In “Making the Good Reader and Citizen,” we will examine 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 will trace 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 and personal development, either as a vehicle for the communication of moral and civic values or as the basis for an experience that fosters personal, moral growth. 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. Over time, the two schools of thought have alternately come in and out of favor, for reasons we will explore, including the impact of historical events and a disconnect between literature scholars (and the academy) and English educators (in K-12 schools and teacher-preparation programs). Often, teachers have transcended the binaries and embraced student-centered and text-centered approaches simultaneously. Still, standards and mandates matter and shape teachers’ classroom practices, especially as exams like state tests and the SAT have become co-aligned with the Common Core and school performance has been tied to federal funding. 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.
As we will see, these often radically opposed schools of thought were tied to larger national events and ideals relating to literature, culture, and the civic good. For much of the twentieth century, fostering citizenship was one of the principal aims of literature instruction. 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, today we find ourselves in a historical moment tied to the formalist or “New Critical” approach to literature instruction that dominated during 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. New Criticism treated reading as a science, an act of decoding language free from the political and social context of the text or reader. In the most significant indication that reading today is being treated as a pathway to content-knowledge and analysis rather than a vehicle for character instruction or humanism, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), formally adopted in most states and emulated in others, have decreed a shift from poems, plays and fiction towards “informational text.” Indeed, the CCSS do not envision learning outcomes that are specifically associated with literature. According to the publishers’ guidelines, “drawing knowledge from the text itself is the point of reading”; in this regard a poem is no different from “science and history texts.” In the process, the CCSS emphasize skill-development and career readiness—rather than a humanist tradition—as the pathway to a stronger civic body and national welfare.
Our seminar will explore how our current moment fits into a 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 will see: 1) how historical events off campus 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 will prepare to serve as stronger leaders in their schools and all the more effective and creative practitioners in their classrooms.
This Summer Seminar for School Teachers is made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website or through the program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.