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Commentary Education

Opinion: This school year, let’s re-humanize English class

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By Jonna Perrillo and Andrew Newman

Holden Caulfield. Cassie Logan. Scout Finch.Many of us can trace our love of reading back to a character who first changed the way we think about ourselves or our world.

Jonna Perrillo

But millions of American students who have recently returned to the classroom, many for the first time in over a year, risk being robbed of that experience.

A rightful concern about learning loss is already pushing school districts to narrowly focus on the reading skills that most align with state and national standardized tests and on test preparation, even in schools where this has not been common practice. As English teachers know, this could not be more wrong-headed or ill-timed.

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Precisely because the past 18 months have been marked by isolation, fear, and stress, it is more urgent than ever that students experience the pleasure of reading and learn the importance of treating literature as documents with moral lessons to accept, challenge, or reject. Teachers must foster learning communities through shared reading experiences.

Andrew Newman

COVID has focused a spotlight on many democratic institutional failures, including schools’ emphasis on testable but limited and frequently alienating expressions of skill and learning. Too often, we have sacrificed the benefits of a literate society, including the development of lifelong readers, for a clinical approach to what constitutes “good” reading.

We know this in part because this summer, we directed a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded seminar for English teachers that focused on the history of literature instruction in K-12 schools. The seminar participants came from red, rural communities, and from our nation’s largest urban centers. They differed in teaching context, experiences, and their personal identities, but they agreed wholly on what students need: more humanism.

History supports their conviction. For over a century, English education methods have oscillated between standards-driven and child-centered approaches. A renewed focus on students’ social and civic development often followed periods of national trauma: world wars, the Great Depression, and the visible racial violence of the 1960s. 

Our participants’ conclusions echo a recent Harvard and MIT study that included teachers, students, parents, and school administrators. Like many parents and students, teachers don’t want schools to return to pre-pandemic conditions. They want better. They want to meet this moment with learning that is restorative, collaborative, and community-building. The humanities are especially suited to realize these priorities.

Yet even in easier times, institutional constraints make for pernicious barriers to humanistic teaching. Pre-scripted curricula treat students and teachers like cogs in a wheel; mammoth textbooks, compiled on a theory that exposure to excerpts is equivalent to reading great works in their entirety, convey that good readings are about parts over perseverance. Test mandates that privilege textual analysis over personal engagement prioritize identifying character types over developing one’s own character. The effects are demoralizing and dehumanizing. 

Given the chance, the literature classroom can foster personal development, analytical skills, and civic-mindedness at once. Reading theoretician Louise Rosenblatt argued this much in her influential 1938 book “Literature as Exploration.” In a democratic society “seeking to create new social and economic patterns,” she wrote, “literature can perform an increasingly important function.” 

Above all, Rosenblatt valued how books expose readers to different beliefs from their own, promoting greater self-awareness of their own thoughts and experiences. If democracy requires informed citizens capable of making their own choices, literature awakens students to “the possible alternatives from which to choose.”

Traditionally, Americans have subscribed to unverifiable beliefs about reading: that it imbues young readers with humane attributes, including wisdom, tolerance and empathy. But, as Rosenblatt explained and English teachers well know, it is a mistake to believe that students read as moral and ethical blank slates. They bring values and experiences to the classroom with them; they represent families and communities.

In more humanistic classrooms, students spend far less time filling out prescriptive worksheets, and far more reading and discussing, engaging with essential questions and grappling with irresolvable interpretive problems. They experience multiple, often conflicting viewpoints — of authors, characters, and other readers — at once. Everyone better values each other’s ideas and contributions.

Reading in school, as part of a classroom community, offers students invaluable practice in democratic skills that are unquantifiable and unsuitable for tests, but fundamental to public life. 

As parents, educators, and community members, we must ask if our schools are doing this. Otherwise, we must advocate for our students to experience a more powerful, and frankly more important, kind of learning than they are used to.

Jonna Perrillo is an education historian and associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of the forthcoming book “Educating the Enemy: Teaching Nazis and Mexicans in the Cold War Borderlands.” Andrew Newman is a professor and chair of the English Department at Stony Brook University, where he specializes in American studies and the history of education. He received a 2019-2020 Guggenheim Fellowship for his current book project “The High School Canon: The History of a Civic Tradition.”