I knew to expect a growth in Cultural Literacy-heavy writings once the economy went sour and the 21st Century had settled in. Recent MLA statements seem to have more than a tinge of fear in them about the changing nature of reading and literature in the U.S., and I even read a quote from a representative from Harvard recently talking about how we're getting too far away from education for education's sake. Jago's white sheet reads similarly to these statements.
In all those examples, I find it hard not to note banal reactionary concern from individuals and institutions free to engage in elitist, privileged perspectives: I worry that the reemergence of the "learning for learning's sake" argument is too closely linked with economic downturns that have left many universities reeling. I read these arguments as saying, "Come back to school. Your tuition dollars will help save the Extra-Sensory Studies program." As well, as the new century situates itself, its problems, potentials, and strains become more apparent, making it easier for those grounded in ideas of the previous century to beckon back to good old days that never were, to notions of living and literacy that may grow less and less relevant with each passing tweet.
I can't tell you for sure if Jago's position statement is supposed to be read as such. Perhaps she's dabbling in savvy subversion, but her main point is that students need to read and write about literature.
I am not sure anyone would argue with this, though she seems to think there are many. She says, "They [whom, I don't know] see the study of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, as superfluous to helping students make a living. But making a living isn't enough." She says later, "Part of our responsibility as teachers is to help students discover that the pursuit of happiness does not begin and end with the purchase of a new car."
I'm not a proponent of state standards by any means, but I've never read one -- in teaching in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas -- all standards-ravenous states -- about making sure students are able to purchase a Mazda. Jago may be trying to warn readers to be wary of students' own sense of capitalism, but in a document laced with terms like "currency" and scare-tactic mentions of ambiguous "theys," she comes off as pointing fingers.
At whom? Considering that she never overtly defines "literature" but defends its use in practice via mentioning Harper Lee, Janie Crawford, Huck Finn, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Maya Angelou, Countee Cullen, William Wordsworth, Maxine Hong Kingston, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, Henry V, and Emily Dickenson, it may be at those who have a broader sense of literature than Jago. She doesn't mention canons specifically, but she does use the other C-word:
"I worry in our determination to provide students with literature they can relate to, we end up teaching works that students actually don't need much help with at the expense of teaching the classics that they most certainly do need assistance negotiating."
So, literature is defined as the classics. At a time when many of the top names in education, literary studies and other fields are talking about how new forms such as graphic novels inform, expand, and transform the very meaning and nature of literature, Jago wants us to return to a narrowed definition of what is literature and what it isn't? Again, it is hard to say as her definitions of solidified quantities revolve around the use of "literature" and "classics," but the alternatives that she may or may not consider "literature" are as vaguely defined as those others she invokes.
I worry that she is speaking of those who advocate for Young Adult literature, for using digital forms in the classroom, for bringing in contemporary (to her credit, she does make the distinction between "classic" and "contemporary" literature, but in no detail beyond using the two terms) song lyrics. Of those who advocate for using graphic novels in the classroom. Of those who even advocate using non-fiction in the classroom, since most of her examples are poetry, drama, or fiction.
I also worry that her phrasing sets up another useless "either/or" trap that educators so easily fall into these days. She mentions how crucial it is for students to experience scenes like Atticus Finch putting his children at risk to stand up for the rights of the under-represented. If she thinks it is tough being Atticus, she should try being Vladek or Anja Spiegelman. Indeed, "literature reflects the human condition," as Jago points out, and it "requires deep reading and analytical thinking." Do I give up analytical though, deep reading, and the ability to integrate and ingrain terms like clarify, motif, and device by teaching a text that is not in the canon? That is not in what appears to be a very winnowed view of literature? Are they necessarily "banished" simply because I'm not teaching fiction, or traditional print-based text? Can not the zone of proximal development be reached in texts other than canonical ones? So many graphic novels reflect so many facets of the human condition. So do good YA titles.
Indeed, many who advocate for the integration of "newer" types of texts do so with the understanding that these texts can help build connections to the more traditional literature, not with the intent to replace it for all students. Jago does not make any mention of these educators, though, focusing on "caring teachers" who "defend the use of alternative, simplified reading selections for nonhonors students in the belief that their students don't have the vocabulary background knowledge, or reading stamina to follow complex syntax." She argues the only way to get them to develop those skills is through the reading of complex works. "Complex," of course, is a complicated term. I might even argue that the structure of a graphic novel, with its spaces and closures, boundaries and borders, images in repetition and sequence, make up a complex complex. :)
There are many teachers and teacher educators who want to teach literature. In my experience, many of them ask questions like "where is the quantitative data to show graphic novels work?" while accepting the fact that there is little-to-know quantitative data that any one text that Jago mentions or that might be on their current syllabi "works." When it comes down to it, it is the teacher and the strategy that are most important, not the text. An excellent teacher can make a rock interesting, which, if I may hazard a guess, is why some people go on to become geologists. This point also seems lost at times in "Crash!"
There is also the reality that Reading research has identified levels of reading success such as the frustration level, the instructional level, and the independent level. Jago states of a text that students can read on their own, "it probably isn't the best choice for classroom study." She also mentions that when help is available, students who "never expected to be able to read challenging literature find that...the book isn't as daunting as they first thought." Agreed, but by not couching her phrasing in specific terminology from Reading research, Jago undermines her positions and comes off as one apparently hoping that "saying it simply makes it so." This isn't the case, of course.
We know that asking students to read works at their frustration level, for example, is asking them to read at their failing level. Scaffolding -- visual, textual, auditory, or otherwise -- can help students understand elements of these texts, but if the selections are too far above the students' reading level, "exposure" or base understandings are the best teachers can expect. There is the zone of proximal development, then there is the zone beyond. This point needed to be made, and there are mryiad Reading and literacy scholars Jago could have cited to make it.
Surely there are good strategies for teaching complex literature, writing and joining with other types of texts included within them, but there is also the reality that not all students in English language arts classrooms will be able to read certain traditional texts with fluency and comprehension. By ignoring basic Reading knowledge, Jago appears to be missing a very important "in between" positioning.
This happens again when she juxtaposes ideas on Critical Literacy in this very obviously Cultural Literacy-laced work. She asserts, "Once we disdain to teach works that need to be taught to be understood, we not only debase the coinage of literature but also bring into question our own function....all we need to do is to question the value of literature itself, and, abracadabra, we have eliminated the need to teach it."
But in the following paragraphs, she says that students need to be able to critique "a brave new world in which reading is reduced to skimming and scanning websites." If they don't, they'll be "unprepared for everything that this great nation holds dear -- independence, freethinking, and the pursuit of happiness." Besides for a severe lack of understanding of reading in the 21st century (students are reading beyond simply skimming and scanning, just in ways that they might not define as "school" reading) inherent in the statement, Jago also has in this argument a glaring paradox: We shouldn't question the value of literature, but we should question habits in which we do find ourselves actively reading?
"Why" is at the heart of Critical Literacy. Not questioning why we might read from "classics"-heavy curricula seems to me to be regressing in its own way, to a point where very specific sociocultural points of view are privileged without question. As I mentioned above, leading figures in multiple fields are now discussing how new or recently recognized forms are altering and informing notions of literacy and reading. The New London Group mentions that this will move us towards a need for transformational design over critique. I do not argue here against the notion that critique is necessary. Critical Literacy in every aspect is necessary. That we should ever stop questioning why we teach literature (-- why we teach anything --), that our students should be robbed of the opportunities to transform themselves via critique and questioning of the texts and forms they encounter and why they are there for them to encounter -- for the sake of keeping literature from falling into chaos -- seems beyond absurd.
Quoting Louise Rosenblatt, Jago asserts that, “The problem that a teacher faces first of all, then, is the creation of a situation favorable to a vital experience of literature. Unfortunately, many of the practices and much of the tone of literature teaching have precisely the opposite
effect” (61). To me, this statement gets at strategy, not at text. To how a teacher teaches, not what. Jago ends her essay by commenting, "As we move through the twenty-first century, let's be careful not to lose in the name of progress and preparedness the texts and habits of mind that have brought us this far." Are these "habits of mind" those strategies to which Rosenblatt might allude, or notions of what is acceptable literature and what isn't? I worry Jago means the latter.
Those habits of mind are always already changing. This call comes too late, vague as it is, paradoxical as it is, and via its use of "either/or," capital and crisis rhetoric, to be given serious consideration as it is currently phrased. Yet, I fear it will be heeded and interpreted as a call not towards the future, but to a past that we can't relive, and since the past that was, was beset with inequities and narrowed views of worth and value judgements from every angle, including from the privileged elite and privileged intellectuals, to a past we shouldn't want to relive.
The argument is old; the rhetoric of crisis and fear is stale, and terms are vaguely defined. I know that as a young academic, I might be placing myself precariously for writing this. I'm not so naive as to not realize that even in the academy there is bread-buttering and the need to tread cautiously at times. But I can't shake feeling that though I'm not sure Jago is saying what she wants to be saying, I'm certainly afraid she is.