by Diana Senechal
Every so often (actually, very often) I hear someone say, “Why can’t we have both content and skills? Why are people wasting their time arguing for one or another?”
This is a reasonable argument, and like many reasonable arguments, it must be adjusted for an unreasonable world. Will Fitzhugh warns us of our eroding reason: in a recent piece he proclaims that the “evidence-based techniques and processes of literacy instruction” have taken over schools just as kudzu has taken over farms in the southeastern part of the U.S. If allowed to spread further, Fitzhugh argues, “literary kudzu” will “choke off … attention to the reading of complete books and the writing of serious academic papers by the students in our schools.”
In a comment on the Core Knowledge blog, Carl Rosin objects roundly (and reasonably) to Fitzhugh’s premise: “I am dismayed by Mr. Fitzhugh’s thesis, which I believe disparages process—which even the most knowledgeable writers must learn—because of a logical fallacy: that process necessarily replaces content.”
Rosin would be right, if the schools, policymakers, and education schools were as reasonable as he. But again, we are dealing with an unreasonable world. Process does replace content when it is accorded the highest place on the scale of values. To put process at the top, to subordinate literature and history to skills, is a gory sacrifice and boring practice. But such philosophy runs rude and ragged like Auden’s rascals.
Many state standards don’t mention a single work of literature, even in passing. Well, those are standards, one might say; the curricula should make up for the omission. But in many cases they don’t. Officials and even teachers will argue that “you don’t teach the subject, you teach the student,” and that you choose the content to match the desired skills, which should take precedence. They believe a teacher—or student—should select books that best match the student’s learning needs.
The very emphasis on skills, paradoxically, is one reason why students don’t master the skills—there’s no good content in which to ground them. “Compare and contrast” is of little value until you have something good to compare and contrast. In the second chapter of her new book, Diane Ravitch puts it succinctly: “Students should certainly think about what they read, but they should read something worth thinking about.”
Granted, some schools “infuse” the curriculum with content. That’s better than nothing—but they still assume that skills, strategies, and processes come first and that the content is a filler, vehicle, or whatever the term might be.
How can one justify putting the skills and processes on top? It would be as though someone learned the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in order to practice bowing techniques. Certainly a student needs to learn bowing techniques; certainly a student becomes better at bowing by spending many hours on the Suites. Still, one learns bowing in order to play the Suites, and not vice versa. If there were no music worth learning for its own sake, there would be no reason to play an instrument at all. The bowing, no matter how well practiced, would not sound beautiful. But scales sound beautiful, someone might object. Yes, but that is because we can hear melodies in them. There is something beyond them.
Like any analogy, this has caveats, but something similar is true for literature. On its own, the language of strategies is dull and hollow. Not only do we need knowledge in order to build our comprehension, as E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Dan Willingham, and others have demonstrated, but we need to learn things that stay with us all our lives, things that we return to many years later, things that grip and puzzle and delight us. Of course processes, skills, and strategies come into play, vigorously, but they can’t hold a frayed matchstick to literature. Which would I rather remember, ten years down the road: terms like “making a text-to-self connection,” “monitoring for comprehension,” “using context clues,” and so forth, or the ending of James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation,” quoted below?
But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation
And every bit of us is lost in it
(Or found—I wander through the ruin of S
Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness)
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.
I’ll teach the processes, but I will not talk process-talk. I will make sure my students leave with heaps of language like the language above—language we rummage for and hold up to the light, language that lifts our lives.
Diana Senechal has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale; her translations of the poetry of Tomas Venclova have appeared in two books. A former (and possibly future) NYC public school teacher, she is currently writing a book on the loss of solitude in schools and culture.