Category Archives: literature

Academic Freedom Isn’t Free

My poem The 451 App (22 August 2022) is a science fiction/dystopian musing about the possibility of technology providing a comforting veneer to the creeping rise of totalitarianism—a simple App appearing on everyone’s smartphone before erasing all our books.

The point of the poem is less about technology and a dystopian future (alluding of course to Fahrenheit 451) and more about another work of literature: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

For me, this unmasking of the human condition has always been haunting; it also has become disturbingly relevant in the Trump/post-Trump present in which we live.

Real life is always far more mundane than speculative fiction—and far more shocking.

The “worst,” “full of passionate intensity,” launched an assault on academic freedom in the final months of the Trump administration. The initial wave seemed poised at The 1619 Project and a manufactured Critical Race Theory scare.

By January of 2022, a report found that educational gag orders passed in states across the U.S. were having a significant and chilling effect:

We found that at least 894 school districts, enrolling 17,743,850 students, or 35% of all K–12 students in the United States, have been impacted by local anti “CRT” efforts. Our survey and interviews demonstrate how such restriction efforts have been experienced inside schools as well as districts. We found that both state action and local activity have left many educators afraid to do their work.

The Conflict Campaign (January 2022)

As bills have increased since this report, the number of teachers and students impacted are certainly higher.

Concurrent with educational gag order legislation, book banning has increased dramatically, as reported by PEN America:

• In total, for the nine-month period represented, the Index lists 1,586 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,145 unique book titles. This encompasses different types of bans, including removals of books from school libraries, prohibitions in classrooms, or both, as well as books banned from circulation during investigations resulting from challenges from parents, educators, administrators, board members, or responses to laws passed by legislatures. These numbers represent a count of cases either reported directly to PEN America and/or covered in the media; there may be other cases of bans that have not been reported and are thus not included in this count.

• The Index lists bans on 1,145 titles by 874 different authors, 198 illustrators, and 9 translators, impacting the literary, scholarly, and creative work of 1,081 people altogether.

• The Index lists book bans that have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states. These districts represent 2,899 schools with a combined enrollment of over 2 million students.

Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights

Republicans and conservatives have steadily created an environment of fear around teaching and learning, which is being detailed now by teachers experiencing that fear (with many leaving the field):

Last year, I was quoted in an article in the School Library Journal about how I discussed toxic masculinity with my high school students when we read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”togetherWithin days, far-right publications twisted my words to denounce “woke liberal indoctrination in schools.”

Strangers sent me messages on social media accusing me of indoctrinating students, of being unprofessional and unintelligent. I received a handwritten letter addressed to me at school. The letter accused me of being a “low-life, pseudo-intellectual, swallow-the-lib/woke/b—s— koolaid a — h—-.” [The hyphens were added to replace letters because of Washington Post style and not in the original].

‘Educators are afraid,’ says teacher attacked for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ unit, Sarah Mulhern Gross

This movement is driven by lies and fear mongering, but it depends on the missionary zeal of the liars and fear mongers as well as the passivity of “the best” among us.

My childhood and adolescence were profoundly shaped by books and movies—often the science fiction loved by my mother.

Along with The Andromeda Strain (film adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel), two films based on Ray Bradbury’s work remain with me today—The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451.

There is a profound darkness and fatalism in these works, but in Fahrenheit 451, I was struck by the optimism and power of the individuals who walked around repeating the books they had become.

These people, the best among us, seem to suggest Bradbury held on to some sliver of hope.

It seems overwhelming to consider that as sentient creatures we are doomed to not recognize that things matter until they have been taken from us—taken from us with almost no resistance, with almost no recognition of the book being gently slipped from our hands and then our minds.

Academic freedom isn’t free, but without free minds—freedom to teach, freedom to learn, freedom to read and consider—we are no longer fully human.


Recommended

National Days of Teaching Truth

My 31 texts for 31 days in May

Freedom to Teach: Statement against Banning Books (NCTE)

Banning Books Is Un-American

Banned in the U.S.A. Redux 2021: “[T]o behave as educated persons would”

Censorship and Book Burning: A Reader [Updated]

Furman faculty pass resolution rejecting pending state legislation aimed at academic freedom

Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching (NCTE)

Thoughts from Moon Knight and Saga in Days of Darkness

Throughout the last century, education and intellectual freedom have suffered a persistent assault from ideologues on the right—conservatives determined to protect tradition.

In the wake of Trump, the U.S. is currently experiencing one the most intense such moments, very dark days for teachers, students, education, and intellectual freedom.

Recently, I have begun catching up with Saga by reading Compendium One, which collects the first half, 54 issues, of the series that has recently restarted. Just before that, I had added Moon Knight to my collecting and reading commitments.

In the context of our dark days in education, those readings have struck me in powerful ways.

Moon Knight 8 (v.9) presents two dynamic pages that resonate beyond the narrative itself:

Moon Knight 8 (v.9) (Jed MacKay, writer; Alessandro Cappuccio, artist)
Moon Knight 8 (v.9) (Jed MacKay, writer; Alessandro Cappuccio, artist)

“And then she became something more—a legend,” Flint explains about Scarlet, adding:

In the beginning was the word.

Words, Hunter’s Moon, words have power.

It is with words that we make stories. And stories are the most powerful thing in the world….

She was born of words. …

Because words, taken together, make a story. And so I became a story.

A story that could kill.

Moon Knight 8 (v.9)

Beyond the Moon Knight narrative, this scene captures both the importance of story, books/texts, and reading as well as why people in power fear story, books/texts, and reading.

Banning and censoring books/texts and ideas are acts of power, always, and acts of power in a state of fear.

Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen of Saga also interrogate the power of stories. First in Chapter sixteen:

Saga Chapters Sixteen (Brian K. Vaughan, writer; Fiona Staples, artist)

“Mister, Heist, isn’t that a little … dark for Hazel?” Marko asks. And the reply:

All good children’s stories are the same; young creature breaks rules, has incredible adventure, then returns home with the knowledge that aforementioned rules are there for a reason.

Of course, the actual message to the careful reader is: break rules as often as you can, because who the hell doesn’t doesn’t want to have an adventure?

Saga Chapters Sixteen

Along with the pages from Moon Knight, again, we must acknowledge why people in power fear children reading freely.

And then in Chapter Seventeen:

Saga Chapters Seventeen (Brian K. Vaughan, writer; Fiona Staples, artist)

This full-page panel, dazzling and concise, fits perfectly into the core of the efforts by conservatives to censor and ban—the fear of confronting racism, a story of the U.S. that has only one Truth, only one side.

People in power fear Truth, and depend on compromise, especially in contexts where there is no room for compromise, to hold power for as long as possible.

Returning to Chapter Sixteen, Izabel reminds us of the accidents inherent in what anyone reads and how reading is what matters, not exclusively what is read: “I learned the alphabet from one of my parents’ [guerrilla] training manuals.”

Bans and censorship are always acts of fear and power; nothing can justify them, especially in the lives of children.

Curriculum as Windows, Mirrors, and Maps

Maybe these maps and legends/Have been misunderstood

“Maps and Legends,” R.E.M.

The metaphors of literature as windows and mirrors have become standard ways to advocate for diversity in the texts we invite our students to read [1]. Texts that are windows provide students opportunities to witness and understand people, lives, and cultures unlike their own; texts that are mirrors reflect people, lives, and culture similar to their own.

As an educator, I have been compelled by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, who both make incredibly powerful and personal cases for mirrors in the reading and lives of minoritized and marginalized students as well as how those texts provide windows for students with race and gender privilege.

My journey as a reader and human has been profoundly impacted by texts as windows; particularly during my undergraduate years when my ideology was transformed by Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and other Black writers and thinkers.

The importance of windows and mirrors extends beyond the texts included in our classrooms, however, and must be a commitment to the curriculum of all courses our students navigate.

In 2022, curriculum, instruction, and text/book selection are under assault. State legislators are proposing and passing legislation banning curriculum and texts/books; further, additional legislation seeks to expand the role of parents in not only having access to curriculum and instruction, but also to review and over-ride teacher autonomy in curriculum and instruction.

The most extreme example of the latter is a mandate for teachers to submit a year of lesson plans by mid-summer for review and approval.

At their core, these partisan bills reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about lesson plans, instruction, curriculum, and the complexity of teaching and learning.

The curriculum/text/book bans as well as the parental rights bills are rooted in a White backlash, a fear that White students are being taught in w ays that cause them harmful discomfort.

A few aspects of this must be unpacked.

First, why have these same advocates not raised concerns about the discomfort of girls/young women confronted for decades by texts and curriculum that are male-centric and often portray negative messages about women; why no concern about the discomfort of Black and Brown students who must read texts that include racist language and hateful stereotypes; why no concern for LGBTQ+ students who must navigate texts and curriculum almost entirely populated by people unlike them (or worse, presented with narratives that suggest simplistic views of gender and sexuality)?

Second is the broader failure to recognize the need for curriculum as windows and mirrors for all students to instill self-awareness and empathy—and the related need for learning to be, at time, uncomfortable.

Discomfort is an essential element with changing and growing.

Intellectual and ideological discomfort is distinct from discomfort due to emotional, psychological, or physical discomfort grounded in fear. Education requires the former and is corrupted by the latter.

Despite the White backlash against a more diverse curriculum, a backlash that believes the Whiteness of that curriculum has disappeared, evidence shows that marginalized and minoritized students remain under-represented:

Findings from the report suggest there is disparity in representation of characters from different racial, ethnic, and gender groups. When portrayals of these groups are present, they tend to be affirming and authentic portrayals. However stereotypes, limited roles and inaccurate information are still present and tend to be unique to specific communities. Based on the review, the results indicate a need for educational materials that create a sense of belonging, develop cultural authenticity, and recognize nuanced identity in different characters.

The Representation of Social Groups in U. S. Educational Materials and Why it Matters [2]

Current education legislation de-professionalizes teaching, but that legislation is also suggesting solutions to problems that simply do not exist (such as banning CRT, which isn’t present or even relevant to K-12 education).

In 2014, Christopher Myers confronted the “apartheid of literature,” how Blackness remained mostly absent or misrepresented in the texts published and thus the texts students read. He addresses the value of texts as windows, but deems that inadequate; Myers argues:

Academics and educators talk about self-esteem and self-worth when they think of books in this way, as mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities. I believe that this is important, but I wonder if this idea is too adult and self-concerned, imagining young readers as legions of wicked queens asking magic mirrors to affirm that they are indeed “the fairest of them all.”…

The children I know … see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.

The Apartheid of Children’s Literature

We must acknowledge that the curriculum and book/text bans are coming in a time of U.S. public education when over half of students are Black/Brown while teachers remain overwhelming White (and mostly women). What possibilities are Black/Brown students witnessing daily simply by being students in schools?

And, more broadly, we must accept that whoever decides what students can or cannot read or learn is also deciding who students can become.

At the core of teaching, our commitments should be grounded in what we teach (curriculum) and how we teach (instruction) as that serves who we teach (students).

All students deserve, then, curriculum as windows and mirrors that will serve them in building the map of who they become.


[1] Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

[2] See a review of this report here.

Recommended

Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction

O NCTE, NCTE, Wherefore Art Thou NCTE? [Update]

[UPDATE: Please see and support this open letter to NCTE Executive Committee.]

[UPDATE 2: NCTE Statement on the Doublespeak Award and Anti-Censorship Efforts.]

[UPDATE 3: Public statement from NCSS 8 February 2021: “Saving” American History? Start by Teaching American History]

I have been a literacy educator for 38 years and counting; throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught high school English in rural South Carolina, and then I moved to higher education in 2002, where I am in teacher education and teach first-year and upper-level writing.

Along with being a career educator, I am a writer. I can identify the beginning of my real life as a writer and scholar with three publications: first, Oregon English (published by a state affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE]) in 1989, and then English Journal (a flagship journal of NCTE) in 1991 and 1998.

When I made my move to higher education, I also began a twenty-year and counting relationship with NCTE that has been among the most rewarding elements of my career as teacher and writer/scholar.

While my colleagues and friends discovered through NCTE are too many to list here, at NCTE San Francisco (2003), I attended a presentation and met Ken Lindblom; we began talking, and eventually our connection led to my editing/co-editing a column in English Journal for 10 years under several editors (also counted among my friends and colleagues), including Ken.

In 2013, NCTE named me recipient of their George Orwell Award—one of the proudest moments of my career—acknowledging not only my work that spoke truth to power but highlighting the significance of my public work (blogging, which is often marginalized in academia). Then, after my work on the committee preparing for NCTE’s Centennial at the Chicago annual convention (2011), I served as the Council Historian from 2013-2015.

Until the interruptions of Covid, one of the highlights of each year included attending and presenting at NCTE’s annual conventions.

I share all this not to aggrandize myself, but to establish a fact of my life and career: I love NCTE and the people who have enriched my life because NCTE brought us together.

And thus, I write here in the spirit of James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” (Notes of a Native Son).

Since I do love NCTE, and since I am troubled at this moment of literary and educational crisis, I feel obligated to criticize NCTE, asking, Wherefore art thou, NCTE?

Novices to Shakespeare often misread “wherefore” as simply “where,” but, of course, Juliet is asking “why” Romeo exists, specifically why is she being confronted with the challenge of Romeo’s family name.

Why, I am asking, does NCTE exist? And more pointedly, why is NCTE choosing silence, why is NCTE choosing to take a false apolitical pose—at this moment of literary and educational crisis?

First, let me stress the context of my question.

Across the U.S., Pollock and Rogers, et al., have authored a report from UCLA that analyses the wildfire spreading across the U.S.—curriculum, instruction, and book/text bans:

We found that at least 894 school districts, enrolling 17,743,850 students, or 35% of all K–12 students in the United States, have been impacted by local anti “CRT” efforts. Our survey and interviews demonstrate how such restriction efforts have been experienced inside schools as well as districts. We found that both state action and local activity have left many educators afraid to do their work.

(Pollock, & Rogers, et al., 2022, p. vi)

As I have been cataloging, censorship and even calls for book burnings are nearly a daily event into 2022.

Notable, these attacks on what and how teachers teach, on what and how students learn, are grounded in dishonest claims and misrepresentations, as the UCLA report notes:

We put “CRT” in quotation marks throughout this report because so often the conflict campaign’s definition of “CRT” (like its description of actual K–12 practice) is a caricatured distortion by loud opponents as self-appointed “experts.” The conflict campaign thrives on caricature — on often distorting altogether both scholarship and K–12 educators’ efforts at accurate and inclusive education, deeming it (and particularly K–12 efforts to discuss the full scope of racism in our nation) wholly inappropriate for school.

(Pollock, & Rogers, et al., 2022, p. vi)

The news reports are chilling: A teacher fired in Tennessee for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates (a featured speaker at an annual NCTE convention); a superintendent of education in North Carolina banning a book from one parent complaint, and without reading the book; and high-profile coverage by NBC and The Atlantic detailing the magnitude of the censorship movement, which has included bans of one of the most celebrated graphic novels ever, Maus.

With that context in mind, I want to add I am guided by two more commitments.

Martin Luther King Jr., in Strength to Love (1963), warned: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”

And Howard Zinn [1], whose work has been prominent at NCTE’s annual convention, who titled his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, argued:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

As of today, I am deeply concerned that NCTE, as the premiere national professional organization for literacy and literature in the U.S., has chosen the path of neutrality, of silence, to strike an apolitical pose in order to avoid risk.

In November before the 2021 annual convention, I reached out to some leaders of NCTE and implored that NCTE take a leadership role in speaking out against the creeping threat of state legislation banning curriculum and the rising number of books being banned across the country.

Although I was assured this would happen, there has only been silence.

And then, this: Members of NCTE’s Public Language Awards Committee posted on social media that NCTE has put the Doublespeak Award on hiatus indefinitely in order to avoid looking “political.”

Some members have resigned in protest.

The disappointment and irony of this move is that the Doublespeak Award, a companion of the Orwell Award, is designed to offer an “ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.”

If you return to the report from UCLA, it is obvious we are in the midst of an educational and literary/literature crisis that screams for the Doublespeak Award (“[t]he conflict campaign thrives on caricature”), that demands public-facing, risk-embracing leadership from NCTE.

Why does NCTE exist, if not for this moment?

The current anti-CRT/book banning movement is politically partisan only because Republicans have chosen to make it so. And as King and Zinn noted throughout their careers, taking a neutral pose, pretending to be apolitical, is a political concession to support the status quo.

Since curriculum bans, book censorship, and parental oversight legislation are occurring exclusively among Republican-controlled states, the teachers and students impacted are mostly in right-to-work (non-union) situations; therefore, they are the most vulnerable, and most in need of advocacy from organizations and people with power.

NCTE is the collective voice of literacy educators, scholars, and creators.

I want to remain hopeful, but I am deeply disappointed and increasingly skeptical of that hope.

NCTE’s leaders must look in the mirror, ask “why,” and then act.

Returning to Baldwin, I end with this: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now” (Nobody Knows My Name).


[1] Trying to confirm if/when Zinn spoke at an annual NCTE convention [edit].

Anti-CRT Movement Built on Lies

Republicans and conservatives have been depending for a long time on a truism with an ambiguous source: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

The anti-Critical Race Theory movement has fully committed to this strategy; just lie quickly and then spend most of your time ranting as if the lie is true.

Here is but one of many examples:

While the claim here is a blatant lie, we should note that anti-CRT advocates are the ones who repeatedly conflate “whiteness” with “racism.”

Not My Idea, by Anastasia Higginbotham, in fact, goes to great lengths to recognize white people throughout history who have stood firm against racism; in other words, one of the strongest messages of the book is “not all white people.” The title and motif of the book is that white children are not the ones who created racism, “not my idea”—“Racism was not your idea. You don’t need to defend it.”

And here is the real issue: The book makes a strong case not for rejecting whiteness, but for rejecting racism when you are white.

As is the case is almost all efforts to censor, people have likely never read the book. So here you are, listen and hear the truth:

If you have to advance your beliefs through lies, you should interrogate those beliefs.

The anti-CRT movement is built on lies.

The Eternal Darkness of the Empty Mind

My childhood and adolescence were a paradox.

I was born in Woodruff, South Carolina, and spent some of my childhood in nearby Enoree. Both were very small (Enoree was essentially a cross roads, not far from even smaller Cross Anchor); both were mill towns that had not quite begun to crumble in the 1960s and 1970s.

Woodruff seems like parody now, an ugly parody since the town had literal racial divisions with the Black neighborhood, Pine Ridge, on the other side of the railroad tracks dividing the town.

Racism and a bitter fundamentalism were the norm among white people, although most of these cancers remained unspoken and carefully navigated.

What I heard and witnessed in white-only spaces, including my home, contrasted disturbingly with what I heard and witnessed in mixed-race spaces—notably the vibrant high school sports arenas that much of my hometown worshipped. Yes, my hometown was a high school Friday night football sort of world that, again, almost seems like parody now.

Tradition and authority governed schooling and parenting. Conservative ideology was so pervasive there was little to no evidence any other way of thinking was possible.

There was a bitterness and fatalism among white people, among my family members, that I am deeply aware of now. I see it in the far-right Trump movement, reminding me of my parents railing against Muhammad Ali and blaming Dan Rather for the fall of Richard Nixon.

A darkness of empty minds. Irrational and certain.

By some inexplicable twist of fate, the paradox, I found myself in a series of events that allowed me to rise above that emptiness, allowed me the freedom of the human mind that quite literally saved my life.

I wasn’t quite bookish as a child, but I grew up surrounded by books and reading; my mother was a very bright woman with sparse formal education, a natural teacher with a tendency toward nurturing and mothering (she spent a good bit of her life running an in-home daycare and raised my sister’s three sons).

The secular miracle of my life was that for some odd reason my parents never censored my world, especially my intellectual life. By the time I was a teenager, I had graduated from relentlessly watching science fiction B-movies with my mother to reading covertly hundreds of comic books and novels by Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven and Jerry Purnell, and other science fiction not assigned in school (and there were several assigned novels in school I simply did not read, like Charles Dickens, even though I fell in love with Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, which I read in a literal fever while home sick).

In tenth grade, the miracle of miracles, I entered Lynn Harrill’s English class. Lynn was a fairly new teacher, a kind and passionate educator who eventually became a mentor and the primary impetus for my life as a teacher, scholar, and writer.

Lynn was perceptive, and bold. I spent many days hanging out in Lynn’s room when I wasn’t in class (a kindness I learned and mimicked when I became a teacher, the first years in the exact room where Lynn taught me).

His perception was recognizing my proclivities and how traditional schooling wasn’t serving me fully. His boldness was whispering to me one day when I was taking up his valuable time that I should read D.H. Lawrence (he added that since he knew my parents the recommendation would be fine but Lawrence was a controversial writer).

Lynn was right about the recommendation and my parents.

By high school, in fact, my mother patiently wrote checks each month for my subscription to a few comic books and Playboy, delivered to my home as if this sort of thing was completely normal in 1970s SC.

Of course, as a teen, Playboy and Lawrence spoke to my sexual curiosity of adolescence, but that was a very small fraction of my intellectual life that they both spurred. I recall to this day several interviews I read in Playboy by thoughtful people dramatically unlike the adults of my hometown.

Lawrence became my first literary crush (Clark as well as Niven and Purnell was my first nerd-reading crush). Over the next few years, I read everything by Lawrence. In college as I drifted toward education and English, I gathered as much literary analysis of Lawrence as I could.

Hovering beneath all this, of course, was my comic book collecting. For almost 50 years, I have been a collector of some kind. When I discover a writer, I plow through all their work, proudly buying and displaying all their books.

From that first affair with Lawrence to the more recent obsessions with Haruki Murakami, there have been too many love affairs with authors’ works to list them all—Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and on and on.

And as I noted many times, one of the pivotal moments of my life was finding a used copy of the non-economic writing of Karl Marx, including the foundational pieces that turned me on to being an educator.

Yes, Karl Marx inspired me to a life of service and a commitment as a teacher to foster in students a vibrant mind of possibilities and ideas—and a robust, unyielding repulsion for indoctrination, and even authority.

Many years later, I discovered Paulo Freire and bell hooks. Freire gave me an important framing—the choice of being authoritative (earning the respect of students and readers because I demonstrate authority over content) instead of authoritarian (demanding compliance because of my status).

It is 2022 and I am terrified.

That terror isn’t grounded in the never-ending threat of Covid (although that is certainly terrifying), but in the spreading threat from Republicans determined to censor and control curriculum and what books anyone has access too.

The current Republican playbook isn’t new. Consider this from 1961 in an Oklahoma newspaper:

Jack Hamm, Oklahoma City Star, 6/2/1961 (H/T Randall Stephens)

Notice the second tentacle from the left: “Millions spent for Godless literature.”

I was born about 6 months before this editorial cartoon, and today read the following from Judd Legum:

In Indiana, State Senator Scott Baldwin (R) has introduced sweeping legislation that Baldwin says is designed to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related concepts in K-12 education. During a committee hearing on the bill earlier this month, Baldwin told a high school English teacher that he should be “impartial” when discussing Nazism. It is a case study about how the frantic efforts to ban CRT can quickly lead to absurd outcomes. 

Author of anti-CRT bill tells teacher he should stay “impartial” on Nazism

Republicans all across the U.S. are introducing and passing legislation censoring curriculum (targeting anti-racism content) and banning books from classrooms, school libraries, and public libraries (focusing on LGBTQ+ authors and works); some school board members have even called for book burnings.

My home state of SC is following the lead of other Republican-led states (notably Texas) by proposing guidelines that allow anyone to censor books for others.

It is incredibly important to emphasize that Republicans are actively removing books from school and public libraries—using government to decide what books and ideas people have access to.

These actions are tyranny. The antithesis of being free people.

There is no individual freedom without intellectual freedom.

No one should be held hostage to a life of an empty mind. Everyone deserves the accidental great fortune of my youth, including the kindness and boldness of my teacher, Lynn Harrill.

But none of this should be done in whispers, or with fear.

Republicans are calling for the eternal darkness of the empty mind, and we must resist because censorship erodes both American freedom and human dignity.

Also in 1961, Lou LaBrant recognized the failure of education as conformity:

Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire….Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. Speaking and writing and exploring the books of the world are prime fields for freedom. (pp. 390-391)

LaBrant, L. (1961). The rights and responsibilities of the teacher of EnglishEnglish Journal, 50(6), 379–383, 391. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/810824

We must rewin our freedom.

The Zombie Allure of Ayn Rand’s Empty Literature and Philosophy

Social media didn’t create it, but social media are the perfect platforms for recording a disturbing fact about the zombie ideas that just will not die in the U.S. Case in point is that Ayn Rand is trending because NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers pointed to her Atlas Shrugged on his book shelf.

Rand is a favorite of conservatives, especially among those embracing libertarianism, but Rand represents the consequences of the right’s anti-intellectualism that leaves Republicans and conservatives ignorant of the academics they shun and shame.

A snapshot of the problem occurred often on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program when he periodically praised “Ann” Rand—a grotesque moment that implied Limbaugh never read any of her work but felt compelled to use her as the dog whistle Rand has been reduced to (if her low-form literature and philosophy could be taken any lower).

Many people have noted that a large number of conservative thinkers and political leaders never attended or dropped out of college. Using Rand to signal a literary and ideological basis for yourself is actually a much different sort of signaling than conservatives realize since they have no or little experience with academia (note that there is plenty worth criticizing about academia and academics).

Citing Rand is the academic equivalent to citing Wikipedia or the dictionary in an essay for your first-year composition course: You just told your professor something you would have preferred to keep secret.

None the less, Ayn Rand has achieved a unique distinction; she is recognized as not being worthy of consideration in two major fields, literature and philosophy. Virtually no one in either field takes her work seriously even as both flourish among adolescent readers and limited political leaders.

That noted, she likely has another distinction also; her work’s enduring popularity prove that “popular” and “enduring” do not necessarily equal “good” or “credible.”

Rand’s enduring popularity in the U.S. among conservatives does highlight the internal lack of logic and self-defeating power of embracing uncritically a simplistic ideology. Rand’s rugged individualism seems to mask her militant atheism and sexual politics for Christian conservatives.

Rand’s popularity is a subset, of course, of the allure of the libertarian lie, the American Dream built on the argument that anyone can succeed with the right effort (and the inverse that failure is your own damn fault).

Let me recommend the Rand reader below, but I want to highlight a few points here.

First, I want to stress that while many of us on the left are quick to criticize Rand’s work, we are not advocating for legislation to ban her books in U.S. schools or libraries, and none of us are calling for Rand book burnings (except for a cheeky comment in a letter by Flannery O’Connor decades ago). Please note that Rodger’s glee over having Rand on his book shelf is occurring while Republicans are banning books they dislike, and some are calling for book burnings.

The Left believes in refuting and confronting bad ideas; the Right believes in censorship, using the government to control what people can read (not very Randian).

Finally, I want to emphasize just what people are endorsing when they point to Ayn Rand.

As noted by Skye C. Cleary, Rand endorses a caustic victim blaming:

It’s easy to criticise Rand’s ideas. They’re so extreme that to many they read as parody. For example, Rand victim-blames: if someone doesn’t have money or power, it’s her own fault. Howard Roark, the ‘hero’ of The Fountainhead, rapes the heroine Dominique Francon. A couple of awkward conversations about repairing a fireplace is, according to Rand, tantamount to Francon issuing Roark ‘an engraved invitation’ to rape her. The encounter is clearly nonconsensual – Francon genuinely resists and Roark unmistakably forces himself upon her – and yet Rand implies that rape survivors, not the rapists, are responsible. Might makes right and, as Roark states earlier in the novel, the point isn’t who is going to let him do whatever he wants: ‘The point is, who will stop me?’ Rand’s championing of selfishness, and her callousness to the unfortunate, finds echoes in contemporary politics. It would not be stretching a point to say that her philosophy has encouraged some politicians to ignore and blame the poor and powerless for their condition.

Philosophy shrugged: ignoring Ayn Rand won’t make her go away

Ultimately, the problem is not the zombie allure of Rand, but the people to whom she speaks; Masha Gessen concludes:

And, of course, the spirit of Ayn Rand haunts the White House. Many of Donald Trump’s associates, including the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, have paid homage to her ideas, and the President himself has praised her novel “The Fountainhead.” (Trump apparently identifies with its architect hero, Howard Roark, who blows up a housing project he has designed for being insufficiently perfect.) Their version of Randism is stripped of all the elements that might account for my inability to throw out those books: the pretense of intellectualism, the militant atheism, and the explicit advocacy of sexual freedom. From all that Rand offered, these men have taken only the worst: the cruelty. They are not even optimistic. They are just plain mean.

The Persistent Ghost of Ayn Rand, the Forebear of Zombie Neoliberalism

A final irony of Rand is that below I offer a reader by thoughtful people writing about why you are likely wasting your time reading Rand—and risking your soul if you do read her novels as how-to manuals for your life.

Keep in mind that taking sides on Rand is simply this: Rand believes mean people rock, and those of us rejecting Rand know mean people suck.

Reader

‘Atlas Shrugged’ free books and essay contest, plus other inducements (A good overview of why Rand’s novels being popular and enduring is a problem)

Philosophy shrugged: ignoring Ayn Rand won’t make her go away

Adam Roberts & Lisa Duggan on Ayn Rand

How Bad Writing Destroyed the World

The Bad Idea That Keeps on Giving

Flannery O’Connor: Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Ayn Rand (1960)

The problem with Ayn Rand? She isn’t a philosopher

The Persistent Ghost of Ayn Rand, the Forebear of Zombie Neoliberalism

Ayn Rand is for children

Reading Matters

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

Hamlet: Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards….

Polonius: [Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

–Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.

Reading matters.

I imagine you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree with those two simple words. But the reality is that those two words have dramatically different meanings among people advocating for teaching children to read in schools.

“[S]ociety should get behind teaching everybody to read the right way,” explains John McWhorter, linguist turned public intellectual who uses his bully pulpit at the New York Times to join the long list of Black celebrities and notable people invited into the white mainstream of conservative thought cloaking racism and racial stereotyping.

The problem in McWhorter’s words, of course, is that “right way.”

Since early 2018, the U.S. has once again lifted the Reading War into public consciousness with a misleading refrain, “the science of reading” (SoR). The media has maintained a steady beat claiming that teacher education and practicing teachers have failed to embrace the SoR, and as a result, children are failing to learn to read.

The SoR media movement has merged with some aggressive parent advocacy groups, notably related to dyslexia, and the result is copy-cat SoR reading legislation being passed throughout the country. Ironically, and disturbingly, that legislation often codifies policies and practices that are strongly refuted by scientific research—grade retention, universal screening for and oversimplification of dyslexia [1], systematic intensive phonics programs for all students [2], bans on popular reading programs, and efforts to mimic policies implemented in Mississippi [3] (after one round of improved NAEP scores in reading at grade 4).

While I am certain that people advocating for improved reading instruction in our schools all have mostly good intentions (except for a powerful lobby for phonics programs and some media/journalists seeing an opportunity to cash in on SoR), the problem remains with what anyone means by “reading matters.”

We must acknowledge two contexts here.

One context is approaching a common term but a rare case that it may be accurate—crisis.

Since the SoR movement and advocates such as McWhorter are speaking into a conservative and traditional ideology about language, reading, and literature (used broadly to mean any texts students reading), the SoR movement has been swept into a concurrent movement against public education broadly begun under Trump with the purposeful and orchestrated attacks on the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory (McWhorter’s “right way” comment sits inside his joining the anti-woke movement).

What merges the anti-woke education movement and the SoR movement is the focus on parental rights to monitor and control what students learn and how students learn.

The crisis we are approaching, I think, is the ironically disturbing part. The merging of the SoR movement with the anti-woke movement means that so-called advocates for better reading instruction have joined forces with a new rise in censorship that includes book banning, removing books from libraries (lists of 850+ books identified in Texas), proposing bans on terms deemed “woke,” and even calls for burn burnings.

A significant but less powerful group of literacy advocates, teachers, scholars, and writers have noted the problem with emphasizing the need for children to learn to read while simultaneously reducing what they can read, and even what those students are allowed to consider or think.

A second context is the contradiction between the narrow demands of the SoR movement and the likelihood that policies and practices being implemented in the name of SoR are likely to inhibit and even discourage children from reading.

I have detailed several times that I grew up in a racist and deeply conservative community and household. The conditions that saved my life, my mind, and my soul include the coincidence that my very misguided parents happened to respect intellectual freedom; I was allowed to read anything throughout my childhood and teen years.

Once I moved beyond my home and community—college—I was then liberated by reading Black authors assigned and recommended by wonderful professors, again a context that respected intellectual freedom and my mind.

Not an exhaustive list, but for me, someone who has spent almost 40 years as a literacy educator, I want to offer some reasons reading matters for me, highlighting John Dewey, William Ayers, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde:

The allure of SoR for the media, parents, and politicians is grounded in silver-bullet “all students must” thinking that is antithetical to the reasons I believe reading matters.

At the core of the tension in debates about teaching reading and what texts students are assigned or allowed to read is those embracing indoctrination (“teaching everybody to read the right way”) versus those embracing education as liberation (from Dewey to Ayers to hooks and to Lorde).

Indoctrination depends on someone not only controlling what people read, hear, and think, but also erasing what people read, hear, and think.

The SoR movement ultimately fails because it resists being student centered and allows far too often for reading to be reduced to decoding (systematic intensive phonics for all); further, while SoR advocates often demonize popular reading programs (and I am a strong critic of all reading programs), they make the same essential mistake by simply choosing different programs to endorse as rigid expectations for students and teachers (LETRS, DIBLES).

Reading matters, but if we become distracted by raising reading test scores, our practices are likely to produce non-readers (Dewey).

Reading matters, but if we fail to distinguish between indoctrination and education for liberation (hooks), we reduce reading instruction to training (Ayers).

Reading matters, but our commitments must be to how reading matters for the individual, especially for those “who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable” (Lorde).

If we truly believe every person deserves the human dignity of intellectual freedom, as my parents and teachers afforded me, then reading matters only if we refuse silver-bullet scripts, only if we protect all the books and ideas available to free people.

That is the only “right way” worth evoking.


[1] See the following:

An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction, with Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon

Research Advisory: Dyslexia (ILA)

[2] See the following:

A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Reading Comprehension Interventions on the Reading Comprehension Outcomes of Struggling Readers in Third Through 12th Grades, Marissa J. Filderman, Christy R. Austin, Alexis N. Boucher, Katherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth A. Swanson

“the simple view of reading does not comprehensively explain all skills that influence reading comprehension, nor does it inform what comprehension instruction requires.”

The Sciences of Reading Instruction, Rachael Gabriel (Educational Leadership)

The Trouble With Binaries: A Perspective on the Science of Reading, David B. Yaden Jr., David Reinking, and Peter Smagorinsky

Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction, Jeffrey S. Bowers (2020)

[3] UPDATED 23 February 2020: Mississippi Miracle or Mirage?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers

See Also

The Problem with Balanced Literacy

Failing Balanced Literacy Is Failing Readers, Katie Kelly and Paul Thomas

Drama and the Struggling High School Reader

In my current trends in literacy course for our MAT program, I have 7 students across several content areas. Our discussion yesterday confronted how too often teachers (notably ELA teachers) assign texts and reading that discourage students as readers.

One candidate in ELA shared a story of a teacher who declared that most of their students “can’t read Shakespeare” so that teacher has the class listen to an audio recording of the play Macbeth.

I noted that required reading lists often do more harm than good for students as readers and added if I had to choose between required texts that students don’t read or choice texts that students actually read, I always want the latter.

Further, this example triggered a pet peeve of mine about how we teach different forms and genres of writing.

I asked the class what type of text Macbeth is, and they all identified it as a play. I followed up with asking how plays/drama are intended to be experienced, and again, they all noted that plays are written to be viewed, preferably as live performances.

Next, I shared with them recurring experiences I have with my first-year writing students (high-achieving students—disproportionately white and affluent—admitted to a selective liberals arts college).

Often on the first day of class, I ask students what novels they read in high school English, and several students will say A Raisin in the Sun, Hamlet, and such. I then point out that these are plays, and not novels. But the students have mostly read these plays in bound books that look identical to the novels they were assigned.

Also in the first few days, I have students do a writing exercise where they write a mimic passage from a chapter in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, “A House of My Own.” Students are told to mimic the grammar and style of the chapter exactly while changing the content.

The assignment is designed as a first transition to reading like a writer [1] (as opposed to reading text for literary analysis) so that students develop the skills needed to compose and revise with attention to not just what they express but also how they express their messages.

Invariably, several students email me their piece and identify it as their “poem,” despite my noting in class that they are mimicking a prose chapter from a novel.

In other words, very bright and often “A” students demonstrate over and over that they have garbled and often inaccurate knowledge about genre and form—and they learn these flawed lessons in school, typically in English, because of careless approaches to text like the one above concerning Macbeth.

I want to focus here on two aspects, interconnected, about how we teach text to students, particularly in high school.

First, concerning having students listen to or read plays, I always see lessons involving text as essentially lessons in genre awareness, a concept endorsed by Ann Johns instead of genre acquisition (her discussion forefronts composition, but this applies to reading as well):

Russell [and] Fisher (in press) distinguish between two approaches to genre pedagogy, two basic goals for a course or tutorial. The first is GENRE ACQUISITION, a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way. The Five Paragraph Essay pedagogies, so common in North America, present a highly structured version of this genre acquisition approach. …

A quite different goal is GENRE AWARENESS, which is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts. …I have concluded that raising genre awareness and encouraging the abilities to research and negotiate texts in academic classrooms should be the principal goals for a novice literacy curriculum (Johns 1997).

This juxtaposition of two quite different goals, genre acquisition and genre awareness, is reminiscent of another pedagogical contrast mentioned by Henry Widdowson years ago (1984) and, later, by Flowerdew (1993): that pedagogies are designed to either TRAIN for specific tasks (i.e., text types) or EDUCATE, to cope with an almost unpredictable future. It is my argument here that education should, in the end, be our goal for novice academic literacy courses, for a genre awareness education will prepare students for the academic challenges
that lie ahead. (pp. 238-239)

Johns, A.M. (2008). Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An on-going quest. Language Teaching, 41(2), 237-252.

Therefore, when I teach a genre or form, I typically invite students to ask questions and develop or refine their internalized rubric for what constitutes that genre or form (or medium): What makes a poem, a poem? What makes a comic book, a comic book? What makes a film, a film? What makes an essay, an essay? etc.

Reading and critical literacy require that the reader come to a text with some awareness of form and genre, and that awareness helps the reader navigate the text for meaning.

Sitting down to read Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” for example, often challenges people since I have seen it identified and heard students refer to the work as a poem, a story, and a non-fiction essay (it is a prose passage, fictional, in Nye’s Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose).

Finally, we must confront why Macbeth was taught to these students through an audio recording—the conclusion that high school students couldn’t read Shakespeare.

I am deeply skeptical of the rush to identify high school students as struggling readers for several reasons:

  • Many high school students are non-readers and it is too easy to conflate non-readers with struggling readers.
  • Often, even in ELA courses, lessons and assessments are designed in ways that allow students to pass or even excel in a course without having to read [2] (students can access information on novels and plays or simply depend on the teacher to cover everything to be assessed in class, which most teachers do).
  • Students who are non-readers are not necessarily demonstrating they have decoding, vocabulary, or comprehension problems, but that they lack motivation to read texts assigned to them and to perform in ways that are not authentic. Many non-readers in the classroom go home and perform complex and advanced literacy that teachers do not see and traditional schooling does not acknowledge (video and board gaming, binge-watching TV, reading and collecting comic books, reading novels they choose such as YA lit or science fiction and fantasy).
  • Students who “struggle” with assigned texts and performing in ways that are often required in school (narrow analysis and multiple choice testing) may be struggling due to those expectations as well as lacking adequate experience reading (since they have passed courses without reading). I think “struggling” is a misnomer for that phenomenon.

Lou LaBrant warned in 1949, “We should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness” (p. 276).

And LaBrant (1937) held that belief because “the adolescent has much greater power to read and to think intelligently about reading than the results of our conventional program have led us to believe” (p. 34).

We ask too little of students when we fail to honor the fidelity of genre, form, and medium, but we ultimately fail students when we assume their lack of reading lies in a fault with them (“struggling”) instead of interrogating what we require them to read (or not read) and our reductive approaches to text and literacy.


[1] See here and here.

[2] I saw a former students several years after he was a marginal and combative AP Literature student of mine. He smiled and announced that he expected I would be surprised to know he earn a degree in English in college. Then, he added that he did so without ever reading a book assigned to him.

Sources

LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/807545

LaBrant, L. (1937, February 17). The content of a free reading program. Educational Research Bulletin, 16(2), 29–34. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1471836

Reimagining the Teaching of English

Published in The High School Journal (May 1951) by Dorothy McCuskey, a review of Lou LaBrant‘s most comprehensive work on teaching English, We Teach English, concluded: “In short, this is no ‘how to teach’ book. Rather, it is a book which will cause the reader to re-examine the bases of his [sic] teaching methods and the content of his [sic] courses.”

LaBrant was a demanding teacher and scholar with a career as a teacher of English from 1906 until 1971. And one of the defining features of that career was her persistent challenges to how teachers taught the field labeled, then, as “English.”

The field traditionally called “English” has evolved over the years, often at the K-12 level being envisioned as English/Language Arts (ELA) or simply Language Arts.

Nelson Flores, at The Educational Linguist, recently confronted “Language Arts” as a descriptor or teaching English:

Schools often teaches courses called Language Arts. Yet, little actual art happens in most of these classrooms. Instead, language is often treated as a static set of prescriptivist rules that children are expected to master and mimic back to their teacher. This is not an exploration of the art of language. This is linguistic oppression.

How about we actually bring the art of language into Language Arts?

Concurrent with this post from Flores, I argued that students must unlearn to write in order to write well at the college level and shared on Twitter the baggage students bring to college, what they must unlearn:

Having been a high school English teacher for almost two decades and then a teacher educator focusing on ELA and a first-year composition professor for an additional two decades, I carry on LaBrant’s tradition of mostly swimming against the tide of tradition in terms of what counts as “teaching English.”

Students majoring in the humanities, specifically English, has declined significantly—”History is down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s”—prompting many colleges and universities to reconsider and even cut those majors and departments.

We are well past time, I think, the need to reimagine the teaching and fields of English/ELA for K-16.

At one level, English/ELA includes a complex challenge since teachers and professors in that singular field/discipline are often tasked with addressing a wide range of content included in literature and literacy (reading/writing). Bluntly put, teaching English/ELA is a herculean, nearly impossible task.

If we teachers of English/ELA are to be successful in covering literature and literacy K-16, any success found in our students is necessarily cumulative over many, many years. This is no trivial point, and not mere metaphor, but when teaching or learning literature and literacy, there is no finish line.

While I firmly believe we must distinguish between the teaching of literature and literacy, specifically between teaching literature and composition/writing, I also recognize that the myriad aspects of literacy are inherently recursive, symbiotic: learning to read is learning to write; learning to write is learning to read.

For people learning to teach, for example, high school English/ELA (courses that are designed to address both literature and literacy [reading/writing]), majoring in English often proves to be inadequate since English as a discipline at the university level tends to be literature based, often very narrow in course content (an entire semester on William Butler Yeats, for example).

Yes, English majors tends to write a great deal, but writing literary analysis or even so-called creative writing does not prepare a person to teach writing. In higher education, English (literature) and composition are distinct and separate fields.

To emphasize my point, when I was teaching American literature for high school students and as I teach first-year writing at my university, bringing texts into class has completely different purposes; it isn’t that both sets of students aren’t learning reading and writing in the courses, but that we are interrogating texts for significantly distinct purposes.

Literary analysis and reading like a writer are complex but different behaviors for students with different purposes and outcomes.

In fact, literary analysis is a discipline-based type of writing that demands unique moves and conventions than other discipline-based writing, such as in history, psychology, or the sciences.

I spent 18 years teaching high school English and have spent a bit longer now preparing candidates to teach high school English/ELA. I can attest without hesitation that expectations for K-12 English/ELA are excessive, inherently impossible.

While I don’t want to linger on the problems with teaching math, I do want to note that math tends to acknowledge the unique aspects within the field since students take sequences and more clearly delineated courses (geometry, Algebra I, Algebra II, calculus, etc.) that have mathematical principles in common throughout while maintaining the distinct features of each course.

With math (and the sciences), we recognize that a geometry teacher may be ill equipped to teach algebra (or a chemistry teacher, ill equipped to teach biology), but we tend to see English/ELA teachers as a monolithic monstrosity.

Somehow, with only a bachelors degree and at the tender age of 22, I was deemed capable of teaching American and British literature as well as writing to my high school students, but college professors several years older than that and armed with doctoral degrees are hired in English departments to teach Elizabethan drama (and such candidates often wave off requests that they take on first-year composition as well since, well, they aren’t trained to do that).

Sure, professors at the college level teach outside their specialities, but this is seen as a stretch, and not the norm or ideal. And when professors are tasked to work outside their areas of specialization, outcomes are often disappointing (my university decided years ago any professor could teach first-year writing—until it became abundantly clear that that is certainly not true).

Since a significant percentage of my college teaching load is now first-year and upper-level writing, I witness the harm done to students at the K-12 level and the inadequacies at the university level for writing instruction, historically a shunned cousin of the field of English since, I think, composition is viewed as mere teaching (and we all know the status of the field of education in academia).

Students need and deserve in K-16 schooling courses and teachers/professors properly equipped to teach both literature and literacy (specifically writing), but not simultaneously.

English/ELA must be reimagined as a complex field with symbiotic but distinct elements that require time and patience for both teaching and learning—and a much greater respect for the complexity and difficulty involved in teaching any of those different areas.

Writing in 1939 about the experimental program at the Ohio State University High School, LaBrant posed a similar argument:

That not all teachers are, however, equally skilled in assisting with all phases of language experiences, as, for example with personal or creative writing or with leisure reading; and consequently that students need a so-called “English” teacher who will assume certain specialized responsibilities and who will, in addition, study the general language growth of individual students and classes, and see that, as far as possible, adequate and balanced growth takes place. (p. 269)

An English Program Based on Present Needs

At OSU, the University School recognized that a team of teachers with unique training and strengths needed to work together in order to address that “language growth and study are to be expected in all phases of school experience”—not simply laid at the feet of the English teacher.

It’s 2021, and “we teach English” needs to mean something more complex than it does currently, something similar to a nearly forgotten experiment in the early twentieth century where LaBrant practiced what she preached.