English teachers who don’t like books | Marc Bauerlein

IIs there anyone in business, law, science, media, or the humanities who would say that the overall quality of prose in their field is superb? Would anyone be surprised to learn that reading and writing scores have been falling for years? Does anyone expect that lockdowns, which put kids in their bedrooms in front of screens all day, have boosted verbal skills?

Of course not. But the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) has a solution. The NCTE is the largest body of primary and secondary English teachers in the country. This organization certifies cutting-edge teaching and research, organizes conferences, and champions the field of public affairs. Earlier this month, the NCTE released a position statement that calls for fundamental change in the discipline. The header reads “Media Literacy in the English Language Arts”, which tells you where the change is heading.

Here are the sentences summarizing the goal:

The time has come to decentralize reading books and writing essays as the heights of arts education in English. Speaking and listening are increasingly valued as forms of expression essential to personal and professional success. . . It is incumbent upon our profession, as custodians of the communication arts, to confront and challenge the tacit and implicit ways in which print media is valued above the full range of literacy skills that students should master. .

Do you have all that? It’s a good bite, delivered with all the confidence of experts who know the ways of the world and aren’t afraid to break old habits and keep up to date. Other points in the statement reiterate the changing world motif. In the 21st century, communication is increasingly oral and pictorial, say the authors. Children, in particular, express themselves in non-printed ways. Let’s follow the trend in our teaching and testing, urges the NCTE, and remove the impression of its privileged position in the classroom.

This is the raison d’etre. “Reading books” – not so important in the age of screens. “Essay writing” – pull it back, think again, ask yourself if it’s really relevant to the multimedia lives of young (and old) Americans. It may shock many people to hear English teachers belittle the value of books. They remember a high school teacher who loved Hemingway or Jane Eyre. They may even think that it is precisely because of the ubiquity of screens that English teachers should insist ever more strongly on the need for books. They also hear about bad writing in the workplace and want their kids to practice long-form discourse writing more and more often (not the length of a text message). Why on earth, they wonder, would English teachers follow the anti-print movement?

Because, the teachers would reply, foreigners don’t understand the nature of teaching English. They don’t know the intricacies of advanced literacy. They do not realize how the very nature of literacy is undergoing a radical transformation. In other words, a “book-centric” view is a thing of the pre-digital past. English teachers work in the multimedia present, and rightly so. Holding kids to the old standards, having them do printing exercises first and foremost is not arming them for life, instilling in them the skills necessary for success in the digital age. Worse, it is to alienate them from other aspects of their lives, from the identities they have forged in and through the media.

What about all this? The assumption about skills needed in academic and professional spaces does not hold, but the NCTE holds it too firmly and agreeably for the evidence to release it, no matter how strong that evidence. The folks at NCTE pronounce this claim as if it were a nugget of the discipline’s wisdom, and also proof of whoever’s making it belong in the ranks. Such groundbreaking talk comes up all the time in education circles, in fact, for at least two decades since the start of the Web 2.0 phase of the Internet.

Indeed, if you have heard these claims for “new literacies” a few times, you begin to think less about their importance and more about the language in which they are expressed. After a while, we begin to see an irony open up, a gap between the content of the words and the words themselves. We have a radical meaning clad in mundane terms, epochal dimensions offered in cliched, conventional, pseudo-radical diction. Despite the declamatory tone and avant-garde ethos, the words are quite familiar. We have heard them many times before. There is nothing new about them.

The passage above is an example. Most of the language is familiar to laymen. No one stops on “book reading . . . essay writing . . . forms of expression . . . success . . . communication arts stewards . . . tacit and implicit mannerisms . . . literacy skills They might be hesitant about the kind of “confrontation” and “challenge” envisioned by the NCTE as teachers divert their attention from reading books and writing essays, but the meaning of the passage is generally clear.

Two words, however, stand out as unusual: ‘decenter’ and ‘enhance’. They have a lot of responsibility in this paragraph, but laymen cannot quite grasp them. Such words do not appear in ordinary conversation, not even in professional fields. They have the aura of complexity, adding an intellectual cachet to the recommendation and making the abandonment of print seem sophisticated and disciplinary. That’s the point. “Decentering” and “valorization” sound like acts of expertise. Only a trained person knows how to perform them skillfully. The terms suggest that only NCTE virtuosos know what needs to be done, and only they are shrewd enough to do it.

But anyone with long experience of literary theory knows the opposite. The sad truth about this particular phrase, which is meant to indicate our true advance into the 21st century, is that it rests on remnants from over 50 years ago. Because “decentering” and “upgrading” are not the new inventions that breakthroughs in the digital age are supposed to deserve. They come from deconstruction around 1966. Decentring was an essential movement in deconstructionist interpretation as Jacques Derrida exposed in his extremely influential essay “Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences”. The same is true of the valorization—or rather the devalorization—that Derrida articulated at length in Of Grammatology. By 1980 hundreds of such readings had been made and they had already begun to take on a mechanical character. That the NCTE is resorting to these old cliches only shows that the world of progressive, forward thinking and so fashionable thought of the writers of this media statement is no such thing.

False sophistication undermines NCTE’s credibility more deeply than a debate about the status of print in the digital age. Style defeats NCTE more than content (as does the mixed metaphor in the first sentence of the passage, “decenter…pinnacles”, as well as the treatment of “media” in the singular last sentence.) The real question is how these mediocre talents and pompous declaimers never attained positions of authority in the field. What kind of decadence afflicts us when the pedagogues of print are the vandals of print education? How did the guardianship of books become the duty of people who are not terribly bookish?

Our humanist institutions are in the hands of people whose humanity is weak. They are proud of this fact, however. They believe it’s justified by social conditions, and they’re willing to pass on their incompetence to the students they’re paid to uplift.

Marc Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First things.

first things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to donate.

Click here to subscribe to first things.