By Mark Bauerlein
The over-reliance on reading comprehension strategies in primary and secondary education has been a consistent theme at Core Knowledge for several years, but nevertheless people may not realize that reading strategies have a remarkable counterpart in higher education. You may assume that schools of education are the issue, and certainly they favor “strategies” approaches to reading instruction. But I have in mind another institution, the teaching of interpretation in graduate and undergraduate literature courses. The seminar transpires far from the 3rd-grade classroom, to be sure, but one particular development in literary studies over the last half-century parallels closely the focus on strategies, and its future may prove a lesson in the effectiveness of the latter.
The development is this: roughly, during the second half of the 20th century, literary studies transferred focus from literary-historical knowledge to what we might call “performance facility.” While most teachers in 1950 aimed to instill in students disciplinary content—languages, philology, bibliography, rhetoric, and poetic tradition from Beowulf to T. S. Eliot (or another national lineage)—teachers in 1990 aimed to plant the capacity to perform an astute interpretation of manifold texts. The former tied his tools to literary-historical truth—textual criticism of a Shakespeare play required technical editing skills, but they proceeded in light of Shakespeare’s biography, the linguistics of Early Modern English, the record of Shakespeare editions, etc. The latter tied her tools to concepts and strategies—interpretation of a Shakespeare play presumed a critical approach (New Critical, feminist, psychoanalytical, etc.) that she could wield without knowing very much about the writer and the historical context of the play. It was more important to understand, for instance, Freud’s concept of repression or the New Critic’s key concepts the “intentional fallacy” and the “heresy of paraphrase” than it was the physical structure of the Globe theater or the make-up of London audiences. You didn’t need that knowledge to write an essay about Hamlet. All you needed were the critical concepts. A student of the former ended up knowledgeable, one of the latter capable (and perhaps knowledgeable, or perhaps not). The one knows, the other performs.
The reasons for the performative turn include trends in enrollments, research productivity, the job market, the importation of European ideas and practices, and multiculturalism, but whatever their mixture at different times and places, they produced a different ideal. Once it triumphed, the model literary student didn’t stand forth because he knew Elizabethan society and the Shakespeare corpus fact by fact and word by word. She stood out because she could wield interpretative concepts dazzlingly and flexibly, consistent first with the grounds of the concepts, not with the literature and its context. Yes, to understand the phonetics of Shakespearean English was impressive, but by 1990 it seemed a plodding endeavor when set alongside the ability to produce a clever feminist interpretation of Macbeth.
(Macbeth and witches courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
I saw the trend first-hand in the 1980s, when some of my fellow graduate students formulated dissertations on the interpretation model. They chose one work as their topic, Heart of Darkness, for instance, and wrote six chapters on it, one a Neo-Aristotelian reading, one a psychological reading, a deconstructionist, a reader-response, and a colonialist reading, each one a distinct, unrelated performance. To do so, they didn’t need much historical knowledge about late-19th-century Africa, Conrad’s life, the 19th-century British novel, European politics, or the ivory trade, merely some ideas from each critical approach and the novella itself. Their efforts nicely tallied job skills in those years, too, the ability to handle different theories and practices usually counting for more than literary-historical knowledge. Those of us in graduate school and coming to maturity in the 1980s learned a clear lesson about the discipline: the center had shifted from the tradition and its contexts to interpretation and its varieties.
The trend drifted down into undergraduate classes as well. Youths who took English classes in the 80s and 90s encountered sparkling interpretations by Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Harold Bloom, Edward Said, Stanley Fish, Clifford Geertz, Shoshana Felman, and others that were admired not so much for the knowledge they imparted as the interpretative brilliance they displayed. Articles and books followed the same method, skirting literary-historical backgrounds but enacting an adept application of theory. Their proliferation resulted in a new epistemology for the field. Much of the theory behind popular schools of interpretation explicitly denounced objective knowledge as an Enlightenment myth, a presumption of neutrality, a denial of interests and politics. The success of that critique explains why, for instance, survey courses in English literature steadily dropped out as requirements for the major.
Similarly, one can attribute the absence of content in English language arts standards to performative goals. After all, the emphasis on interpretive skills means that the texts interpreted needn’t be prescribed. An expert interpreter can manage a 16th-century lyric as well as yesterday’s op-ed, right? Anyone who insists on literary-historical knowledge clings to an exploded notion. For people who embraced performance, the idea of a reading list isn’t just old-fashioned—it’s impertinent.
You can easily see how comprehension strategies complement this mode of interpretation. Of course, the English graduate student possesses some literary-historical knowledge, while the typical 8th grader does not, but in their respective classrooms, what they learn has a common feature. Both of them are taught to comprehend by applying abstract procedures to a text, for the one, “identify the main idea,” and for the other, “identify buried patriarchal norms” (to take one example). Both classrooms emphasize the acts of the reader more than the content of the words read, putatively granting interpreters a mastery and liberation. Know-how prevails over know-about. Interpretation and comprehension abstract from the reading process discrete steps and ask students to practice them over and over. (Many books in the 80s offered primer-like instructions in a deconstructive reading, a Freudian reading, etc.) They also claim to be more advanced and au courant than old-fashioned exercises in memorization and general knowledge. How much more 21st-century does a meta-cognitive exercise seem than knowing Pope’s versification?
The fate of interpretative performance in recent years, however, should give strategies enthusiasts pause. Readers of this blog may have followed ongoing discussions in national periodicals of the deteriorating condition of the humanities in higher education. (See here and here and here.) Numerous reports, op-eds, essays, and books have noted that foreign language departments have closed, research funding has shrunk, sales of humanities monographs have slid into the low-hundreds, leisure literary reading among teens has plummeted, and humanities coursework has diminished in general education requirements. Today, all of the humanities fields (including history) collect only one-eighth of four-year degrees. Over the same period during which knowledge about literary history was displaced by application of interpretive strategies, literary study slipped from center stage of higher education to the wings. Undergraduates just aren’t into it anymore.
Given the performative turn, can you blame them? If you were a 19-year-old signing up for next semester’s classes, which would attract you: one, learning about Achilles and Hector clashing on the plain, one a surly killing animal, the other a noble family man and virtuous warrior; or two, practicing theoretical readings of The Iliad? The first underscores the content and context of the epic, the second the concepts and procedures theorists have devised to analyze it. The second excites only professional interpreters of literature; a horde of laypersons love Homer, few of them love postcolonialism.
This is the steady truth that the performative turn in higher education forgot. People love the humanities because of the content of them, not because of the interpretation of them. They want to read about Satan spying on Eve in the Garden in Paradise Lost; Gray’s solemn lines in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”; Ben Franklin arriving in Philadelphia broke and hungry; the anguish of Conrad’s Kurtz . . . The act of interpreting them pleases them less than the act of reading them.
The same may be said for “strategies” instruction in K-12. What could be more tedious and uninspiring than efforts such as “Students are taught to generate their own questions” and “Students are taught to become aware of what they do not understand”? These metacognitive strategies turn the reading experience into a stilted, halting activity, making the content students must learn a boring rehearsal. Let us teach students those capacities, yes, but not in so labored and ponderous and lengthy a manner. Scale reading comprehension strategies down to lesser occasions, and abandon the validation that seems to come from upper-crust interpretation theory. Interpretative performance has had a half-century in higher education, and comprehensions strategies the same in K-12. Neither one has lived up to the promise and it’s time to explode their presumption of supremacy.