Postmodernism and education: Shifting grounds of the high school literary canon
Abstract: Postmodernism and Education: Shifting Grounds of the High School Literary Canon by James Mikkelson The present study set out to examine to what extent high school literature anthology samples of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s reflect a change in our current postmodern era from textbooks of the 1960s and 1970s with respect to gender, race and ethnicity as measured in the shifting selections of authors in the works of the most influential textbooks. Criterion purposeful sampling techniques were employed relying on data culled from content analysis of textbooks from the top three literature anthology publishers. These three publishers and their subsidiaries constitute the basis of the present study, with a specific focus on their high school American literature anthologies, which are usually used for teaching in the 11th grade year. In order to trace the possible changes that have occurred in these textbooks over the last half-century a content analysis of these anthologies was employed. The content analysis involved four factors: the author's gender, author's race and/or ethnicity, the genre of the work selected for inclusion in the textbook, along with the number of pages allotted to a given author in a given text. Texts were divided by decade starting from 1960, then moving through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, up to the current time. In all, 23 textbooks from the three largest textbook companies were used in the study.
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4 Chapter 1 Introduction Purpose of the Study The central purpose of this study is to examine the changes that have occurred in high school American literature anthologies from the 1960s to the present day. The 1960s were selected as a general baseline against which the literature anthologies of the succeeding decades could be measured with the argument being that the late seventies and eighties constituted a watershed in the debates over the idea of canonicity. More specifically, the study explores what influence postmodernism and its concomitant politics of inclusion and multiculturalism have had on the high school literary canon as indicated in the contents of the major American literature anthologies. Background In 1910 when Charles Eliot put together his list of 50 books limited strictly to what would fit in the length of the five-foot shelf, very few people objected to his selection. In fact, 350,000 complete sets were sold by Collier's making the Harvard Classics a commonplace in home and school libraries thereby establishing a standard against which future notions of what constituted a great book might be determined (Kirsch, 2001). Columbia professor John Erskine added to the germinal idea of a western literary canon when in 1920 he inaugurated the "General Honors" course at Columbia College, which "was the
5 first of the 'great books' courses in this country" (Hovde, 2001). According to Hovde, several assumptions came to bear in determining the texts. The first and most important was that "the works should be major ones as a means to continue the humanistic curriculum" (para. 13). The hierarchical ideal instantiated in the term "major ones" should not be overlooked. The idea governing these early lists of influential books was that only the best in terms of aesthetics and ideas would be included. Equal representation or any form of literary affirmative action was not a factor in making the choices. Yet in 1988, Jesse Jackson was able to lead a successful student demonstration at Stanford University against the University's Western Civilization core course. The student chant, "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ has got to go," embodied the state of discontent about "white male dominance" represented in the "Eurocentric," core (Towsner, 2002). It is clear that something had changed in the half century between Columbia's inaugurating its great books course and Stanford's dumping of its great books course concerning underlying assumptions of canonicity. The contention of this research is that one of the big changes that had occurred was the rise and dominance of postmodernism in the university which declared that the so-called great books had been used as a means to marginalize women and minorities (Bloom, 1987). In the end, postmodernism combined with the politics of inclusion, which, one could argue, was animated in part by the Coleman report (1966), giving ethnic minorities a perceived right to be represented in the content of the curriculum (Hansen, 2005). But by the 1980s it was not enough to include ethnic minorities and women in the curriculum. What was demanded, according to Banks (1993), was more complete and representative materials which matched the diversity of the population of the United States. The idea that equality and not quality should be the most important factor in determining what works
were included is rooted in postmodern thought, but like all roots not always so obviously noted at first. Thus, one discovers in the curricular reform literature of the 1980s a nexus established between literary canons based on aesthetics and "high culture" as defined by Matthew Arnold, a figure generally derided for his belief that at stake in losing high culture was nothing less than the moral future of the west (Anderson, 1986). Anderson summarized the argument succinctly invoking both Dewy and Applebee for support: High culture was deemed to be unnecessary for every level of society. Dewey thought that high culture, as such, was valueless for all segments of society, and the non-college bound [should be] placed in situations where they would read books more appropriate to their calling in life and encouraged to develop interests in reading for pleasure.. . . The teacher-centered approaches implicit (and explicit) in the high culture model are certainly inappropriate for a classroom, (p. 20) The assumptions in Anderson's language, which, again, he attributed to Dewey, are clear. High culture and its moral assumptions are not pleasing to the high school student not intending to go on to college. What is needed instead is a progressive classroom-as-therapy-center where the teacher "assists in the selection of individual texts based on the personal needs of the reader ... trying to match the reader's interest or problems with a text which addresses the same issue" (Anderson, 1986, p.21). Universal moral and aesthetic concerns are given over and replaced with individual psycho-social concerns. Some scholars recognized this sea change in academia and did not like what it meant for education generally. In one of the most controversial books about higher education in the second half of the 20th Century, University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom launched a sustained attack on the postmodern proclivities in American education. Published in 1987, The Closing of the American
7 Mind came out just five years after another University of Chicago Professor emeritus published The Paideia Proposal in an effort to put secondary education back on the right track (Adler, 1982). A month after Bloom's book came out and found its perch on the best seller list, E.D. Hirsch (1987) added his voice to the choir of complaints in his Cultural Literacy, where he examined what was missing in American education by way of cultural capital. It was a decade of pedagogical unrest on all fronts, but especially at the secondary and tertiary levels. The causes for that re-examination of pedagogical principles in the U.S., like most historical watersheds, are certainly many (Best & Kellner, 1997), but starting from the publication of "A Nation At Risk" in 1983 to the publication of Teachers for our Nation's Schools (Goodlad) in 1990, the talk everywhere was about American decline in education (Goodlad, 1990). In the decade of the 1980s it was estimated by Martin (1993), that 85% of all universities were undergoing curricular reform. The perception in books such as A Place Called School (Goodlad, 1984) was that there was something definitely wrong with the educational system from top to bottom in America. Presciently writing 40 years before Goodlad pronounced the system as ill, another academic voice, this time in England, wrote a book about what would surely happen if certain trends did not change. From his position as a don at Oxford's Magdalen College, C. S. Lewis (1943) wrote prophetically about the future of education in The Abolition of Man. The reason for Lewis's warning about the possible state of things to come in education came from his reading of a particular secondary literature textbook put out in 1939 called The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing, by Alex King and Martin Ketley. Lewis never named the book in his criticism, but referred to it simply as "The Green Book" and levied a withering
8 critique of what he saw as a serious problem facing education, a problem that was rooted deeply in a philosophical outlook just starting to come of age then. That outlook was logical positivism. Logical positivism grew out of a movement on the continent between the 1920s and 1930s that aimed at altering the language and discourse of what it means to say something is "true." For the positivist, truths could only come from so-called analytical statements and scientifically verifiable, empirical claims. Practically speaking, this meant that all metaphysical, theological, and ethical discourse was ultimately "untrue," or to use the language of positivism, "unintelligible" (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (CDP,), 1999). The positivist principles of verifiability led them "to reject as problematic many assertions associated with religion and morality" (p. 445). Logic and empirical science were considered the only sure roads to truth. If a person makes an ethical claim that something is right, for example, that as a human one ought not to lie, or that one human should not kill another, according to the positivists, the speaker appears to be saying something true, that is, making a truth claim. But that ethical proposition is not analytical. When the auditor analyzes what the claim is based on, that is, being a human, he or she ends up with biological facts, with chromosomes and chemistry, not values, according to positivism, forcing a confrontation with the now commonplace "fact/value distinction." Although the movement started in Vienna, it was amplified in Britain by philosopher A.J. Ayer when he published Language, Truth, and Logic in 1936, just three years before The Green Book, which Lewis attacked, was published. What Lewis (1943) discovered underlying the secondary English textbook was the belief that "all predicates of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant" (p. 4). Compare that inference Lewis made to Ayer's
9 own words in Language, Truth, and Logic: "In so far as they are not scientific, statements of value are . .. simply expressions of emotion which can be neither true nor false" (1936, p. 103). The implications for moral behaviour laden in such an outlook are devastating, according to Lewis (1943), stripping the young student of his human heritage (p. 11). It is the "doctrine of objective value" that Lewis espoused, believing along with the classical moral philosophers that there are two basic assumptions determining human behaviour: 1) there is an essence to humanity, called a nature, and, 2) that because there is an intelligible human nature, there are actions that will lead to the fulfilment of that nature, or lead to its destruction. The implication is that humans have an essence, something that defines them as end- directed creatures. According to this essentialist perspective, it is the actualization of our potential through deliberative acts that constitute good and bad behaviour. Humans are end directed, teleo logical beings, and those ends are consistent, according to Lewis (1943) who catalogued 119 examples of moral propositions taken from numerous sources in antiquity in his book. The particular beliefs about right and wrong may vary some in their application to a particular time and place, just as humans share a common nature, but may have some variations on customary practices. Yet, underneath it all, there is what Aristotle (trans. 1984) called a principle of animation, a soul that directs human acts towards some good, and that good he called happiness (p. 1). It is the examination of that end-directed behaviour that constitutes the study of ethics, and it is the articulation of those ends that Lewis (1943) refers to collectively as the "Tao," (p. 18), what in the West has been generally referred to as the "Natural Law" (Lewis, 1943). What Lewis uncovered in The Green Book was a positivist attack on the essence of humanness, which, according to Lewis, is his moral character. Moral behaviour, as stated above,
10 is a drive to complete one's nature by doing certain things and avoiding certain other things. Learning to do the right thing in order to complete one's nature and become happy while learning to avoid doing the wrong thing was for Aristotle (trans. 1984) the very essence of one's education (p. 23). In undermining moral statements, the authors of The Green Book appeared to do away with all value statements but their own. As Lewis (1943, p.40) pointed out, inasmuch as they wrote the text, they have a point to make, an argument to put forward suggesting a value which they believe is better than the old natural law. The logical inconsistency is found in the word "better" which implies a practical moral (or in some cases, aesthetic) judgment derived from a rational faculty of the very sort the two authors undermined in The Green Book. According to what measuring device or system, Lewis asked (p.40), is their system, or belief, better? What are they using as a measuring device to draw the conclusion that it is better to ignore the ethic virtues than to follow them, if not the old argument based on the teleology of man? The writers end up undermining the students' belief in a transcendent notion of human moral judgments, and appear to replace it with sheer intellect. While they may appear armed with pure intellect in making their claim, Lewis warned: it is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth or any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to the truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which [the authors] could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so . . .
11 we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the gelding be fruitful, (p. 25) We are half a century beyond Lewis' warning, and no one talks much about positivism nowadays, but the residual effects of the attack on classical mores made its mark. The positivists attacked practical reason, but in so doing, relied upon a defence through retortion and were ultimately undone themselves. For to use language at all to make an argument, even an argument against moral reasoning, is to deploy practical reason. The effort to divorce rationality from morality was just another step on the road to the postmodern rejection of all hierarchical values. Positivism may seem like a long distance from postmodernism, and in one obvious way it is. The positivist, did, unlike the postmodernists, hold to a doctrine of truth that we can classify as the correspondence theory of truth. One set of claims that a positivist would necessarily stand by as true are empirical claims, claims of the sort that are made every day in scientific journals. The verbal claim that is made in the article corresponds to certain outcomes that occurred in a laboratory and could be replicable. A postmodernist would reject that sort of truth and the entire enlightenment project which is established on rationality. What positivism did, as Lewis pointed out, was to erode confidence in the so-called Natural Law. Natural Law, however, is based on an essentialist concept of being. In the end, it was essentialism itself that was attacked by the positivists and their fact/value distinction. While positivism did seem to die out, that fact/value distinction did not. And without that, it is likely that what Best and Kellner called the "postmodern turn" (1997) would not have been so successful.
12 In the U.S.A., there was a second philosophical attack on essentialism and the rational faculty it implies, brought to us by way of Europe, called existentialism, which, once again, is not tied directly to positivism. Popularized in Europe after the devastation of World War I, and in America after World War II, existentialism was a school of thought attacking all essentialists' views by suggesting that human existence preceded human essence; in other words, we are what we do. In the old way of thinking, outlined by Lewis's appropriation of Plato and Aristotle in The Abolition of Man (1943), humans have a nature, an essence, which defines what it means to be a man. According to Aristotle, man is a rational, moral animal whose nature is fulfilled when he utilizes his reason in moral choices (Aristotle, trans. 1984). After the destruction of the World Wars, some began to doubt that man qua man had a telos at all. For the existentialist, man seemed to possess no nature as such, and to claim that he does is bad faith, a way to avoid the burden of responsibility one has to freely define his or her own existence; nature is not binding because it is a merely useful fiction. Best and Kellner (1997) argued that in the existentialist sixties, American comprehension of "relativity theory, quantum mechanics, complementarity in physics, the incompleteness principle in mathematics . . . undermined belief in absolute foundations of knowledge" (p. 7). This movement borrowed heavily from Jean Paul Sartre's writings where he asserted the contingency of all knowledge claims and the limitations of reason (Sartre, 2001). Best and Kellner (1997) wrote that it was in the 1960s that the existentialist radicals attacked the universities because of their academic division of labor, for the arrangement of academic disciplines and because they maintained "disciplinarity itself (p. 9). The assumed goal of that division of labor and arrangement of disciplines is a coherently articulated, educated person,
13 which presupposes a nature, or essence, the soil of which education works, a concept rejected out of hand by the existentialists. It is critical to note that these attacks did not take place on the congressional floor, in the Supreme Court, or in public school boardrooms. They took place in the universities where ideas are born and some of them come to fruition over time (Bloom, 1987). While the focus of this study is on the secondary school literary canon, one cannot understand it in isolation, for its aesthetic and ideological antecedents are in the universities. Background University Influence on Secondary Education That the universities do determine the literature curriculum of the high schools is a commonplace. How they determine that curriculum is a little more complicated, yet there are at least two ways that are both tangentially related to this study. Applebee (1974) noted that by 1900 the College Entrance Examination Board used the Uniform Lists as the basis for their entrance exams leaving high schools little choice in the selection of literary texts to be studied. Those lists were composed of texts which the prospective college student would be tested over, establishing a de facto high school canon. In 1907, a series of reports published by School Review found that the "Uniform Lists were determining curriculum and producing an unexpected degree of uniformity in the English courses offered" (Applebee, 1974, p. 49). If the next step educationally after high school is college, then it makes sense that the college faculty and administrators determine what skills and knowledge a high school student is expected to know. Yesterday's Uniform Lists, which characterized the top-down vertical articulation of the curriculum, seem reasonable given the Lynch and Evans (1963) study concerning the need to prepare students adequately for university level reading. There were some, Fred Newton Scott
14 among the first, followed by the newly formed National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), who claimed that the secondary school curriculum ought to be independent from the dictatorship of the university (Anderson, 1986; Applebee, 1974). The domination of the College Board has not let up from those early years. No longer the repository of the Uniform Lists, it now has the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the most widely taken exam for determining college entrance in the United States. Nearly three million students took either the SAT or the ACT (www.Fairtest.org, 2007), which are created by the Educational Testing Service, netting the College Board over 700 million dollars annually on the SATs alone (Gose & Selingo, 2001). Along with the SAT exams, the College Board also owns and administers the annual Advanced Placement test for secondary students wanting to earn college credit while still in high school. The mechanism for getting a course officially labeled as an AP course is rather simple. The teacher of the course has his course syllabus audited by an anonymous AP auditor who is selected from the college teaching ranks by the College Board. The auditors determine what ought to be covered in the high school AP class and how it ought to be covered. Students sit the exams in May. In 2006, one million high school students took two million AP exams (www.collegeboard.org, 2007). Two million exams, all overseen by the College Board and taught using pre-approved syllabi by that same board. That is one way the universities determine the secondary curriculum in the U.S.A. But that is only one way and probably not the most significant way. Universities want students to be adequately prepared for the rigors that await them at the tertiary level of learning and appear to be in the proper position to state what it means to be prepared by overseeing the course content. Teaching that content, however, are the educators
15 who not only have the leash of the college board around their necks, but also the more invisible leash of their own education. The 19th Century saw the beginnings of normal schools, which undertook the education of those desiring to become teachers beyond examinations in reading, writing and arithmetic (Ravitch, 2003). According to the Department of Education (Ravitch, 2003), by 2003, 90% of all teachers nationwide had certification from accredited colleges and universities. The sine qua non for becoming a teacher is to have spent time at a college or university earning a degree and gaining certification. And there at the tertiary level of education where core requirements are taken, the future teachers study under professors in history departments, sociology departments, literature departments along with the math and science departments. The ideas that are current in the universities get passed along to the students who are required to take the various courses for graduation and accreditation. This pedagogical influence has far reaching ramifications for education according to Allan Bloom (1987). Many are familiar with the title of Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind. What some may not remember is that the full title was The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. The entire third section of the book is devoted to the deep and often life-changing influence universities exert on its students, and the consequences of that influence. For the intellectual seduction of the students by their professors can be profound, according to Bloom. Bloom was not alone in articulating the anatomy of the current state of affairs of the 1980s in the institutions of higher learning. Charles Sykes followed in 1988 with Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education. In 1989 Jacques Barzun published The Culture We Deserve: a Critique of Disenlightenment, and Roger Kimball rounded out the decade with
16 Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Higher Education (1990). Hitting from another perspective at the dawn of the new decade was Camille Paglia's Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992) and in particular her essay "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf." In each work, the theme was basically the same: the radical students of the sixties were now tenured teachers professing their "franco-babble" ideology in the name of literature or history or sociology (Hart, 1990). If a student attended Princeton University to become an English teacher, she might have Elaine Showalter as her professor, who, as Hart pointed out, claimed that we need a "complete revolution in the teaching of literature to enfranchise 'gender as a fundamental category of literary analysis'" (Hart, 1990). Four years of lectures promulgating postmodern themes and it is not hard to see the student, newly certified, head out to the schools with a mind full of those same postmodern lacanian, or foucauldian ideas. That is the more powerful way to influence the curriculum. Anyone seriously searching for influences in the secondary curriculum must ultimately look to the universities and colleges to find the source. Aftermath of the 1980s Postmodernism, according to Best and Kellner (1997), involved a "turning away from the modern discourses of truth, certainty, universality, [and] essence" and all totalizing theories (p. 6). Here again we see the dismantling of essentialism and the nexus between postmodernism and the early work of positivism. The epicenter of the attack on "truth, certainty, universality, [and] essence"in the sixties was the university, about which Bloom (1987) wrote that in the sixties the university "was experiencing the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German universities in the thirties" (p. 313). Existentialism and its own sustained critique of essentialism proved fertile ground for the current philosophical movement, postmodernism.
17 The Many Faces of Postmodernism Best and Kellner (1997) argued that "contemporary societies, with their new technologies, novel forms of culture and experience, and striking economic, social, and political transformations, constitute a decisive rupture with previous ways of life, bringing an end to the modern era" (p. viii). According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, (1999) postmodernism is a "complex set of reactions to modern philosophy and its presuppositions rather than any agreement on substantial doctrines" (p. 634). It opposes any epistemology standpoint, and is, therefore, anti-essentialist, anti-realist, and anti-foundationalist. It is in opposition to any transcendental arguments, and transcendental standpoints, rejects the picture of knowledge as accurate representation, rejects truth as correspondence to reality, rejects the very idea of canonical descriptions, rejects the language of finalities of any kind, that is, of principles, distinctions and categories thought to be unconditionally binding for all times, persons, and places (CDP, 1999). One begins to see that postmodernism is not so much a philosophical outlook, as a reaction to an entire set of beliefs about human existence. Feminism is often seen at the core of postmodern thought (CDP, 1999) in its "conception of reason itself as it has functioned in the shared philosophical tradition" (p. 634). For the feminists of the postmodern school, reason is seen as the enemy because it is "engendered, patriarchal, homophobic, and deeply optional" (p. 634-5). The central role that feminism plays in postmodernism should not be lost on the researcher because it surfaces most prominently in the reshaping of the literary canon. Feminism here is not about a simple redistribution of authors on the reading list of a high school text leading to a numerical equality. As Paglia (1992) pointed out, feminism as a philosophical movement rejected nature as thinkers from Aristotle to Lewis would have defined it and instead argued that it was a mere cultural construct created by men. If
18 nature is as Aristotle (trans. 1969) defined it as that which happens either all the time or for the most part, and if nature so defined is rejected by feminism, then, once again we see essentialism along with foundationalism ousted from aesthetic discourse. If reason is the backbone of an essentialist outlook, then rationality too must go. Finally, if rationality itself is abandoned as a male construct from literary discourse, then it follows that aesthetic differentiation will have to go as well. If one claims that one work is better and hence more deserving of study than another, she will have to support that assertion with an aesthetic or a moral argument. Either way, reason will be called upon to arbitrate in the matter. But if reason is painted with the same brush of white male privilege, then it too must go, along with all forms of argument. Of course, it should go without saying that those very feminists encouraging an abandonment of reason used reason against itself leading once again to the incoherence of the defense by retortion. From logical positivism and its undermining of practical moral reasoning, to existentialism and its attack on essentialism and the teleology it implies, to the postmodernist's complete rejection of all totalizing thought, classical belief in the moral intelligibility of life had been seriously eroded by the late 1980s (Bloom, 1987; Goodlad, 1990, Kimball, 1990). Of course, the category, "postmodern," like every other category such as romanticism, or essentialism, is a more or less useful fiction. We find the category useful as long as it does not become too fixed in the mind. The truth is that there are several theorists, such as Foucault, Derrida, de Man, or Culler, none of whom worked on a committee of four to come up with a name for what they all were doing, just as Rousseau never talked with Blake, nor did Keats with Coleridge to decide on romanticism as a tag, and yet there are overlapping characteristics writers such as these shared, which, when tagged, operate as a sort of convenient short hand. Significance of the Study