The Crisis of Literacy and the Courage to Teach

David J. Rothman

I once heard a private school headmaster observe that urgent things are not necessarily important, important things are not necessarily urgent, and success depends on understanding the difference. Changes in rates of literacy hardly appear urgent. They do not attract the attention of, say, terrorist attacks and natural disasters. After all, literacy is a complex thing, difficult enough to define and measure in individuals, let alone as it changes over time in large populations. The rate of literacy, a contentious aggregate abstraction, is therefore about as likely to appear to be an urgent matter as deferred maintenance on a levee or slowly rising waters. Metaphors are not arguments, but both of these apply in this case. All three are the kinds of things that may not appear urgent, but most would agree they are important. For by the time they become urgent, there is little left to be done except flee.

Although academics certainly contemplate literacy more than most, I doubt that a majority of the professoriate would rank recent changes in rates of literacy among the most important issues they face. While most have the sense that student literacy, broadly defined, has changed for the worse over the last several decades (this attitude is not mere hearsay and is documented below), and that it affects their teaching, they generally, and perhaps understandably see it as secondary to issues in their own departments, institutions, and subjects of study. It is not unreasonable to suggest that such developments, however deplorable, are someone else’s problem: the Composition program, the English Department, K-12 institutions, the Education schools, State and Federal Departments of Education, parents, the students themselves, and so on.

This is a mistake. Some teachers and scholars, especially those who are more involved with K-12 education, recognize that the situation of literacy in America—particularly among young people—is gradually becoming what one could only call dire, transforming the entire country before our very eyes. What we face, if we are to believe even half of what the numbers and the stories tell us, is in fact a slowly unfolding collapse in literacy, and therefore a crisis in education. How the rest of us address this crisis, no matter what we study or teach, will have a tremendous impact that extends far beyond our educational institutions, let alone our own area of study.

The first part of this essay identifies some of the larger contours of the problem, less on the assumption that there may still be a few skeptics, than on the assumption that many in higher education do not realize the immediacy and enormity of the problem. The second part of the essay argues that, among those who do see the problem, the ways in which we generally address it—with broad, national policy recommendations—ignore quieter ways in which we can take perhaps equally important steps. Ultimately, this essay is not merely informational or analytic. It is about how you can take such steps.

When it comes to teaching, most professors generally live in a world of particulars. Although they are educators, few study educational statistics, and therefore they justifiably extrapolate from their own experience when discussing the teaching side of the profession. Anecdotes are powerful, but part of the stark beauty of the crisis in literacy is that one need not rely on anecdotal evidence to convey its magnitude. The data is so convincing and comes from so many sources that it trumps any particular narrative. What follows is merely a sample of a wide range of recent high-profile studies that all point to the similar conclusions.

A 2006 survey conducted by Maguire Associates for The Chronicle of Higher Education found that 84% of faculty members polled said that “high-school graduates are either unprepared or are only somewhat well prepared to pursue a college degree.”1 The good news is that, according to the study, high school teachers are significantly more optimistic about this situation. A mere 65% of them believe that their students are either unprepared or only somewhat well prepared for college.

Studies of student preparedness bear these conclusions out in a more objective fashion. In spring 2006, the ACT released a study titled Reading between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals about College Readiness in Reading.2 The report says that “Based on 2005 ACT-tested high school graduates, it appears that only about half of our nation’s ACT-tested high school students are ready for college-level reading” (1). Remember that this statistic emerges from a self-selected sample, the universe of students who have chosen to take the test in the first place. Many others, of course, never take it at all. Then, in August, the College Board released a report saying that the high school class of 2006 had posted the largest decline on the SAT in the past 31 years.3

At the same time, recent studies of psychometric testing trends in mathematics and science hardly tell a more sanguine story. Another recent article in the Times reported problems in this area as well: “Parental discontent here in Washington State intensified after the announcement in September that only 51% of tenth graders passed the math part of state assessment tests, far fewer than showed proficiency in reading or writing.”4 Then, just 2 days later, on 16 November, the Times published an article by Diana Jean Schemo titled “Most Students in Big Cities Lag Badly in Basic Science,” with predictably discouraging content, all based highly reliable statistics compiled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.5 All of this suggests that, despite disagreement over how to read some of the numbers, few believe the news is good in any field. I would actually include these statistics under the broader rubric of “literacy,” defined as the ability to construe complex symbol systems. In this sense basic competencies in science and math (and music and history and other fields) are more closely related than many realize. It is highly unlikely, for example, that we will see any kind of great progress in science proficiency if rates of verbal literacy continue to decline.

The bright spot in the ACT report on reading is its admirably blunt and clear language about the scope of the problem. Section headers include the following: “Student readiness for college-level reading is at its lowest point in more than a decade” (3). “State standards in high school reading are insufficient—or nonexistent” (3).6 “Not enough high school teachers are teaching reading skills or strategies and many students are victims of teachers’ low expectations” (4). All of these assertions are carefully backed up with numbers. The ACT’s recommendations about how to improve student literacy strike me as excellent across the board, but perhaps the most interesting, given much contemporary rhetoric about reading, is the unambiguous call to raise standards by requiring students to read and study what the ACT refers to as “complex texts.” It is clear from how the ACT describes such works that they mean to include serious literary work. For example, in a complex text, as they define it, “Interactions among ideas or characters in the text are subtle, involved, or deeply embedded” (7).

The studies I have cited are representative of many more. In terms of the general reading habits of all Americans, the most significant and influential in recent years is Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which the National Endowment for the Arts put out in 2004.7 This study was not the work of bureaucrats. At that time Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory, was the director of the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis, and we can thank him for bringing us the grim news of this report with such clarity and precision, although it is hard, when reading it, not to feel a bit like a stegosaurus watching an incoming meteor.

Reading at Risk is based on an enormous study of the reading habits of Americans. Further, the study draws on a number of previous NEA studies over many decades to extrapolate long-term trends in those reading habits. The 2004 study polled more than 17,000 adults in almost every demographic group imaginable. It goes quite far beyond anecdotal evidence to show that rates of literary reading—defined at even the most basic levels, to include any kind of poem, drama, or fiction read over the course of a year, with no judgments about quality of the work read—are showing long-term declines in every single demographic group. Every region, every age, every ethnicity and race, men and women, every level of education, every income group, everywhere.8

As Dana Gioia, the current chairman of the NEA, writes in his Preface to the report:

More than reading is at stake. As this report unambiguously demonstrates, readers play a more active and involved role in their communities. The decline in reading, therefore, parallels a larger retreat from participation in civic and cultural life. The long-term implications of this study not only affect literature but all the arts—as well as social activities such as volunteerism, philanthropy, and even political engagement.9

I would go further. Freedom of the press will eventually come to mean little if the majority of our citizens cannot make sense of its results. A high rate of sophisticated literacy may not be a sine qua non of democracy, but it is hard to imagine one that functions well without it. We cannot write or index laws with video.

I can understand a skeptical response to all this data, one that resists knee-jerk lapsarian pessimism on principle. After all, theories of decay are not what they used to be. At the same time, one need hardly conjure some ancient golden age of literacy to think that such overwhelming statistical evidence deserves our attention. It is not easy material either to dismiss or to refute. Nevertheless, it is also widely misconstrued.

Carol Iannone recently used evidence from Reading at Risk as a stick with which to beat the Modern Language Association. The MLA, she writes,

[has] served as the shock troops of literary and cultural devolution, setting aside instruction in true literary appreciation for radical leftists propaganda concerning race, gender, and class; promulgating such worthless theories as deconstruction; and attacking literary and aesthetic standards, as well as the very idea of standards altogether. Is it any wonder that many college students of recent decades began to lose or failed to develop an appreciation for the specialness of the literary art?10

This is a textbook example of a red herring. Much of what the MLA has supported in recent years may be deplorable, but that is a tempest in a teapot compared to what the NEA report describes. First, the authors of Reading at Risk are at pains to point out that they made no judgment about quality of work read whatsoever. The question asked was “Have you read any novels, short stories, plays or poetry in your leisure time during the last 12 months?”11 Nowhere does the word “good” or any reference to “literary and aesthetic standards” appear. Doggerel and romance novels are just fine (as are poems by leftists, conservatives, classicists, and postmodernists). Further, the report is about voluntary reading pursued at the reader’s leisure, and carefully excludes any and all literary reading done “for work or school”(ix), which would eliminate any reading in a college class whatsoever, by either students or professors. Such reading plays no part in the data.

In short, Reading at Risk goes far, far beyond merely asking what college students and graduates have recently read. It is a study of the reading habits of all Americans, of whom college students and professors form only one subset. And no doubt all who are in any way affiliated with any English or language department in the land always have and still would qualify as “readers” in terms of the NEA study, even if they are reading stories, plays, and poems that Iannone dislikes, or, when working, teaching them in ways that I would agree are silly and even malicious.

The problem with Iannone’s argument is not that there are not some problems with the MLA; it is that the problems identified in the NEA study are many degrees of magnitude larger than that and have many other sources. The MLA is but one tree in a very large forest and its problems may be as much a symptom as a cause. As the poet Katha Pollitt argued a number of years ago, it may well be that one reason the battles over what to read in college have become so contentious is that people are reading so much less outside of college. That is the real problem, and it is not primarily the fault of the MLA. That is a mere diversion.

When we turn away from the politics of English Departments to identify more substantial causes of our current problems, things only begin to look that much more challenging. A number of scholars, including Stotsky, Thomas Carnicelli, E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch, place the blame for the decline of literacy squarely at the feet of the progressive movement in education over the last century. As Carnicelli writes, “As to the cause of this general decline in literacy, I place most of the blame on the ideas of progressive educators, who dominate a large and powerful professional group that is commonly, and accurately, called the educational establishment,” and he backs this up convincingly.12

The debate over progressive education is a long and complex one. At this point, a number of scholars have anatomized the malicious influence of many progressive ideas, beginning with Lawrence Cremin 50 years ago, though he mistakenly thought that influence was waning when he wrote. In recent years the most notable critics would include Diane Ravitch in Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform,13 and E.D. Hirsch in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them,14 but also Thomas Carnicelli and many others. If only half of what they say is accurate, there is little question that our teacher preparation programs in the post-progressive mold continue to face serious problems of all sorts that will not be easily solved.15

The historical discussion of the failures of progressive education and teacher training can be supplemented by a wide range of recent reports, from groups such as The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ),16 the Aspen Institute’s Program on Education and Society,17 The National Center on Education and the Economy,18 and the Teaching Commission.19 Their approaches vary but all see serious problems, and all decry the poor preparation of teachers. The NCTQ’s study, concludes that “most education schools are not teaching the science of reading,” and that even when it is taught, “many courses reflect low expectations, with little evidence of college-level work” and “the quality of almost all reading textbooks is poor... [containing] little or no hard science, and in far too many cases they are inaccurate and misleading.”20 It is hard to disagree.

Some of the studies are more dubious—the Aspen Institute insists on referring to students as “clients,” for example, eliding the difficult crux that public K-12 education is both free and compulsory up to 16, which makes for an interesting relationship with “clients;”21 and the Teaching Commission seems to believe that outcomes-based merit pay for teachers is a panacea for all educational ills (it might help but could not possibly solve many of the problems we face).22 This is annoying at best, but let that pass—at least they recognize some of the problems.

K-12 educational philosophy is not the end of the story, however, as most people realize that there are influences on education and its institutions which are broader than the schools themselves. As large as they are, the schools are but one institution in society. As Mark Bauerlein recently pointed out, another slew of recent studies documents the fact that college students spend more and more time—many hours each day—engaged with commercial electronic media.23 Bauerlein reviews the data and points out that, according to last year’s National Survey of Student Engagement, “44% of first-year students never discuss ideas from the readings or classes with their professors outside of class.” Although Bauerlein does not discuss Neil Postman, in this I think he is issuing a progress report that only confirms Postman’s analysis of how commercial electronic media actually work.24

Postman, extending the ideas of his mentor Marshall McLuhan, argues that the logic of commercial electronic media is relentless and inescapable. It will eventually transform everything that it touches, including politics, religion, education and more, into entertainment until it conquers the universe. Destroying traditional notions of literacy is merely one of its byproducts. The new commercial electronic media are antithetical to every aspect of reading, from notions of grammar and syntax (which they do not have; images can appear in any order) to the way writing organizes and stores information. As Postman points out, even what educational television primarily teaches is how to watch television. Its medium is its message.

All of the foregoing throws debates in college and university departments over the last several decades into stark perspective, making pitched battles over “theory” resemble something like an argument over how to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. For unless we directly address the decline of literacy in K-12 education, there will eventually be no one who can even understand such arguments, from any perspective, let alone participate in them at the college or graduate level. Not only will academic departments in literature and language that offer anything more than composition and basic understanding eventually wither away (we already see this happening in some places), but the entire idea of education will presumably undergo a transformation impossible to predict.

Along these lines, we should again note that the decline of literacy in America has implications far beyond English and language departments and affects the arts and humanities generally, and even scientific disciplines as well, as many of the reports cited above make abundantly clear. A general decline in “deep literacy”—the ability to construe complex symbol systems of any kind, from a novel to the periodic table to the quadratic formula to a Beethoven sonata—leaves nothing untouched. How, for example are we to imagine students who have low levels of literacy as reading, understanding and responding to Darwin, Watson and Crick, and E.O. Wilson? To Adam Smith, Pareto, Marx, Keynes, and Milton Friedman? To William James, Freud, Jung, and Skinner? To the Frankfurt School? To Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg and Gel-Mann? To Stravinsky, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Michelangelo? Whatever your discipline, do you really think you can escape?

A careful review of the material I’ve summarized above suggests that what we face is the precipitous decline of literacy, the institutional triumph of anti-intellectual strains of educational theory, demoralizing confusion and conflict in the English Department, increasingly mediocre teacher preparation, the irresistible rise of commercial electronic media, and the looming destruction of liberal learning and free nations everywhere. So, gentle reader, you could be forgiven if, at this point, you threw down this essay and mixed yourself a stiff drink. After all, these are not mere pedagogical or theoretical concerns, but far-reaching conclusions based on veritable mountains of data.

But wait. The usual tactic of the hopeful at this point is to suggest policy, mobilizing the heavy artillery of politics and governance to address the issue. And that is understandable; the common approach to systemic social problems is to theorize and activate policy. Even in conservative circles, the movement for charter schools and vouchers is ideologically motivated and rooted in public action. And of course America needs sound educational policy, or rather policies. Further, there are good ideas out there, from a number of perspectives. A number of these ideas appear in the reports and articles cited in this essay. But I want to suggest another approach, based on the premise that what America needs even more than good policy is good teachers.

One approach to that problem is to loop back to the premises of the previous observation immediately and advocate policies that will help us to recruit and retain good teachers. And that is important work. Yet now this essay must perforce throw off its academic mantle, having made enough of that kind of argument. For the next part of the argument can only proceed beginning with questions addressed directly to you as a reader.

For what if the formation of policy about recruiting and retaining competent new teachers for K-12 education is not the only work to be done?

What if one of those teachers is you?

On its website, under the heading “About Us,” the National Association of Scholars (which sponsors this journal) writes that the organization is:

committed to rational discourse as the foundation of academic life in a free and democratic society. The NAS works to enrich the substance and strengthen the integrity of scholarship and teaching, persuaded that only through an informed understanding of the Western intellectual heritage and the realities of the contemporary world, can citizen and scholar be equipped to sustain our civilization’s achievements (http://www.nas.org/nas.html).

Obviously, a number of these truly noble sentences have to do with education and educators. Teaching is part of the profession of almost everyone who reads this journal.

From what I have said above, I hope it is clear that the most important (if not the most urgent) challenge we may face both to academic life, in all its departments, and to a free and democratic society does not lie in higher education, important and troubling as developments there may be—it lies in K–12 education.

And if teaching is not part of your duties—or if it is and you remain skeptical about the drift of this argument—please, as the saying goes, take just a few seconds to answer the following questions: (1) Who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963? (2) Who wrote the best-selling novel in English of 1996? (3) Who wrote the speech for Richard Nixon that first advanced the idea of Charter Schools? (4) Who was your fourth grade teacher?

No doubt some of you can answer one or more of the first three questions. Did anyone miss the last one?

If the foregoing has managed to convince you that literacy and any aspect of education that depends on it is in trouble, and if you are convinced that teachers in the first 18 years of life play a tremendously important role in society, I would then invite you to pose yourself a few more questions:

Have you have ever worked or volunteered in a primary or secondary school of any kind?

Have you have ever served as a voting member of the board of directors of a non-profit or public institution devoted to education or literacy, e.g., a public library, a writer’s festival, an independent literary journal, a private school, a public school board, an arts council, etc.?

If you haven’t—perhaps you should think about helping out in such an institution, whether public or private.

At first, the rhetorical challenge above no doubt reads like a didactic injunction to go forth and serve mankind. It would be easy to hear—and dismiss—it as a call merely to help students, to improve struggling institutions, to address a social problem. And all of that is true enough. The readers of this journal are among the most passionate, skilled and committed educators in the country, and if you do not take up this challenge, who will? You are among the most highly qualified to judge whether the standards under discussion actually have merit. You are among the relatively few who can potentially write such standards. You are some of the people in this country who care about and know the most about how deep literacy works in your field.

But enough about how great you are. That is not the reason you should spend some time teaching outside the college classroom. The ideals and truths I have mentioned, noble as they are, are not enough to sustain most of us when we run up against the juggernaut of commercial media culture, the entrenched politics of misguided educational theory, the economics of education, the sclerotic bureaucracy of dysfunctional institutions, and so on.

No, you should not do what I am suggesting merely to serve others. You would then probably wind up feeling bitter and defeated, because the forces militating against your success in this regard are very, very strong. Rather, you should do it for yourself, in the foul rag and bone shop of your own heart. You should do it for yourself as a teacher, because you are a teacher and this is the crucial place where teaching needs to happen now.

In a different context, discussing teaching more generally, this is the message of Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach.25 Following Palmer but extending what he says to apply beyond institutional work, I believe that there is a surprising amount of good to be done if academics are willing to find the courage—for it does take courage—to commit even a small fraction of their professional time to education outside the university.

Palmer’s book has some serious flaws. When he discusses scientific method, or certain philosophical terms such as “paradox” (by which he usually only means “contradiction”), or “objectivism” (which he mischaracterizes, and to which he appears astonishingly hostile), he makes serious mistakes. His rhetoric of a unified self makes me uneasy at times. I find it spiritually and intellectually squishy. Yet the book’s strengths outweigh its flaws, especially in Palmer’s practical psychology of teaching. When he talks about the complex emotional dynamics of classrooms, Palmer is nothing less than inspiring, because he understands and can describe the emotions involved. He carefully examines the emotions that teachers feel as they teach and insists on accounting for them in any comprehensive theory of pedagogy. The conclusions to such a line of thinking can be surprising to those who believe that the only solutions to our problems lie in curricula, policy, and classroom technique.

Most importantly, Palmer uses his approach to cut through common fallacies and rationalizations that we create for ourselves to avoid doing the work that teachers are called to do (many of which are in full pathological bloom in discussions of literacy and how to address its decline). Palmer sees the work teachers must pursue as the creation of a community which has the pursuit of truth at its center (as opposed to professorial knowledge or student process). Every action of such a community should then be organized around that pursuit, both for faculty and for students. This is why he insists that, although standards are important, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique [or content standards, for that matter]: good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (149) in the context of such pursuit. His goal is to inspire teachers to transcend the weaknesses and failures of the profession and of the institutions in which we work to rediscover what it really means to teach. He recognizes the importance of discussing what we teach, how we teach, and why we teach, but what he wants to do is get under your skin and ask you who you are when you are teaching.

Among other things, Palmer dismantles arguments about education whose basis is the fearful contempt for students. First, he reminds us repeatedly that education is a fearful affair for many students, and when we misconstrue this we ourselves teach poorly. Among other things, students are afraid of “not understanding, of being drawn into issues they would rather avoid, of having their ignorance exposed or their prejudices challenged, of looking foolish in front of their peers” (37). I differ somewhat from Palmer in that I think academic institutions have developed as they have in order to give structure to the painful anxiety of learning and thereby to make it productive—such structures are necessary to turn anxiety into civilization—but I agree that things all too often go awry. After all, it is a difficult project. And when it does go awry, I agree with Palmer that what happens is that the instructor’s fear—the fear of losing a job, or of losing academic status, or of being unpopular, but especially the fear of “having a live encounter” (37) with students—combines with the students’ fear of learning to send the entire project off the rails:

To avoid a live encounter with teachers, students can hide behind their notebooks and their silence. To avoid a live encounter with students, teachers can hide behind their podiums, their credentials, their power. To avoid a live encounter with one another, faculty can hide behind their academic specialties (37).

At first I, of course, thought that such forms of fear could not possibly apply to me. Yet the next turn of Palmer’s argument makes some trenchant observations about how faculty fear manifests itself in the representation of students’ needs (for they do have needs). His central insight is to realize that faculty do not recognize their own fear as such, but rather project it onto their charges:

When I ask teachers to name the biggest obstacle to good teaching, the answer I most often hear is “my students.” When I ask why this is so, I hear a litany of complaints: my students are silent, sullen, withdrawn; they have little capacity for conversation; they have short attention spans; they do not engage well with ideas; they cling to narrow notions of “relevance” and “usefulness” and dismiss the world of ideas.... When I inquire about the causes of these alleged faults, I hear another standard litany, this time one of societal issues. Absentee parents and the vanishing family, the deficiencies of public education, the banality of television and mass culture, the ravages of drugs and alcohol—all are held to blame for the diminished state of our students’ minds and lives (40).

In short, in a move of what looks like classical neurotic defensiveness, we often choose to make our own problems—after all, this is our profession, and these are our institutions and our students—someone else’s responsibility. The fearful denigration of our students as somehow diminished human beings only diminishes ourselves:

Whatever tidbits of truth these student stereotypes contain, they grossly distort reality, and they widen the disconnection between students and their teachers. Not only do these caricatures make our lives look noble in comparison to the barbaric young, but they also place the sources of our students’ problems far upstream from the place where our lives converge with theirs. Criticizing the client is the conventional defense in any embattled profession, and these stereotypes conveniently relieve us of any responsibility for our students’ problems—or their resolution (41).

None of this is meant to suggest that the problems Parker says teachers identify are not real. They are real—we have discussed a number of them here. Rather it is to lay the ground for another approach to them, one in which we respond as teachers should. Perhaps the most compelling moment in driving home how this approach differs from the norm comes when Palmer quotes a college dean responding to faculty complaints about student preparation. In exasperation, this dean observes that his faculty sound like “doctors in a hospital saying ‘Don’t send us any more sick people—we don’t know what to do with them. Send us healthy patients so we can look like good doctors’” (41).

As Palmer points out, the primary problem with a fearful approach to students is that it breeds cynicism. Such cynicism then defeats our ability to address the very problems it identifies:

It is not unusual to see faculty in midcareer don the armor of cynicism against students, education, and any sign of hope. It is the cynicism that comes when the high hopes one once had for teaching have been dashed by experience—or by the failure to interpret one’s experience accurately. I am always impressed by the intensity of this cynicism, for behind it I feel the intensity of the hopes that brought these faculty into teaching (48).

The burden of Palmer’s book is about helping teachers who understand what he is describing to find “the courage to teach” despite all the many obstacles external and internal—to teaching well. His goal is to help teachers develop to the point where they can walk into a classroom and say to themselves of their students, “There are great gaps between us. But no matter how wide and perilous they may be, I am committed to bridging them—not only because you need me to help you on your way but also because I need your insight and energy to help renew my own life” (49).

If, after all the foregoing, you think there is no serious long-term problem with literacy education in America, or that it does not affect you, your department, your institution and your profession, let alone the larger world, fine. You would probably have stopped reading by now anyway. But if you do think this is a problem, I would suggest that Palmer’s advice is exactly what is needed to achieve the second stage: to feel you have had any personal success in making a difference. It takes true courage to realize that such a difference will never come from complaining, and is most likely to be made in places where you may not have taught before. For it does little good—for students or for you—to bemoan student preparation for college if you are unwilling to do anything whatsoever to address it at the root. Such an approach can only lead to cynicism, bitterness, and feelings of powerlessness. Change for the better may come from better policies in the public realms, but it can and must also come, if it is to have any meaning, in our own lives, from our own teaching, even if that occurs against great odds.

I recently heard Frank McCourt discussing and reading from the third installment of his memoirs, Teacher Man, which focuses on the three decades he spent teaching high school English in the New York City Public Schools.26 When speaking in his talk about the administrators he despised so much and the way they often treat students, he at one point exclaimed “No wonder students are scared of us...we act as if we don’t like them!” In contrast to this, at one point in his book McCourt writes:

At the start of each term I told the new students of creative writing, we’re in this together. I don’t know about you, but I’m serious about this class and sure of one thing: at the end of the term, one person in this room will have learned something, and that person, my little friends, will be me (199).

McCourt is nothing if not critical of every step he takes as a teacher, and immediately pokes fun at himself for saying this. His book is full of blunt honesty about the difficulties, humiliating mistakes, frustrations—and ultimately successes—of a committed teacher. He pulls no punches and presents himself, his colleagues and his students and their families with warts intact, very much including his own fear of failure.27

What about you? Do you like your students? Not as friends, of course, but as students? Consider what your answer indicates about your life.

I would like to answer this question for myself, with an anecdote about teaching.

Most of what teachers and students do is invisible, and grows like vegetable empires—slowly. This is especially true at the secondary level, where students are usually encountering material for the first time, and hardly know what to make of it, let alone how to see what it may eventually make of them. Very often, they are learning the skills of learning at the same time they are wrestling with the material, which would make it all the more surprising were they to register pleasure, or even recognition at the significance of the enterprise at hand. Because I think most learning, especially in the arts and humanities, takes place without the learner fully knowing what is happening, what I have done over time is come to recognize when something larger than what the student thinks is going on is going on. On good days—on the best days—what I sense is a concentration in which self-consciousness drops away. It’s always the same; a student suddenly seems to be listening in such a deep way that she becomes unusually still, and a look of curiosity that goes beyond questions creeps across her face, as if she has stepped into a realm where she may not even know how to ask a question, or what question to ask, or, if she is asking a question, even that she is doing so. It is a kind of enchantment, and I try to treat it delicately.

But those moments of enchantment are rare, and it is easy to miss them completely. Usually the ordinary magic of learning is utterly silent and invisible, a leap that occurs with as little fanfare as the closing of the gap between cause and effect. I think it occurs most often outside the classroom, probably even miles and years away from the moment. I suppose this should make teachers world masters of deferred gratification. I can number on the fingers of one hand the times I have seen the opposite, when learning surfaced and spouted, when a student went beyond the listening I described above and clearly, obviously, visibly, made a cognitive leap, not just by solving a problem or improving a skill, but by starting to think in a new way.

In my efforts to help high school students read better, I have developed several techniques that draw on abstruse prosodic concepts but are nevertheless practical and relatively easily described. In one such exercise, when students are having difficulty reading aloud, I explain that every sentence, whether they make it up themselves or read it off a page, is like a song. Without worrying about explaining usage, I illustrate use, showing how much prosody has to do with denotation and connotation by reading the way young students often unfortunately do, removing all prosodic variation from a sentence so that it sounds completely flat, with every syllable bearing the same monotonous pitch, stress, duration, and volume. This is the way many of them think of the written page, as a medium so different from their own speech as to be unrecognizable, almost unspeakable, alien, not really language at all. I then ask the student to follow me through the passage as I perform it, clause by clause, or sometimes phrase by phrase, imitating my performance of it. Many of them are so uncomfortable with print that they have never even imagined how it needs to be given voice to make sense, but many students with whom I worked at Crested Butte Academy were athletes, specifically highly skilled ski racers, who are trained to follow coaches through gates to learn how to understand a faster line; I tell them it’s basically the same exercise, but with words, and without an emphasis on speed so much as coherence, and that usually gets us around a few psychological corners.

After the student has followed me through a passage a few times, I have him try it on his or her own, and almost without fail the level is much higher. The reason for this is that even the most difficult literary work is still, after all, only an artificial dialect with relations to the spoken word, and most students grasp this intuitively and can put it into practice. Besides, they hate being slowed down.

I came across the technique I’ve just described about 10 years ago, when I was leading a freshman class on the short story. It was a challenging class, in which the students read a story almost every night. When we came to Henry James, the selection was “The Tree of Knowledge,” and the class rose up in anguish at James’ prose.28 Fine, I said, let’s read some, and so we began. As you will recall, in this story, Peter Brench, who narrates it, comes to realize that he has utterly misunderstood the most important relations in his life. The recognition is private and internal, yet excruciating, and turns, as usual in James, on subtle representations of emotion rendered in sentences so finely tuned and subtly interconnected that one can hardly quote a single one without feeling a need to explain it at the length of pages. The story begins with these three sentences:

It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend Morgan Mallow. This was a subject on which it was, to the best of his belief impossible with veracity to quote him, and it was nowhere on record that he had in the connexion, on any occasion and in any embarrassment, either lied or spoke the truth. Such a triumph had its honour even for a man of other triumph—a man who had reached fifty, who had escaped marriage, who had lived within his means, who had been in love with Mrs. Mallow for years without breathing it, and who, last but not least, had judged himself once for all. 29

In the end, what Brench discovers, through Lancelot, the Mallows’ son, is that Mrs. Mallow, who had always appeared to admire the work of her husband, Morgan, has like Brench always known it was junk—yet loved her husband in spite of that, meaning that her love for Morgan was greater than Brench had ever imagined, having nothing to do with naive admiration of his inferior sculpture, and that Brench’s fantasy of her ever loving him has therefore been even more deluded than he thought.

My students could not make heads or tail out of these sentences, stumbling through them as if they were in a garden at midnight under clouds, stomping on the flowerbeds. One boy in particular, a gifted athlete, was having trouble reading them, quickly getting to the point where he was reciting one word at a time without the slightest sense of what the sentences meant. This is when I hit, in desperation, upon the idea of having him follow me through the passage. I slowed it down, without worrying about meaning, to one phrase at a time:

It was one of the secret opinions,

such as we all have,

of Peter Brench

that his main success in life

would have consisted

in his never having committed himself

about the work,

as it was called,

of his friend Morgan Mallow.

Then we went through it again and teased out the meaning, including the sarcasm of “as it was called;” then we went through it again in longer units:

“It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend Morgan Mallow”.

Then again, in only two, breaking after “life.” Finally I asked the boy to read the sentence all the way through and he did, quite well. We then did the next sentence, then both together, and so on.

Then something surprising happened. At the end of the third sentence, when he had read the entire passage through, as I opened my mouth to say “Go on,” I couldn’t get the words out, because he kept going, head down in the text, into the fourth sentence, without any instruction, reading it meaningfully, grasping it, performing it, transforming it from words into a story. I almost interrupted him before I realized what was happening. I got goose bumps. I looked around the room. Nobody else seemed to see it; they were just reading along. And nothing spectacular had happened, after all. The boy just couldn’t wait for me, and hardly even realized it. He just wanted to pursue the story, a natural enough impulse once it begins to make sense. Hey! I wanted to shout. Look! Did you see that? Look at that! But of course I didn’t do that. Yet that silence was one of the most satisfying moments I’ve ever had as a teacher. I’d witnessed a small miracle: ink on a page coming alive. And, in good teacherly fashion, I had rendered my further services unnecessary, at least for the time being. This was more fulfilling than any but a tiny handful of moments I expect ever to have in a college classroom.

Such moments are possible.

One objection I often hear to my polemic on the issue of how to respond to the crisis of literacy is that people looking for new avenues in which to teach are unsure of where to start. The public schools are a mess, and how can they find worthy non-profit educational organizations nearby? The unfortunate disconnection between higher education and K-12 programs means that many professors are not aware of where to begin if they want to locate a worthy institution. But if you need inspiration it is out there, no matter where you live, and it is not as hard to track down as you might imagine. Many teachers outside academe have done exactly what I invite you to do in this essay, teach young people how to read and to write. I would like to think the institutions they serve would welcome your involvement.

Here are just a few, which I have chosen because of their national-caliber excellence and their wide geographical distribution:

The Birmingham (AL) Civil Rights Institute is an after-school enrichment program in which schools partner with major cultural institutions to provide instruction to students. Four days a week, these mostly poor children participate in sustained study with organizations such as the Birmingham Public Library, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and the McWane Science Center. All programs explicitly inculcate literacy, and measured outcomes are extraordinary.

The Southwest Arkansas Arts Council, aptly located in the town of Hope, provides both after-school and summer programs for at-risk students from fifth grade through high school. They offer a wide range of arts and enrichment courses in a community where 27% of the adults are functionally illiterate. One of the explicit goals of the program, which serves hundreds of poor students, is “to enhance skills in math, reading and writing.” Many of the students in this program go on to college—to become your students.

The Snow City Arts Foundation of Chicago is one of the most inspiring after-school teaching organizations in America. It provides tutoring and arts instruction to chronically ill students. Teachers go into children’s hospitals and work with these young people, who otherwise often cannot keep up in school and therefore suffer academically as well as physically. There is good evidence to show that this kind of program, by treating the children as more than patients and by meeting their natural desire to learn, is good for their health as well. Most programs are conducted bedside.

Shakespeare and Company (Lenox, MA), a professional theater company, has a program called Shakespeare in the Courts. Company members work with local judges in the Berkshire Juvenile Court to make participation in the production of a Shakespeare play a part of juvenile sentencing. Giving new meaning to the concept of a complex-compound sentence, offenders are sentenced to Shakespeare, generally in lieu of the community service component of the judgment. At the end of the session, the participants give a performance before their families, friends, and representatives of the Court. All but two of the scores of students have gone on from it to earn their high school diplomas. Perhaps the most compelling statistic to come out of the program, however, is that 40% of the Courts–project participants who complete the program have asked if they can return.

Starfish Academy of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, North Carolina is a literacy-based summer camp and after-school program designed to meet the needs of first and second grade students in Title 1 schools. The mission of this program is to increase the reading level of first and second grade students. They serve 200 students a year; testing and standards are rigorous; more than 90% of the students involved, all of whom were failing, go on to earn promotion to the next grade level.

There are many other programs at a comparable level of excellence. And if you do not find what you want—start one yourself. Someone started these, and all these organizations (and many others) have boards that need support as well.

We do indeed face a crisis in literacy. It is real and it is serious. Insofar as any academic issue can be important, I find it hard to imagine any other that ranks more highly, as this one affects every field without exception. While I strongly support the standards movement as represented by Stotsky and others, and the paying of very close attention to policy matters, education school reform, and so on, I think it is also crucial to take Parker Palmer’s message to heart and to find the courage to teach, one student, 1 day, one class at a time. Further, if we are to have any meaningful impact whatsoever this teaching needs to happen before young people get to college, which means in K–12.

I therefore invite you to join me in teaching these young people, to dedicate at least some small part of your professional life—even a few hours a month—to reaching them. I have heard every excuse not to do so, including the pressures of time, the paralysis one feels in confronting bureaucracy, ignorance of how or where to begin, despair about the state of things, anxiety about lack of skill in working with younger students, and on and on, and none of that will wash. Volunteer for story hour at the local public library. Surely you can read Green Eggs and Ham. Go into the public schools. Help out in the education program at your local theater. Study non-profit board governance and become involved.

To go beyond this, and suggest how we might confer the kind of institutional resonance that such initiative requires, I also call on academic organizations such as the NAS to create an annual prize for teaching outside the college classroom. This prestigious prize would go to the professor who has made the greatest contribution in this area each year, and should have a substantial financial component, say $10,000, along with a gift to the institution this teacher has supported. There should be attendant publicity. This would be good for the teacher, good for the students, good for the institutions involved, and good for the cause. I know of few if any other prizes like it.

I advocate this because what we need are institutions that reward professors for directly addressing K-12 education, whether in the public schools or in private non-profit charities like those discussed above. Given the problems we face with trends in literacy it is in everyone’s interest that major organizations in higher education should publicly recognize outstanding contributions, including making large awards to teachers who make a difference. It should be as high a priority as possible to make great K-12 teaching as sexy as possible. We need teachers on Oprah.

In the end we need to remember that, as Mother Teresa reputedly said, we can do no great things, only small things with great love. This applies to teaching as much as anything else. In the Chronicle Review, Gordon Marino wrote an essay remembering his mentor, the sociologist Philip Rieff, who died this summer.30 He recalled a talk he had with Rieff in 1978, when Rieff congratulated him on having an article accepted. At the same time, Rieff took him to task for overweening intellectual ambition. Rieff told him:

you had better understand that the profession that you are going into is all about teaching. I know many professors who went into this business because they loved writing books and articles and developing a little coterie of admirers. But when they got into their 50s and could feel the limits of their talents, they fell into very serious despair, because it was clear that they were never going to become the Kierkegaard that they imagined they were, and they dreaded teaching.... Most academics are too narcissistic to be the parental figures that they need to be. They will slam their door on a student just so they can write their next forgettable article or book.... These self-involved characters will also turn their wives into secretaries and sacrifice their children to feckless books.

If you care about education; if you care about students; if you care about the liberal arts; if you care about literacy; if you care about the future of our country; and most of all, if you are a teacher and you care about yourself, I invite you to open the door and find your own courage to teach outside of academe. If you do so you may find that your own faith in students, in the possibilities of literacy and literature, in the possibilities of education—and even in yourself—is renewed.31

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