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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.