responsible for cultivating what she called “social imagination.” When we teach students literary works, she believed, we teach them how to enter “into lives of others.”  In turn, students develop empathy for people unlike themselves. 

In the seemingly simple act of asking students to read a book, in Rosenblatt’s estimation, teachers made “an important social contribution.” By preparing students to live in a democracy, English teachers played a vital role in shaping schools and society.

As English educators, we believe deeply in the aspirations Rosenblatt set out, but as we think about the situations in which we work, we find her ideas increasingly difficult to realize. Even as “social emotional learning” pervades school talk post-pandemic, much of what English teachers face as we enter the classroom for another year actively challenges the possibility of developing students’ social imagination. 

In our summer staff development, teachers have been met with conversations and presentations about districtwide “guaranteed viable curriculum” that focuses on high-stakes, “need to know” readiness and supporting standards over supplementary “nice to know” content like the study of literature.  

In other words, teachers are being asked to forego the thoughtful and deep instruction that comes from reading longer and more complex literature in favor of short and simple units that model the STAAR test. Few students will read novels outside of Advanced Placement Literature class. But increasingly, everyone gets lessons pared down to surface level “cookie cutter” examinations of excerpts. This will not only fail to develop deep thinkers, it will promote a kind of reading divorced from any authentic reasons that people read outside school.

The equitable nature of these guaranteed curricula is the selling point; all students are presented with the same unimaginative opportunities from campus to campus, classroom to classroom. And while true educational equity is an admirable goal, it is a false choice to say that equity can or must come at the cost of what Rosenblatt calls “imaginative sympathy” and we call social consciousness or active citizenry.

Take this example: in an excerpt from “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, students might be asked to identify a moment of character conflict or an example of figurative language. But without reading the whole book they miss the novel’s larger challenge to the corrosive damage of colonization. They miss the chance to experience the work as a living part of society with which to grapple. 

Many El Pasoans by now have heard of the Houston schools’ plan to cut librarian positions at 28 schools and turn many of those school libraries into discipline centers. Yet what we see in Houston is just the most cynical enactment of a much larger betrayal in public humanities education, including here in El Paso. 

We can see the betrayal very clearly when libraries become detention centers. It is more insidious when literature is phased out of the curriculum in favor of short passages and excerpts and when students repeatedly are asked to analyze, paraphrase, and summarize, but not to question, connect, or empathize. 

We are giving up on the social imagination, and as we do, we are giving up on helping our youth to feel connected to other people and to full participation in our democracy. All too often, teaching students to read literature in meaningful and impactful ways requires us to work around or even defy our districts’ mandates.

We – educators, parents, and community members alike – cannot accept buzzwords like “opportunity” and “excellence” without considering the core values of what is being taught. For teachers, this means holding true to Rosenblatt’s charge about professional responsibility and remembering why we teach what we teach. 

For parents, this means getting more deeply acquainted with what your children are learning, how and why, and advocating for teachers who are pushing for more.

From left, Rebecca Guerrero, Vanessa Sanders and Jonna Perrillo

Rebecca Guerrero is a graduate of the MAT in Teaching English program at the University of Texas at El Paso and is an English Language Arts and AP Capstone educator at the Young Women’s STEAM Research & Preparatory Academy in El Paso. Vanessa Sanders is a graduate of the MAT in Teaching English program at the UTEP and is an English Language Arts teacher and Academic Decathlon coach at Montwood High School in El Paso. Jonna Perrillo is Professor of English Education at UTEP. All three participated in the National Endowment for the Humanities 2023 Summer Institute for Teachers, “Making the Good Reader and Citizen,” which Perrillo co-directed.

This article first appeared on El Paso Matters and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.