Eliminating English Language Arts, part 2

We are now two and a half weeks into the school year, and I’ve asked my daughter each day what she did in English Language Arts. As with most teenagers, her initial answer is always “nothing,” but with a little pushing I get a more detailed description out of her.

So far, here is what they have done:

1) For a two days, they did a “bio-poem”; this is a favorite activity among secondary education teachers. If you don’t know what it is, google it—there are many “lesson plans” for this online. I doesn’t teach anything, but is supposed to build self-esteem and help students “explore their personal identity”, according to on such lesson plan.

2) They spent one day having their reading level tested. Good to know this, I guess, but since they haven’t been taught reading since third grade I cannot see why they are so concerned to test their abilities every three months. They don’t, incidentally, proceed to match reading assignments to reading level; my daughter, and most of her friends, read at about a 12th-grade level, but the book they were assigned to read over the summer is written at a 3rd-grade level. She read in in about three hours.

3) Two days watching a video about 9/11. Again, fine to think about this, but in Language Arts class why not read something, instead of watching YouTube? Why not ask them to write something about this?

4) Three days practicing writing emails, to teach “email etiquette.” This seems to amount to: use a salutation and signature, and write in sentences not as if you were texting your friend. They were instructed to “use good grammar,” but the only example of what that meant was “don’t use ‘ain’t’”, which prompted my daughter to ask “who says ‘ain’t’ anymore? We’re not in a production of Annie.”

5) For one day, they discussed their summer reading book. They had to write down on slips of paper their favorite character and their favorite scene in the book. It was, I’m told, a lot like the old “Chris Farley Show” sketches on SNL: “remember the part when…? Yeah, that was awesome.” Unfortunately, their teachers seem to have no idea how to go about discussing a work of literature intelligently, so it doesn’t even occur to them that they should be teaching their students how to do so.

That’s it so far, almost three weeks in. One day was spent doing “team building exercises”, but that was in all classes not just ELA.

So far, no homework, no reading or writing assignments, and no idea at all what they are supposed to be learning in eight-grade ELA. In math, on the other hand, they have already reviewed algebra and been taught proper notation for geometry. Unfortunately, in science, they yesterday did the same assignment on “the scientific method” they have done every years since third grade. I mean literally the same assignment—the exact same worksheet on the exact same web page. The students, I am told, find this funny, and aren’t particularly bothered that they will spend yet another year doing third-grade science lessons from a website.

My concern, though, is mostly to get people to ask their kids what they do in middle-school and high-school English class. Find out what they are supposed to learn, and ask their teachers and school administrators how exactly they might learn it by writing fill-in-the-blank poems or watching videos. If we can get some broader samples of what really goes on in the secondary-school ELA classroom, we can perhaps have the data needed to create a petition demanding that this waste of time be removed from the school curriculum.

So far, little interest. The few parents I’ve spoken to are not concerned. They remember having hated the boring books they read in English class, and are just happy that their kids can get easy “A”s without having to wade through Silas Marner or “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Most don’t believe that literacy skills are terribly important in the STEM-field jobs that they think are their children’s future. Literacy is a thing of the past—Microsoft Word already revises your writing for you, and nobody’s boss can read anymore anyway, so who will know if you don’t read well?

Literacy is important. If it is no longer the job of English Language Arts to teach it, and it clearly is not, we need to free up some money and time for a new discipline in which these essential skills can be taught. Unfortunately, all current ELA teachers, who have never been taught these skills themselves, will be out of a job. And we’ll have to figure out who exactly has the skills to teach this today, which may take some time. But in the meantime, we can at least free up money and time for other pursuits. Just because we have nothing in place to accomplish this task does not mean we should continue wasting time and resources failing to accomplish the task in current ELA classes. That’s like arguing that until we have a cure for brain cancer, we might just as well have people bang their heads against the wall.

Anyone reading this: got any suggestion as to how I might spark greater interest in this problem?
How to even explain that without literacy skills we are dooming our children to a life in which they will have no true agency, no ability to, borrowing a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre, “put their social and cultural order to the question.” And if they cannot learn to do this, if the social order goes on as it is, we are all doomed to a bleak and dystopian future.

Eliminating “English”!

I’ve been giving some thought to resuming an old project that I had abandoned years ago because I seemed to be the only person in America concerned with it. I may still be the only person concerned with it, but that seems to be true of many of my concerns, so why not?

I’m talking about the attempt to eliminate the teaching of “English” (sometimes called “Language Arts”) in secondary education. No, I don’t mean I’m concerned that some evil anti-intellectual group is trying to do this and we ought to prevent it. Rather, my point is exactly that it is high time we got rid of this waste of money and time in our public schools.

I first raised this topic years ago, after having taught a graduate-level course for high school English teachers. I started my first class of the semester by stating that the goal of teaching English in high school is to make students better readers and writers than they were at the beginning of the school year. The objection to this was unanimous and surprisingly hostile: I was informed that this is not at all what English teachers do, and so my course was not going to be of use to them. English teachers, the students in this masters-level class assured me, are tasked with “relating” to students on an emotional level, and their goal is to help students deal with personal and emotional problems. This is often better done by watching movies and coloring pictures in class, and doing brief therapeutic exercise such as having students write poems meant to bolster their self-esteem. Reading difficult texts would only get in the way of this, since it would add stress and make them feel less capable if their reading skills are poor.

I’ve since spoken to a dozen high school English teachers from the surrounding school districts, and they universally share this belief: there is no value at all in having students read Shakespeare or other difficult texts, since these have no application in their everyday lives. The goal of any lesson plan is to “engage” students, and this is best done by discussing “memes” or popular movies like the Harry Potter series. These are used to “relate” to the students, and help them to deal with their emotional problems.

My position was, and remains, that we don’t need to be paying millions of dollars to have untrained therapists wasting our children’s time. If they won’t teach reading and writing skills, we might as well eliminate the entire discipline.

The other day, I got a letter from my daughter’s middle school teacher that renewed my interest in trying to form a grassroots campaign to get rid of English Language Arts. Here are some passages from that letter:

Creating a climate where reading and discussing honest, original thoughts on that reading is crucial to the development of your child as a reader and thinker. The beauty of having freedom of choice in what you read is that students are able to find what genuinely sparks their interest and can challenge themselves to enter into new worlds, categories, concepts and stories. Luckily, we have a wonderful Library Media Specialist at Dodd and each ELA classroom is equipped with a multitude of titles to choose from. Alongside novels, I encourage students to explore types of texts they find interesting (i.e. graphic novels, comic books, short stories, news articles, etc.).

Research shows us that one of the best ways to increase students’ reading and writing abilities is simply for them to read and write more.

The best books challenge our beliefs by helping us see through different eyes —to live a different life. I have spent the summer building my classroom library to offer a variety of choices, and I will also be utilizing our school library. I won’t know the details of every book students read and refer to this semester, and I won’t remember the details of all the books I recommend to students. What I seek for all of my students is a compulsion to read—for pleasure— for knowledge—for a passion for a good story or
information that will keep them tuned into the pages of a book past our assigned time for reading.

My concerns here are numerous. Most importantly, if the goal of an English classroom is only to have students spend some time reading comic books, well, don’t they already do that? Do we really need to spend millions of dollars on teachers to stand around and watch while they do?

If the teacher is not going to know about the books being read, how can they possibly evaluate whether the student is reading it well? It sounds like such evaluation is not even going to be attempted; rather, any response that is “honest” and “original” is okay, whether or not the text was understood correctly.

And where exactly is the “research” that “shows” that reading any old thing that captures your interest will improve your reading and writing skills? I’ve taught college composition for decades, and have looked for research on how to improve reading and writing skill—there just isn’t any. There are lots of unsupported claims about this, abundant speculation and wishful thinking, but no such research exists.

Then, the myth that reading fiction will somehow allow us to “see through different eyes.” No, it doesn’t really do this. This isn’t even the goal of Literature. It may the be goal of a certain way of teaching Literature, but it is not the goal of any novel ever written, much less of a graphic novel or comic book. Even if it were, though, how likely is this challenge to student’s beliefs when they are asked to read only whatever captures their interest?

Finally, why do we need teachers who will not have read the books the students are reading? How is this different from having them read on their own, if they choose, whatever they choose?

If we want our students to be prepared for college, the goal ought to be to make them read things that they may not read otherwise, texts that challenge them and that will teach the something about the world. Then, the teacher needs to be able to evaluate whether the student has read the text well, in order to help them figure out where they are going wrong when they miss the point of a text. Discussions of texts can only be useful if everyone in the conversation has read the same text! Then students can begin to see that other readers might construe a text differently, or emphasize different things in the text.

This move to have English be a free reading time is just laziness on the part of teachers, who are quick to claim the support of imaginary “research” they can never actually point to. Most English teachers, as I’ve found out over the years, cannot themselves read a Robert Frost poem, much less a Shakespeare play. They are generally poor writers and worse readers, and try to cover their inability to do what they were hired to do with these claims that the “real” mission of English is to “relate” to students.

The result is that most students get into college unable to read above a fifth-grade level. Ask any college chemistry professor what happens when she assigns a textbook chapter to her students!

What little reading and writing they learn seems to done mostly in their history classes, where they are taught to write papers and to read “sources” correctly. Maybe it’s time to drop English, and spend more time in history class? Or devote more resources to educating them about basic science?

Right now, I’m looking for others willing to support this project. If you have kids in middle school or high school, send me copies of the assignments their teachers give them (not the student’s paper, but the “prompt” for the paper). Ask your kids, every day, what they did in English class, and keep track of how many times the answer is “we had a study hall” or “we watched a movie” or “we colored pictures.” What books are your kids actually reading? What kind of writing are they asked to do?

English departments are already being eliminated from some public universities. Maybe it’s time to eliminate them from public education completely? If we can’t do that, at least I would like to push educators to make some defense of keeping English; if they have to defend it, I would wager they won’t be able to do so without putting a stop to most of what goes on in the average English classroom today.

In the future, I may shut down this blog and start a new one devoted to this project. I hope some of the readers here will recommend this post to anyone they think might have an interest in advocating for an actual education for our children!

On Failure

About a year ago, after a year of being unemployed (I’m at two years, now) I wrote this short personal meditation on why my life has turned out an abject failure. Of course, it deals with only one cause of this failure…I did go on to contemplate all the others, but not in writing. I’ll share it here.

I want to explore the difficulty we have today in accomplishing what I have sometimes called “making explicit.” This is a term I lifted from the philosopher Robert Brandom, although I don’t use it in precisely the way he does. What I mean by it is something like this: becoming conceptual aware of our implicit assumptions and commitments. In other words, making explicit is producing knowledge of not just what our ideologies are, but of how they operate—of what intentions in the world we have committed to (sometimes without acknowledging them) and what assumptions about the world we make (often without being aware we are making them).
I’m not going to argue, here, with those who will say that we can never do this, that we are always hopelessly trapped in ideological “illusion” and any claim to such self-awareness is just proof of how hopelessly deluded on is. I have made this argument before (most recently in my book Indispensable Goods) and I won’t rehearse it here. Rather, we will begin with the assumption that it is at least conceivable that there can be discourses in which our ideologies can be successfully analyzed, their structures revealed, and our assumptions and commitments made explicit. The question is, given that this is possible, what are we to do when every existing discourse seems dedicated to preventing exactly this? How might we establish a collective practice that works to make explicit?

I’m going to explore this problem in the form of a personal mediation on my own series of failed or aborted career plans. So I’ll say up front that I have failed miserably at everything I ever set out to do. With four university degrees, including a doctorate, I have never in my life earned an income above the poverty level, and have only once for a single year held a job that provided health insurance. I was employed for about forty of my fifty-seven years, although I am not employed at the moment, and my job history is dismal.

Now if I were reading this I suppose I would assume that this is a sign of the failure of our educational system, which tends to give out degrees to anyone willing to put in the time and money. That is, you are likely assuming that I am just an inept dolt, and my failures are proof that the economic system is working just fine, weeding out incompetence and ignoring meaningless qualifications. I’ve considered this. But this wouldn’t explain why all of my college professors gave me “A”s and encouraged me to go to graduate school. It wouldn’t explain my extraordinarily high scores on tests like the GRE and the LSAT, or my success in graduate school and early ability to publish in academic journals. It wouldn’t even explain why, in my many adjunct teaching positions, department chairs encouraged new teachers and graduate students to sit in on my classes to learn how to teach successfully, or why my dissertation director made a point of telling me that my doctoral dissertation was “on a much higher level” than those of most of my peers (he did not, however, make the same effort to get me a job that he did for those others). I don’t mean to brag or complain here; I have known many other people just as smart and competent (these aren’t always the same) as me who also never went far in their chosen fields. I merely want to explain why it is that I have to doubt that my incompetence is the issue.

I have some idea, though, what my problem has been. I have always had an unfortunate tendency to engage in “making explicit.” This is not something that can be allowed in any profession or academic discipline today.
Let me explain, by recounting my first attempted profession: teaching English. As an undergraduate student, I was always puzzled by my tendency to enjoy immensely the kinds of Literature I was meant to find boring, and to be bored by what I was supposed to love. Moby Dick bored me but I loved Frank Norris’s The Octopus. I never like The Scarlet Letter, mistakenly believing The Blithedale Romance to be Hawthorne’s best novel. I’d rather read Frank Norris or Emile Zola than Henry James or Flaubert. You get the picture: I like the “bad” Literature and was annoyed or bored by the great works. I became interested in exploring this. My undergraduate professors, most of them anyway, simply ascribed it to my “bad taste,” something which could not be corrected, even while they praised my insightful and well-written papers on the so-called great works we read in their classes. I didn’t accept this as an explanation; I believed that, pace Hume, there must be accounting for taste.

In my last year as an English undergraduate and my first year as a graduate student, I began to explore the somewhat novel and growing field of literary theory, looking for an explanation for why we tend to enjoy the particular kinds of literature we do. I did find it. This was not to my advantage.

It quickly became clear to me that the mission of the discipline of English was exactly to avoid such an explanation. I don’t mean simply the old-fashioned “pre-theory” English, where children were forced to read, and required to love, Shakespeare or Wordsworth. I don’t even mean only the anti-theory backlash of older professors complaining that “theory” had taken the place of “objective” readings of great masterpieces. In fact, many of these anti-theory texts, which proliferated in the late-eighties when I was in graduate school, were quite prescient. Robert Alter, for instance, in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, pointed to the direction Literary studies was going, as young professors intoxicated on large doses of Derrida and Foucault they couldn’t quite comprehend began to misuse “theory” to in fact teach an ideology they thought was not one. That is to say, while disdaining Literature exactly because it produces ideology (a disreputable function, they thought), they were in fact (mis)using Foucault to indoctrinate students into their own neo-liberal ideology under the misguided belief they were free of all ideology, living in a post-ideological age. That this has led the death English as a discipline is surely obvious to anyone in the field today; Literature is out, and writing programs are taking their place, as we try to teach students to write without accidentally teaching them to read in the process.

The point is that there were, during my time in graduate school, two ways to teach a work of Literature. One was to try to reinforce the reading practices necessary to enable the text to reproduce its ideology; Alter recommends this approach, emphasizing in particular the identification with characters as essential to this interpellative function. The other was to use concepts from psychoanalysis, deconstruction, feminist theory, ideology theory, etc., in an attempt to explain how the text produced its ideology and to make explicit exactly what assumptions and commitments we were embracing when we “loved” this novel or poem; I tried to follow this path. However, this latter path was quickly overwhelmed by the use of “theory” to produce an ideology and pretend it was not one. Making explicit just couldn’t be the goal in the English department, either in the classroom or in the academic journals.

This, I understand now, was why my professors did not make the calls and write the letters to get me that first faculty job, while they did so for those classmates of mine whom they were willing to admit were not as insightful and didn’t write (or teach) as well as I did. Those classmates were at least carrying out the project of English, which had always been to prevent making explicit, to facilitate the production of capitalist ideology while calling it timeless truth. Even those professors who considered themselves quite “leftist” would always flinch at this, pulling back from the troubling recognition of assumptions and commitments, masking them behind conveniently obscure theoretical terms.

So I floundered for a while, and then for reasons both intellectual and personal I tried again with the discipline of psychology. In retrospect, given what I had learned in studying literary theory, it now seems astoundingly stupid to me that I thought this field would be anything but worse than English. I can’t quite recapture what I was thinking at the time.

But I returned to school to get a second bachelor’s degree in psychology, graduating with a 4.0, and encouraged, once again, to pursue doctoral studies. I worked for a year as a research assistant in a psychiatry department, then went on to a doctoral program in clinical psychology. This time, I learned a bit faster—I never made it to the dissertation stage. I was quicker to understand that the task of psychology had always been exactly one of avoiding the dangers of making explicit, not least the dangers this would pose to the production of properly functioning subjects of capitalism, but especially the dangers it would pose to the positions of power held by those who founded the discipline. An essay by David E. Leary, which I read while writing a paper for my history of psychology course, made it quite clear that the discipline was created to ward of the dangerous truths of scientific theories like evolution and physics. He pointed out, for instance, that Stanley Hall’s intention was to “transfuse the modern conception of the world ‘with the old Scriptural sense of unity, rationality, and love beneath and above all’.” That is to say, figures like James, Hall and Catell, the founders of modern psychology, originally saw it as a way to continue to produce good old “Christian” capitalist ideology while calling it science. Then, reading works like Kurt Danziger’s Naming the Mind (which was recommended to me by one of my professors), I saw that the entire project of psychology was exactly to avoid the kind of making explicit I was interested in. And to avoid it not because it was impossible or misguided, but exactly because it risked providing people with the ability to think critically about their everyday oppression under capitalism. The goal of psychology was nothing less than deluding people into thinking they had no option but to become productive wage slaves, and that any resistance to the current social system is a pathology.

I was told by one of my graduate professors in psychology that I was a “truth teller,” and that this was not part of the “culture of psychology.” I was asked to leave, despite getting “A”s in every one of my graduate classes and getting very positive feedback in my mock-clinical exercises. I just wouldn’t fit in, if I was going to persist in trying to help people achieve insight and agency: the goal of psychology is to leave them deluded but productive workers.

Where else could I turn?

And this is where I am today. Still wondering: where is there to turn? So, I am setting about writing yet another novel nobody will ever read, this one about a white working class man who, despite setting out to do everything he’s supposed to, and despite having far more native ability than I myself actually have, winds up a dismal failure. I suppose this is just to explain why I’m really no longer posting on this blog, and why I haven’t been writing many new essays for Imaginary Relations. I am, however, still “editing” Imaginary Relations and am happy to take a break from writing to read any submissions.