What Makes a Good Reading Curriculum? Part III: The Search for Ideas

It was fascinating in a way:  When you start hunting around for professional recommendations as to the proper goals of a reading curriculum at the high school level, you come up surprisingly short. 

I started, of course, with the National Council of Teachers of English: the NCTE, the largest and most venerable professional organization in my field. Here is what I found. It wasn’t much.

A general outline, first.

For the last five years at least, since I’ve joined, NCTE always feels to me like they’re gearing up for a “Field of Dreams”-style PTA meeting, where a bunch of Bible Belt housewives with bouffants try to purify the curriculum of “smut” and “filth” – which I guess is a real worry in a lot of parts of the country, but which always makes me a little uneasy, because when you make “beating the Sarah Palins” your main focus, you’re not really talking about principle anymore, you’re drawing partisan lines in the sand, and if you’re not careful, you turn into the very thing you hate, only on the opposite side. What I’m looking for is a true professional organization, dedicated to rock solid principles, unshakable by ideologues on the left and on the right, but that’s not what I see.

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What are the goals of a good high school reading curriculum? (Part II – The Social Justice Era)

In the previous post, I began outlining the problem I’ve been having: What exactly are the goals of a good high school reading curriculum? Turns out, very few people know!

Below, I’ll continue with the thread I’d started in the previous post: The effect of the Trump era on public school reading curricula.

The Challenge of This Era

With the straight focus on skills during the Common Core era — and the dearth of any sort of thematic or temporal curriculum design on the one hand, and the total lack of any content-based justification (one book is better than another) on the other — the onus was suddenly very much on educators to justify and select the books in their curricula. This era, of course, was also very much a time of scripted, regimented curricula, in which decisions about book choices were made for instead of by educators, yes. But either way, the justifications for content, whether by educators or by central office bureaucrats, always carried a kind of arbitrary quality in a skills-first curriculum.

Then the Trump/Social Justice era ripped through all of this like a tornado.

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Why Read? (What are the goals of a good reading curriculum?)

Whenever I start writing a post with a title like this, I’m always a little uncertain. Surely I’ve missed something obvious.

But over the last few weeks I’ve done quite a bit of research, and I’m here to report something striking. When it comes to the question of “Why do we read?” — at least in the context of public schools — the answers from the most authoritative sources are surprisingly sparse.

Why do we read in schools? It seems hardly anyone knows.

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So what is “traditional” education, anyway? (A historical perspective)

Another one of the cages that I think many educators or perhaps more accurately educational reformers are stuck in is the notion that there is some monolithic “traditional” form of education that we must push back against and change. You see this in the language of reformers of all stripes; you even seen this in the work of 20th century historians of education, many of whom invoke this term. I am thinking in particular of Larry Cuban, who I very much admire, but whose work does seem to leave me feeling stuck in this dichotomous bubble: “traditional” education on the one hand, with alternatively, politically-left “child-centered” or “progressive” reforms, or politically right conservative or “back to basics” reforms. It’s all very much the language of the 20th and 21st centuries, but it often leaves me wondering what exactly traditional education really means.

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What I Hate About Twitter

One of the things I loved most about my time in whitewater kayaking was the old message board culture.  Simultaneous with my development as a kayaker back in the early 2000s was the development of the internet, a fact which sounds absurd today, but was very much true.  This was the pre-social media era; it was the time of the old-school message board, where you could start threads, read threads, and respond to others.  At the time, I was discovering the sport of kayaking, as well as discovering the internet itself.  Back in 2000 I first found my way to a New England kayak message board, then eventually to one even more niche-focused (a site devoted to canoeists, as opposed to kayakers) and eventually to a national whitewater board.  

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Critical Thinking Versus Critical Theory

It certainly seems like if you’re on the intellectual or political left, you can be “critical” of a lot of things nowadays.  Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you can be Critical A-Lot-of-Things.

You can be a critical theorist.  Or a critical pedagog.  You can teach critical literacy.  What about critical race theory?  I think I’ve heard of that.  Which comes from critical legal studies, mind you.  Consider DisCrit.  Or even “LatCrit.” Sometimes there’s just straight Criticality.  Most of the time it’s about employing a Critical lens.  Just slide the word critical next to something and you’ve got a whole new concept.  But pardon a simpleton:  How exactly is this different than just being good, old-fashioned “critical”?

In other words, what’s different about critical thinking versus critical theory?

It has taken me a long time, but I think I finally understand.  And I think the difference is pretty revealing.

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The Categorical Imperative

There’s something that gnaws at me. I hear it whenever someone implies that I should do something that involves a sacrifice because it’s the right thing to do.

It’s that little voice inside my head: “But shouldn’t citizens be expected to make a moral sacrifice in the name of this abstract claim of justice?  Shouldn’t they accept this dictate in the name of righting a historic wrong?”

It’s the voice that asks for moral commitment, for selflessness, for sacrifice to the common good.

But then I hear a second voice in my head that said, “Yes, but what gives the government the right to force citizens to live up to an impossible standard of self-sacrifice?  No human will willfully do that.”

“Yes, but shouldn’t they?”

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What does it mean to have the “constrained” vision of education?

In my last — admittedly lengthy — post, I explored the difference between the constrained and the unconstrained vision of humanity outlined in Thomas Sowell’s classic 1987 book, “A Conflict of Visions.” Since then, I’ve taken up reading several other, related works that touch on similar themes, either explicitly mentioned as sources by Sowell (Friedrich Hayek’s “Law, Legislation, and Liberty”) or which explicitly mention Sowell (Stephen Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”).

Hayek’s book, volume II of the series, is focused specifically on the question of social or distributive justice, which Hayek considers “a mirage”: an impossible, ephemeral goal usually requiring the total sacrifice of liberty and freedom, as well as an insensible anthropomorphism of a non-human process (the capitalistic economy).

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Thomas Sowell: A Conflict of Visions

Every now and then you’re lucky enough to stumble across a book that at once gives you an entirely new framework for understanding the world, while at the same time completely affirming everything you’ve been thinking. It’s a book that gives voice to the inchoate thoughts in your head, in just the way you’ve been hoping, while putting those thoughts into their place in what you are shown has been an ongoing conversation for centuries. It’s a book that both puts your thoughts and feelings into a historical context, but also liberates you from the stagnant and limiting ways of thinking of your own era. In my view, that’s why we read.

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Cynical Theories

Another important aspect of the difference between liberalism and postmodernism is in the notion of skepticism.  Pluckrose and Lindsay are good on this point.  They term postmodern skepticism “radical skepticism” — the suspicion that there is no objective truth, only culturally constructed truth, compared with “reasonable doubt” — the liberal skepticism that holds all truth as provisional until it is proven otherwise.  In other words, the liberal view holds that knowing reality is hard, but the best we can do is set up a huge, open system of “checkers” to validate all claims, and the best ones are accepted as true, provisionally, until someone discredits it and provides a better claim.  This is, in the authors’ view, a “productive and actionable” system, as opposed to the postmodern system, which sets up competing yet irresolvable claims.  It is also a system that has a built-in method of self-correction for its own errors.

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