Politics and the English curriculum

There’s no sense in complaining about something unless you’re going to try to understand it, I suppose.  Recently, I whined about how resistant to newness many English teachers are.  I wasn’t talking about pedagogy (though I could; many are still teaching prescriptive grammar even though there’s never been any evidence that it improves writing).  My focus was simply the literature.  In many places that I’ve seen, teaching in two countries, three jurisdictions, and six schools, high school English departments are stuck in a rut, bringing to students the same old pre- and post-war classics, starting at Brave New World from the early thirties and ending with To Kill a Mockingbird in the early sixties.

(Here’s my usual disclaimer:  both of those novels are wonderful.  They shine.  I just find it disappointing that a whole generation of teachers watched their elders innovate and have allowed their own curriculum to stagnate.  There’s nothing wrong with that period in literature, other than perhaps a touch too much of misanthropy and existential malaise; what’s wrong is when a student now can graduate from high school having read no novel written outside a narrow little frame within the twentieth century.)

So I’ve started wanting to investigate a little into why there is this lack of innovation.  In this, I’m drawn to the language of technology adoption.  When new technologies come along — smartphones, email, the wheel — you hear the people who advocate for them being called innovators and early adopters.  This language comes from Everett Rogers, author of a 1962 (there’s that era again) classic Diffusion of Innovations.  Rogers describes how all kinds of new ideas (from boiling water to video games) move through a culture.  In brief:  “innovators” start things off, “early adopters” pass them around, an “early majority” begins to form, and by the time the “late majority” joins in, voila!, just about everyone has a VCR and thinks its the last piece of electronics they’ll ever own.  A final group, the “laggards” may just hang on until the DVD comes along.

It’s easy, I think, to see how this would apply to how teachers choose the literature they bring to their classrooms.  Some innovators are constantly looking for new books to challenge their students.  Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they screw up.  If they get it right, other teachers in their departments start looking over their shoulders.  “Your students really enjoyed The Kite Runner?  Maybe I’ll give it a try.”  Some of these early adopters meet other teachers or present at PD sessions.  Maybe they just talk at Friday night pub gatherings.  If it’s a successful innovation, it’s going to pass on to other schools.

It’s also fun to imagine how this kind of cultural transmission happened back in the era that I’ve set my sights on, the middle of the last century.  I’ve heard enough stories of how tattered copies of The Catcher in the Rye, Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, and all the other classics of post-war misanthropy, malaise and disillusionment were passed from hand to trembling hand in college campuses throughout the fifties and sixties.  The innovators were the people who couldn’t stop talking about the new ideas and feelings these books were sparking inside them.  Their early adopters were the people who couldn’t help but get excited when they heard friends and strangers alike wax excited about the books.

So what’s missing today?  Because, seriously, I do think something’s missing.  My parents’ high school educations in Scotland were full of Dickens, Scott, Bronte and Kipling.  A quarter of a century later and halfway ’round the world, I got just a bit of that mixed in with stuff that was newer and fresher.  These days, though you don’t see much of the nineteenth century, the middle of the twentieth is all that some kids get.  I talked to a student at my current school a couple of weeks ago who is about to graduate: aside from Shakespeare, every single thing he’s read in high school was written between 1932 and 1962.

To put it in Rogerian terms, I think there’s probably innovation going on, but I don’t think it’s being successfully transmitted.

So here’s my hypothesis, and I think it would be an easy one to test if anyone had the mind:  It’s Mike Harris’ fault.

Me at a 1997 protest against the Mike Harris government. Taken by Vincenzo Pietropaolo and used on the back cover of his Celebration of Resistance.

Sincerely.  For those of you who don’t know, Harris was Premier of Ontario from 1995 to 2002.  He left towards the end of his second term, and his position was occupied by his crony Ernie Eves until their party was kicked to the curb a year later in 2003.  They were cookie-cutter conservatives: tax cuts to the rich, cuts to public services, innovation grants to big business, cuts to the social safety net.  Under their reign, labour unrest was the order of the day.  Harris appointed a high-school dropout as Minister of Education, someone who promised to “create a crisis in education.”  I was on strike twice in his first three years.

Lots of people I knew then got out of teaching in Ontario.  Some went to other provinces, others went south.  Some took on other careers and others took early retirement.  There were a lot of teachers due to retire in that time anyway; I remember hearing in 2000 that in the following eight years, forty percent of the teaching workforce in Ontario would have retired.

Those who remained became progressively disillusioned and isolated.  Dodging as many bullets as the Tories could fire — new “accountability” measures, new curriculum, cuts to prep time, increases in duties, new standardized test, a new supervisory body constructed from cuts to our wages — they retreated to their classrooms.

As a result, teachers who remained were not good role models to the new forty percent who were hired in the early part of this century.  They didn’t model enough collaboration.  They didn’t model interesting professional development opportunities.  For the most part, they didn’t even set up chat sessions at the pub on Friday.

So what I’m saying is that a conservative backlash combined with a large number of people leaving the teaching profession results in alienation which in turn leads to poor role-modeling and a marked decrease in innovation.  As I said before this is just a hypothesis, and it would be an easy one to test.  Have a look at jurisdictions where there hasn’t been  a similar beating-up of teachers; see if their reading lists are more varied and contemporary.  Maybe I’m wrong about this.  I’d like to know.

It’s entirely possible that there’s something else at work here.  Maybe that cultural burgeoning that was the sixties is just unbeatable.  Maybe you’d find that the power of the literature of that period still holds everywhere.  I’ll tell you, if I am right about this, you’ll be able to see it in about ten to fifteen years in Ohio.  I don’t know much about their Senate Bill 5, but I’ve read enough to find it chillingly familiar to what was happening in Ontario in the late nineties.  I think that this kind of anti-teacher anti-union legislation leads to nothing more than disillusionment and negativity, and if it takes hold, don’t expect to see the upcoming classics of tomorrow take much hold in Ohio’s classrooms.

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About davidlomax

Writer, teacher, husband, dad. Geek from way back. Author of the totally pre-orderable Backward Glass, out in October 2013 from Flux Books (http://goo.gl/4FOM2). View all posts by davidlomax

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