Is there anyone in business, law, science, media, or letters who would say that the overall quality of prose in his field is superb? Would anyone be surprised to learn that reading and writing scores have been dropping for years? Does anybody expect that the lockdowns, which put kids in their rooms in front of screens all day, shall have boosted verbal talents?
Of course not. But NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) has a solution. NCTE is the largest body of primary and secondary English teachers in the country. This organization certifies state-of-the-art teaching and research, hosts conferences, and advocates for the field in public affairs. Earlier this month, NCTE issued a position statement that calls for a fundamental change in the discipline. The heading reads “Media Education in English Language Arts,” which tells you where the shift is headed.
Here are the sentences summarizing the goal:
The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education. Speaking and listening are increasingly valued as forms of expression that are vital to personal and professional success . . . It behooves our profession, as stewards of the communication arts, to confront and challenge the tacit and implicit ways in which print media is valorized above the full range of literacy competencies students should master.
You got all that? It’s quite a mouthful, imparted with all the confidence of experts who know the ways of the world and do not fear breaking old habits and keeping up-to-date. Other points in the statement reiterate the world-is-changing motif. In the 21st century, communication is ever more oral and pictorial, the authors say. Kids, especially, express themselves in non-print ways. Let’s keep pace with the trend in our teaching and testing, NCTE urges, and pull print down from its privileged position in the classroom.
That’s the rationale. “Book reading”—not so big a deal in a time of screens. “Essay writing”—pull it back, think again, ask yourself if it’s really pertinent to the multimedia lives of young (and old) Americans. It may shock many people to hear English teachers downplaying the value of books. They remember a high school teacher who loved Hemingway or Jane Eyre. They may even think it is precisely because of the omnipresence of screens that English teachers should insist ever more firmly on the necessity of books. They hear talk of bad writing in the workplace, too, and want their kids to practice discursive writing in long form (not text-message length) ever more often. Why in the world, they wonder, would English teachers go with the anti-print flow?
Because, the teachers would respond, outsiders don’t understand the nature of English instruction. They don’t know the intricacies of advanced literacy. They don’t realize how the very nature of literacy is undergoing a radical transformation. In other words, a “book-centered” outlook belongs to the pre-digital past. English teachers work in the multimedia present—and rightly so. To hold kids to the old standards, to make them do print exercises first and foremost, is to fail to arm them for life, to inculcate the skills needed for Digital Age success. Worse, it is to alienate them from the other parts of their lives, from the identities they have formed in and through media.
What to say about all this? The assumption about skills needed in college and professional spaces doesn’t hold up, but NCTE holds it too tightly and pleasingly for evidence to shake it loose, no matter how solid that evidence is. NCTE people utter this claim as if it were a nugget of the discipline’s wisdom, and also proof of the utterer’s membership in the ranks. Such revolutionary talk comes up all the time in education circles, in fact, and has for at least two decades, since the Web 2.0 phase of the internet began.
Indeed, if you’ve heard these claims of “new literacies” a few times, you start thinking less about the import of them and more about the language in which they are expressed. After a while, you start to see an irony open up, a gap between the content of the words and the words themselves. We have a radical meaning clothed in banal terms, epochal dimensions offered in clichéd, conventional, pseudo-radical diction. In spite of the declamatory tone and avant-garde ethos, the words are altogether familiar. We’ve heard them many times before. There’s nothing new about them.
The passage above is a case in point. Most of the language is familiar to laymen. Nobody pauses over “book reading . . . essay writing . . . forms of expression . . . success . . . stewards of the communication arts . . . tacit and implicit ways . . . literacy competencies.” They might hesitate over the kind of “confrontation” and “challenge” NCTE envisions as teachers draw their focus away from book reading and essay writing, but the sense of the passage generally is clear.
Two words, however, stand out as unusual: “decenter” and “valorize.” They have a lot of responsibility in that paragraph, but laymen can’t quite apprehend them. Such words don’t come up in ordinary conversation, not even in professional domains. They have the aura of complexity, adding intellectual cachet to the recommendation and making the shift away from print seem sophisticated and disciplinary. That’s the point. “Decentering” and “valorization” sound like acts of expertise. Only a trained person knows how to carry them out adroitly. The terms suggest that only the virtuosi at NCTE know what must be done, and only they are astute enough to do it.
But anyone with long experience in literary theory knows otherwise. The unfortunate truth about this particular locution, which is supposed to denote our proper advance into the 21st century, is that it rests on holdovers from more than 50 years ago. For “decentering” and “valorization” are not the fresh coinages that Digital Age breakthroughs are said to deserve. They come from deconstruction circa 1966. Decentering was an essential move in deconstructionist interpretation as Jacques Derrida laid it out in his hugely influential essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The same is true of valorization—or, rather, devalorization—which Derrida articulated at length in Of Grammatology. By 1980, hundreds of such readings had been carried out, and it had already begun to acquire a mechanical character. That NCTE would resort to these old clichés only shows that the progressive, forward-looking, oh-so-modish thought-world of the drafters of this media statement is no such thing.
The phony sophistication undermines the credibility of NCTE more soundly than does a debate over the status of print in a digital era. The style undoes NCTE more than the content (as does the mixed metaphor in the first sentence of the passage, “decenter . . . pinnacles,” along with the treatment of “media” in the last sentence as singular.) The real question is how these middling talents and pompous declaimers ever attained positions of authority within the field. What kind of decadence afflicts us when the pedagogues of print are the vandals of print instruction? How did the guardianship of books become the duty of people who aren’t terribly bookish?
Our humanistic institutions are in the hands of people whose humanitas is feeble. They’re proud of that fact, though. They believe it’s warranted by social conditions, and they’re ready to pass along their ineptitude to the pupils they’re paid to edify.
Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.
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