Here, at long last, is our proposal for Personal Studies: Literacy for Love and Wisdom. Thanks for all your support and encouragement since we first broached the possibility of our doing this at last year’s NCTE! We very much hope you will find it worth the wait.
This project, while centered on the teaching of literacy, is also intended to appeal to a very broad audience, far beyond literacy teachers and teacher educators. It should help
promote new dialogue between the teaching of literacy (Jeff’s field and Bruce’s original field) and the teaching of the social foundations of education (the field in which Bruce has recently worked), by connecting literacy with philosophy, whose original (and, many feel, true) meaning is “the love of wisdom” or “loving wisdom.” And, if it is able to be publicized and marketed beyond traditional teacher and teacher education circles, it may even be able to affect broad scholarly and public discussions of the role of education in democratic life. At the scholarly level, it might contribute to and receive support from the Templeton Foundation and the University of Chicago’s “Wisdom Project” and the Fetzer Foundation’s “Deepening the American Dream” and “Exploring a Global Dream” projects. At the public level, it has been framed as the educational embodiment of the central democratic ideal of Barack Obama from the moment he emerged on the national stage in 2004: that we are called to form a “more perfect union” with one another, for which we need to assiduously acquire and practice certain forms of humane literacy. Bruce has researched how Obama himself came to this understanding at a crucial moment of his own education, and one of our central arguments is that the time may now be ripe for us to come to an understanding as a nation of the centrality to democracy of our educating ourselves to be able to give a generous and careful “reading” to one another.
Our basic practical goals with this project are: 1) to help revive Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional reader-response approach to the teaching of literature by providing teachers with a far more powerful rationale for this approach than has hitherto been available and, through this, extending and deepening the teaching practices originally detailed in Jeff’s You Gotta BE the Book; 2) to make pedagogically concrete and, to some extent, methodical, the transactional aesthetic philosophy of John Dewey that has recently become generally seen among educational scholars as central to his thought (e.g., Alexander 1987, Jackson 1998, Granger 2006); and 3) to provide a clear rationale to the entire educational community and the democratic public for re-centering democratic education on the humanities, based on a scientific understanding of the role of art in human evolution, a philosophical understanding of the narrative structures of human existence, and a narrative of human history centered on the cultivation of wisdom.
As far as book promotion and marketing, we are both prolific presenters and will do both regional and national presentations on this topic when the book comes out. (We are already presenting together on it at this year’s NCTE.) We will also write some short articles and chapters to generate interest in the book. Bruce has been asked to submit a proposal to organize a 2011 summer conference on our topic for the NCTE Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (for whom he has organized four previous conferences) and Jeff has agreed to come speak. Review copies should certainly be sent to the various professional journals of NCTE and IRA, and perhaps NMSA. Jeff can work to secure reviews from English Education, Voices from the Middle, English Journal and NWP’s The Voice. Bruce can do the same for Educational Theory, Education and Culture (the journal of the John Dewey Society), The Journal of Aesthetic Education, and The Common Review (the journal of The Great Books Foundation). In addition to the typical mailing and catalog ads, the following should prove useful: Mailing and email lists to NWP directors, and to members of NCTE and IRA. Advertising in the Council Chronicle and Reading Today seem to us to be the most useful and comprehensive print ads. It might also be useful to reach a more general audience through ASCD and the journal Educational Leadership or Phi Delta Kappan.
The most comparable titles on the market may be Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1997), Mike Rose’s Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (1996), William Ayers’s Teaching the Personal and the Political: Essays on Hope and Justice (2004), and John Goodlad, et. al.’s Education and the Making of a Democratic People (2008)—in their call for broad humanistic reform of democratic education; but we actually think our work has both more theoretical grounding and more historic sweep than any of these. Beyond what we have already said above, we hope this work will contribute to scholarly conversations by 1) integrating the field of biopoetics (strongly endorsed by the eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, the eminent Berkeley literary scholar Frederick Crews, and the eminent novelist Ian McEwan in the recent The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (2005), published in the Northwestern University Press Rethinking Theory series, of which eminent Bakhtin scholar Gary Saul Morson is the general editor) with the field of literacy teaching and the teaching of literature, by introducing this important and burgeoning scientific field—bridging the natural and socio-cultural sciences—to literacy teachers, scholars, and teacher educators; 2) developing the understanding of caring pedagogy (e.g., Noddings 1984, 1992, 2003; Garrison 1987; Liston and Garrison 2004; Palmer 1983, 1998) by showing how the writing and reading of literature are forms of reciprocal care; 3) developing the understanding of educational renewal (e.g., Goodlad, et. al., 1987, 2004, 2008) by showing how the renewal of the individual through aesthetic experience is integral both to community renewal and to broad democratic renewal; 4) developing the narrative understanding of education (e.g., Bruner 1996, McEwan & Egan 1995; Connelly & Clandinnen 1988) by situating it within a philosophical understanding of the narrative structures of human life; and 5) helping to develop the fields of arts education (e.g. Eisner 2002, Greene 2001), moral education (e.g. Goodlad, et. al. 1990, Hansen 2001) and imaginative and transformative learning (e.g. Bogdan 1992, Gallas 2003, Tompkins 1997, O’Sullivan 1999, Wilhelm and Edmiston 1998) by showing how these were critical to the past evolution of humanity and how making them central to democratic education will surely be critical to the new evolution our species at present sorely needs to undergo. Aside from those listed above, some TC and other authors to whose readership our book would also appeal are: Maxine Greene, bell hooks, Paolo Friere, Jane Roland Martin, Philip Jackson, Steve Fishman and Lucille McCarthy, Sheridan Blau, Ted Sizer, Suzanne Plaut, and the whole language and NWP communities.
As for reviewers, Fishman and McCarthy, we feel, would be ideal as their work pursues a similar connection between literacy and philosophy; Sheridan Blau would also be excellent, as he has focused his recent teaching on the topic of wisdom. We have already approached these three, who would be happy to do the review. Seven others who might be approached are: Gordon Pradl of NYU, David Hansen of TC, Jim Garrison of Virginia Tech, Jane Tompkins of University of Illinois/Chicago, independent scholar Karen Gallas, Deanne Bogdan of the University of Toronto, Michael Smith of Temple, or Judith Langer and Arthur Applebee of SUNY/Albany.
In the remainder of this document, please find the following:
1) short bios
2) a title page, with epigraphs situating the concerns of the book within longstanding professional, political, and human concerns
3) an overview of the scope and concerns of the book
4) a list of chapter titles
5) a short summary of each chapter
6) a draft of our first chapter and the teaching anecdote that will start off the second chapter
7) a partial bibliography
Attached, please find our c.v.’s.
Thank you very much for your consideration. More information and model chapters can be furnished on request. You may contact Jeff at 208-433-9919 or jwilhelm@Boisestate.edu
and Bruce at 773-480-2146 or email@example.com.
Jeff is the author of seventeen books and over 200 chapters and articles on teaching the English language arts. His previous Teachers College Press effort, “You Gotta BE the Book” (1997/2008) is a bestseller and won the NCTE Promising Research Award as well as the Brown University Distinguished Contribution to Teaching Award. The second edition came out last year and continued to sell very well. Jeff has also won the David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in English Education for his boys and literacy studies, including the books “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys” and Going with the Flow. Among Jeff’s other books, two from Scholastic have topped 100,000 copies in sales. Jeff is a professor of English Education at Boise State University and the founding director of the Boise State Writing Project. He is active as an NWP director and consultant on literacy issues.
Bruce received a Spencer Dissertation Fellowship for the work from which the current project originally stemmed—“What IS ‘English’?”—parts of which were published as “Humanizing Democracy,” the lead article of the Fall 2002 AERJ. From 1998-2008, he was instrumental in the leadership of the NCTE Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, serving as Chair for four years and organizing four of its summer conferences—including 2008’s “Reclaiming the Wisdom Tradition for Education,” the more immediate source for this project. Bruce has taught English, grades 6-12, helped supervise English teacher education at the University of Chicago, and has taught Foundations of Education, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago and Northern Illinois University. Currently he is the Director of Educational Projects for the Foundation for Ethics and Meaning, undertaking broad research to help recommend new policies for humane education in these times that have proven newly open to democratic change.
Personal Studies: Literacy for Love and Wisdom
Jeffrey D. Wilhelm and Bruce Novak
How do we teach English in a way that people will stop killing . . .?
–Mary Rose O’Reilley
Produce great Persons. The rest follows.
It took Sputnik to get Congress interested in the quality and quantity of scientific manpower. What will it take to persuade them to see that English is really fundamental?
–Herbert J. Muller
We are in far more need of the skills of charity than of any merely technocratic skills.
If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships.
More than ever, there is a real chance of either good or evil actually prevailing on a global scale. War and other forms of mass slaughter, other manifestations of massive hatred, could be ended—or, on the other hand, they could set new records for death and destruction; they could even, conceivably, end us. And the outcome may hinge on the further spread of knowledge—not just empirical knowledge, but moral knowledge. Talk about a page turner! . . .. [O]ne thing seems clear: it is our story. As its lead characters, we can’t escape its implications. –Robert Wright
Everything has changed . . . except the way we think . . .. The aim [of education] must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem. –Albert Einstein
The many interlocking problems of this nation and this world are escalating so rapidly that only swift changes in thought and action can save either. The generation about to enter schools may be the last who can still reverse the negative megatrends converging today. In order for these children to learn the needed new ways of thinking, the present generation in charge of society must begin to set up for them a kind of education it never had and arrange to educate itself further at the same time . . .. We have to think now not just about personal success and class mobility but about planetary survival and human co-evolution. This means we will have to elevate schooling to a spiritual level heretofore unknown in public education. –James Moffett
The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. The dread of [humanity] and the love of [humanity] shall be a wall of defence and a wreath of joy around all. A nation of [human beings] will for the first time exist, because each believes [themselves] inspired by the . . . Soul which . . . inspires all . . .. –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Democracy, obviously, can’t be forced on people; nor can it be marketed like televisions or refrigerators. It can only be arrived at through processes that lead to its internalization. –Vaclav Havel
To come together, we must know our place in a biological and cultural sense, and reclaim our role as engaged agents of our continued existence. What it takes to arrest our descent into chaos is one person after another remembering who and where they really are. –Paul Hawken
“Buddha” is not a personal name. It is a title, a state we can attain. It means “awakened,” “blossomed,” “enlightened.” It is the blossoming of all happiness and positive powers . . .. It is perfect freedom . . .. A social buddhaverse is a place where everything is geared toward enlightenment, where every lifetime is made meaningful by optimal evolutionary development. —Robert Thurman
[P]erhaps . . . the current disequilibrium is a stirring not an erasure . . .. [N]ot only is history not dead, [it may be] about to take its first unfettered breath . . .. There are “acres of Edens inside ourselves.” Time does have a future. Longer than the past and infinitely more hospitable . . . to the human race. –Toni Morrison
Most English teachers have a sense of the deep human importance of our subject. But that sense is not, by and large, shared, either by most of those we teach or by the general public. This book will work to articulate a new vision of our profession—centered on the facilitation of human connection and personal insight (the “love” and “wisdom” of our title)—by intellectually contextualizing and more fully drawing out the understandings of the “evocative,” “connective,” and “reflective” dimensions of human responsiveness that were central to Jeff’s popular and influential work You Gotta BE the Book, so that these can be more clearly seen as the fundamental dimensions through which we learn to read and respond to, not just books, but the world. We will work to show the vital importance of what John Dewey and Louise Rosenblatt called “transactional,” “aesthetic” relationships, in individual human growth, in the formation of authentic human communities, and in general human evolution: bringing about the vivifying interweaving of hearts and minds, and offering an entryway for the life of each human person to be integrated into the web of larger life. And we will introduce ways of teaching that, by catalyzing the renewal of the self—both through the experience of art and through the experience of artful teaching—serve to deepen our ways of relating to others and the world, making responsive renewal of the self the gateway to responsible renewal of the worId.
Most often when “21st century literacies” are referred to what is meant are the superficial literacies of new technologies, rather than the deep, humane literacies that will be required for us to collectively and creatively resolve the greatest problems of our time: the countering of mindless violence and ecological devastastion, and the advancement of authentic democracy, both in our own nation and through the world. Those deep challenges, we believe, can only be met by deep understandings: the great problems with which we are now confronted are far more than technical, and require deep, human solutions. “Everything has changed, except the way we think,” as Einstein said, and we need systemic and structural changes in the way we teach and learn in order to change the way we think. So, we will work unabashedly to resituate what is now called “English” as a discipline not of “the letter” but of the human spirit, turning the tacit, intuitive understanding most teachers in the profession already have of the great human importance of what they do into explicit, conceptualized and narrated understandings of the workings of human love and human wisdom within the processes of human history and of human evolution, in the hope that we can alter that history and further evolve before we destroy ourselves and the planet. We “English” teachers have long served as unacknowledged caretakers of the human spirit; this book, we hope, will help us gain, and better earn, the public acknowledgement we have long deserved as a noble profession—perhaps the noblest of all—as our central purpose is to facilitate the ennoblement of humanity through each of its members. In a time in which it is becoming ever clearer that we must either learn to love one another, and the planet on which we dwell, or die, the assiduous development of human magnanimity—our perennial concern—has suddenly become a necessity for our survival.
CHAPTERS: (each 15-20 pp.)
I. What IS “English”? (Part One): A Brief History of Our Cinderella Subject
II. What IS “English”? (Part Two): Beginnings of Answers in Stories of Classroom Life
III. What IS “English”? (Part Three): The Deep History Behind Our Cinderella Subject
IV. Toward Human Wholeness: Connecting What We Know with What We Feel and with Our Search for Personal and Collective Meaning
V.The Natural History of Education: Our Evolution from Efferent to Aesthetic Literacy, from “Memes” to “Mimemes”
VI. “The Way Life Teaches Us How to Live”: Evocative, Aesthetic Education as the REAL “Pro-Human Life” Agenda, Teaching Us to Live Life for Life’s Sake
VII. “The Way I Loved George Eliot”: Literacy for Love, by Connecting to the Implied Meanings of Implied Authors—Revisiting the Connective Dimension of the Reader’s Response
VIII. “You Must Change Your Life”: Literacy for Wisdom, Connecting Newly Discovered Mea-ning with Personal Renewal—Revisiting the Reflective Dimension of the Reader’s Response
IX. Aesthetic Teaching: The Artistry of Interpersonal Life in Classrooms
X. Aesthetic Democracy: Government of People by People for the Shared Life of People—The Art of Community Building in Classrooms and in Large-scale Democratic Life
XI. The History of Wisdom, and Its Possible Future: Educating toward the Pursuit of Cosmopolitan Public Happiness
XII. From “English,” “Literacy,” and “Cultural Studies” to “Personal Studies”: How To’s in Policy and Practice
(Note: Three of these–IV, V, and XI–run fairly long, as they make novel and complex arguments. We expect that the longer chapters of the finished book will be the ones focusing on classroom practice: II, VI-X, XII. The summaries for these tend to be much shorter, as they draw on the ideas presented in the chapters centering on history and theory.)
I. What IS “English”? (Part One):
A Brief History of Our Cinderella Subject
Since we need, first, to free ourselves from the image that our “subject matter” is constitu-ted around the “things” of language and literature, rather than on their underlying uses in promo-ting broad human connection and deep human insight, this opening chapter will trace the story 1) of how “English” originally got its name, little more than a century ago, as a vehicle for the ach-ievement of cultural unity through the dissemination of nationalized linguistic conventions and canons of literature, and 2) of the two concerted efforts by the profession as a whole to coherent-ly reconceive and reform itself—the Dartmouth Seminar of 1966 and the Wye Plantation Confer-ence of 1987—great and ambitious but in the end incomplete and unsuccessful efforts to provide the old discipline of “English” with a new, deeper and larger mission in the public mind. A synthesis of their two mottos—“Growth through English” and “Democracy through Language,” personal on the one hand and political on the other—and an account of two subgroups of the latter conference who sought to practice and theorize this synthesis will serve as an initial envisionment of how we might reconceptualize what we do as a profession in a way that might capture the public imagination anew in these new times of global crisis and democratic change.
II. What IS “English”? (Part Two):
Beginnings of Answers in Stories of Classroom Life
This chapter will consist mostly of a series of anecdotes portraying the deep humanity that so often transpires in “English” classes at all levels—the humanity that called most of us to our vocations as teachers, and continues sustain to us in them, but that has still not yet begun to be adequately captured in the dominant languages of government policy and professional discourse. After first briefly sharing how we ourselves came to teach “English,” we will begin with a deeply affecting story—repeated in two of the three accounts of the Wye Plantation conference—of how a first grade classroom was helped through a difficult time by the personal writings they had accumulated over the course of the school year. This will lead to an account published in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Lisa Ruddick, a University of Chicago professor of English, shortly after the national trauma of 2001, about “the shared human ground” that opens up in such times, surmounting the “professionalism” that is “the near enemy of the humanities” and allowing us to speak and hear one another in ways that are more humanly attuned to one another. Bruce will then share three anecdotes from his researches into the deeply humanistic teaching of minority students in three extraordinary Los Angeles classrooms: 1) the Koreatown fifth grade classroom of Rafe Esquith (subject of the PBS documentary The Hobart Shakespeareans and author of three popular books on teaching); 2) the Watts ninth grade classroom of Yvonne Hutchinson (the first teacher featured in Mike Rose’s Possible Lives, whom Lee Shulman has cited as one of the five wisest people he knows (2005), featured as a model teacher on the Carnegie Foundation website and in the English teacher education at Stanford University (Grossman 2008)); and 3) the Occidental College classroom of Roger Boesche, whose humanistic teaching about a humanized democracy (Boesche 1987) is cited by Barack Obama as giving him his “start in life” (Boesche 2007).
We will bridge to the next chapter 1) by citing two different quantitative studies that reveal that the majority of “English” teachers in both America and Britain see the heart of what they do as facilitating “personal growth” (Grossman and Stodolsky 1996, Goodwyn 2005); 2) by citing the similar understandings of Michael Oakeshott and Hannah Arendt—prominent thinkers from the Right and the Left—on the need for a “conservative” liberal education for “what is new and revolutionary in the individual” (Arendt 1997/1958) to make an effective “debut into the [ongoing] adventure of human life” (Oakeshott 1989/1971); and 3) by citing some of the humanistic programs of higher education studied by Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity (1997) and the Clemente Program in the Humanities for impoverished people in various sites around the globe, initiated by Earl Shorris and documented in his Riches for the Poor (1997).
III. What IS “English”? (Part Three):
The Deep History Behind Our Cinderella Subject
Once we can stop seeing “English” as centering on the “things” of national language and national literature, we can begin to see that it is the curricular vehicle for far deeper than national inheritances. The tacit understandings of many who teach “English” of the human importance of what they do tap into those deep inheritaces in ways that public policy and the dominant profess-ional discourse have so far been unable to. By making those deep inheritances newly visible and central to the profession, we hope to give new public life to those tacit understandings. This chapter will be an initial precis of the book as a whole. It will outline what can be seen as the three central human sources of what is now called “English” as they emerged in the course of human evolution and of human history: 1) the emergence of art and aesthetic experience as holistic forms of caring communication—unique to the human species and probably encoded within the human genome—sometime in the late Paleolithic Era, around 50,000 B.C.E (c.f. Ch. V); 2) the emergence of the wisdom tradition—in various cultures across Eurasia between about 800 to 200 B.C.E. (called “the Axial Age” by philosopher Karl Jaspers (1953/1947) and the religious scholar Karen Armstrong (2006) and “the Great Leap of Being” by political philosopher Eric Vogelin (1987/1952))—seeking disciplined ways to harmonize and integrate the life forces of individual human persons with the life forces of the cosmos (c.f. Ch. XI); and 3) the emergence, starting with Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.), of the humanistic tradition of liberal education within Western culture, seeking to make the pursuit of personal and interpersonal wisdom integral to the pursuit of viable political democracy, uniting inward with outward freedom (c.f. Ch. X). Holistic communication, holistic ways of individual being in the world, and holistic ways of concerted action to ameliorate and reconstitute the world, in other words, are the deep sources of what we now call “English.” In the remainder of the book, we will show how we can understand and tap into these deep sources in our teaching, in ways that will be comprehensible, persuasive, and inspiring both to our students and to the general public.
IV. Toward Human Wholeness:
Connecting What We Know with What We Feel
and with Our Search for Personal and Collective Meaning
The previous chapter narrated the deep story behind what we now call “English”; in this chapter we will work to conceptualize, scientifically and philosophically theorize, and begin to rename it. Modern education, to this point, has elevated “the sciences” and their established facts over “the humanities” and the human values they promote. Our task is not just to reclaim the deep sources of “English,” but to reclaim the humane focus of human education, after its long subservience to the natural sciences starting in the Enlightenment. We are a Cinderella subject, not just because our true nature has been obscured, but because it has been denigrated. Yet we do not need to denigrate science the way some of its practitioners have denigrated us. On the contrary, the “consilient” linking of all the sciences called for by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson (1998), seeks also to explicitly link our understanding of the intricate processes of human evolution to the intricate practices of liberal education, precisely as the conscious furtherance of that evolution. Rather than borrowing “hard” scientistic (ideologically scientific) methodology and applying it in thoughtless, careless, dehumanizingly reductive ways, as does the majority of current educational policy—“turning out the masses of humanity like iron castings,” as Walt Whitman put it (1871)—we will build a theory of humane education from what we know, through science, of human evolution, drawing on the emerging scientific field of “biopoetics.”
Accordingly, the current chapter will 1) introduce the notion of scientific consilience and the scientific field of biopoetics, providing the link to humane education, to be expanded upon in the following chapter (V); 2) introduce a philosophical understanding of the process of “aesthetic transaction” that will be the focus of the following three chapters (the heart of the book, VI-VIII), relating John Dewey’s and Louise Rosenblatt’s understandings of this term, and Jeff’s prior pedagogical embodiment of it in You Gotta BE the Book, to philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the narrative nature of human time (1984, p. 1) and Jerome Bruner’s (1996, p. 86) suggestion that “the narrative construal of reality” is inherently better suited to under-standing the phenomena of teaching and learning than the “scientific construal of reality” mostly employed in recent times; and 3) bring these understandings to bear educationally by seeing them as the matrix for the cultivation of what Howard Gardner has recently called “existential intelligence”—which he defines as “spiritual concerns . . . approached in a . . . personal, . . . creative manner” (1999, p. 54)—enriching Gardner’s tentative understanding of this with the more developed understandings of the philosopher Karl Jaspers and his student Hannah Arendt (to be expanded upon in the final chapters of the book (IX-XII, especially XI)).
To link scientific consilience, aesthetic transaction, and existential intelligence is to link the wholeness of our knowledge to the wholeness of our lived experiences, and the wholeness of the experienced stories of our lives to the fullness of life itself. Contextualized in this manner, the concern for feelings and the search for meaning, for which our profession has often been vilified and denigrated, can begin to be clearly seen as the ultimate human concerns, concerns for what vivifies and sustains us. At this point, we can begin to see that, underneath what we now call “English,” lies a discipline for the cultivation and furtherance of human life, working to cultivate existential intelligence through aesthetic experience, that we might best name “Personal Studies.”
V. The Natural History of Education:
Our Evolution from Efferent to Aesthetic Literacy,
from “Memes” to “Mimemes”
Current theories of education that focus on “sociocultural practices” or “procedural knowledge” are rooted in understandings of human life as constituted by cultural “memes” as well as by our biological genes. We evolve much more rapidly by inventing and passing on social practices than we are able to by genetic mutation. “Memes” predated humanity, though: most mammals and all primates educate their young. What, then, characterizes human education? Is it just that we, as far as we know, have more, and more sophisticated “memes” than other species, thanks to our tremendous cranial capacity and the tool of language? In this chapter, we will argue that the experience of art, through which we absorb whole experiences created by others—not just isolated procedures—and make them our own afforded our species a new evolutionary capacity, the capacity to evolve not just by sociocultural “memes” but by interpersonal, pedagogical “mimemes” (our coinage): conveying not just the procedural intri-cacy of practice but the felt intimacy of lived experience; in ways that express care not just for the efficacy of efferent practice but for the unique, evolving natures of the separate persons who create and recreate the aesthetic experience, seeking to come together through it; and in ways that allow for the free appropriation of one person’s experience by another, through insights into the meaning of what has been experienced that we infer to have been provided but are also our very own, precisely because we need to personally discover them through our personal experience of what has been created. The creation and recreation of works of art, in other words, are actions through which we seek, and sometimes receive, renewed life, love, and wisdom.
Denis Dutton, in The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (2009), summarizing the field of “biopoetics,” argues that the. first “information revolution” in human history, the dramatic expansion of the cortex of the human brain, necessitated another, perhaps even more important and vital revolution, involving the holistic, aesthetic processing of that information:
There was not enough time for human heredity to cope with the vastness of the new contingent possibilities revealed by high intelligence . . . . The arts filled the gap . . . allowing human beings to develop more flexible and sophisticated responses to new situations. Fiction goes deeper than pleasure . . . to regulate our complex psychological organization, and it helps us cultivate our socially adaptive capacity for entering mentally into the experience of others . . .. What [we] get from . . . [stories] is not just a bit of mental cheesecake, a chance for a transient fantasy in which all [our] own wishes are fulfilled. What [we get] is lively and powerful images of human life suffused with the feeling and understanding of the astonishingly capable and complex human beings who wrote them. It is through this kind of contact with a sense of human possibility that [we are] enabled to escape from the . . . limitations of [our] own local environment. [We are] not escaping from reality; [we are] escaping from an impoverished reality into the larger world of healthy human possibility.
Biologist Sarah Hardy, in Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection (1999) shows how some primates, including humans, dramatically increased their inherited “meme” pool through the practice of “allo-parenting” by infertile grandparents and adolescents. We will argue that the experience of art, evolution by “mimemes,” affords a dramatic expansion of “allo-parenting,” by allowing the free and holistic appropriation of the experience of others from whom one is separated in time and space. It is “allo-parenting” through the means of created objects, which serve as what D.W. Winnicott—a psychoanalytic object relations theorist—called “transitional objects,” gifts that are both reassuring symbols of the nurturers who have given them and and means for the recipient’s free creation of personal meaning (1953). We can, in other words, come to love what literary critic Wayne C. Booth called “the implied authors” (1961, 1988) of the created experiences we find meaningful just as powerfully as we love those who directly nurture and educate us, but that love is as much for the meaning and wisdom (or what Dutton, above, calls the “healthy human possibility”) we have found for ourselves in those experiences as it is for the persons we imagine have created them for us.
Just as art once served to refocus human life when we first found ourselves engulfed with cranial information, we can now learn to refocus it once again—engulfed as we are anew with virtual information—by deliberately instituting in our schools the practices of humane education that will be detailed in the following chapters.
VI. “The Way Life Teaches Us How to Live”: Life for Life’s Sake—
Evocative, Aesthetic Education as the REAL “Pro-Human Life” Agenda
Everyone is a story . . .. It is the way that wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us to live a life worth remembering . . . and to remember that the real world is made up of just such stories . . .. It’s the way life teaches us how to live . . .. Hidden in all stories is the One story. The more we listen, the clearer that Story becomes. Our true identity, who we are, why we are here, what sustains us, is in this story . . .. Stories that touch us in this place of common humanness awaken us and weave us together as a family once again. [emphasis added]
–Rachel Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom
The evocative dimension of the reader’s response from Wilhelm, “You Gotta BE the Book”: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents (1997/2008) and Reading is Seeing (2004) is the sensory gateway to the other, deeper dimensions. In this chapter, we will connect this dimension of the reader’s response to Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the central dimension of human time: “the present-made-fully-present” or “mimesis two.” We need to be “touched” in order to feel and to think anew; to first be physiologically re-awakened in order to experience renewed connection and insight. T.S. Eliot’s understanding of the importance of the “objective correlative” (1932) has been underscored by the findings of modern neuroscience (Damasio 1999): being “touched” is what opens us to others and frees us to experience life anew. The chapter will include numerous examples, assignments, and teaching strategies that will help students to visualize and participate in aesthetic “secondary worlds” that provide the prerequisite springboard for deeper levels of reading and response.
VII. “The Way I Loved George Eliot”:
Literacy for Love, by Connecting to the Implied Meanings of Implied Authors–
Revisiting the Connective Dimension of the Reader’s Response
I want to be loved. That is even the deep-lying reason why I elected to write. When I was eighteen, I read The Mill on the Floss, and I dreamed that one day I would be loved the way I loved George Eliot.
–Simone de Beauvoir, cited by Wayne C. Booth in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction
Reading is an intimate act, perhaps more intimate than any other human act. I say this because of the prolonged (or intense) exposure of one mind to another.
–Harold Brodkey, ibid.
I will call them my people, which were not my people;
and her beloved, which was not beloved.
–Romans 9:25, the epigraph to Toni Morrison’s Beloved
This chapter will review and expand upon Jeff’s “connective dimension of the reader’s response,” (Wilhelm 1997/2008): through Booth’s understanding of “the implied author”— introduced in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) and more fully explored in The Company We Keep (1998), from which the two epigraphs above have been taken; through Winnicott’s (1953) and Bruns’s (2006) understanding of the literary work as a “transitional object,” as a gift from the past upon which we bestow present meaning; and through Ricoeur’s understanding of “mimesis one,” “the past-made-present.” Our love for “Shakespeare” or “Toni Morrison” or “The Beatles” is stronger for the fact that we love them through the things they have made for and given to us, for us to appropriate to ourselves as we see fit. We love them because their gifts have fill our lives with meaning. We will here explore how responding to literature can expand our capacity for human connection, how being “touched” allows us to feel closer to and better see others, and forms a bridge to the broader and deeper peopling of the world of personal experience. Numer-ous stories, examples, assignments, and teaching strategies will be provided.
VIII. “You Must Change Your Life”: Literacy for Wisdom,
Connecting Newly Discovered Meaning with Personal Renewal—
Revisiting the Reflective Dimension of the Reader’s Response
. . . for here there is no place
That does not see you. You must change your life.
–Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”
Never am I more active than when I do nothing; never less alone than when by myself. –Cato, epigraph to Hannah Arendt’s Thinking, Volume One of The Life of the Mind
To read only to be emotionally touched or to feel affection for others would be to read only fancifully and sentimentally. It is only through the final, reflective dimension of responsiveness that the deep emotional pathos and moral ethos evoked by literature are justified: literature draws us into a feeling conversation about the meaning of life, in which we are passionate, morally insightful participants; not just vehicles for sensation and affection but thinking actors in the drama of life. In this chapter we will connect Jeff’s understanding of “the reflective dimension of the reader’s response” to Ricoeur’s understanding of the “future-made-newly-present,” and to the importance that Dewey himself gave to his understanding of the “transactional” experience when he introduced it as a philosophical term in one of his last works, Knowing and the Known (1949): as availing us of “the right to see” our own lives anew, through introducing us to new “horizons of feeling” (Alexander 1987). Again, numerous stories, examples, assignments, and teaching strategies will be provided.
IX. Aesthetic Teaching: The Artistry of Interpersonal Life in Classrooms
To be a real teacher [is] to take one’s very life up in to speech, so that others may do the same.
Robert Inchausti, Spitwad Sutras: Classroom Teaching as Sublime Vocation
There are implied teachers as well as implied authors. When we devise experiential learning activities, we are creating aesthetic experiences. We enter as persons into our students’ learning just as implied authors enter into the lives of those who experience literary works. This chapter will consider the aesthetic transactions between teachers and students. We will outline a narrative paradigm of education, based on Bruner’s understanding of “the narrative construal of reality” (1996), Vygotsky’s understanding of the “zone of proximal development” (1978), Dewey’s understanding of the power of “indirect teaching” (1916), and Bowlby’s understanding of “secure attachment” (1982). Narratives from our own and others’ teaching (Wilhelm 1997, Novak and Fischer 1998, Inchausti 1994, Hutchinson 1996) will dramatically illustrate the power of “aesthetic teaching” to generate the envisionment of “healthy human possibility” (Dutton 2009, see above, Chapter V) in individual students’ lives.
X. Aesthetic Democracy:
Government of People by People for the Shared Life of People
It is for us . . . to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us . . . that we here highly resolve . . . that this nation . . . shall have a new birth of freedom . . . government of the people, by the people, and for the people . . . [w]ith malice toward none, with charity for all. –Lincoln
The building of classroom and school community has received much recent attention (e.g. Sergiovanni 1994). In this chapter we will seek to see these things as aesthetic phenomena: as the perception of dynamic interpersonal “multeity in unity” (Coleridge 1817). We will tie personal narratives of ways we have created aesthetic communities in our own classrooms to the large-scale historic narrative of the envisionment of democracy as a polity, based not on the simple “winners-take-all” principle of majority electoral rule, which we have seen the devasta-ting effects of in recent years, but on the principle of continual collective striving for “more perfect union.” This was the democratic platform upon which Barack Obama was elected last year, and is the central topic of his best known speeches (2004, 2008, 2009), but he and we have not yet adequately seen the aesthetic re-envisionment of education that will be necessary to enact it. We will contextualize Obama’s (and the American Constitution’s) call for “a more perfect union” of America, and among the peoples of the world, with the long history of the persistent call for liberal education, an education for freedom, as the necessary moral and aesthetic infrastructure of political democracy (Plato (1961/4th century B.C.E.), Kant (1952/1790), Schiller (1967/1795), Coleridge (1817, 1839/1825), John Adams (1775,1780, cited in McCullough 2001), Emerson (1983/1937), Arnold (1962/1864, 1993/1869), Whitman (1871), Jane Addams (1990/1910), Jaspers (1951, 1952, 1953, 1963), Arendt (1978, 1997, 2006), Schwehn (2000).
XI. The History of Wisdom, and Its Possible Future:
Educating toward the Pursuit of Cosmopolitan Public Happiness
As [humanity] advances . . . , and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each . . . to extend . . . social instincts to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown . . .. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent [our] sympathies extending . . . to all nations and races.
–Darwin, the epigraph to Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
No one can be perfectly happy till all are happy. –Herbert Spencer, ibid.
Through chapters VI-X, we have been gradually enlarging our understanding of aesthetic experience: from immediate feeling, to love for the creators of the experiences that have enabled us to feel, to reflection on the new meaningful possibilities these new feelings have awakened in our individual lives, to the responsibility to create aesthetic pedagogical experiences for others as others have for us, to the responsibility to enter into and help create ever larger and more integra-ted communities. In this chapter, we will examine the ultimate personal and historical horizons of these phenomena.
Says religious scholar Karen Armstrong (2006, xi): “Unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that can keep abreast of our technological genius, it is unlikely we will save our planet. A purely rational education will not suffice.” This comment comes in the introduction to her work The Great Transformation, a history of the Axial Age in the First Millennium B.C.E., in which there was a contemporaneous arising of pedagogies of disciplined wisdom in cultures across Eurasia, in response to the tyrannous, dehumanizing powers of new empires, which decimated the aesthetic partnership relations that had long characterized human social life (Eisler 1987). What Bruce and others have called “the wisdom tradition” (c.f. aepl.org
/2008conf, Huston Smith (1991/1958), Michael Nagler (2005)), in other words, reflected the efforts of several different cultures to preserve within the individual the aesthetic sensitivity and presence to life that had for thousands of years prior to that characterized social life. As demo-cracy, in the West, became the political counterweight to tyranny, wisdom became the personal counterweight to it throughout the empires of both West and East: deprived of the reassurance of natural social community, people learned to become citizens of the cosmos; to attune themselves to life in general, finding their immediate life circumstances deeply out of joint.
Since 1989, many in America and elsewhere have fantasized that the universal institution of political democracy would in itself save the world once and for all from tyranny—ironically, going so far as to flirt, in the last Administration, with tyranny ourselves to try to prove it. What is actually needed–beyond the institution of political democracy—is the institution of a global pedagogy of wisdom. This, we believe, is the ultimate potential of the discipline of Personal Studies we have been recommending and elaborating on throughout the book: a curriculum for inner freedom, both to consummate political democracy and to achieve the “spiritual revolution” (Armstrong, above) we probably require for our survival.
As Ron Suskind says at the end of his recent book The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism (2008): “When people are tested, . . . they often manage to discover saving truths” (397). Ironically, the year 2001 saw the introduction both of a new regimen of frivolous, tyrannous tests in American education and our introduction as a nation to a deeply serious, real-life test of the power of our democracy to promote freedom through the world. To pass that test, we need to collectively discover, according to Suskind, just a single great “saving truth,” a truth both about the meaning of our story as a people and about common people’s stories:
[T]he American story is . . . not about the privileged defending what they have with mighty armies or earnest self-regard. It’s about common people coming to the shores of a vast, challen-ging place, discovering their truest potential, and re-creating, over and over, a new world. That’s why people across the erupting planet want us to tell that story and help them tell it, too. (398)
Initiating a wise, humanistic curriculum of Personal Studies, in the way we have outlined through this book, is the most basic way we can get that story told and heard. It is time for the “English” teachers of the world to unite, cast off our worn Cinderella garments, and name for the world the vital human work we have long been called to do: to finally humanize the human race, before it extinguishes itself.
XII. From “English,” “Literacy,” and “Cultural Studies” to “Personal Studies”:
How To’s in Policy and Practice
Social Studies first became a part of the national curriculum in the 1930s. This was in part due to the pioneering work of Harold Rugg, of Teachers College, in the 1920s, and in part due to the public perception—in the wake of the Great Depression—of the great educational need to help a new generation discover that they were social creatures, not just rugged individuals. Rugg’s textbooks sold like hotcakes even before the election of Franklin Roosevelt ushered in a new social era (Kliebard 1995). In this chapter, we argue that Personal Studies forms the natural complement to Social Studies in the democratic curriculum, and is a discipline whose time has now come, in an age in which it is crucial for each of us to see ourselves, not just as members of sociocultural groups, but as cosmopolitan citizens, each and every one of us responsible for both the sustenance and the renewal of the world. Naming our discipline in this way responds to the intuitive sense the majority who teach in it already have that its central concern is the personal growth of students, at the same time putting the personal growth agenda in a suprapersonal, historical perspective and framing it in transpersonal—interpsychic, transactional—terms. The chapter will consist for the most part of curricular suggestions for Personal Studies classes at various levels and with model dialogues for introducing this approach to students, fellow teachers, administrators, and the general public.
(Note: this is not a final version. The basic argument is complete, but we will illustrate it with stories and anecdotes and attach notes referencing current scholarly conversations.)
I. What IS “English”? (Part One):
A Brief History of Our Cinderella Subject
“I teach English.” “Guess I better watch my grammar then, huh?”
“I teach English.” “Don’t you ever get tired of looking for hidden meanings?”
“I teach English.” “How will this poetry stuff ever help get me a job?”
“I teach English.” “Why do you always want to know what I’m feeling?”
What IS “English”? No one knows, at least in any way that has proved generally convincing, in the way the teachers of every other subject taught in schools and universities can, with relative unanimity, explain to the general public what their subject is about. And, considering the standard responses we “English” teachers get when we tell people what we do, not many beyond our profession seem to care a whole lot what the answer to the question of what “English” is either.
For well over a century now, the central curricular discipline of K-12 education has gone by this name. In the humanities divisions of most colleges and universities, “English” departments still tend to be the largest and most influential ones, and the introductory composition and literature courses they offer are still the ones most commonly required of all students in higher education. But few now teaching in the field of “English” at any level find that this word offers in any way an adequate description of what it is they teach.
Most of the leaders of the profession at the K-12 level prefer the term “literacy.” (The National Council of Teachers of English a few years ago even debated changing their name to the National Council of Teachers of Literacy, but in the end decided against it.) The leaders of the profession at the university level now tend to prefer the term “cultural studies.” But “English” remains the coin of the realm, the official denomination, despite the fact that the meaning behind it—and thus a good deal of its recognizable value to the public—has been largely effaced. And this lack of an appropriate, meaningful designation for what we do as teachers and scholars is a particularly egregious one for a profession among whose core concerns, at all levels, are the finding and making of meaning. We are the Cinderellas of the curriculum, sensing our vital inner gifts, but knowing that those gifts are hidden by the menial tasks we are assigned, the outworn garments we wear, and the outworn name we now go by: a name that doesn’t begin to describe to the world the great human importance most of us privately, or in our own circles, ascribe to what we do.
There was a time when that name made a clarion call, a clear rallying cry for purposes of the highest importance to democratic peoples. In America at the turn of the last century, “English” was the central curricular crucible of the national melting pot, seeking to provide a standard grammar and a common literary tradition to the most polyglot people the world had ever known. And in England itself, “English” was once seen, even higher, as the State’s central bearer of spiritual blessings and spiritual unity to the people. In what may well be the strongest statement ever made on the part of a national government for the noble aims of public education, The Teaching of English in England, the Board of Education’s Newbolt Report of 1921, named for the poet who was its chair, stated that the goal of “English” was no less than to provide “a liberal education for all English children, whatever their position or occupation in life,” that this should be understood by the people as:
the greatest benefit which could ever be conferred upon any citizen of a great state, and that the common right to it, the common discipline and enjoyment of it, the common possession of the tastes and associations connected with it, would form a new element of national unity, linking together the mental life of all classes by experiences which have hitherto been the privilege of a limited section. (Bacon 1998, pp. 302-303).
The name of the language, in other words, once served as an extremely powerful public metonym for the curricular pursuit of “national unity,” “national spirit,” and “the common good” within democratic nations characterized, on the one hand by great ethnic diversity and, on the other, by great differences of economic and social class inherited from pre-democratic times. A national language and a national literature, universally transmitted through the educational discipline called “English,” would constitute a democratic Nation in higher, deeper, and more thoroughgoing ways than democratic laws alone could do.
Perhaps the profession’s holding on to this name for itself is a tacit recognition that much of the remaining, dwindling hold it has on the public imagination comes from its tacit invocation of these old nationalistic goals. Most professionals believe that such goals are outdated in these times of globalism, multiculturalism, and ever complexifying systems of communication, but the public they serve does not necessarily feel the same way. Any successful attempt to change the name of the field of “English” to better fit the needs of our times would probably need to have an inspiring public appeal at least the equivalent to that so clearly addressed to and so clearly accepted by the public of a century ago, of achieving a more perfect cultural union. And this is probably why “literacy” and “cultural studies,” though they have become the favored designations of the field by professionals in K-12 and university education, respectively, have not yet been put forward as legitimate replacements for “English” to the general public on a broad public scale.
In what follows, we will recommend a replacement for “English” that we indeed think will make an even more inspiring appeal to the general public than the earlier nationalistic ones upon which it was founded. An appeal that meets the deepest educational needs of the present time, that can be equally embraced at all educational levels, and that also fully answers to and accounts for the deep human call that has summoned so many of us to do what we do in this so strangely named and so strangely misunderstood Cinderella of a profession of ours. A call, as we shall see, that the large majority of those of us who teach “English” believe to be deeper than the call of nationalism, however high or great our national ideals and values; deeper than the call for the spread of literacy, however broadly it is conceived; deeper than the call for cultural criticism, however penetrating that criticism might be and however badly our culture needs it.
We will try to show you how the discipline we now call “English” is, at its base, an evolved and evolving way that the human species has found of bringing vivifying, humanizing, and regenerative meaning to the life that we lead. That it is a discipline, not just of language, or of culture, or of critical thinking, but, through these things, ultimately—as we say in our title—a discipline for human love and for human wisdom: a discipline whose origins were key to our prior evolution as a species, and whose further development may be key to our further evolution, and our very survival.
We will try to show you how once we collectively understand the story of how our Cinderella of a subject has evolved, in both historical and biological terms, we will finally be able to fully justify to the public we serve the importance of what it is we do, and be far more regularly able to summon forth with the students in our classrooms the vivifying, humanizing, regenerative power that originally called so many of us into this profession. The long historical and evolutionary story behind what is now called “English,” once it is generally understood, can justify placing our discipline at the curricular center of democratic education—not just as it is now, in terms of numbers of required classes, but in terms of actual centrality to the democratic world-view that a system of democratic education should facilitate in democratic society.
That new curricular center will be a humanistic rather than a scientific one—though derived from and in full alignment with the findings of science. And it will help us tell a new story about the power of education to advance human life that might be more successful in actually advancing it than the story many of us were told in our youth about how the development of science and technology alone—coupled with the spread, through education, of the ability to reason “objectively”—would bring us infinite benefit.
To recenter human education on the disciplined cultivation of love and wisdom—and to recenter our understanding of the story of humanity on our ability to do this, which has grown and waned over time—may actually turn out to be the most decisive factor in our ability, under current global conditions, both to survive and to further thrive as a species on this planet. Should this surprise us, in the second decade of the twenty-first century? On the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, three-quarters of a century ago, Albert Einstein, the man then esteemed both as the world’s greatest scientist and as one of its greatest humanists, had this to say: “Everything has changed . . . except the way we think.” Since that time, the destructive capacities of the technologies that scientific understanding enabled our species to invent have increased many fold. Even if we don’t destroy ourselves with the bang of nuclear devastation, it is more than likely that we will go out with the whimper of the gradual warming and species extinction that will eventually drastically alter the global ecosystem . . . unless, as Einstein said two-thirds of a century ago, we are somehow able to change the way that the masses of our fellow human beings think, to help our species live move lovingly and with more wisdom on this planet than has hitherto been our lot.
How can “English” do this? Clearly, it can’t—if we insist on calling it “English.” And “literacy” and “cultural studies” hardly do much more: these words are patch jobs on a discipline that needs a complete overhaul. “Literacy” expands the range of skills from the nationally standardized grammar of the old “English,” but doesn’t distinguish moral “skills” from merely technical ones: it may make our thinking more versatile, but it doesn’t clearly represent in any way a call to fundamentally change it. “Cultural studies” admits the need for fundamental criticism, but its orientation is fundamentally toward critical rather than constructive thought: it shows us where we have need to change the way we think, but doesn’t in itself accomplish the change it sees we need. “Literacy,” it can be said, simply provides us a broader, less chauvinistic view of a discipline centered on “the letter,” when what we need is to recenter that discipline on “the spirit” that lies behind “the letter” and gives it life. “Cultural studies” satisfies itself with the mere criticism of previously unexamined life, but that satisfaction with criticism appears in many ways as simply a new form of dogmatism at a time when it is more and more transparent that mere criticism is woefully inadequate for the renewal of life that we desperately need.
Before we can lay our cards all on the table about what we propose should be the future of our subject, though, we first need to take you through—in the balance of this first chapter—the two largest, broadest, and most important efforts over the past half century to redefine, and further deepen and illuminate, the meaning and purpose of “English.” Though neither succeeded, in the end, in capturing the public imagination, they did capture the imagination of large swaths of teachers of “English,” significantly deepening and expanding their understanding of what it is that they do in their classrooms from the nationalistic agendas of language and culture to which “English” had been superficially tied. It is in part, we believe, by finding the hidden complementarity of these two separate efforts—separated from one another by two decades and from the present day by another two—that we can begin to find what has, since about the late nineteenth century, been called “English” may have been meant to be all along, in a way that can finally make a broad new appeal to the general public.
But that will be just the beginning of the deep story of “English” that we will tell. The thing we call “English,” which name dates from little more than a century ago, in fact, as we have said, has very deep historical, prehistoric, and even biological roots. And in order to understand what it needs to grow into, we need to gain a much fuller understanding of where it has come from, and how it evolved before it was given this name. We need to trace the historic and pre-historic predecessors of “English” to help us articulate the deep human needs—far deeper than the cultural unity of a single people—that it can address. The Newbolt Report of 1921 provides a hint—but only that—in naming its intent as “to provide a liberal education for all English children” “linking together the mental life of all . . . by experiences which have hitherto been a privilege . . ..” The English government, in other words, was extending the privilege of an education for the exercise of freedom from a single class within a nation to that nation as a whole. Our need is similar to, and at the same time, much larger than theirs: we need to unify, and at the same time extend freedom of thought not just to a nation but, somehow, to the preponderance of people on the globe. The main question, it turns out, that one needs to ask in order to answer the question “What is ‘English’?” is “How does education for unifying freedom need to be reconceived, when it is no longer anyone’s—no class’s and no nation’s—privilege? When the mental life of all needs somehow to be intentionally and freely linked together—when the masses of humankind need to be brought to freely choose to live lives that are governed by love and by wisdom—if we are to protect ourselves from the many grave dangers to which we are now subjecting both one another and the planet on which we dwell?
These are the very large questions we believe we can actually find plausible answers to by digging down to those historic, pre-historic, and biological roots of “English.” First, though, to those two recent, partial attempts to get “English” to evolve into something more than the nationalization of language and liberal learning for which it was originally conceived. Before we go backward in time from the founding of “English” in the late nineteenth and early twentienth century, we will go forward, first to the 1960s, then to the 1980s.
Darmouth, 1966: “Growth through English”
The Dartmouth Seminar of 1966 was undertaken in the midst of the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and the challenges to democratic systems of education raised by the success of Sputnik, seeking both to respond to grassroots movements for social and cultural change and to capitalize on the State-sponsored movement for educational reform that had already brought forth strong, widely influential “new math” and “new science” curriculums. It brought together fifty eminent scholars from Britain and North America for an entire month to discuss how to update the teaching of “English.” According to Arthur N. Applebee, their conversations, in particular, “sharply altered the [subsequent] professional conversations of the leaders [of K-12 English Education in the United States]” (1974).
“Growth through English” became its motto, this being the title of Yorkshireman John Dixon’s official report to the profession summing up the results of the various conversations held that summer, published the following year on behalf of the National Association for the Teaching of English in the United Kingdom, and both the National Council of Teachers of English and the Modern Language Association of the United States. The “language skills” and “cultural heritage” models of “English” were to be superseded by a discipline connecting “language and personal growth” (Dixon 1967, p. 4). What was to be cultivated, in other words, was no longer simply national unity, through the media of national language and national literature, but the personal unity of each member of a democratic people, through language as the symbolic medium through which “each individual takes what he can from the shared store of experience and builds it into a world of his own” (pp. 6-7). The discipline once seen as serving to constitute a people in the singular was now seen as helping to constitute persons in the plural.
This approach had both a tremendous advantage and a great drawback compared to the previous ones. The advantage was the new focus on present experience rather than on past inheritances, on what we can make of language and literature rather than on what it can make of us. The importance of this new emphasis cannot be underestimated. It, for the first time, gave firm professional credence to the belief that a democratic society had to have one curricular discipline that was primarily student- and experience-centered rather than objective subject matter-centered, a discipline whose central purpose was to inspire and guide the cultivation of personal freedom. In very important ways, it represented an advance upon and expansion of even the very high aspirations for “English” of the Newbolt Report of 1921: more than a vehicle for unity of national sentiment, for cultural nation-building, it became the vehicle for free individual world-building, laying the inner foundation for a democracy of free beings.
There was also a great drawback, though, to the way that this freedom and its cultivation were conceived at this stage. This was the disappearance—or, at the least, a temporary, partial eclipse—of the collective, public we that language and literature were once seen as being capable of making. The central agenda of “English,” as Dixon stated it, was no longer a public but a private one: “In ordering and composing situations that in some way symbolize life as we know it, we bring order and composure to our inner selves” (p. 13). Those composed “inner selves” could meet again in public “to share their encounters with life” (ibid.), but their meetings were pegged as voluntary interactions amongst a collection of essentially private selves, encountering life separately, rather than being social, collective, or mutual in nature. There was a plural we that “English” helped bring into being, but an effective, powerful social, collective, or political we was now largely out of sight.
The “personal growth” agenda, as formulated in the 1960s, could be summarized by the then popular Rod McKuen poem: “You are you,/ and I am me,/ and if by chance we come together/ it’s beautiful.” But, quite unlike the versions of “English” of previous eras, “coming together” no longer seemed either urgent or necessary in comparison with the fostering of individual life. At the end of Growth through English, Dixon even inveighed against the limitations of what he called “discussion culture,” at least conceived as in itself an adequate embodiment of democratic life:
Discussion both enables and limits . . .. [So] from the very start of reading and writing [the teacher] has to look beyond the minimum possibilities of literacy to the profounder possibilities of a considered and extended exploration of experience, permitting slower realizations and more individual, personal growth. (111-112)
The central goal of “English” now seemed something like to create a curricular cocoon—a snug, warm “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf (1929) put it—for the free development of individuals. But there was no clear understanding yet of what those individuals would do with that freedom when they emerged from those cocoons, if and when they chose to do so. Or even of how to convince a sufficient number from among the democratic masses that they needed these cocoons in the first place.
The irony of this as a serious proposal for the redesign of national programs of education was not lost on Herbert J. Muller, of the University of Indiana, who was given the to some extent unenviable assignment of preparing a report on the conference, not for the professional community but for the general public. This was called The Uses of English (Muller 1967). At both the beginning and the end of this report (as opposed to Dixon’s report to the profession, which, he admitted, “stressed . . . consensus” and “undervalued the dissenting views” (Dixon 1967, p. xi)), probing questions were raised about the public viability of the curriculum for “personal growth” that so powerfully ignited the hearts and minds of so many who attended the Dartmouth Seminar. How was this vision of creating a democracy of freely developing individuals ever to move from their tiny professional choir loft of fifty into democratic congregations numbering in the hundreds of millions?:
Hopes of improving the teaching of English . . . raise a vulgar economic question. Is our society willing to pay the costs? America has rushed in much more money for education in science and mathematics ever since the Russians got ahead with the first sputnik; the shortage of “scientific manpower” was called a “crisis.” The country has shown no comparable concern over the state of English, or its “language manpower” . . .. Supposedly the most fundamental subject, English is in fact commonly regarded as about the least practical one . . .; congressmen do not consider it really vital to the “national interest.” And what popular concern there is over it brings up deeper social problems.
For the ordinary teacher . . . “good English” is simply correct English, by the standards of respectable people . . .. He is always under pressure to conform to the conventional beliefs of the community . . .. [I]t was a British teacher who first raised a question that kept recurring during the seminar. Dedicated to the development of youngsters as conscious individuals, especially by creative writing, he asked: Does our society really want such persons? Might not a slum youngster made more conscious of himself become a rebel? Might not an English teacher who helped him to discover himself be regarded as subversive? An American might add: Do the youngsters themselves really want to become individuals with minds of their own? In high school they are pleased to say “Be yourself,” but on questionaires most of them say they want above all to be “well adjusted”—not clearly the best way of being oneself. Certainly most parents, as well as most personnel directors in business, want young people first of all to become well adjusted. A serious consideration of the role of English in education ultimately forces the fundamental issue of the relations of the individual and society, actual and ideal. (Muller 1967, pp. 16-17)
The Dartmouth Seminar, as we have said, was an immensely important event, in that it helped the profession of “English” to, for the first time, articulate and publicly declare clear ends for itself that were more than nationalistic. But it ended up placing the leadership of the profession more firmly within the counter-culture than within the mainstream culture of democratic society. And with the fall of the hopes of that counter-culture for imminent social transformation—with the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the ascent to the Presidency of Richard Nixon in 1968, the year after the two reports on Dartmouth were published—Muller’s skepticism certainly seemed to have been borne out over Dixon’s optimism.
In the ensuing years, the many popular revolts staged against curricula designed for “personal growth,” indeed, put the installation of such curricula into severe public question. And it may have been only the powerful convictions that had been fostered among many in the profession around the ideas that coalesced at Dartmouth—enforced by the power that they could see the “personal growth” agenda had to dramatically affect the lives of many, if not all or even most of their students—that both kept those ideas alive and kept many in the profession thinking, over the course of decades in which they were generally out of fashion, about how to better justify their broad adoption.
Wye Plantation, 1987: “Democracy through Language”
In 1987, another major conference was held, this time an all-American one, but with the additional input of K-12 classroom teachers, who comprised over a third of the sixty in attendance. Called the English Coalition Conference, it gathered representatives of eight major professional organizations for three weeks of discussions at the pastoral setting of the Wye Planation in Maryland, lent by the Aspen Institute.
This time, one of the central reasons for convening the meeting was to help the various professional organizations within the profession of “English” coalesce against the policies and public rhetoric of the Reagan administration and its intellectual allies—unlike the Dartmouth Conference which in large part sought to catch the waves of positive educational change. Four years earlier, the Commission on Excellence in Education (which had nary a single English teacher at any level among its members, though representatives from every other major and many much more minor disciplines had been invited) had released the report A Nation at Risk. In a time in which the American economy was losing ground internationally, this report sought to put a large share of the blame for that upon the laxity of the education system, which it found to be more concerned with social issues and “feelings” than with training workers. “History is not kind to idlers,” it began, as it claimed that we could retain our great Nation’s global “preeminence” only by assiduously putting every last one of our children’s noses constantly to the grindstone.
Although the participants at Wye knew they were swimming against a powerful political stream, there was unquestionably an even more positive spirit at this conference, and even more powerful feelings generated by it, than at Dartmouth twenty years earlier. This was in part because the conference was organized to allow for plentiful and multifarious sorts of interaction among its greatly varied participants. And probably also in part because the ferment within the profession that the Dartmouth Conference had laid the ground for had in the intervening years begun to give a new tenor to the best teaching and thinking in the field, which the open-ended format developed by the organizers both exemplified and unleashed.
Here is what Wayne Booth, of the University of Chicago, the one person who attended both meetings, had to say about the exhilarating atmosphere created there:
The time spent at Wye Plantation proved to be the most profitable conferring-time I’d ever spent—more profitable and exhilarating than the weeks spent at the Dartmouth Conference on a similar subject twenty years before, even more profitable than the staff meetings I’ve shared each year with colleagues assigned to a given freshman course . . ..
[W]e . . . hit upon a truth that was by no means self-evident at the beginning: If you put committed English teachers together—those who are willing to spend as much as three weeks on the subject without being paid for it—and ask them to hammer out, in writing, the goals and methods they are most committed to; if you do not lecture them but spend the time in give-and-take discussion about their experiences and hopes and fears; and if you do not fix them to an agenda preestablished by some national organization or foundation—if, in short, you can run a conference like the one reported on here, you will find that they in fact share not just a profession with a set of assumptions and prejudices, but a vocation, a calling, a commitment. (Booth 1989, pp. vii-x)
No fewer than three official accounts of the conference were published as books: 1) Democracy through Language, the report sponsored by the Coalition as a whole and written by two university professors, Richard Lloyd-Jones and Andrea Lunsford; 2) Stories to Grow On: Demonstrations of Language Learning in K-8 Classrooms, sponsored and written by the fourteen members of the elementary section of the conference and edited by Julie Jensen, and 3) What Is English?, sponsored by the Modern Language Association (the largest professional group of university educators in the humanities) and written mostly by Peter Elbow, though short pieces by a large number of the participants were interspersed throughout.
Despite Booth’s (and others’) claim of the “astonishing agreement” reached by the participants during their three weeks together, these three accounts still are enormously different from one another, in ways that are quite illuminating both about lingering tensions within the profession and about the lingering issue of how to explain and justify itself to the democratic public. How this is so can easily begin to be seen simply by comparing their titles.
The professors, speaking for the conference as a whole, articulated a new, specifically political agenda for “English,” through which it was thought it could compete with and counter the narrowing of national educational vision that began soon after the publication of A Nation at Risk. While not exactly dissenting from this new political theme, the elementary teachers, by and large, held on to the inspiring, but politically troublesome “personal growth” agenda from Dartmouth (which, of course, they could do, as, at least at that time, it was relatively easy to justify “softer” ways of teaching in the early grades). Elbow—interestingly, invited by the MLA to write “exploratory and subjective reflections rather than a full or official reporting”—decided that what the actual results of the conference most called for was “a picture of a profession . . . percolating at various levels . . . that cannot define what it is” (Elbow 1990, p. v).
The professors told and the teachers showed what English was, as best they could; but Elbow kept questioning, and painted a moving picture of it—most moving in his attempt to show it “percolating,” struggling to draw up from within itself energies and flavors that might make it at some future time something more completely satisfying and fulfilling. Elbow was most proud of the group when he saw it reaching for uncertain possiblities rather than simply deciding to be satisfied with something all, if they only looked searchingly within, could admit was not yet a fully satisfying, comprehensive and publicly comprehensible understanding of what “English” was centrally about as a profession, what its central mission was for those it served.
Booth, Elbow, and Lloyd-Jones & Lunsford all report that the group achieved an “astonishing consensus” early on, in uniting against the ideas presented in the first few days by Undersecretary of Education Chester Finn and by E.D. Hirsch, Professor of English at the University of Virginia. Hirsch at the time had just started to propound his “schema theory” of “cultural literacy,” claiming that a culture needed, above all, a shared knowledge base to unify itself, and that it was the paramount duty of the schools to impart the “solid content” of this shared knowledge base. Finn spoke about how this should be applied to the field of English by de-emphasizing the “skills-based” approach of the recent “language arts” “literacy” movement in favor of the old “knowledge-based” study of the great works of literature. Both, perhaps without knowing it, harkened back to the original rallying call of cultural unity that lay behind the institutionalization of “English” a century before—though their version of this call was an extremely dessicated one compared with the Newbolt Report’s claim that “English” could offer the people, not just shared bits of information, but the highest form of emotional and spiritual welfare.
Elbow quotes a telling exchange that occurred between Hirsch and Marie Bunscombe, an African-American teacher at Brooklyn College, who asked, in the question and answer session following his talk:
“But can’t I be literate and different from you?” I [this is Elbow] expected to hear Hirsch argue that a common core of shared information and shared culture would of course permit enormous cultural diversity. But in fact he replied by talking about the loss of cultural diversity as a “downside” (his word) . . . that we must choose between cultural pluralism and cultural literacy. (Elbow 1990, p. 31)
Not at all long after this pointed exchange, the sixty professors and teachers arrived at their “astonishing consensus” that the central theme of the conference, and thus, in important ways, of the immediate future of the discipline of “English” would be “democracy through language.” Rather than the mere absorption of knowledge, the heart of the discipline would be seen as the “language arts” (used “interchangeably with “English studies”) required “to assimilate, evaluate, and control the immense amount of knowledge and the large number of messages produced every day.” And this understanding of the synthesizing value of the “language arts” led them to an understanding of a new political purpose for “English”: the acknowledgement and appreciation of “diversity.” Lloyd-Jones and Lunsford report the official position about “democracy through language” that the entire group adopted:
Citizens of a democracy must be able to appreciate diversity even as they advocate their own beliefs about what is good and true. Teaching students how and why different ways of reading can find different meanings in the same text can provide important experience in understanding and appreciating opposing perspectives. Learning about the many different kinds of writing and ways of thinking which are the subject matter of the language arts curriculum can expand the capacity of students to imagine and value worlds other than their own. The ability to communicate their views in written form and to listen with comprehension to the views of others is also indispensable to citizens in a democratic society, and enhancing this ability is a major aim of language arts education. (Lloyd-Jones & Lunsford 1989, p. xx)
This was a coherent new direction for the profession, seeming to reinvent “English” for a new age of democracy, an age of radical diversity and difference and truly universal enfranchisement. “English” now had a clear public agenda again, as opposed to the more private one of “personal growth” from Dartmouth. It was still “student-centered,” but in a much more complex way, interested more in interactions than in internal growth. It recaptured the focus on rhetoric which long had been the center and summit of liberal education before the study of literature gradually took its place with the rise of “English.” And this was a more democratic version of rhetoric, that saw close listening as at least as important as powerful speech. As such, it appeared ready to become the central curricular vehicle for a truly vibrant democracy, in which each and every citizen could be both personally empowered through the acquisition of the varied skills of the “language arts” and, in addition, could appreciate and acknowledge the diversity of identities and points-of-view that made democratic life resonate from within. “Democracy through Language”—or, perhaps more accurately, “Diverse Democracy through Diversity of Language Use”—certainly did seem as if it would make a more powerful appeal than the implicit “Unity through Facts” approach of educational standardization being advocated by the other side: undertaken in the name, but hardly in the true spirit of democracy, just as other authoritarian and fascistic movements had similarly coopted the spirits of churches and peoples in the past in the interest of unifying the Nation through a determined single-mindedness. Finally, in the face of deep political adversity, “English” seemed to have found its true political calling—as the curricular guarantor, not of unity, but of diversity.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Though Elbow, for one, was deeply impressed at how rapidly and solidly the consensus on “democracy through language” was formed, this was hardly what impressed him most about the conference. Before coming to this, nominally central consensus in the third chapter of What Is English?, named “Democracy through Language,” he presented what to him was a more important, actually central and more remarkable one in the second chapter, which he called “A Remarkable Consensus about a Main Theme”: that “English” now seemed to be centrally about the twofold process of 1) the making of new meaning in experiences of immediate engagement with texts, other people, and oneself; and then 2) reflecting on the process of how that new meaning got made.
For Elbow, at least (and, it seems, for many others at the conference as well) the making and understanding of meaning was even more fundamental to the profession than reconstituting democracy—even if not suitable as a public slogan to oppose the authoritarian understandings of education being fed down the political pipeline. Still, we know now who won that battle for the public imagination. And perhaps the major reason why the political Right did win the battle for education—why our current national program of education is much closer to one of “Unity through Facts (and, now, Skills)” than of “Diverse Democracy through Diverse Use of Language”—was because the latter agenda was not, in the end, fully satisfying to anyone—the professionals, the policy makers, or the public—while at least the policy makers and the public could both easily rally behind the simple agenda of “Unity.” We might expect that until “English” finds an agenda that is broader, deeper, and more publicly appealing than both “Democracy through Language” and “Unity through Facts and Skills,” the latter may just continue to prevail as our central educational agenda, even as the forces of the political Right are very much out of power.
“Making and Understanding Meaning,” we have to confess, would probably have an even less powerful hold on the democratic public imagination (despite how central it is to the existence of such an imagination) than “Democracy through Language” did. We need to look elsewhere—beyond the “astonishing, remarkable consensus” that was achieved, and toward the areas in which there was strong dissensus—to begin to understand and conceptualize just how “English” was, in Elbow’s term, “percolating,” and what it might percolate into, should the subterranean flavors and juices that some at the conference were able to summon up more fully than others be brought to prevail, to permeate what is now called “English” with those natural substances so that it finally becomes a satisfying brew that we can give another, truer name to. A name with powerful and enduring appeal to today’s democratic public, that will encompass, all together, the goals of democratic unity, democratic diversity, and the making and understanding of meaning.
Inklings of Synthesis
The last main chapter of What Is English?, far and away the most powerful part of the book, is about the dissensus of two subgroups: a dissensus not mentioned in Lloyd-Jones and Lunsford’s official report, which, ironically, did not, it seems, quite manage to adequately acknowledge and appreciate the diversity of its own constituents. Titled “The Danger of Softness,” it gave an account, first, of how three members of the College Section (a ninth of the total membership of that section—all three women, two African-American and one Jewish) left the main group and formed their own. They called themselves “the wholistic subgroup,” while others called them the “Joy group”—some more openly fearful of “the danger of softness” than others, but most needing to distance themselves from it at least somewhat by adopting this semi-ironic name. After that Elbow, in this chapter, spoke generally, in a deeply admiring way, about the entire Elementary Section—just under a quarter of the membership of the conference as a whole (fourteen of sixty). Since they were already regularly a self-contained group, they did not need to dissent, and also seemed, more simply, to be able to exemplify holism and joy, and to tell stories about how it was exemplified in their classrooms, without needing to advocate “needlingly” for it as the “wholistic/Joy” subgroup of the College Section said they needed to do.
In the next chapter we turn our attention more extensively to these two groups and to other teachers who exemplify these same holistic concerns. Before that, though, in order to see more clearly just what it was they needed to dissent or part ways from, let us consider some of the inherent limitations of understanding “English” as “democracy through language.”
First, there are certainly ways in which the opposition of the new “English” to the old, original “English” of a century earlier can be seen as being far too pat to have achieved in any way a stable resolution of what “English” is. The old “English” was for democratic unity, the new for democratic diversity. The old “English” centered on the passive absorption of language and literature, the new on the active construction of meaning. Most importantly, the old “English” was, in a way, a condescending “gift” from “cultured” to “uncultured” classes, to “uplift” them, while the new “English,” in a way, was a conscious leveling of culture, in that its stated goals involved no more than the acknowledgement and appreciation of differing, supposedly inherently equal points of view: though it emphasized the synthesizing powers of language, resolving or transcending cultural difference was not yet clearly in its sights. In short, Hirsch and Finn represented a particularly moribund form of the nationalistic goals of old “English.” And from the “action” they proposed, on behalf of the government—the equivalent (even though they probably didn’t know it) of recuperating the old rationale for “English”—a pretty much equal and opposite “reaction” was formed by the members of the conference that allowed them to coalesce, perhaps more against “old English” than really able to formulate a “new English” that could truly gain a new and powerful hold on democratic society.
“Diversity,” in itself, is not enough, not humanly satisfying, unless through it we are able to attain new unity. Without that means of attaining new—regenerative, recreative—unity, people will often, perhaps sadly, prefer a tyrannical unity to a condition they perceive as dangerously anarchic. Insofar as we are not alike, there is always the potential—even, realistically speaking, the likelihood—that we will be engaged, not in the nice acknowedgement of and appreciation for diversity, but in the unnice struggle for power. Where is the line between “Democracy through Language” and identity politics? How do we govern ourselves, how do we become a people, positively connected to one another, if “the acknowledgement and appreciation of diversity” is our best means of being connected? “Anarchy,” the lack of a governing, uniting idea, is the shadow side of “diversity.”
The danger of the “personal growth” agenda from Dartmouth was that it made “English” too private a thing to be of clear public use. The danger of the “democracy through langugage” agenda was that it didn’t yet give us a clear way to talk to one another, which the goal of “acknowleging and appreciating diversity” and the new rhetoric of listening it introduced, tacitly acknowledged. If the limitations of Dartmouth could be summed up with the Rod McKuen poem, “You are you,/ and I am me;/ and if we come together,/ it’s beautiful,” the limitations of Wye—the public face of it at least—could be summed up by a negative variation of that: “I am not you,/ you are not me,/ and we can only come together/ under false ideological and nationalistic pretenses/ (i.e., acknowledging and appreciating our diversity is the only way we have/ of getting along).”
The pointed exchange between Marie Bunscombe, the African-American woman, and E.D. Hirsch, the Caucasian man—“Why can’t I be literate and different from you?—pointed the way to the “astonishing consensus” on the general theme “democracy through language” among the Wye participants, by opposing an authentic subjectivity to an inauthentic “objectivity.” But it did not point the way to any kind of democratic understanding beyond the “acknowledgement and appreciation of diversity” and difference. It could not yet show how Buscombe, Hirsch, and their like, could, by learning to read one another, build a common world together. “English,” stripped again, in a different way, of its aim of “nation-building,” was left with another form of separate “room-building”—this time including the acknowledgement of the differences between our essentially separate rooms, not just a cocooning of ourselves to allow us to build them. But the larger task of “world-building,” of building something bigger than a self, a cultural identity, or a nation, through all of these, was not yet even able to be acknowledged —and had no place in the overall agenda of “English”—in large part because of the purely oppositional nature of the political agenda of “Diverse Democracy through Diverse Use of Language” to the political agenda of “Unified Democracy through Imposed, Standardized Facts and Skills”
The second major shortcoming of the “democracy through language” agenda was that it did not begin to account for the very powerful legacy that the Dartmouth conference had had on the teaching of “English” in the intervening years. This can be seen in the above description by Lloyd-Jones and Lunsford (above, p. 33-34), which emphasizes taking others’ views into consideration, but generally assumes that otherwise our opinions are as fixed as our social identities, that they are things we “advocate” for, rather than think through and change. The public face of the profession suddenly altered itself from being about “growth,” which was under political attack, to being about “democracy,” which was seen as less susceptible to attack. But the elementary teachers showed that their division of the profession of “English” had taken the “personal growth” agenda from Dartmouth and run with it, helped it grow and flourish in powerful ways in the twenty-one years (the standard measure of a human generation) between Darmouth and Wye. And the “needling” of the “holistic” “Joy” group can be seen as an effort to suddenly revolutionize the more “academic” upper levels of education in ways that followed what the lower levels had freely evolved. What the elementary teachers showed better than the academics could tell was how the “personal growth” agenda, in a way, had grown up, by being caringly implemented with real-life children. But it was necessary also to tell just how and why it had grown, and what the human and natural sources of that growth were, to make effective arguments for “softness” in the “hard” realm of public policy, where it was perceived, in the language of A Nation at Risk, as “idleness.”
The elementary teachers showed the power of kinds of teaching that many of the others within the group, and most others outside it, perceived as dangerously “soft.” This was the deep appeal that spoke to the three women members the College Section, that led them to boldly separate themselves from their colleagues committed to the “democracy through language” agenda, to pursue what they (and Elbow) found to be the higher calling of “soft” “holism” and “Joy.” Though these things were not yet conceptually, intellectually articulated in such a way that they could form a clear basis for national educational policy, they were already able to be exemplified and narrated in ways that boded well for the future, gestures toward a unity that lay beyond diversity rather than simply being imposed from above. That power also needed to be effectively explained, and much of the work we will do in this book is, indeed, to try to explain it more or less definitively, by searching for its deep sources in human history and human evolution. But seeing, first, the powerful call that these two groups of teachers felt—the call that drove them to separate or demark themselves from their more intellectually and politically powerful colleagues—will ground us in that search. And that is what we will show you in the following chapter.
The third major shortcoming of “democracy through language” was that, in its pure opposition to the old “English,” it didn’t look beyond the history and concerns of “English” itself to consider what might replace it. It didn’t consider the pre-history of “English,” as, for instance, the Newbolt report did, by grounding itself in the tradition of “liberal education.” It assumed that our helping one another to use the tools of language artfully and well (fully equating, remember, “language arts” and “English studies”) would, in itself, be sufficient to reconstitute democracy, not considering that the human and natural basis for democracy might be extra-linguistic. It failed to consider either the extra-linguistic sources of the emotional satisfactions “English” tends to bring when taught well—which, of course, predated the nineteenth century invention of the discipline centered on the teaching of vernacular language and literature—or the general human needs which it and its predecessors were shaped to further, needs that “percolate” deeper even than language and the arts of language do.
The remainder of this book will be occupied with these last two problems. We will look to how we can expand and deepen the “personal growth” agenda from Dartmouth, and do so by investigating the long pre-history of “English,” as a way, not of overcoming, but of deepening the “democracy through language” agenda. If “English” is not fundamentally about “language” at all, but about both the role of “meaning” in human life (the main “consensus” at Wye, according to Elbow), and how that can be furthered through a certain kind of democratic educational policy, we might take as an intermediate and synthesizing catchword for both Dartmouth and Wye—algebraically eliminating “English” and “Language” from their two slogans—as “Growth through and for Meaning-Making Democracy” or, perhaps better, “Democracy through Growing Together.” The psychological and the political agendas alone, in other words, were inadequate to compete with the old nationalistic agenda for “English” (and were each partially covered up, in any case, by the attention that the name “English”—as long as it continued to be held onto—called to national language and culture, rather than to general psychological or political things). But convincingly brought together—coupled with the fact that we finally seem to be emerging from the regressive economic and political mythologies that have gripped American and much of the world since the 1980s—they might amount to something that will finally definitively transform “English” into something else, into something that will be fully answerable to the deep sense of vocation that has belonged to “English” teachers all along. If we can understand, in other words, why the very ideas of “democracy” and “personal growth” are inherently linked to and inherently enrich one another—in ways that have hitherto been little understood and little appreciated by those concerned more with either the public or the private sides of these linked phenomena—we might be able to finally begin to understand what “English” actually “is”!
II. What IS “English”? (Part Two):
Beginnings of Answers in Stories of Classroom Life
(What follows is a sketch of the opening of this first section of the chapter.)
The Power of Softness: Following Up On the Percolating Undercurrents at Wye
Elbow’s What Is English? discussed the “wholistic/Joy” group of the College Section before the Elementary Section, moving from the politics of theorizing holism and joy to the seemingly apolitical practice of them. We will do the reverse here, in an effort first to show the full power “pedagogical softness” can have when it can be practiced in a safe environment, then to start to make our way, as the three college teachers did at Wye, to justify to the broader world, why it is so vitally important to create such spaces of “softness,” not just for children, but for democratic life as a whole, and for the world as a whole. We are going to move, in other words, from a picture of this “softness” in a pure and simple state to an initial understanding of how the deliberate creation of such spaces of “softness”—assiduously working, especially, to bring in those whose prior education has made them resistant to entering into such spaces—is critical to the development of the humanizing processes of loving wisdom, the broad cultivation of which may now be critical to human survival.
Stories to Grow On, published by the fourteen members of the Elementary Section in 1989—the same year as Democracy through Language, the offical report of the entire English Coalition, and What Is English?, Elbow’s “subjective” report, sponsored by the MLA—began with an account by the editor, Julie Jensen, of how critical the spirit of their relatively small group was to the overwhelmingly positive spirit of the conference as a whole, and why
The story of the Conference of the Coalition of English Associations is a graphic example of both the practical and the theoretical wisdom of elementary classroom teachers. Their presence was critical to the success of the conference. Among their contributions was an ability to support their views with concrete examples of sound practices and school realities. Time and again they helped others understand why and how to put students first—before a textbook, a favored literary work, a trusted teaching method . . .. For them, it was not good enough to talk about schooling in the abstract; they illustrated their stance with specific pictures and stories.
This affirmed this through testimony of seven of the most prominent figures attending the conference, whose teaching experience was almost entirely at the university level, asked neear the close of the conference, “What influence do you think elementary teachers have had on the conference?”:
[You influenced us] by both talking about and exemplifying the special combination of emotional and cognitive engagement that we have all ended up trying to express. –Wayne Booth, The University of Chicago
A profound one! The emphasis on “teaching children,” “student-centered learning,” “the construction of meaning,” etc. . . . helped to move me beyond my normal ways of thinking.
–Robert Denham, former Director, Association of Departments of English
A strong injection of child-centered approaches.
–Peter Elbow, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
A humanizing effect. Elementary teachers have always focused upon the learner as inquirer; they are unifiers and synthesizers. –Janet Emig, Rutgers University
They changed the views of many, especially college people, about what it means to teach a child. They provided access to the notions about learning and individually designed programs of learning. They established the emphasis on interaction. –Richard Lloyd-Jones, University of Iowa
The strong elementary presence here has confirmed the intellectually rigorous demands made on elementary teachers and it has led the way in allowing us not only to talk about but to experience literature.
Andrea Lunsford, Ohio State University
A profound influence. The concepts of language arts, interactive learning, and student-centered teaching have dominated the conference.
Robert Scholes, Brown University
The strongest testimony about their importance, though, was not from the authorities, but from the stories the teachers told about their teaching. The following is not part of Stories to Grow On, but was included in both the Lloyd-Jones & Lunsford and Elbow volumes—and was far and away of the most powerful of all the vignettes of teaching both volumes offered:
by Carol Avery, Nathan C. Schaeffer Elementary School, Lancaster PA
May 8, 1987
We celebrate Mother’s Day in our first grade classroom this Friday afternoon. The children perform a play for their mothers entitled “The Big Race”—the story of the tortoise and the hare. Laura is the “turtle” who wins the race.
A few minutes later, Laura reads aloud the book she has authored about her mother. The group laughs as she reads about learning to count with her cousins when she was three years old. Laura writes: “I was learning six. Then my Mom came in and asked what we were doing. I said, ‘I’m learning sex!’” Laura’s mother is delighted. The reading continues with a hilarious account of a family squabble between mom and dad about a broken plate. Laura concludes the anecdote, “So then I just went in and watched TV.” Laura looks at me and smiles as she pauses, waiting for her audience to quiet before she goes on. I wink at her; I know she is thinking, “Wait till they hear the next part. It’s the funniest of all.” She reads about a llama spitting in mom’s eye on a visit to the zoo. Laura’s way with words has brought delight to everyone. I remember a week earlier when Laura and I sat to type her draft and she said, “This is the best part. I put it last so that everyone will feel happy at the end.”
May 9, 1987
Saturday night, around 11:45 p.m., a light bulb ignites fabric in a closet outside Laura’s bedroom. Laura wakes. She cannot get through the flames, and by the time firefighters reach her it is too late. Laura dies. No one else is injured.
May 11, 1987
The children and I gather on our Sharing Rug in the classroom. I have no plans. We start to talk. There are endless interruptions until Michael says, “Mrs. Avery, can we shut the door so peole stop bothering us?” So Michael shuts the door. “Are you going to read us the newspaper? they ask. “Is that what you’d like?” “Yes,” comes the unanimous response. The children huddle close; a dozen knees nuzzle against me. I read aloud the four-paragraph story on the front page of the Sunday News that accompanies a picture of our Laura sprawled on the lawn of her home with firefighters working over her. I read the longer story in Monday morning’s paper that carries Laura’s school picture. We cry. We talk and cry some more. And then we read Laura’s books—writing that Laura determined was her best throughout the year and that was “published” to become part of our classroom library. These books are stories of Laura and her family, stories with titles such as My Dad Had a Birthday and When My Grandmother Came to My House. Laura’s voice comes through loud and clear with its sense of humor and enthusiasm. We laugh and enjoy her words. “Laura was a good writer,” they say. “She always makes us laugh when we hear her stories.” Then Dustin says, “You know, it feels like Laura is right here with us, right now. We just can’t see her.”
A short time later we begin our writing workshop. Every child chooses to write about Laura this day. Some write about the fire, some memories of Laura as a friend. I write with them. After forty-five minutes it is time to go to art, and there are cries of disappointment at having to stop. We will come back to the writing. There will be plenty of time. The last five weeks of school will be filled with memories of Laura as we work through our loss together. The children will decide to leave her desk in its place in the room because “It’s not in our way and anyway, this is still Laura’s room even if she’s not really her anymore.” Laura’s mother and little brother will come in to see us. On the last day, they will bring us garden roses that Laura would have brought. Laura will always be a part of us and none of us will ever be the same.
In the days immediately following Laura’s death and in the weeks since then, certain thoughts have been rattling around in my head: I’m so glad that I teach the way I do. I’m so glad I really knew Laura. I know that I can never again teach in a way that is not focused on children. I can never again put a textbook or a “program” between me and the children. I’m glad I knew Laura so well. I’m glad all of us knew her so well. I’m glad the classroom context allowed her to read real books, to write about real events and experiences in her life, to share herself with us and to become part of us and we of her. I’m grateful for a classroom community that nurtured us all throughout the year and especially when Laura was gone. Laura left a legacy. Part of that legacy is the six little published books and the five-inch-thick stack of paper that is her writing from our daily writing workshops. When we read her words, we hear again her voice and her laughter.
(quoted in both Elbow 1989, pp. 193-194, and Lloyd-Jones & Lunsford 1989, pp. 64-66)
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