After spending so much time recently reading books that help me understand the historical roots of modern critical theory, which is to say, works that are for the most part fundamentally deconstructive and fundamentally “unconstrained” in their vision of humans (to borrow Thomas Sowell’s phrase), I thought it was high time to read something that would help me to understand the roots of the other side: the constrained, the moderate, the conservative. And there it was — still sitting on my shelf from when I must have read it during college — the birthplace of modern conservatism:
“[I]t is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes” (54).
That’s Edmund Burke, in his famous and controversial Reflections on the Revolution in France: a hugely influential book both in its time and in the centuries since. The writer Russell Kirk once wrote, “If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone; and if radicals wish to test the temper of their opposition, they should turn to Burke.” It figured it was time to do the same.
(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: “
Now that I’ve finished Steven Pinker’s momentous 2002 book, The Blank Slate, I find it somewhat hard to write about. It’s not that I didn’t have a strong reaction. I did: I loved it. It’s that there’s so much: The Blank Slate is an exhaustive, many-avenued, in-depth, provocative work – friendly and caustic all at once – such a dense, rich mixture of such variety and depth that it’s almost hard to know what I think of it after one reading. There are small chapters – even halves of chapters – that could set me thinking for months. For example, one of my favorite recent books, Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, comes up partway through one chapter, is given the most virtuosic analysis imaginable, and then stowed away, just one single prong in an extensive, many-layered argument that Pinker’s making in just one small quadrant of this tour-de-force. It’s a massive work, a memorable one, but a hard one to come away from with a coherent take.
Pinker’s main theory is that there are three pervasive cultural myths that we employ to deny the possibility of an innate human nature: the notion that humans are born as Lockean blank slates (with no innate capacities or predilections), the conception of humans as Rousseauian noble savages (innately gentle, peaceful, and only corrupted by social constructionism and civilization), and the belief in a Cartesian “ghost in the machine” – the belief that we possess a mind or a soul that is phantasmic in substance rather than biological, unbound by the dictates of regular physiology (and nature).
This post is the continuation of the (long, long!) series I’ve been writing about the goals of a good secondary-level reading curriculum. I left off a few posts back describing several initial goals, and below, I continue describing some further ones.
Moral Complexity and Values Clarification
As you can see from the last post in this series, I hit on a point that I think is important to keep in mind, particularly when one imagines encountering a book challenge: Even though it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that one is offering students books that are “windows” into alternative experiences, the question of which windows a teacher is providing is not necessarily an uncontested one. It is one thing to imagine providing “windows” into the experiences of those one’s community believes should be empathized with; it is quite another to provide students with windows into the experiences of characters of whom one’s community may not entirely approve. This is the classic case of the progressive teacher who wishes to expose students to literature that seems to question the status quo against a community’s wishes. My point is not that this is a new case, only that this teacher cannot easily defend himself simply by falling back on the notion of providing alternative viewpoints for students in order to broaden their perspective. In a sense, he needs a value deeper and more positive than mere exposure. The same goes, I believe, when one is in a liberal community and is attempting to get students to read books from the past that contain what are considered to be retrograde attitudes or viewpoints or even expressions. One cannot simply fall back on the notion of providing a “variety of perspectives” when some people so clearly believe that providing a variety of perspectives is a bad idea. Instead, one needs a more positive defense.
Years ago when I was a raft guide during the summer, it occurred to me that a raft trip, for my paying customers, was not only a form of entertainment, but was, at its best, a kind of narrative. It wasn’t enough just to show customers a good time, but they wanted an adventure, and, though they couldn’t express this, they wanted it to be in a kind of narrative form: a build-up, a progression, a constant ratcheting up of tension, followed by short periods of relief, reflection. Then more of the same.
It was more than just entertainment; it needed to have a kind of structure to it. The river where I guided had some of the right elements, particularly: the First Big Test rapid, and the Big Climax at the End. Unfortunately, the Nantahala River in North Carolina, perhaps the most- or second most-rafted river in the United States, lacks much of the excitement (and frankly enough of the water) needed to provide the kind of narrative story arc most customers wanted, and we typically ended up having to kill quite a bit of time, either avoiding shallow rocks, or making small talk, in the middle stages. I remember a lot of customers feeling vaguely let down for long stretches of time.
The older I get and the more I learn, the more I’m starting to believe that I may be an Aristotelian. Although I love and appreciate Plato’s sense of drama and allegory, more and more I find myself patterning my way of thinking on Aristotle: on his matter-of-fact classification, his breaking down of everything into categories, his slowing things down, his looking at the nature of a thing in itself, he careful, methodical approach.
I have a poster in my classroom — that famous one, the “School of Athens” — Plato pointing up toward the heavens, and Aristotle pointing down toward the earth, and I enjoy telling students about the difference. I’m sure that most of them would side more with Plato the idealist, but I’ve become more of a realist as I’ve aged, as I suppose many of us do. But what I never expected was that I’ve in a sense become a more straightforward and even a *slower* thinker: I want to proceed more carefully, more deliberately, to think more clearly, to parse, to probe, to question. Measure twice and cut once — surely the hallmark of most middle aged men working on home repair projects, but mine all the same when working on intellectual ones. Aristotle, it is.
At some point during the pandemic, I stopped watching basketball and started watching soccer. Why, I’m not sure. I remember thinking that watching basketball games without fans was pretty strange, and somewhere around that time, two years ago, I started reading Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, and I switched over the Premier League soccer viewing and haven’t looked back. I’d been a Premier League fan as a child, but I frankly hadn’t watched much soccer since those early 1990s days. Frankly, I just liked watching football and basketball and even baseball quite a bit more. Every time I turned on soccer, it seemed like players were diving right and left, which turned me off (particularly during the 2006 World Cup, as I recall, which I also remember as something of a starting point and end point for my interest in the game during my 20s).
Alright. I realize this whole series is getting quite long! That said, it’s been an important process for me to wander through all of my thoughts slowly on this topic and to share my ideas along the way. I realize this is long-winded, but to be honest, I’ve made no attempt to shorten my thinking in this space.
I want to continue below — I’ll try to finish up the value of “mirrors” and then move on more quickly to the next goal!
The Value of Mirrors
We have already established the basic benefits of self-knowledge, and it’s important now to break out the related sub-goals of reading for self-knowledge: Self knowledge through reading is important in order to understand ourselves, to affirm ourselves, and to critique ourselves. These sub-goals are broken out below.
The first place to start in creating a good reading curriculum is to ask what the goals are of teaching reading at the high school level: to get at the question of, “Why read?” In the previous posts I outlined many of my steps along this process in beginning to answer this question by looking at resources. What follows are the goals I came up with in this search. Most of these goals are some blend of existential, social/political, social efficiency-based, and personal mobility-based.
What follows is an admittedly slow, philosophical tour — my own process of trying to think through and draw out the implications of each of these goals as they occurred to me. I realize this makes for dry reading, but I thought it was important to slow things down, to break down each goal into its important parts, to understand the inherent tensions in each goal, and to try to put each goal into its correct place. In short, it’s the work I wish a source that I’d found in my earlier quest had already done.
My first two goals are pulled straight from Rudine Sims Bishop’s famous metaphor, as outlined in the previous post. I will take some time to examine them both in depth. First up is the goal of curricular “mirrors.”