(Note: I wrote this post some months ago, but had forgotten to publish it, during the lead-up to my extended series on identifying the goals of a good reading curriculum. I publish it now as a kind of belated preface to that lengthy series.)
In my continuing quest to understand the moral dimension of curriculum, I came across a fascinating journal article from 1988 called “Recalling the Moral Force of Literature in Education” by John Willinsky. Willinsky’s main point is that educators rarely make the moral import of literature a stated goal, which leaves them somewhat powerless in the face of calls for curricular censorship. He writes:
“We seem to have relinquished the language of moral fervor, the sense that literature can influence moral sensibilities, can shape views of the world, or that it can educate emotions . . . [W]e leave the rhetorical force of this moralizing language to those who would use it to restrict our choice of books from which to teach.”
What’s more, he adds, not only are educators abandoning ethical ground to the would-be censors, but they are also acceding it to the critics. For even if educators don’t put much stock in the moral curriculum, a variety of observers take it for granted: “
” . . . This subliminal curriculum continues to be singled out as a force to be reckoned with in the schools. Over the last two decades, for example, ‘the hidden curriculum’ has been vilified (more often than its impact has been successfully measured) by libertarian, Marxist, and feminist critics of the schools (Friedenberg, 1965; Apple, 1979; Davies, 1984). Henry Giroux, for example, couches his critique of the schools in terms that turn on Arnold’s best hopes: “Literacy becomes the ideological vehicle through which to legitimate schooling as a site for character development” (1988, p. 61). Others have named literature’s secret agenda with a certain vehemence: “Literature, with its faithful amanuensis ‘criticism,’ undoubtedly embodies and transmits the social-aesthetic values of white male bourgeois society, values whose protestation of purity and disinterestedness have scarcely bothered to conceal the ugliness and exploitation that lie close at hand” (Batsleer, Davies, O’Rourke, and Wheedon, 1985, p. 37). At least for some observers of the schools, there remains to this day little doubt about literature’s moral force in the classroom.”
Willinsky also notes that a variety of advocacy groups assume the moral power of curriculum:
” . . . The sense that the book might form the soul has motivated such diverse groups as the Interracial Books for Children organization, as well as those leading in community censorship drives such as the Eagle Forum and Renaissance Canada. That this aspect of moral force has become the tool of the school critics from such a wide range of perspectives, when it no longer figures in the educational rationale for the study of the literary work, suggests something askew in curriculum planning for the English program.”
I completely, completely agree with Willinsky. In fact, I’d argue that the very same analysis still applies today, 33 years later. Think of the recent battles over novels taught in schools in Virginia, or of such advocacy groups as #DisruptTexts. These groups all share an overriding belief in the notion of the moral power of reading. Meanwhile, we English teachers rarely discuss this framework. Although I do not mean to imply that we do not think carefully about what books we choose — and that advocacy groups might not be overstating their case (a book never really corrupted or saved anyone, I’d wager) — it still seems to me that we educators are leaving ourselves unequipped to entering into a debate touching on the rationale for the moral decisions that we make.
Willinsky’s project, in response to this demurring, is to resurrect the powerful moral arguments that were once made on behalf of including literature centrally in the curriculum, by three thinkers: Matthew Arnold, Louise Rosenblatt, and F.R. Leavis. I didn’t see much in the section on Arnold, whose views seemed to amount to using literature to “civilize” the masses, or the section on Leavis, who seemed to see the study of literature as a way to teach students to talk back to the oppressive aspects of their own culture, a kind of cultural counterweight. Perhaps today, in the sense that literature requires a kind of sustained attention that we rarely require of ourselves elsewhere, it is a counter-balancing force.
The section on Rosenblatt, clearly a powerful figure in the 20th century history of literacy, does make several compelling points. First, Rosenblatt’s theories of reading, outlined in her 1938 book, Literature as Exploration, train in on two cornerstone ideas for the education of democratic citizens. First, her work affirms readers as specific individuals, each of whom responds to a text differently. Second, she believes that literature offers readers the possibility of seeing into the lives of others quite different than they are. Both ideas seem to strongly support democratic ideals. Willinsky writes:
“Having felt the impress of the lives of others and realizing the necessary uniqueness of their own, readers cannot help but take on a new outlook, to enter the world in a more liberal frame of mind.”
Yet Willinsky reads a greatly diminished role in her later work for Rosenblatt’s democracy theory of reading. Her later work, he writes, focuses more on the specific responses of individual readers, leading literature to be seen more as a kind of Rorschach test rather than a vehicle for social improvement.
“The question that lurks beneath this examination of literature’s moral force is to what extent a literary work can shape the soul or affect behavior,” writes Willinsky, noting that the evidence is largely unclear. The same is true, I believe, 33 years later: despite the protestations of right-wing censors and left-wing reformers, the evidence that literature can persuasively influence a student’s moral bearing does seem hazy at best.
Willinsky ends by describing, however, what a renewed defense of literature’s moral value might sound like. He cites two main principles: “The teacher believes that the students will profit by work with what might be thought of as the underlying morality of the aesthetic and the testimonial features which a work of literature contains.”
First, he says, great literature always presses against convention, and it may teach students to do the same in their own thinking and in their own endeavors.
The second principle is that literature bears “testimony” to many of the uncomfortable realities of our lives, and it is important for students to “bear witness” to them. Willinsky writes an interesting sentence that I do not entirely understand: “It is a freedom to bear witness, to explore the difficult questions of what is not easily judged nor advocated. The educator owes the community and the students, all of the students, the benefit of that witness . . .”
The best I can tell, this seems to me to mean that educators use literature to provide students with opportunities to confront the uncomfortable realities of life, particularly the challenging moral questions and the ramifications of the decisions for the characters involved.
I like Willinsky’s article better for the issue it identifies — that educators rarely speak about the moral value of literature — rather than for the answers it provides. It inspired me to think about my own ideas as to the moral value of literature. A few thoughts came to mind:
–Literature teaches the value of listening and of empathizing with others — in a particularly sustained, in-depth way. It asks that our attention be devoted directly into another person’s story for extended periods. This in itself is a powerful moral lesson: one of innate liberal toleration and deliberation.
–Literature teaches us that the world is rarely a place of good versus evil. It is often a place of moral ambiguity. This in itself is a moral takeaway.
–Literature often teaches us that because life is often ambiguous, we must try to understand first, to listen, rather than to judge — even of our presumed enemies.
–Good literature can offer moral models — characters who act in upstanding ways that we may emulate. But more often it’s focused on providing us with opportunities to clarify our own values. By presenting us with moral complexity — and with the responses of various types of characters — it allows us to “practice” how we would act and to clarify our own values. This is particularly the case when we are able to critique and discuss the actions of the characters with others in a classroom setting.
–Good literature is often written by authors who are critical (often very subtly) of their societies, and even perhaps of their own characters. As a result, readers learn a healthy skepticism toward the world, one that often runs counter to established wisdom. This is surely a kind of moral understanding that comprises an important takeaway for students.
In the end, I think it’s important for educators to be clear about the moral takeaways they expect students to attain from literature, rather than to shy away from this moral power. As Willinsky points out, censors and reformers of all stripes take literature’s power for granted, the lack of data on such power notwithstanding, and if only to control their own narrative, educators must be conscious of what end they’re using this power for.