Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Did the good guys lose the culture wars?

OK, I've been meaning to write this post for over a month now, but it has been brewing and stewing, and tonight's whuppin' at the hands of the Tea Party has me sleepless and over the edge.

The Great Backlash
In the last few years, I've been thinking a lot about the Republican echo chamber and the way that it has strategically pushed an agenda that--sometimes implicitly, sometimes overtly--exploits the latent racism of many white voters and convinces them to vote against their own economic self-interest. This is basically what Barack Obama was getting at in his historic speech "A More Perfect Union" (a.k.a. the "race speech"), in which he defended earlier remarks that these voters "cling to guns or religion" because, basically, their lives are incredibly tough economically. This is a rehearsal of an earlier argument in Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas?" (and surely also creditable to countless other people) about how people cope with the cognitive dissonance produced by a society in which you are taught your whole life that anyone can do or become anything, only to learn that you actually can only do those things if you are lucky, that there is a really big pie that's big enough for everyone, only someone else has taken your piece because of affirmative action.

Seeing how so many Americans have reacted to the Obama presidency has me even more convinced that we are in serious trouble if we let so much unreconstructed racism go unchecked. The fact that so many people--millions of people--can believe (falsely) that the president is a Muslim AND also believe that this is a bad thing; that hundreds of thousands of Tea Partiers parade around with signs that unabashedly proclaim that they will "take back America" (from whom? for whom?) has me really, really worried. So, to make a long story short, I have become increasingly troubled and convinced that we are living in an era that will become known by historians as the Great Backlash.

What does this have to do with teaching?
Lots. But the one topic that has been weighing heavily on my mind of late is the question I started with, and when I say "culture wars" I should probably be more specific and call it "the canon wars." Here is my capsule version of the canon wars: what people read matters because it affects their attitudes, which affects politics. If people only read texts about how great white people are and how evil non-white people are, then that is what they will think. Conversely, if people read a wide variety of viewpoints and are taught to examine how works of literature fit into a society that oppresses women, people of color, and the poor, then they will become more ethical human beings.* Yes, that is a base summary. But that's basically what it was about. What I've been discovering in numerous conversations with current and former high school English teachers, university professors, English graduate students, and college English majors, is that we are definitely, absolutely NOT ON THE SAME PAGE about how things turned out.

In postsecondary English departments, everyone pretty much agrees on two points:
1. That the old canon is over. We now more or less have a much bigger, more inclusive canon. This means, for people writing literary criticism, that you can almost** never assume that anyone has read what you are writing about, whether that's Longfellow or Gwendolyn Brooks.

2. That canons in general are bad. Any kind of list of books that people can be expected to have read in order to be considered learned, educated, sophisticated, or whatever, whether that list includes or doesn't include Wright, Dickens, Cisneros, Faulkner, DuBois, Anaya, Shakespeare, Morrison, Hawthorne, etc, etc is designed to separate people into the in- and the out-crowd, better and worse, elite and common. Now, it must be said that this second point undercuts the first while also undercutting the existence of university English departments, whose job historically has been almost solely to decide what should and shouldn't be in the canon.

These are the two points that most university professors and graduate students more or less agree "won" the war, whether they like it or not, unless they are over 70 and/or named Harold Bloom. But here's the problem: many, if not all, college English majors may get point #1, but more than likely won't be taught point #2 well enough to understand it. Case in point: one of the major reasons I went to graduate school for English was that I wanted to become yet more expert in literature--I wanted to feel like I had "read everything." In other words, I wanted to master the canon, and to change it to include more African American authors. Only later did I find out that this goal didn't make sense given the arguments that were being made both about what canons are for and about whether or not arguing about canons actually changes anything. So that's why you find me writing this blog as someone trying to become a secondary English teacher.

But, on to my second point. Many, if not all, high school English departments are still very much working on getting to consensus on point #1, or may have sort of compromised on that point and want to put it behind them. I know people personally who still routinely have to justify book selections to departments that want to see more Dickens and less bell hooks.*** Meanwhile, many, if not all, university professors and graduate students have moved on from these arguments, which raged throughout the 1980s and 1990s, because they are believed to be passe.

So, to sum up: most of the people (high school English teachers) who teach most of the people (everyone who attends some high school but does not become a college English major in spite of the numerous and well-known advantages) most of what they learn about literature and culture never really came around to either of the two views. And is it a coincidence that we are living in the era of the Great Backlash? And is anyone talking about this problem anymore? In my training so far, it seems more or less settled that one wants to teach "the classics" in some form to all high school English students. This is what I must learn more about. So, to be continued...

*For a brilliant argument on why this was never going to work in the first place, see here.
**I say almost because there are still plenty of books that are more or less required, and most of them are still by dead white men. Did you notice how I could just say "Longfellow" but I had to give Brooks's first and last name? Surprise!
***Let's leave aside the question about whether or not a high school English student will glean anything from either of these authors.

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