What makes a good reading curriculum (Part IV: The Ideas)

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.”


One of the main goals, of education, I believe, is quintessentially existential.  It is the wisdom of the Delphic oracle:  Know thyself.  Develop self-knowledge.  One part of this goal is surely social – people who understand themselves are more self-aware, have better regulated conduct, are likely more “economical” in their vocational and political aspirations – they know what they want to do, what they are good at, what they want to accomplish, and they frustrate themselves and their efforts far less than those who do not understand themselves well.  

A larger part of this goal, however, is strictly intrinsic: Self-knowledge is a good in itself, apart from any social or political value to others.  Understanding where we come from, what has shaped us, what we do well and do not do well, and what we want out of life is immensely liberating and personally satisfying.  It is properly thought of as one of the primary endpoints of all schooling, of great innate worth, apart from any extrinsic value.

Yet it’s important to break this goal itself down into two parts.  Specifically, a good reading curriculum should hold a mirror up to “ourselves” in two ways: to us as individuals, and to us as members of our communities.  The first point is self-evident and is surely covered in the analysis of this goal above and below.  The second point is the one that is important to draw out and to emphasize.  What, after all, is meant by “communities,” and why is it important to hold up a “mirror” to them?


By communities, I mean any “group” of others with whom we as individuals identify.  This can mean one’s family (nuclear or extended), one’s geographic community (regional or local or even national), one’s cultural community (a community of people interested in the same music, a religious community), one’s friends, one’s political community, or even one’s ethnic or identity-based community.

Holding mirrors up to both an individual and to his community is important.  On the one hand, one’s “community” (however we define that) typically has a large role is shaping a person’s identity, so understanding this group can be critical to acquiring self-knowledge of one’s origins and one’s beliefs.  On the other hand, clearly the individual is separate in some important sense from whatever his community; we are always, in some sense, individual.

But even this act of division between individual and community is a political decision, when you look closely enough.  After all, how do you define “individual”?  In my view, we must back up even more and acknowledge what I believe are three main possibilities, each offering a very different view of the “individual.”

Defining an Individual

First, you may define an individual as a completely unique, indivisible person, with no similarities to anyone else.

Second, you may define him as a unique person, shaped by a variety of specific factors, though ones that are not dissimilar from the shaping forces of many other people – but also a member of a universal community called “humanity” – and therefore possessing of a fundamental human nature.  

Or, third, he may be defined as primarily a member of the various identity-groups to which he belongs.

The first vision, highly personal and existential, is, in my view, little more than a philosophical extreme, a position I mention just for the sake of logical argument.  If anything, it’s a position that I think that all adults recognize is something of a fallacy of the young and inexperienced – in fact, it’s important only as an example of the sort of belief that needs to be overcome by education.  Students enter our classrooms believing that they are the first people who have ever struggled with their own personal issues, or who have ever confronted the important human questions; they must learn, for a variety of reasons, that they are not, that these questions have been asked, and perhaps even answered, long before.

The second vision and the third vision seem to me the two main visions of today. The second one sees humans as both of the extremes at the same time – highly individual and unique, and yet universal members of humanity, sharing in something basic with all others, too.  Meanwhile the third vision sees humans directly in the middle, as members of their groups only, a denial of the two extremes of individuality from group associations, and of membership in some universal class of humanity.

These two visions of the individual stem from the basic tension between two important political visions.  That is the contrast between classical liberalism – which, descending from the Enlightenment, sees individuals – both in the sense of highly particular, indivisible units, as well as in the sense of being individual members of a single universal group called “humanity” – as the fundamental unit of existence and of political rights – versus the various Marxist or neo-Marxist political theories, which recognize individuals primarily as members of a particular group and which downplay or deny both the highly individual and the widely universal.  

But underlying all of this is another important tension — one that is surely logistical, but which is also philosophical — and one which is related to this rather academic question of how to define the individual: It is the tension between the individual student and the entire class.  When selecting reading curriculum for students, it’s logistically impossible for a teacher to select  whole-class books that speak directly to each and every one of the 25 (or even 7!) highly unique, totally individual students.  This logistical challenge simply negates the notion of constructing whole-class reading experiences based on the first vision of providing mirrors for highly unique individuals.  It’s impossible.

But the same reasoning and logic, on a philosophic level, can also tear at the fabric of a reading curriculum built around the third ideal of holding up mirrors for students based on group identity.  Even within a racially homogenous group of students, there is still a wide variety of different inter-groups: students of different genders, backgrounds, or religions, for example.  Finding books or characters who “mirror” you is not as simple as finding those which align with each and every one of your group memberships.  The Critical Theory offshoot of this group-identity approach to finding “mirror” books is to ask for not so much a personalized curriculum that mirrors the every particular of their identity group, but a curriculum that mirrors the experiences of anyone, more broadly, who is considered oppressed, marginalized, or minoritized.  The curriculum should somehow mirror this “group experience.” In a sense, these advocates do believe in the second vision, somewhat, because they do believe that there is something that unites broad groups of people across many obvious division: the experience of being oppressed – and that literature can speak to this somewhat-universal experience.  Once again, the notion of “groups” in this vision is so large that it might as well be something close to a universal condition called “humanity” – though not quite, for it does not include the dominant group, who presumably make up some large number of people.

Either way, in my view, the only way to make even this vision of providing curricular mirrors work is to believe in some variation second vision: the accessibility to of a kind of “universal” human experience – or at least somewhat wider accessibility of shared experience – that a large number of students can access, across a large variety of specific identities.  There almost has to be the belief that students can “see” themselves in the work of an author or in the actions of characters who don’t necessarily share every last personal characteristic with them.  There must be something human that can speak across group identity.

In my view then, the first vision – of perfectly individual readers – is a rhetorical extreme, hardly to be considered in curriculum design.  Meanwhile, the third vision, that of the world as composed on not individuals but group members alone, is something of the opposite extreme, denying any real individuality, and therefore either logistically impossible (in being one of too many groups to reasonably construct a curriculum around), or functionally meaningless (in being of so few groups – two, really – that this vision starts to morph into the second vision, of all of humanity).  

My view is that the second vision, the classical liberal vision of humans as simultaneous members of both unique, personal circumstances, as well as of a broader notion of “humanity” should be combined with a moderated, commonsense notion of the third vision – that humans are at once individuals, humans, and group members – and that this is the best way to define an individual in constructing a curriculum around them.


Now that we have established some guidelines for how to approach the problem, it’s time to talk about why, specifically, one of the goals of a good reading curriculum should be to show students books that act as “mirrors.” 

The first distinction is the one discussed previously – that is important to stress is the difference between offering students mirrors as a matter of pedagogy, and offering students mirrors as a matter of justice (or, perhaps, of “social justice” – or even of “equity” – these all mean the same thing).  This is a tremendously important distinction, and much of the current debate – including some of the recommendations by professional organizations that I referenced previously – confuses it.  It is the difference between saying that students of a certain group should have books that “mirror” them because this provides these students with great pedagogical benefits (which shall be described below); it’s quite another to say that these students should be provided with books that “mirror” them as a matter of justice – that because of their political status, they either deserve more or less curricular representation.

Leaving aside the real questions about the viability of any one book addressing the true, specific identities of any one “group,” as discussed above, it’s my view that we should make decisions in the classroom based on pedagogical decisions.  Perhaps here it is important for me to outline my theory regarding the selection of content on the part of educators.  Because, as I mention above, I DO believe that national and even local political circumstances CAN be factored into curricular selection decisions on the part of educators.  But I wish to stress, again, that these decisions must be filtered through a pedagogical lens.  I believe that the selection of content by educators is a constant process of inquiry into the ends of our instruction, of our curricular goals, as well as to the needs of the particular students before us.  These decisions are always situational, involving an understanding of the complex ecology of our classrooms:  the students before us, the events going on in our world, the reading experiences they’ve had previously, the learning experiences in other units, the other book choices over the course of the year/semester, etc.  Selection should always be responsive to our situations, for pedagogical purposes, and framed in pedagogical terms.


I realize this post went on for a long time and was quite long-winded! In the next one — if I manage it, I’ll try to speed things up and really cut to the chase in outlining the actual goals of the reading curriculum.