Why Teach Literature? Replacing Assimilation With Critical Consciousness
Jones, Jocelyn Michal
Distraught by the idea that literature first became an academic discipline as a way to promote a kind of gentleman's class among the commonly cultured and concerned it was possible that underneath my own teaching practice I might still be encouraging conformity even while I hoped to promote diversity, I was urged to investigate the ways the study of literature might still be promoting assimilation and what I might do to resist that. This investigation first took me back to the roots of the common school curriculum in the late nineteenth century where character development and patriotism, linked to grooming a compliant workforce, were the forthright purposes of literature's inclusion. I then examined how educational reform since the late 1970s has returned to a national promotion of commonness but now no longer primarily in the interest of cultural assimilation but in the interest of economic assimilation. Critical of how conformity put society's interests over the individual's, I searched for an alternative pedagogy with a different priority. I discovered that the progressive movement, started by John Dewey in the early twentieth century, established a different model based on student centrism and a desired mutuality between the student and society. In her “theory of aesthetic transaction” Louise Rosenblatt builds upon Dewey's model by positing that readers and texts are co-determinate in the same way that mirrors the complex relationship between people and culture. In this way, Rosenblatt fulfills Dewey's faith that education can be used to promote a relationship of mutuality, where society's interests do not take precedence over the individual's interests. Her theory suggests that education can be used to empower students to see themselves as co-determinate with the world they inhabit in the same way that they are co-determinate with the texts they read. The work of critical pedagogues takes this even further by suggesting that the goal of education should be to empower students to resist oppressive political dynamics. In contrast to offering students power through cultural and economic assimilation, progressive educators and critical pedagogues desire that education not only prepare students to live in the world as it is but that it also help students reshape society in more democratic ways. In conclusion, I posit three strategies for practicing a student centric pedagogy in a literature classroom including focusing a student's education on the knowledge she produces rather than the texts she studies, interpreting texts in relationship to specific contexts, and recognizing the partiality of all perspectives. In contrast to assimilative models, these strategies are designed to help students resist prescriptive life outcomes and have greater agency in directing their lives.
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