I believe that literacy is the central, dominant issue in a liberal education. The ability to access a broad range of texts in a deeply sophisticated, critical method is essential in every academic discipline. More importantly, it is necessary for the individual and social responsibilities that confront every member of a democratic society. Paraphrasing Jefferson, an informed citizenry is the life blood of a democracy. As the sources of information proliferate, the need for the knowledge and critical skill required by individuals to negotiate texts increases exponentially. Popular forms of journalism, such as blogs, and pooled knowledge projects like wikipedia have created new spaces and increased opportunity for discourse. These are spaces where new possibilities for the transaction of ideas occur every day. They are also spaces where propoganda, hate speech, and defamation can occur, almost unchecked. Should our goal as ELA teachers not be to create a citizenry that can inform themselves? In the face of such a deluge of information, I would argue that our greatest responsibility to our students is to engage the critical skills necessary to perform these kinds of transactions (between the individual and text, between texts, etc.)
Dr. Stearns spoke of the importance of relationships during our last class. Think about how you access new knowledge. Do you just file away new information? I would contend that knowledge acquisition occurs as part of a more organic process. In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari distinguish between a single root, which can progress in only one direction, adding on to its ends, and the rhizome, which spreads in multiple directions, expanding into new spaces as they become available. I believe we think rhizomatically, therfore we should teach rhizomatically. One often hears the saying that writers do not write in a vacuum. Nor do readers read in one, nor should we teach in one. Texts are best understood in relation to their readers and to other texts. Why do we teach Shakespeare as if he is an historical figure? His texts are very much alive, but they are treated as if they are pieces in a museum. Yet, we are still struggling with the enormity of the themes of his greatest works. Is Hamlet really about anything more than whether a person could do some evil to do a greater good? Can we read Shylock’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice without reflecting on the continuing inequality enforced against humans everywhere because of mere difference? Is that not also the most troubling aspects of Othello? Instead of reading The Merchant of Venice in terms of what students can learn about difference and an ethical negotiation of difference (which never occurs in the play), we focus on the personification of ducats and daughters (which is interesting in relation to the larger topic I suggested, but less so in-and-of itself).
When I was writing my MA thesis, the most important question my advisor asked me was “why is this study important?” I struggled with that question. I struggle with it now as I consider why teaching ELA is important. Why do students require the sophisticated literacy I have been describing? Thomas Friedman seems to suggest that they need it so that they can perform the kind of conceptually driven tasks that will be required of them in the careers that will be available to them in a “flat world.” Perhaps, but I think there is an even more essential quality that this kind of literacy can, and should, promote. Mark Edmundsson suggests that we read in order to question and further develop our most deeply held values, which he calls “final narratives.” I agree. Texts question other texts, and no text is more important to each of us as these narritives are. We should be teaching students to interrogate texts using other texts, including self-created texts. The greatest wisdom comes to us from the temple at Delphi: gnothi seauton (know thyself). We should be teaching textual sophistication. That is, we need to make our students aware of how they make meaning of all the texts around them. Students need to be empowered to enter into a discourse with texts, not merely experience them.