I taught high school English for 16 years in Vancouver, Canada, and I had wonderful students: inquisitive, disciplined, enthusiastic. To my mind, what I taught altogether were thinking, communication, and discernment. Day to day, though, what the curriculum called English Language Arts we considered far more broadly. Our range of subjects, aside from the obvious, varied widely – from history and economics to politics and philosophy to science and religion and sport, or the odd time even math. We excluded nothing that might arise. The end I had in mind for graduating seniors was not necessarily post-secondary school or any professional career but simply life as responsible, contributing adults.
Below are some quotations that help illustrate the motives behind my approach to their courses and to this website.
“The students who come to us now exist in the most manipulative culture that human beings have ever experienced. They are bombarded with signs, with rhetoric, from their daily awakenings until their troubled sleep, especially with signs transmitted by the audio-visual media. And, for a variety of reasons, they are relatively deprived of experience in thoughtful reading and writing of verbal texts. They are also sadly deficient in certain kinds of historical knowledge that might give them some perspective on the manipulation that they currently encounter.
“In an age of manipulation, when our students are in dire need of strength to resist the continuing assault of all media, the worst thing we can do is foster in them an attitude of reverence before texts… whereas what is needed is a judicious attitude: scrupulous to understand, alert to probe for blind spots and hidden agendas, and, finally, critical, questioning, sceptical.
“To put it as directly, and perhaps as brutally, as possible, we must stop ‘teaching literature’ and start ‘studying texts’… beyond the discrete boundaries of the page and the book into institutional practices and social structures.”
Scholes, Robert E. Textual power: Literary theory and the teaching of English. Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 15-17.
“In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation.”
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, July / August 2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google. Accessed 18 Jan 2009.
“Whatever is most frequently repeated sounds… definitive. … New technology and new commercial and industrial processes require new words, it is true. But in this revolution, language is the machinery…. Adopt the model, and you adopt its terms.”
Watson, Don. Death Sentences. Viking Canada, 2003.
“If speech in childhood lays the foundation for a life-time of thinking, how can we continue to prize a silent classroom? And if shared social behaviour (of many kinds, verbal and non-verbal) is seen as the source of learning, we must revise the traditional view of the teacher’s role. The teacher can no longer act as the ‘middle-man’ in all learning – as it becomes clear that education is an effect of community.”
Britton, James. “Vygotsky’s Contribution to Pedagogical Theory.” English in Education, Bob Bibby and Tim Noble (Eds.), vol. 21, no. 3, 1987, pp. 22-26.
I have since come across a superb alternative expression of my motives and aims for this site, a public lecture at Trevelyan College by Dr John Hesk from the University of St Andrew’s. (Specific remarks in his lecture commence at ~15:00 and continue for 20-25min thereafter, as he discusses Cleon’s critique of the demos in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.) I could hardly find better expression of my own motives and aims than what Dr Hesk covers in these remarks and throughout his lecture.
My aim as a teacher was to help students prepare broadly for adulthood – for responsibility, parenthood, academics, career, citizenship – by accepting the personal responsibility to discern through a more self-aware rhetorical lens, and to try giving matters more thorough consideration. Sometimes people would call this “having an open mind” although that phrase never sufficiently conveyed enough for me, sounding too passive, not enough active discernment. Not enough thinking. There’s always context and a backstory, and things are seldom as superficial as face value suggests. Likewise, no lone remark or text will adequately connote or present what lies beneath face value, so we’re obliged to consider the preponderance of all we’re able to gather about this matter or that, with the qualification that we guard against contradiction and syncretism. Strange bedfellows do not have to be restricted to politics. Good thinking can find a way.
A way to… where exactly? Well, each person ought to decide for themselves how to spend their life. Good thinking is simply a means to that end.
If we learn individually as members of communities and if repeated language is foundational (as the quotations above suggest), then our shared words contribute significantly to shaping who we are, individually and collectively. Further, they suggest who we’ll become. We ought to take heed. Here on this site, as in the classroom, albeit with a wider audience in mind, I have no less the same intention.
As important as discernment and a habit for thinking have always been, a post-truth world of alternative facts and prevarication – amplified by the heralded digital age – compels us more than ever to raise our levels of discourse.