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Monday, October 04, 2004

The Language Police

This morning in my American Literature survey course, I briefly digressed to speak a bit about canon formation and why we wouldn't be reading Frederick Douglass in our unit on the American Renaissance. In part, I was pointing out how the Second Great Awakening infused the US with a religious fervor, but that that fervor was very much a protestant one, and one that determined a near universal common culture for the men and women of letters (overstatement, yes, but this is a 200 level course, and, like in politics, nuance falls on barren ground). This digression also included some self-referential flagellation about said decision to axe Douglass. I pleaded the African-American Lit course we offer and the fact that the sophomores had read the Narrative of Douglass for their freshman orientation.

Coincidently, The TLS ran this review of Diane Ravitch's new book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn . What really struck me was the equalization of work under the noble notion of inclusion. While very much sympathetic to canon revision and widening the spectrum of literature we teach, my idealism grounds itself on the poor, derivative writing by those outside the mainstream--Douglass excepted. No matter how tricky and elusive the nature of "quality" in literature may be, it is necessary to address and argue this notion. Otherwise, literature loses any really power in a culture.

What especially troubles me about the phenomenon Ravitch describes is the watering-down of intellectual engagement with literature. It begins in the textbooks, but by the time these students reach me, they seem ill-equipped to make any value judgements. There's a reason "in my honest/humble opinion" has its own acronym in IM speak. IMHO is the default position for any, ANY discussion of ideas. It deflates any standard, and reduces culture to a series of polka dots. Art, ideas, philosophy...anything needing interpretation is viewed as a monadic point, connected only -- if at all -- by superficial contingencies. The cultural landscape becomes a connect the dots picture with no numbers. Draw your line to any point, make any picture you like.


At 5:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If students who get to college seem ill-equipped to make value judgments about literature, it may well be that they've spent the first 18 years of their life passively watching television, playing video games, or surfing the internet. I don't think it's because they were required to read House on Mango Street instead of Huckleberry Finn.

We must uphold standards of quality? What does that mean? That we must read literature that fits the norm -- that is, the mode hammered out by privileged white men? Already in the canon, for example, are rite-of-passage stories in which the boy grows up by realizing he is independent, by conquering his fear of death, by getting over his awe and fear of nature, by striking out on his own, becoming his own man. Perhaps we should ignore those stories outside the mainstream - for example, rite-of-passage stories in which a young person grows up by realizing how much she needs her community, by realizing how dependent she is on nature, by learning respect and awe for her elders and her landscape, by realizing that she is mortal and will some day die, by seeing herself as humble in the greater scheme of things.

Widening the canon means that some kinds of literature lose power, but other kinds of literature gain power. I'm all for questioning the standard. Look at the political/cultural situation our country is in right now. We NEED other kinds of stories, other kinds of writing, other ways of seeing….

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“Despite the contemporary focus on multiculturalism in our society, particularly in education, there is not nearly enough practical discussion of ways classroom settings can be transformed so that the learning experience is inclusive. If the effort to respect and honor the social reality and experiences of groups in this society who are nonwhite is to be reflected in a pedagogical process, then as teachers—on all levels, from elementary to university settings—we must acknowledge that our styles of teaching may need to change. Let’s face it: most of us were taught in classrooms where styles of teachings reflected the notion of a single norm of thought and experience, which we were encouraged to believe was universal ….Most of us learned to teach emulating this model. As a consequence, many teachers are disturbed by the political implications of a multicultural education because they fear losing control in a classroom where there is no one way to approach a subject—only multiple ways and multiple references.”

bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

At 8:54 PM, Blogger Not Scott said...

I agree with most of what the two commentators write. I'm all for exploring different types of writing, writing from different experiences, and exploring the diversity of artistry. But lets not reduce the issue to such simplicities as we need differing archetypal stories--that we need Jewett's "The White Heron" if we are going to teach Faulkner's "The Bear." I teach both and not because I need a woman's version of the experience in nature. I teach them both because they are really well-written stories.

(truth be told, I'm being a bit disingenuous here for the sake of argument. I don't actually teach "The Bear," but I do teach some Faulkner, and "The Bear" just works as a better example. In reality, I teach "Barn Burning" and then try to goad some students into reading Absalom!, Absalom! on their own.)

bell hooks is right to suggest that we need to evaluate our teaching environments to be certain we are inclusive. But are we going to completely abandon a notion of qualitative criticism. (And I'm sure that as quick as anyone I can do a riff on the idea that levels of aesthetic achievement are coded white and male and therefore are narrow and exclusionary.) If we do abandon this notion of "greatness" in literature, then I'm not sure exactly what it is that I'm teaching.

Anyone want to pursuade me that a wide-open field of literature that sees Bridget Jones and Pride and Prejudice as equals is still a worthwhile discipline?

At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the acronym IMHO. I'm pleased with a generation of students who are willing to approach discussion from a position of humility. I don't think it deflates any kind of standard for a student or a teacher to say, “I may be wrong.” I'd say it's a sign that the person is willing to listen and to be open to new ideas. Isn't that what education should be about?

At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What bothers me about the original post in this discussion is the assertion that most of the writing outside the mainstream is poor and derivative. You seem to be saying (correct me if I’m wrong) that expanding the canon for the sake of inclusion has led to a lowering of standards. This seems to be based on pretty faulty logic: do dead white men just write better books? Are you arguing that the inclusion of Ralph Ellison, Audre Lorde, Sandra Cisneros, June Jordan, bell hooks, Linda Hogan, Piri Thomas, Langston Hughes, and other writers considered “not mainstream” has led to a watering-down of intellectual engagement? I’d argue just the opposite.

Sure any teacher will try to choose texts that are well-written – but there are many well-written books to choose from and so few that can be covered in one semester. So the teacher’s choices are political. I think it would be better all around if we just admitted that.

At 3:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird talk about this topic in the introduction to Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, a collection of writing by native women. They wrestle with the question of choosing which work to put in the volume. How do we decide what is a good poem, a good story? Whose standards do we use? The standards of the community or the standards of the academy? How much has western education manipulated the choices we will make?

Ultimately, they talk about the power of language to heal, to regenerate, and to create. Intellectual engagement is not the only criteria. What about spiritual and emotional depth?

At 2:46 PM, Blogger Not Scott said...

Just to flash back to the comment about writers not in the mainstream. I'd put Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde in the mainstream. I haven't read enough of the others, although bell hooks is certainly a scholar with a large reputation, and Cisneros is hardly unknown. Ditto for Hogan. And of course these weren't in the mainstream at first, but then neither was Melville's later work or Faulkner's.

So I'm not saying that inclusion automatically brings down standards (a fairly primitive argument that no decent scholar would make). What I'm saying is that we may be abandoning notions of quality in pursuit of equality. I think The Color Purple is a lousy book that got far too much praise because of its subject matter and the race of its author. I think Phillis Wheatley is a dull poet who should only be studied by literary historians. But I think Invisible Man is one of the great novels of the 20th century (see my profile). And I really like Ishmael Reed. And Toni Morrison is one of our great living writers and deserved the nobel prize.

What the original entry was about was the notion of standards. Harjo and Bird's question on standards--community or academy--in itself suggests that there is a standard in the academy that new or newly discovered writing can be held to. And that won't immediately dismiss them. I happen to come down on the side of the academy because I believe there is something to the notion of genius, of beauty and of something being better than something else.

I don't care if my students like the books I make them read. They need to read them because they are important, challenging and necessary. I'm not so certain that spirtual and emotional depth have a particular place.

At 5:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that whether or not students like or dislike a book doesn't much matter. Part of the job of a teacher is to push the students to read books they would not normally choose for themselves. Often that means pushing the students out of their comfort zones and helping them understand a book that is a bit beyond their depth.

But …. you don't think emotional/spiritual depth has anything to do whether a work of literature is considered great? How do you think Shakespeare got so famous? Or Milton? Or Browning? Or Tennyson? If the only thing you or your students get out of a book is intellectual engagement, you are missing a whole lot.

At 6:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look, go ahead and talk about standards all you want. My objection is that you blame the lowering of standards on those who are widening the canon by being more inclusive. Sure, you can probably name books by African-Americans that are sentimental or trite or full of stupid clichés, books that somehow got to be famous despite being poorly written. But walk into any big bookstore and I can guarantee that you will see thousands of poorly written trashy books by WHITE PEOPLE. Look at the syllabi at literature courses all over the country and you will see poorly written books by white people being taught in classrooms all over the place.

So if I take a class and the teacher tells me to read a poorly written book by a white man, I am supposed to think the teacher has poor judgment. But If I take a class and the teacher tells me to read a poorly written book by a black woman, I conclude that the teacher is lowering his standards to try to be inclusive.

What bothers me (and I’m not saying you were saying this – this is a side rant) are people who say things like, “Oh, bell hooks’ memoir only got published because she was poor and black and the publishing industry was trying to be inclusive.” Yeah, that’s right, being poor and black is such a help when if comes to get published. Who are we kidding? The publishing industry is still dominated by white men. White privilege is still the best route for getting published and promoted. Who do you think had more trouble getting a memoir published – Bill Clinton or bell hooks? Which is the better writer?

At 6:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it does matter which archetypal stories we choose. The decision is political. Especially when professors who are teaching groups of young people who are old enough to vote in what looks to be a close national election. In a Hemingway story, George W. Bush would be the hero. In a Linda Hogan book, he’s the villain.

I know it’s not quite as simple as that but you can see what I mean. Think of all the "great" works of literature that glorify war ….

At 8:27 AM, Blogger Not Scott said...

Man, I'm spending too much time on this, but....

Ok, one of the last postings (and admittedly she or he was not suggesting I was saying this) pointed out the memoir argument of hooks and Clinton, saying that Clinton had it easier to publish his memoir, and it sold a lot of copies. Point taken--powerful white guys have a much easier time of disseminating their ideas, and probably will have for the foreseeable future.

But, that posting ends with the comment "Bill Clinton or bell hooks? Which is the better writer?" I'm certain you see my point. There is a standard there that I want to elevate over other concerns. It does indeed take into account emotional and/or spiritual depth (I was a bit off in my previous post).

Lastly, I'm not saying that inclusiveness is wholly responsible for a lowering of standards--just one factor among many. And inclusiveness itself is not the issue, but rather a misguided inclusiveness that de-emphasizes good writing. I have just as many issues with teaching, say Jack London or Ezra Pound's poetry.

At 8:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’m sure it must be frustrating to teach students who aren’t very sophisticated readers. But I think you are making a mistake by blaming this on the feminists, activists, liberals, whatever you want to call them, those who have for years been arguing that the canon of literature needs to be more inclusive. Yeah, conservative talk show hosts like to argue that feminist liberals are ruining our lives. But I guess I expect a more sophisticated argument coming from an academic.

Some possible reasons standards in this country have been lowered:

1) Many small presses and independent bookstores have gone out of business. Increasingly, big corporations dictate what gets published and what gets sold. Mostly, they want to print books that can be sold in quantity. No point in publishing something that will appeal only to the educated class.

2) In most places, school boards (usually filled with conservative business people rather than literature professors) get to decide what books a high school English teacher gets to use.

3) Politicians have put such an emphasis on testing that little time in spent in the secondary school classroom on such things as discussing and analyzing works of literature. Instead of stimulating wide-ranging discussions, teachers must spend their time coaching students on how to do well on a multiple choice or short answer test. Students come to see reading as a chore and not something that can excite them or help them grow intellectually.

4) In many homes, television and computer games have replaced books. A student who has read only 4 or 5 books each year, just the required ones for school, can’t possibly be in a position to judge or analyze literature with any degree of sophistication.

5) Children today lead such structured lives – school, daycare, sports, clubs, etc. that they never have any downtime. A child who lives a relaxed unstructured life will get bored – and then turn to books. Children today rarely have a rainy afternoon during which they’ve got nothing to do but read a book. So once again (I guess it’s the same as point #4) we live in a culture where people just don’t read that much.

I would argue that the only way to have a sophisticated approach to reading is to read widely. If I read just one book that is sentimental and full of cliches, I might think that it is a good book. But if I read ten books that are sentimental and full of cliches, I’ll probably start to wonder why these books are so much alike, why the cliches don’t move me …. I’ll start to feel bored by how predictable the books are.

I don’t think academics are the only people who can judge what good literature is. I think most people can do that. But only if they read enough ….

At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, anyone who reads widely has some sort of standard by which they judge books. If nothing else, they use some criteria to determine which books they make the time to read.

But is there one universal standard that makes a book great?

Or do different groups of people or even different individuals have different standards?

I don’t think it’s the job of a literature teacher to tell a student what the "universal standard" for literature is. I think when teachers do that, they are really just imposing their own standards. Kind of like the famous writers who teach creative writing and the whole subtext of their class is: "Write like me." (I’m not saying that you do any of these things. I’m just trying to explain what bothered me about the way you framed your original post.)

I think it’s important to include the students in discussions about standards. Are they conscious of the standards they use? Are they willing to examine those standards? What are the standards used by the dominant culture? By the publishing industry? By academia? By politicians? By feminists?

I don’t think we need to choose between the community or the academy. I think we need to recognize that literature plays different roles in different communities and people have different ways of judging literature.

One last thing (really, it’s time to end this discussion): you say that if you have to abandon the notion of greatness in literature, you are not sure what it is you would be teaching. Well, think of it this way. You aren’t teaching literature. You are teaching students.


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