What makes a good reading curriculum? (Part V: More Ideas)

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.

To learn or to recognize ourselves and our communities:  It’s clearly important that one of the goals of reading is that we should be able to develop self knowledge, for the reasons described above.  Self discovery is liberating and provides us with insight.  

To affirm ourselves:  One of the main goals of reading “mirrors” is to affirm and encourage ourselves.  When we see that other people have gone through the same struggles, felt the same emotions, or pursued the goals that we ourselves were not sure are worthy, we feel a sense of affirmation that is an important function of reading.  This sense says that there are others who are like us, that we are important, that we ourselves matter.

It is important to note that this does not necessarily mean the same thing as simply affirming our current self-conception, over and over again in the curriculum.  It means, in some sense, affirming who we are by affirming that which we did not realize we needed to affirm about ourselves.  It is affirmation through self-discovery.

To critique ourselves:  Just as important is the notion of self-examination and self-critique as critically important virtues for a curriculum.  This is of course, the other sense of holding a “mirror” up to ourselves or our societies: we are made aware of our own flaws and imperfections.  We are shown how others see us.  This is an uncomfortable experience at its extreme, but an important and valuable one.

At this point, we’ve said enough about the curricular concept of “mirrors.” Let’s move onto the next goal of a good reading curriculum:  “windows.”


The notion of using reading instruction to encourage students to learn about others is surely an easy one to defend philosophically.  The goals of this approach are so wide and diffuse that it is almost unnecessary to explain the specific benefits, and almost impossible to articulate the specific goals.  One can imagine these goals changing based on local districts’ specific aims, but most of these approaches center on some notion that understanding others is important politically, socially, historically, and morally.  It’s essentially an end in itself, and a worthy goal for all humanist educators.

That said, there are different types of “windows” to which we can expose students.  There are, for example, many kinds of “differences” that we can show students through their reading: different experiences, differences of thought or value, differences of circumstance, and many more.  

That we tend to view this goal of curriculum as an end in itself, without real need for justification, is emblematic of the deeper goals of much of our curriculum: the liberal, Enlightenment-era ideals that we continue to hold in our republic.  These include a tolerance of others and their beliefs and values, a sense that cross cultural understanding is important in an “increasingly global world,” and a belief in the value of empathy to create peaceful, tolerant citizens of a multi-ethnic democracy.  So, clearly empathy and understanding of others is particularly important.

But what lies beyond this? Immediately you hit the related questions of “empathy” and “understanding” — of what? Of whom? For what purpose. This is why I trying to slow things down and trying to find longer, slower — but deeper — answers to these questions. Surely one might say such answers are largely situational and localized. But just as surely there are some more fundamental answers that underlie any such local decisions.

One possibility, a related goal for “windows,” is the old notion of the “liberal education” – that by showing students windows into very different places and times, we can “liberate” them from the conventions of their own time by showing them alternative ways of living, thinking, and acting.

On the one hand, this can lead you back to a fairly uncomplicated notion of self-broadening: the view that reading about the way others do things differently can be enriching, and can help you better understand how to confront your own problems differently, in ways you hadn’t thought of.

On the other hand, though, this is where things get really interesting – because any time you are talking about “liberating” yourself from the conventions of your time period or society – by putting yourself in the mind of characters from a very different time or place who possess quite different values, beliefs, or even language – you’re doing something subversive.  This is where conservatives get anxious about books that provide “windows” into the experience of people they don’t think their children should empathize with – gay characters, characters of other races, perhaps.  They don’t want their children led astray by authors who are describing a very different worldview. But it’s also where progressives get nervous too – when you start talking about children reading books from past eras that may or may not have “problematic” depictions of different people, offensive language – they don’t particularly want their children empathizing with those characters from the past who are doing actions or thinking thoughts or using language that we now find offensive.  Behind both sides lurks a kind of fear about the power of books as “windows” to showcase to readers alternative viewpoints to that of their current society.

One answer — the oldest answer, really — is that windows into contrary viewpoints and value systems help us to affirm or even to improve our own. In a sense, this is the focus of dystopian fiction — by showing us alternative, unlikeable realities, we’re helped to underscore just why various aspects of our society are critically important, and which dangers we must guard against.

This approach — looking into windows of experiences that do not necessarily share all of our values — always requires a kind of confidence in students: that they will not take everything they read at face value, that they can be relied on or taught to possess a critical distance from what they read, a fairly sure sense of self — that they will be able to weigh and consider, to understand in context, not to be irreparably damaged by encountering ideas that contrast with their own or seem to critique their own beliefs or their own lifestyles, that they will not “fall” completely for or be wiped away entirely by the sort of values or beliefs they are reading about via these “windows.”

There’s a lot to be said here about sensitive, astute pedagogy, but I’ll save that for another (surely lengthy) post. Either way, this all leads of course to the important question then:  Windows into what?  Tolerance of whom?  Should a good reading curriculum offer students windows into experiences or perspectives that are truly different in their ethical values than that of the students’ own societies?  And if so, which ones?  These are hard, hard questions, and ones that go beyond the framework of windows and mirrors.  

Realizing this, and having read Louise Rosenblatt’s wonderful 1933 book, “Literature as Exploration,” led me to identify the next goal of reading, outlined (hopefully with brevity!) in the next post.