Literacy, Democracy, Jefferson, and Wellstone: Why We Do What We Do
Linda Miller Cleary, University of Minnesota Duluth
When events rock the world, I tend to get reflective about what I do, why I do it, and what I should be doing. The fall of 2001made all of us recheck our priorities, rethink our raison d’etre. Now with pending war, the loss of my favorite senator, Paul Wellstone, from Minnesota, white collar corruption, the impact of big money upon our upcoming election, ,I keep myself from despair by thinking about the “what more I should be doing.” During this fall, I have felt so strongly about how important English teachers are to our democracy that I have often startled my students, would-be English teachers, with my vehemence about how important their work will be. My thinking about this wasn’t just precipitated by recent events, but these events have shown me that I can no longer be silent about it.
Sometimes I think life is a series of losses of innocence, each precipitating questions that make us think more clearly. I won’t bore you with all the losses of innocence I have had in thinking about the teaching of English, but I will tell you of one to start this article. Some years ago, I interviewed Joseph (Cleary, 1990) while glancing over his shoulder and out the window at Lake Superior, where the clouds hung heavy. The interview itself hung heavy with my own internal questions. Joseph, or so he wanted to be called, was a student much like Garrison Keilor’s stereotype of the young male Minnesotans, good looking and above average. As you read his words, be assured that I will get to the hefty promise implied in the title.
I really have had to worry about what I was gonna write, always worrying if the audience will like it or not. It’s been hard because [at first] I didn’t know what my classmates would accept. The popular ones were really relaxed; I wasn’t. I had to worry what I was gonna read in front of class. I’d worry about sounding awkward. I wanted to be creative, but the worst fear was getting too creative. I wasn’t writing it for something that I would like. It was more something that they would like.
I don’t really write for myself. I can’t think of any time...Oh, okay, I did a voice of democracy thing once. They had a contest at each school where they gave us a topic, and they took the top three people from each school, and the first person got $100, the second got $75, and the third got $50. They’d send the speeches over to the judges. And it was called The Challenge of American Citizenship.... There was no way you could tell what would be a good speech. I was thinking the normal ones would be voting and public service and all that. Voting is so obviously American citizenship that I decided to do something about citizenship and world peace, racism. It was the one time when I didn’t do what I thought the judges would like. I liked it, and I didn’t win. People who did win did things like voting. I wish I had won the $100. I thought the next time I wouldn’t be so original. I decided to do what would win. School writing is the same basically; I write to get the grade. I just try to write what the teacher wants. And in debate, for example, I’m getting trophies, winning. It’s kind of a game.
Joseph, (p 162-164, Cleary, 1991)
There is irony that, in writing what he felt committed to saying, Joseph failed to win “The Challenge of American Citizenship” contest. To me one of the greatest challenges to American citizenship is educating citizens in a way that will perpetuate a democracy. Joseph, as he was in the early 1990's, wasn’t becoming an independent thinker, the kind of thinker that can come up with solutions to new problems, and one who would stand up for those solutions. He was being trained to conform. When I finished talking with Joseph, I remember feeling a sense of discomfort that was deeper than being queasy at the pit of my stomach. At the moment I would gladly have handed over $100 to him if I thought it would have given him back his own voice. He had gone beyond the endeavor of considering what would be compelling to an audience in order to convince them of his opinion. He was an earnest and studious young man who was just getting beyond the fear of peers. What disturbed me then was that I could see him being a future congressman. What disturbs me today is that Minnesota just lost one of its senators, Paul Wellstone, who had a voice and used it to the betterment of those who didn’t. Students like Joseph needed him as a model.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world...I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead-institutions. (“Self-Reliance,” 631)
I know there are other view points on Joseph’s words; some try to assure me saying that Joseph was just developing audience sense, that self-consciousness is a phase of adolescence and egocentrism. But at that moment in that interviewing room, I felt Joseph had capitulated, and I’m not sure that our democracy can withstand an educational system that rewards capitulation anymore. He wanted the money, wanted to figure out what the teacher wanted him to say for the grade, wanted to figure out what other people want to hear, wanted to be popular, and was convinced that popularity was dependent on not being different.
The Warnings of Our Fore-Fathers
It was Thomas Jefferson who was determined that a democracy could not work unless citizens were both well-informed, literate, keen on seeing through the tyranny of false politicians, and prepared to have opinions and defend them. His hopes for our nation’s democracy can help us look at the current English/Language Arts curriculum and consider whether it supports the development of a democratic citizenry. In troubling times, I sometimes think of his notions of citizenry and democracy hold hope for us.
Jefferson had a profound effect on what the United States holds dear; nevertheless, from our 21st Century prospective, he can be criticized. It was Jefferson who said that young women were “too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics,” and he held slaves. Douglas Wilson said, in talking about Jefferson, “...‘Presentism” names a malaise that plagues American discussions of anything and everything concerning the past: The Widespread inability to make appropriate allowances for prevailing historical conditions” (72). He quoted Emily Dickinson’s line: “Today, makes yesterday mean.” Ironically, fifty years ago Jefferson probably would have looked more critically at the very racism and sexism that he had trouble seeing clearly two centuries ago, because “isms” are often hidden by entrenchment in a way of living. With that defense of Jefferson out of the way, I have asked myself: what was he thinking in 1779 that would have meaning for us as English teachers in 2002?
The most effectual means of preventing tyranny is to illuminate as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more specially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be able to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes. (From “Bill for the Diffusion of Knowledge,” 1779)
In every country where man is free to think and to speak, differences of opinion will arise from difference of perception, and the imperfection of reason; but these differences when permitted, as in this happy country, to purify themselves by free discussion, are but as passing clouds overspreading our land transiently, and leaving our horizon more bright and serene.”
Jefferson, the father of our public schools pushed hard, especially in his later years, for those of all backgrounds to be educated. He saw a reading populace as essential to a democracy. He saw standing up for one’s views as being essential. I don’t think he would approve of the schooling we have today.
Identifying What Jefferson Might Deem to Be Current Tyranny
I think that the very way that we educate sucks our students into loss of integrity. Students stop adhering to a code of values because daring to be themselves, learning to voice their own beliefs, does not advantage them. As Joseph did, students learn to write and speak the ideas that they think they want us as teachers to hear. If there will be an audience of their peers, another screen in their audience sense must be added, so they can avoid derision. Perhaps the most insidious tyranny is the silence that occurs from caving into the power of audience, the capitulation.
During the past presidential election, an ad for West Wing, the television drama that has since won its second Emmy in as many years of airing, said: “West Wing has the president we wish we could vote for.” It was true for me. I wished I could vote for West Wing’s president Bartlett because the man, as portrayed by Martin Sheen, is humane and stands up for his convictions. Following the election, there was the question of the power of individual’s votes as voting booth irregularities shook the nation. So what other things are happening in our nation that threaten our democracy, things that go unchallenged by large numbers of citizen’s voices. A few come immediately to mind, some having developed over a long time, some more recent:
1. Our precious, “free” press is mostly owned by big conglomerates.
No experiment [writing the US Constitution] can be more interesting than that [which the] wise are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him [the citizen] all the avenues to truth.
I just talked with a past student of mine who writes for small city newspaper and feels the strong editing hand from the conglomerate that owns her paper, especially when political topics are covered. The New York Times and the Washington Post, two of our nations most powerful papers just joined efforts, cutting off what Jefferson might label as one “avenue of truth.” Although the reporters that I know are fierce defendants of the freedom of the press, Jefferson would find these “limited avenues to truth” as frightening a development, as he would the conglomerates of radio and cable enterprises. Jefferson couldn’t even have imagined radio, cable, much less internet/ web technology. Why are there continual threats of funding cuts for public radio and television? Will the internet expand the number of voiced citizenry? How do we teach our students to go to these sites with a critical eye.
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was and never will be.... Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe. Jefferson, 123
2. Educational efforts have been unable to stem narrowness of thought and resultant hate:
Hate can be blatant and directed from without our nation toward our nation (as represented by September 11th), or it can collapse us from within originating from the very citizens who should be guarding against it (as represented by the death of Matthew Shepherd and other hate crimes). Jefferson said, “Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds, enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both” (124). I think literature is essential for children growing up in a democracy because it encourages them to look at the world from different perspectives, through the eyes of different characters and into different situations. It is ethnocentrism that tears at different regions of the world. I believe that it is education that can help children to move from their egocentric state, to the ability to look at things through the various lenses needed for global understanding. When students are stuck in egocentrism, the adult version, ethnocentrism, takes hold. As anti-American sentiment builds, whether or not we think it is justified or even if those that hold resentment are themselves the worst of ethnocentrists, we need to have citizens who can think through the complexities of others’ ways of thinking. It is important that students begin to see why the US may appear to be arrogant from others’ perspectives. September 11th and its aftermath has shown us that we cannot afford simplistic thinkers as our future citizens and problem-solvers.
3. Ninety percent of the wealth is controlled by five percent of the population?
It would seem impossible that an intelligent people, with the faculty of reading and right of thinking, should continue much longer to slumber under the pupilage of an interested aristocracy of priests and lawyers, persuading them to distrust themselves, and to let them think for them. Jefferson
Who are today’s priests and lawyers?
[By] The selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. Jefferson, 134
When talking about the politics of reading this winter, I asked my students: Why do big businesses, conservative politicians, and the religious right come down on the side of using almost pure phonics instruction for beginning readers? I was astounded as they thought themselves through this question. They put their explanations forth tentatively, knowing that there were huge generalizations they had made, but, at the same time, they were taken with some of the thoughts they uncovered. I have written below from the notes they assembled on the board after thinking about these questions:
Fundamentalists often believe there is only one right way to read something. There is an unwillingness to look at stories as metaphors, to read beneath the surface, to read deeply. They are obsessed with surface level correctness of reading and writing? They forget the purpose of forging thought through writing and as a result of reading. Those who want to control people would like “shallow” reading. They often believe strongly in the right to life and the wrongness of birth control, and they often have large families. Would this make big business happy?
Big business would want to maintain a large group of non-questioning workers, cheap labor, who don’t question authority. They emphasize the importance of technical reading. Perhaps they want people to read only to accomplish what they want to be accomplished. Do they want to have a highly educated work force to whom they would have to pay higher wages. Big business would like the US to perpetuate a large working class.
Conservatives do not want to change the status quo. “What was good enough for me was good enough for today’s students,” is often the hue and cry, even though social situations have changed considerably. They are often satisfied with their place on the earning and power scale and want things to remain in their favor. Of course there are working class conservatives, but they might not see clearly how they are disadvantaged?
4. We elect congressmen who run on what appear to be their convictions and the desires of their constituents, and too often we later find them to be people voting on what their contributors wanted. Too many congressmen pay a lot of attention to campaign funding and our system makes them dependent on that funding. Why were huge amounts of money poured into the Minnesota senate election from out-of-state funding agencies? And when questioned, why was the anonymity of the donors protected. Why were most of these funds being used to defeat Paul Wellstone, a senator whose record showed that he voted firmly on his own beliefs and for the benefit of the wide base of his constituency. Within minutes of my first rendition of the lines that follow, Paul Wellstone died in an airplane crash just northwest of my home. Before I knew of his death, I thought I might have gone a little overboard with the lines “Wellstone is my hero because he articulates his convictions, because he votes his convictions, because he does not capitulate, and because he acts as a model that Joseph and other good looking Minnesotans need.” I had deleted the hero part, but now I am putting it back in, unfortunately in the past tense. Wellstone was my hero. He dared. Although his vote was often buried by those who didn’t dare, he kept issues in front of the legislature, in front of the committees on which he served. Wellstone was just described by the NCTE web page (www.ncte.org-10/26/02) in the following way: “Throughout his career he was a friend to literacy educators. We mourn this loss.”
Jefferson, like Wellstone, fought for public education as the route to equality and democracy. An education to be overseen by elected representatives of the people, an education that would not permit despots to control thought. Would Jefferson have opposed vouchers? He did oppose public funding for private institutions and worked hard to get state funding for public universities. He wanted minds to be openly influenced by multiple viewpoints. We can safely assume that he would have worried about the narrow interests of private educational groups, about big money influencing legislation and elections. The voice that opposes private interest money from controlling our legislation needs to come out loud and clear. The voice that opposes an education that narrows the way people think needs to come out loud and clear. As Jefferson said, “Education is a public trust.”
So where does literacy come into this. Back to Joseph. As Joseph learned to read and write to convince (which of course is important), he also learned to eclipse his own opinions, to base his message on what he thought teachers and peers might want to hear, to put prizes, debate victories, and good grades above his own beliefs. In essence, he capitulated. So, what should we as English teachers do?
What Teachers of English/ Language Arts Can Do to Make Voiced Citizens Who Will Act on Their Consciences
We have the great privilege, we think, of living in a democracy, but we are training our students to act in ways that may undermine that democracy. Is my thinking about all this jaded? I have been disillusioned, which is probably a pretty productive state, because it gets me beyond stasis in my thinking and has me working towards useful scenarios for English teachers. I think that helping our students develop into effective citizens lies straight in our lap as teachers of reading, writing, speaking, listening. We need to help them to be discerning as they take in information about the world and to speak their own conscience as they act upon the world.
Taking In Information: Receptive Language Acts
The Need for Critical Reading
“Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe”(Jefferson, 123).
I’m sure Jefferson intended critical thinking to be a part of his definition of reading, but he may not have known how astute readers and listeners need to be in our day of tricky media and today’s political gambits. Stephen Marcus said, “Literacy is knowing where the truth lies” (Pope and Golub, 2000, p. 91). Reading has become trickier; meaning needs to be discerned from within it’s complicated context. I was astounded/outraged as a reader to see Time and Newsweek’s indexes of Gore and Bush’s lies in our last election, many of which lies I had bought. I guess I should feel heartened that magazines owned by big conglomerates pointed them out; in that case, the press pushed me beyond the spin doctors. I applauded them. “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” Jefferson, 123
In 1985, I was honored to be in a seminar at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with Paolo Freire. One of his many wise statements was, “You need to teach students to read knee deep in text.” Actually this is one thing that English teachers do really well, we encourage knee-deep readings of literature. We teach the tools of critical reading, the workings of metaphor and symbol, looking at the inner workings of language and meaning. This is a valuable expense of time. We could probably improve on helping students to see how this kind of reading is essential in trying to figure out world events; we could help them make the connection between what we do and what social studies teachers do. We also do well in getting students to think about acting on what they read: “What would you do if you were Scout?” “Did Holden make the right decision here?” We let literature become simulations for the real dilemmas in life. We allow students to have their own taste in reading, allowing individual reading, reading workshops, and literary circles into the curriculum.
Reading the World: Multiple Perspectives
We do so well with literature, but we need to go one step further more often and help students to be very conscious of the multiple perspectives with which a reader can read. If adolescents are encouraged to observe their worlds through others’ perspectives, through different critical lenses turned on the same situations and characters, they will be better able to negotiate the subtleties of political connivance. And they will develop needed sensitivities to and arguments for different audiences.
Deborah Appleman quoted a student who talked about this:
How can one know who is right and who is wrong? There may never be an answer to that question, but there is a way to increase knowledge so that one may grow closer to the truth. The way to do that is to keep an open mind, look at things from different angles and then make an educated analysis (Appleman, p. ).
Be it in Social Studies or English, I believe that reading politically should be an every October occurrence. Whether local, county, state, or national politics, students need to be knee deep in the text of political writing and media. One of my favorite October texts is “A Modest Proposal,” which takes the study of literature into the political arena. Examining the text of political commercials may take some research, but it makes for heightened political awareness. October is, thus, a time for inquiry; students can compare political statements and stances of the candidates, against each other and against the facts of their records. Allowing students to discover that reading always seems true when it matches one’s original views may wake up their minds. Encourage students to stand firm until their own research or class discussion changes their minds, and, just as importantly, help students recognize moments when they actually change their opinions about something due to their reading or conversations. For instance, students might be asked to find one essay in their portfolios about which they think differently now than when they wrote it. They can see that opinions are based on a growing fund of knowledge and experience. They can be asked to call the old opinion into question.
In every country where man is free to think and to speak, differences of opinion will arise from difference of perception, and the imperfection of reason; but these differences when permitted, as in this happy country, to purify themselves by free discussion, are but as passing clouds overspreading our land transiently, and leaving our horizon more bright and serene. Jefferson
English teachers have a history of uncovering political euphemism, as our national organization sponsors the annual Doublespeak Award. (http://www.ncte.org/governance/committees/committees.shtml#Public Doublespeak). Following carefully prepared and documented awards can be a class activity. Talking about motives behind organizations’ slick words and looking for the messages beneath ads and how they motivate us to buy can be paralleled with political spin doctors. Looping back continually to the study of language and literature assures others that you are doing your job. Nancy Mellon McCracken said, “Analyses of political language support the notion that the language of literature is often usurped by public speakers, not to enhance communication as in poetry but to subvert communication” (Cleary and Linn, 1993, 554-564). McCracken has pairs of students go out in the world to look for what she calls “language pollution.” There is much to do.
The Precarious Balance of Audience Sense and Felt Sense in Articulating Thought:
As humans acting upon the world, our opinions need to be directed outward. As writers wanting to have our thoughts known, we continually work back and forth between what we want to say and whom we want to say it to. Sondra Perl (1986) has called the former “felt sense,” the gut level thoughts that guide what we want to say. Often in the composing process, we realize more than our original thoughts, we build logic behind them and further complicate them. We often do this while considering our readers, attending to what I call our “audience sense.” Too often, as in Joseph’s case, we privilege our audience over our own thoughts on a topic, shying away from what we really want to say because of the audience censor. At the same time, it is essential to be taking the audience into mind because the audience sense informs what words and emphases we must use to get our point across. We need to help our students to have real studied opinions and then work on how they might represent them to the audience they have in mind. If the audience wipes out the felt sense because it is too threatening, then maybe the writer needs an alternative audience until conviction wins out over the temptation to be silent in the face of the fearsome. To allow for a strong “felt sense,” it is imperative that students have choice in the topics that they write about. It may be that for your purposes of assessment writing needs to be on a certain subject, but within that subject there needs to be great latitude if students are to have their own voice in writing
As quoted above, Jefferson said: “...Differences when permitted, as in this happy country, to purify themselves by free discussion, are but as passing clouds overspreading our land transiently, and leaving our horizon more bright and serene” ( ). Engaging students in oral statements of opinions, engaging them in discussions, encouraging them to hold on to well-supported opinions until they see the need to change them seems essential. More time needs to be given to students as they are discovering what they think, perhaps, than to final assessments of their thoughts. Too often they proceed with formal writing or speaking on a topic before they have a chance to think through their convictions about a topic, to research ideas, to discourse about them on a casual level. As teachers we need to listen carefully, to model careful listening and respectful questioning, nudging students into more thoughtful stances and more knowledgeable ways of viewing the world, until they have confidence but not bull-head-less-ness about their opinions. We need to see students as evolving citizens, being interested in where our students are, interested in where they might go.
Perhaps the most controversial thing I will say here is that I think we need to reform classroom and even the heavily entrenched state-wide experiences in debate. Harking back to Joseph: Were there good things that came from Joseph’s experience with debate? Though he left his felt sense behind in debates, he did learn how to find arguments by which to convince his audiences. We desperately need real debates (not the kind where kids pretend to take sides for the sake of practice). I think that debate, as now practiced, gives students practice in argumentation for self-serving reasons, for hidden agendas, and encourages lack of integrity. There is no need for debates when we know people are on the same side, or when they are assigned a side for the sake of argumentation. The traditional kind of debate would serve to prepare lawyers who defend the innocent and guilty, but there is plenty of time in law school for them to prepare to defend individuals.
When the audience sense becomes ponderous, then one begins to dismiss right thinking, bowing to acceptable ideas. Emerson would admonish this:
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across is mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his (sic) thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841)
Real Audience and Purpose for Expression
If we think about what motivates literacy, we need to look back to the intrinsic motivation for all behavior: desire for feelings of self-determination, desire for feelings of competence, curiosity, responsiveness to feedback, tendency towards imitation, and inclination toward self-expression. When literacy is used for real audiences and purposes, it is then that students feel like they have accomplished something; and when they do, they feel competent. If they are reading and writing about topics that interest them, then curiosity feeds this work. If they have feedback that indicates interest in their ideas, as well as giving help for their desired end goal, their interest is renewed. If their peers and teachers are also engaged in the work of literacy with real audience and purposes, then they are more caught up in following along with that activity. Most of all real audience and purpose gives motivation for literacy acts in which students can feel their expressive inclinations. When there are real audiences, they can be realistic about what that particular audience needs to hear. If they have real purposes, those purposes either arise from a felt sense, a conviction, that they have begun with, or the purposes which feed that felt sense. The act becomes real. Their voices become real; they are more apt to read and write out of a conviction. Both Jefferson and Wellstone would be proud of them.
If students work with others towards real purposes, then they will need to negotiate strategies through conversations. As we have heard Jefferson say, and as John Dewey was fond of saying, “Democracy begins in conversations.” When “individualized powers of the child” are coordinated with the needs of the community to achieve some social end, Dewey pointed out (Kliebard, 1970), that literacy serves the needs of democracy. If we help students to find real goals (their own keen questions about their worlds, opinions that need expressing, writing that needs to be done, information that needs to be gathered from primary and carefully scrutinized sources, research needed to inform solutions to community problems), then we are participating in the development of good citizens.
Technology Creates the Need and Possibility for World Wide Citizenship:
The internet and the world wide web have tremendous potential for broadcasting the voices of citizens, for giving students access to real audiences. I have students publishing their work in student-run, international “zines.” An Abenaki student that I interviewed from a small village in Quebec astonished me with her technological sophistication. Sipsis had her own website,
I have a web site, and I speak of who I am on it. I write about dancing group, trips I made. I write on what I feel during my shows and what I feel during everyday life. Like the clothes I wear every day, compared to my dancing clothes. I explain these and what they mean, give more information. Friends like Kashtin and Betsiamites will read my site. Most Innu people have their web sites which speak about them. (Bergstrom, Cleary, and Peacock, 2002)
I have witnessed students from Aboriginal communities in the outback of Australia communicate with students in Washington state to research world weather and have observed students in Duluth, Minnesota converse over the internet with student partners in Germany, negotiating meanings with one another. It would be thoroughly possible, indeed a small ray of hope in an otherwise dismal situation, if students from the US and the middle east could converse in reasoned words about the rising conflict there. These kinds of communications are supported through the International Education and Resources Network (http://www.learn.org). Technology provides vast possibilities for real audience and purpose, but with it comes the serious need for the development of very critical lenses.
The use of technology is rife with the ethical issues of access. Last year I had a graduate student from Kenya who had no experience with technology. Whole countries and pockets of poverty have no access. On the other hand, communication via computer can be more democratic in its accessibility to more people, whether we talk intelligences or learning styles. Kinesthetic learners can find more active learning, visual learners have graphics and pictures to help them in gathering knowledge, audio learners will benefit as we keep learning how to decompress sound. Instead of left to right, the computer will move in and out. Jefferson would be astounded, and he would warn us of the need to be cautious of controls set on these new media and the need to “read” that media critically. “Literacy is knowing where the truth lies.”
The Need for a Pedagogy to Disturb: Keeping Developing Citizens Awake
...For too many individuals in modern society, there is a feeling of being dominated and that feelings of powerlessness are almost inescapable. I’m suggesting that such feelings can to a large degree be overcome through conscious endeavor on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them, to interpret the experiences they are having day by day. Only as they learn to make sense of what is happening, can they feel themselves to be autonomous. Only then can they develop the sense of agency required for living a moral life. Maxine Greene (1978, 43-44)
We need to enact a pedagogy to disturb, to help students to investigate their own assumptions and worlds, to explore the discontinuity before them. This needn’t be devastating; it just needs to disturb. Teachers should introduce discrepant events into students’ lives. Let students see hate sites, read Anne Frank, investigate sites that show the ovens at Dachau, go to the sites that say the holocaust did not happen, and then ponder.
We need to problematize what our students study. They need to consider the sale of pop in their schools while reading The Chocolate War. They need to see things in their complexity and consider the ramifications of lines like “Dare I disturb the universe” from that same book. They can enact simulations of likely ethical dilemmas and confusing situations to help them develop opinions and talk about them. They can read authentic texts from diverse cultures that would help them to better see and think critically about their own: Leslie Marmon Silko’s “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” and Ceremony, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, utopias such as The Giver and Animal Farm and on and on. Students need to consider thought provoking notions while reading literature. While reading excerpts from the philosopher Berkeley and Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, they might consider: Are you really free or are all the events and actions in your life determined? What limits your freedom? What should limit your freedom?
As English teachers, we all do some of these things, but we need to consider doing more. Jefferson’s ideas of what is needed to maintain our democracy soar into the ideal; some feel there is no grounding for them in the realities of our world, but I would venture that we can well afford to take a gander back at them occasionally and rethink our roles.
Recently my students asked me, “Why should we be English teachers? There’s the standardization, the testing, funding cuts. Is there a point to being an English teacher right now? Did you read that letter to the editor last week? Someone wanted to pay teachers less! And then there’s that ad on TV where the kid has to tell the Dad why he wants to be a teacher instead of a doctor.” I had the answer to my students’ question. Generally mild-mannered, they were astounded by my vehemence. Maybe I am beginning to become the English teacher that Jefferson and Wellstone would have wanted, one who feels conviction that literacy paves the way to democracy.
(more to be added)
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Cleary, Linda Miller. 1991. From the Other Side of the Desk: Students Speak Out About Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.
Dewey, John. *** date) The Living Thoughts of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Fawcett.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” In The American Tradition in Literature, Eds. Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty, E. Hundosn Long, and George Perkins. NewYork: Random House, 1981, pp. 627-648.
Greene, Maxine. 1978. Landscapes of Learning. New York and London: Teachers College Press.
Fishman, Stephen M. and Lucille McCarthy. 1998. John Dewey and the Challenge of Classroom Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Fleischer, Cathy and David Schaafsma, editors. 1998. Literacy and Democracy: Teacher Research and Composition Studies in Pursuit of Habitable Spaces. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
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Wilson, Douglas L. “Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue.” The Atlantic Monthly. November 1992, pp 57-74.