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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

What We Really Think About Core Curriculum

Posted by Clancy Ratliff, Guest Author, on 03/18/06 at 04:07 PM

This is a guest post by Clancy Ratliff

Core curriculum has been addressed at the Valve a few times, with some interesting discussions as a result. My first post here will contribute to this theme with the following goal: to tease out what each of us really thinks about core curriculum. I realize that core curriculum and cultural literacy aren’t the same thing, but they are closely related, so I’m going to riff off this connection in order to speak from my area of expertise, rhetoric and composition studies. 

When E.D. Hirsch published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, it did end up sometimes being cast as the enemy of critical pedagogy. Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Ira Shor, and bell hooks were, and still are, revered by many in rhetoric and composition. Freire’s critique of the banking model of education (see the a through j list in particular) especially resonated with writing teachers, as they saw this model as counterintuitive when taking into account the goals of writing pedagogy, which seek to make students themselves synthesize concepts and facts into coherent arguments rather than regurgitating the teacher’s ideas. And critical pedagogical theorists provided teachers with a vocabulary to describe and justify their objectives, which for some teachers included encouraging students to question and challenge authority, to seek out and listen to authors who aren’t a part of “the dominant culture,” and to recognize stereotypical and offensive representational practices in the culture at large (and be able to explain why such representations are significant). Many composition theorists see these skills as rhetorical insofar as one of the disciplinary goals of composition studies is to analyze and criticize the social and political context in which texts are produced.

Hirsch’s book riled some rhetoric and composition theorists for a number of reasons. They saw it as yet another way to silence marginalized voices, as well as an encroachment on their academic freedom. There are, after all, only fifteen weeks in the average semester, and you can only cover a small number of texts in that time. Once an outside entity comes in and plunks down a list of works that students should read and discuss in their writing classes, rhetoric and composition becomes a mere service instead of a scholarly discipline in its own right. 

But at the same time, there were those who didn’t have any objections to Hirsch’s argument: Donald Lazere, for example. They adhered to Hirsch’s assertion that the more students know about American culture, the better a position they’re in to criticize and subvert it—if they wish. Hirsch cites at least two instances in which authors use cultural allusions ironically, including item 10 of the Black Panther Party platform. Also, just a few years ago, Joseph Wessling published Cultural Literacy and the Analogical Imagination, in which he argues that if students do not have a common body of knowledge to reference, their analogical imagination, which is a crucial part of creative intelligence, suffers. 

I said all that to say this: Most of the time, the people who talk about core curriculum and cultural literacy don’t articulate their positions clearly. I can’t think of anyone who would actually argue against the claim that students should learn the Bill of Rights, for example. People act as though they disagree with each other about core curriculum, when in fact they probably don’t. Most scholars in both literary studies and rhetoric and composition just want students to take every position both seriously and skeptically, contrary to certain media portrayals. Eleven years ago, JAC published The Things That Go Without Saying in Composition Studies: A Colloquy. Robert Connors’ contribution included this handy list, which illustrates my point well:

Morning. After muffins and coffee in the cool of the air-conditioning, we listen to and talk with many noted and brilliant composition specialists. Among all of us, on the basis of our discussion, it goes without saying that:

  1. Our most central task as literacy educators is understanding and acting on issues of the cultural and ideological contexts of writing.
  2. The “process” (expressivist/cognitivist) paradigm of teaching and research is naive and outmoded, and we have to move beyond it.
  3. Individualism and concepts of personal agency are delusions, and we must avoid being trapped by them as we consider issues of literacy education.
  4. All meaning is constructed socially, and our choice as educators involved working to further that construction with or striving to further that construction against the grain of the larger culture’s ideologies.
  5. The goals of literacy pedagogies should thus be to assist adaptation to existing academic realities through teaching conventions or to work for social change through analyses of economic and cultural forces.
  6. For either of these purposes, the personal essay is a questionable form and is proof of the low status of composition.
  7. Being middle class is a somewhat ignoble status and an unsophisticated goal to wish for our students.
  8. Most composition teaching is naive if not destructive.

Afternoon. After lunch we walk through the park-like preserve in self-selected clumps. Another male and I attach ourselves to the “all-women” group and promenade with them, talking. These people are mostly teachers. The air is still and hot, and we walk slowly. We find goose quills by the pond. After we return and hear reports from other walking groups, it seems to go without saying that:
  1. Our most central task as literacy educators is teaching students to write more effectively for themselves and for their other classes.
  2. Students are genuine individuals who have real needs, desires, and agency. So are we.
  3. The process paradigm of teaching is a kind of default setting for us, what we all naturally assume and use, the methodological sine qua non underlying all other pedagogies we try out.
  4. Meaning inheres in feelings and emotions, which may be constructed socially but which are felt, acted on, and written about individually.
  5. The personal essay is a central genre from which many others can grow.
  6. Being middle class is a reasonable thing to want or to propose for our students, and most of us are and always will be inescapably middle class.
  7. Most composition teaching does help students, if the teacher truly cares about helping students.

Is there a more sophisticated and afternoon way to talk about core curriculum?


Comments

I taught writing: 13 colleges/universities, 7 states USA, two other countries. Might again. Now I am a driving instructor. Most students are 15-16.  It seems sufficient to say, regarding:
1.Our most central task as literacy educators is teaching students to write more effectively for themselves and for their other classes.
2.Students are genuine individuals who have real needs, desires, and agency. So are we.
3.The process paradigm of teaching is a kind of default setting for us, what we all naturally assume and use, the methodological sine qua non underlying all other pedagogies we try out.
4.Meaning inheres in feelings and emotions, which may be constructed socially but which are felt, acted on, and written about individually.
5.The personal essay is a central genre from which many others can grow.
6.Being middle class is a reasonable thing to want or to propose for our students, and most of us are and always will be inescapably middle class.
7.Most composition teaching does help students, if the teacher truly cares about helping students.
That,
1A.Our most central task as driving instructors is “telling” students, in regard to specific condition, how to drive—practically, optimally and safely for their welfare and others.
2A.Student drivers are flesh and blood with a real need, desire and agency [generally] not to crash into stationary or moving objects. So are their instructors.
3A.[Tautology—no benefit for the actual conduct of human affairs.]
4A. Meanings are accidents. Try to keep your feeling and emotions out of steering, braking and acceleration. Getting from A to B driving a motor vehicle is constructed socially but you quite particularly must do it.
5A. The more others are aware of your personal behavior on the road, the scary you become.
6A.[Exceedingly irrelevant. Likewise: Driving a Hummer is a reasonable thing to want or to propose for our students, and most of us are and always will be inescapably Toyota.]
7A. Most driving instructors help student drivers. They have a compelling reason, whether or not they care about students at all.

“Is there a more sophisticated ... way to talk about core curriculum?” [Quite likely.]

By on 03/18/06 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Have you ever used Stevens’s “Anecdote of Men by the Thousand” to discuss turning lanes and how dangerous they can be?

I once contemplated doing this.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/18/06 at 10:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As a representative of the other (or should I say the Other) of the Two Cultures, I wouldn’t really know where to start, except to say that I had heard of Paulo Freire but had never read anything by him until I followed the link you provided to the banking model of education. It’s really hard to believe that isn’t a parody; do people actually take that stuff seriously?

For the sake of conversation, how about the model of discipline and furniture instead:

The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge. The former of these is, perhaps, the more important of the two. A commanding object, therefore, in a collegiate course, should be, to call into daily and vigorous exercise the faculties of the student. Those branches of study should be prescribed, and those modes of instruction adopted, which are best calculated to teach the art of fixing the attention, directing the train of thought, analyzing a subject proposed for investigation; following, with accurate discrimination, the course of argument; balancing nicely the evidence presented to the judgment; awakening, elevating, and controlling the imagination; arranging, with skill, the treasures which memory gathers; rousing and guiding the powers of genius. All this is not to be effected by a light and hasty course of study; by reading a few books, hearing a few lectures, and spending some months at a literary institution. The habits of thinking are to be formed, by long continued and close application. The mines of science must be penetrated far below the surface, before they will disclose their treasures. If a dexterous performance of the manual operations, in many of the mechanical arts, requires an apprenticeship, with diligent attention for years; much more does the training of the powers of the mind demand vigorous, and steady, and systematic effort. [From “The Yale Report of 1828“ on liberal education and collegiate life.]

“Rousing and guiding the powers of genius.” Mmmm. Yeah. Now we’re getting somewhere.

By Bob O'Hara on 03/18/06 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You might want to read that again, Bob. Freire’s quite clear and sensible, and your own mental furniture might be a bit dusty if you couldn’t see it.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/18/06 at 11:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It isn’t a matter of clarity; sure, it’s perfectly clear. Here’s a summary: “In this essay I will construct a set of cartoonish stereotypes, and I will apply them to all the Bad People I don’t like—and believe me, those people are everywhere. I will then assert that these Bad People are indeed bad because they believe all these cartoonish stereotypes I have atttributed to them. I will conclude by declaring that I am a superior person, because I not only reject these cartoonish sterotypes, but also because I expose all the Bad People who accept the cartoonish sterotypes.”

(Still dusting. Probably accumulating some waxy build up, too.)

By Bob O'Hara on 03/19/06 at 12:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But Jonathan, this is not a fair way to talk; you can’t just assume that your opinion is the objective truth of the matter!  I had to teach a rather longer extract of Freire some years ago in a freshman composition class, and while some of my passionate dislike for it has since worn off, I think it is quite fair to for me to say that I didn’t like teaching it in a freshman writing class in part because the style of Freire’s prose is opaque, highly ideological and somewhat bullying.  I take his point, and yet I personally can never sign on to such a doctrinaire account/program for reform/revolution; not to mention it does not seem immediately applicable to many of the settings in which we are teaching.  There is a kind of irrelevance or even hypocrisy to me teaching that piece to a group of Yale first-year students, for instance, who may themselves have no personal acquaintance with the so-called “banking model.”

Anyway, I hope you will forgive that minor rant, but I felt there was some tonal incivility and that Bob must be allowed to have his own opinion!

I have taught the Literature Humanities sequence in Columbia’s Core Curriculum a number of times now, and my thinking has changed since I first taught it (when I was rather skeptical about its educational enterprise, taken as a whole).  Some of the things I like about it have nothing to do with the curriculum itself: having the same group of 22 or so first-year students for the whole year, for four hours a week, is an exceptionally intense and good thing (you get the pleasure of watching high-school students become college students over the course of the year; and while some students start off fantastic already, others really thrive and blossom at some unpredictable point in the winter or spring, and the group as a whole feels very different by March or so). 

I remain torn about the virtues of the reading list itself.  My ‘afternoon’ point, I suppose, is that there is much to be said for teaching rich and complex and historically influential texts from the European tradition.  It would be condescending in us to say that our students do not need to read things that we ourselves do (tacitly or otherwise--and I argue that this is true for most 40-and-up humanities academics no matter whether their own research choices suggest they don’t care about these texts) believe are essential to the “well-educated person.” Or to cultural confidence in elite settings.  Or to however you want to phrase it.

But in Columbia’s version, I continue to find that the fall semester reading-list makes sense in a way the spring one doesn’t.  The fall is heavily Greek stuff, so that you read Iliad and Odyssey and major plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides and Aristophanes, and you also read Herodotus and Thucydides and Plato’s Symposium, and you start being able to put together a pretty detailed picture of Greek thought and it’s great.  (And very useful later on when I can assume in my classes on, say, Augustan satire that all the students have read the major classical epics.)

The spring semester feels more ideological to me, and accordingly less useful--the first half goes from the Aeneid to Augustine’s Confessions to Dante to Boccaccio to King Lear, and then it races Don Quixote-Pride and Prejudice-Crime and Punishment-To the Lighthouse.  There is no intellectual rationale to those choices, not like there is in the first semester; and I find it increasingly frustrating not to be teaching mostly English-language works, since as a literature professor I feel that my particular skill is to show students how to read for language and style and argument and then also historical contexts--very difficult to do with, say, Boccaccio in translation.  I have often said that I feel that I personally could do a better job with the implicit goals of this semester’s list if I could teach a whole semester of Shakespeare; others would say the same about other authors, I expect (say, Joyce and Woolf for scholars of British modernism; or Faulker and Ellison for Americanists, or Melville and Hawthorne, or what have you). 

I am frustrated, though, by the deep animosities between pro- and anti-core types.  Temperamentally I rebel against set books and core curricula and so on, and yet (and particularly as a student of eighteenth-century British literature) I love these books and want others to read them too....

By Jenny D on 03/19/06 at 12:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s just an overextended way of saying that you didn’t like the piece. If you don’t think that the banking model is applicable to any current and certainly many past educational systems in the Americas and elsewhere, I’d be curious to know why.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/19/06 at 12:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But I’m sure they had some familiarity with banking models. And I apologize to Bob if I was uncivil, though I think that his first and second comments were off the mark (the parody he pointed to was not relevant at all) and unnecessarily dismissive. I don’t care if you don’t like something, but if you’re going to leave a comment about it, try to explain why without incidental sneering.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/19/06 at 12:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I too approve of reading the books in most core curricula while disapproving of the reasons why they’ve been selected. Jenny’s comment about the second half of the Columbia curriculum is illustrative. That’s also a massive amount of reading in a semester, and I have a guess about how much of it actually gets done.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/19/06 at 01:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No offense taken, Jonathan. We just occupy opposite poles of an unreconciled contradiction.

Jenny wrote:

Some of the things I like about it have nothing to do with the curriculum itself: having the same group of 22 or so first-year students for the whole year, for four hours a week, is an exceptionally intense and good thing (you get the pleasure of watching high-school students become college students over the course of the year; and while some students start off fantastic already, others really thrive and blossom at some unpredictable point in the winter or spring, and the group as a whole feels very different by March or so).

Bingo! I’m in fact far more radical than comrade Freire. For the sake of propelling the dialectic forward, I often assert that the actual content of the curriculum is close to irrelevant: it’s the structure of university life that needs radical reform. What Jenny describes is the importance of sustained, personal, up-close contact with the same group of students over a long period of time. That’s far more important than whether we’re reading Aeschylus or Freire, and it is that sustained contact, in and out of the classroom, in all manner of contexts, that contributes the most to “rousing and guiding the powers of genius.”

(Apologies to the original poster if she thinks her curriculum thread has been hijacked. I’ll be quiet now.)

By Bob O'Hara on 03/19/06 at 01:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, yes, of course you are right that all students have at least SOME kind of familiarity with the banking model; I think it’s more the mode of his argument that rubs me the wrong way than most of what he’s saying.  (And I still always wonder how many students do how much of the reading in the Lit Hum class--it is notorious that Lit Hum is on the whole more enjoyable to teach than the next year’s political philosophy survey partly because sophomores are savvier about how little of the reading they actually need to do--I like to think that most of mine do most of it, I certainly make a personal plea that they must read Thucydides because it is my absolute favorite & one of the most often skipped.)

And I second Bob’s observation about sustained contact with students in all contexts being the most important part of education in the humanities.

Oh, and a question about the original post: those lists seem rather loaded, don’t they?  I don’t like the morning points and I do like the afternoon ones, that’s just my personal orientation, but hasn’t the list-writer totally skewed it?  And don’t we really want to ask whether the ‘morning’ list can be rewritten in a way that makes those points in the most serious and sympathetic way possible?  As it is, the second list (well, I’m female, perhaps gender has something to do with it) seems to me incontrovertibly true and the first one rather absurd--I don’t have time to click through and read the piece in its original context; Clancy, would you say that it arrives at some kind of synthesis, or is it really what this bit suggests, common-sense female critique of extreme & on the whole masculine composition/pedagogy expertise?

By Jenny D on 03/19/06 at 02:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I always learn a lot from your posts about your discipline, Clancy, but without ever having anything to say, I think because Rhetoric & Composition don’t exist as university topics in the parts of the Anglosphere that I know first-hand.

I have a question about what’s implicit for Americans in the core curriculum issue.  Taking into account that one of the points of your post is that pro- and anti-core partisans both fail to consistently make their positions clear, is the core curriculum being debated over one that is adapted to a specifically American education, ie one designed to underpin American citizenship / an American life?  The example of the Bill of Rights seems to suggest that it is - and it also suggests areas where universal common ground among US citizens is a very desirable outcome. 

I don’t know whether set books / survey courses / core literary curricula are amenable to the same kind of thinking.  What do you think?

For what it’s worth, I am currently teaching a survey very like the Virgil to Woolf course Jenny describes, and I think it’s quite a useful way of performing an introduction to reading at university.  The students generally seem to enjoy it.

By on 03/19/06 at 03:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s no core where I teach and I often wish there were for lots of reasons like the ones Jenny mentions.  I’d add one other.  Not having a core means that first and second year students have wide open schedules, with only the guidance of their advisers (of inherently limited value, I think), their peers, their parents, and their own interests and plans.  Many first years are disoriented by the transition and confused by their choices.  The result is a lot of individual confusion and the general rule of fashion.  In a wide open registration market, popular classes fill up quickly and frustration and resentment are common.

By on 03/19/06 at 10:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The investment banking model, too.

Many of those books are long (Cervantes) and difficult (Woolf) and have centuries worth of cribs. The pressure not to read all of them has to be tremendous, but I think they should be read and taught, certainly, just not exactly in that format.

Laura--are you familiar with Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/19/06 at 10:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Too many issues are mixed up in this discussion. 

(1) There’s no good reason why freshman comp should also be Intro to Western Civilization or Intro to the American Civic Religion

(2) Learning to analyze literary or philosophical texts is a skill with no necessary connection to learning how to write a decent essay.  Again, I don’t understand why these two different types of skills should be linked in one class or set of classes

(3) I don’t understand the polarized attitude toward “composition teaching” in those lists above.  I can’t see how “destructive” it could be to teach students how to fashion a thesis, how to organize an essay, how to identify problems of coherence and unity in an essay, how to use evidence to support an idea, how to evaluate the arguments of other writers, how to recognize the rhetorical strategies of other writers, and so on. 

(4) There are very good reasons why the above could be done in a content-rich or a content-less classroom.  I’ve had great success with both the Peter Elbow no-content writing course and with writing courses with some type of content.

(5) But a writing course should *not* be yoked to some content in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone (i.e., teach Western Civ and college writing at once)

(6) Every class that asks students to write essays should teach those students how to write those essays.  Students aren’t born with the Platonic Form of “Mr. Bullwinkle’s Homer Character Analysis Assignment” in their brains—and they certainly don’t learn this in freshman comp.  I work in part as a writing mentor at my university, and I’m nonplussed by the number of students who come for help largely because they have never been told what their essay for a particular class should look like.  I get Nursing majors forced to take Intro to Economics to fulfill a distribution requirment, but the professor of the course has never explained to the class what the main purposes and forms of an Economics paper might be.  These are often the same professors who complain that their students simply cannot write.  But ask that same student to write, say, a film review, and you’ll nearly always wind up with a composition that’s twice as good as their compare/contrast essay on Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

By on 03/19/06 at 11:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m going to say a little more about core curriculum, but first I want to address Jenny’s (good) question about the morning list. I think some of the points (1, 2, 4, and 5) are fair summaries of the arguments made by some critical pedagogical composition theorists in that time period. In number 3, he could have chosen a better word than “delusions,” (overvalued concepts? terms that are used uncritically? God-terms, as Burke would say?) but otherwise it’s fair.

I had thought that number 6 seemed to rest on either a very narrow and perhaps unfair definition of “personal essay”—a myopic, self-absorbed meditation on inner life devoid of social context—or a disagreement informed by poststructuralist theory about whether or not the personal essay can work in the service of the goals in 5. In other words, some people believe it is possible to analyze “economic and cultural forces” and “the larger culture’s ideologies” through writing a critical reflection on one’s personal experience. But if you look at some of the critiques of identity politics, e.g., Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Joan W. Scott, you get the view that a narration of one’s experience is only an interpretation, which should be open to criticism, but that in practice, MY EXPERIENCE becomes sacred and unquestionable. It ends up shutting down the discussion.

But wait a second...in another position paper from this colloquy, I found the following:

The current rap against the personal essay tends to suggest that it’s a white, middle-class, masculine, or (worst of all) literary genre. It’s easy to trot out the usual suspects: Montaigne and Bacon, Lamb and Hazlitt, Arnold and Newman. For avid readers of the genre, however, it is just as easy to provide counter evidence: the essays of Victorian women who used the personal essay to gain access to formal education and the professions (see Morgan); the collective writings of Working Women’s Co-Operative Guild, who composed personal accounts to win maternity rights; or, more recently, the personal essays of American women of color like Jewelle Gomez, June Jordan, Maxine Hong Kingston, or Judith Ortiz Cofer who recall personal memories to raise public issues. My point is that no genre is in and of itself, singly-gendered or politically-marked or socially-exclusive. It all depends on how it is used—by whom? for what? and why?—in a historical context. My point is also that the personal essay is not a univocal, univalent form. Viewed historically, the personal essay has appeared in many places for many purposes.

It turns out that the first one, the narrow definition of personal essay, is right. While what I said about poststructuralist theory is part of the context of the personal essay’s place in writing classrooms, I guess it didn’t inform this particular colloquy, so take that part for whatever it’s worth.

Number 7 is rooted in teachers’ uneasiness in dealing with the relationship between literacy and class mobility. Nedra Reynolds’ position paper in the colloquy gives a clearer explanation of this. She cites a case study in basic writing (a.k.a. developmental or remedial writing) involving a student named Tony who wants to improve his writing so that he can get a well-paying job. Reynolds writes, “Tony’s differences, as well as his frank admission of his reasons for wanting to write better, make us uncomfortable. Composition is still reluctant to acknowledge the obvious reasons why students take writing courses: they want to get ahead, get a good job, be considered literate, be a middle-class member of society. Research has not responded adequately to this reality of teaching writing.” Not that they wanted to keep any student down, but composition instructors at the time felt complicit in an economic system they thought was unfair in its distribution of wealth. Maybe instead number 7 could say, “Middle class should not be taken for granted as an unexamined, default position, and students should be encouraged to engage the close connections among literacy, class mobility, and social responsibility.” I don’t know.

Number 8 refers to the view of first-year composition as an elitist endeavor designed to assimilate students into the white middle class (if they weren’t there already, one would assume). See Lynn Bloom’s position paper. The goal isn’t necessarily objectionable or oppressive, but it could be seen that way—a negation and dismissal of students’ original class and cultural backgrounds.

Finally, here is Connors’ attempt to synthesize the two: “As long as the morning is there to prod the afternoon out of complacency and self-satisfaction and the afternoon is there to anchor the morning to our job of doing real work with real students in real classrooms, our days will pass peacefully.” I guess that’s not much of a payoff, but there it is.

I hope it’s clear that I’m just giving some historical background here and that I’m not making an argument. I also don’t want to give the impression that critical pedagogy reigns supreme in composition studies; I would argue that it doesn’t.

By Clancy on 03/19/06 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, you said:

(1) There’s no good reason why freshman comp should also be Intro to Western Civilization or Intro to the American Civic Religion

and

(5) But a writing course should *not* be yoked to some content in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone (i.e., teach Western Civ and college writing at once)

I agree with you, but the counter-argument is that knowledge of western civilization (or American government, or whatever) is under the purview of literacy, so it would fall to composition instructors to teach that material. Plus there are the origins of rhetoric to consider: Classical rhetorical pedagogy, paideia, for which the goal was to prepare students to be civic leaders. You were probably familiar with that argument already, but I want to articulate everything explicitly.

By Clancy on 03/19/06 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, Luther, if I’m reading you right, in your number 5 it sounds like you’re looking at the issue with considerations of academic freedom in mind, at least to an extent. I alluded to that argument in my original post, but I want to link to a recent article by K.J. Peters titled A New Rhetorical Topography: How the Composition Classroom Became the University Homeroom and Where to Draw the Line. It provides a lot of background on the “composition as service” issue for those who may be interested in learning more about it.

By Clancy on 03/19/06 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Clancy, I wasn’t thinking about academic freedom in my point #5 above.  Instead, my concern is that we have here a Course X with no definition.  It’s a freshman course, required, and it’s full of everything students should know but don’t know by the time they get to college (writing, rhetorical criticism, critical thinking, cultural literacy, and so on).

It seems to me that these might suggest a regimen of courses; but to stuff it all into one required course leads to trouble. 

You argue that knowledge of western civ falls under the category of “literacy,” and so should be handled by comp instructors.  That might be true, although I would hope that we’d have experts in Hellenic Greece teaching Hellenic Greek lit and experts in Romantic poetry teaching Romantic poetry and so on.  Again, I can’t see how all this could be accomplished in one or two courses or by experts in rhet/comp.  A course that attempts to introduce students both to one set of skills (how to write a college essay) and another set of skills (how to analyze Greek drama) is by definition working at 50% efficiency compared to a strictly comp-centered writing class along with a Greek-drama-centered lit course.  Each class meeting you teach on “introduction strategies” or “summary versus description” is one less class you can teach on Sophocles (and vice versa). 

I’m not denying that writing requires background knowledge in one’s subject.  But a comp course can rely on its students’ areas of expertise, asking for essays on any subject with which the students feel comfortable.  Likewise, a course can provide all sorts of “cultural literacy” material without asking for essays at all.

By on 03/19/06 at 03:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem with Freire’s books is that from the very first page you enter a vision that is so coded and tendentious and rigged that it leaves no room for reflection. It’s an all-or-nothing world, and the tinge of resentment is everywhere. The reductive metaphors--"banking," for instance--push you into an agree-or-disagree mode, and the claims of revolution are not to be questioned. One of the commentators mentions the “bullying” aspect of the prose, which seems accurate to me.

The core curriculum question is framed here in abstract terms, but we should add to that some concrete information about the knowledge students have when they enter college, and the knowledge they acquire in the course of their four years. There are many surveys and reports about knowledge and habits in areas of culture, civics, history, geography, reading, writing, and the arts that indicate how little broad core knowledge high school students have and how little college students retain.

We also might do some comparisons in core requirements are different schools. Surprisingly, for instance, I don’t know of any major university in the country whose core humanities requirement is more subtantive than that of The Citadel, which requires four English courses of every cadet. But I may be wrong.

By on 03/19/06 at 04:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bob, I assume you’re familiar with the works of Richard Lewontin.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/19/06 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther—it must have sounded like I was arguing that Western Civ is part of literacy, but I was only citing an argument. I agree with everything you’re saying. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy was what really hooked core curriculum-type background knowledge to literacy, hence placing it in the province of first-year composition.

By Clancy on 03/19/06 at 07:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, no I’m not familiar with Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy...is that shocking?  It sounds like I should read it.

By on 03/19/06 at 08:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nah, there’s no reason you should be familiar with it. The subtitle is What Every American Needs to Know, and much of the content is specific to the U.S.

By Clancy on 03/19/06 at 08:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, thanks. Phew...I will still have a glance at it some time though - cultural literacy of the type supposedly acquired from being taught the classics is arguably something other people than Americans might also need to know, so I’m curious to see how, in pro-core arguments, it becomes a consolidated element of literate American citizenship.

By on 03/19/06 at 08:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"cultural literacy of the type supposedly acquired from being taught the classics is arguably something other people than Americans might also need to know”

Oh, no doubt, heh. I don’t own a copy of Cultural Literacy, but based on my memory of it, there are all kinds of random bits of non-core curricular Americana—names of baseball players, etc.

By Clancy on 03/19/06 at 08:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cultural Literacy is not just about core curriculum. Hirsch was concerned about the lack of commonly shared information in culture information in culture and the consequences of that trend.

But on the subject of core curriculum, Hirsch did not want a cookie cutter core curriculum. He states that he is committed to pluralism and local control in education.  As an undergrad, I found Cultural Literacy useful and I still like to glance at the provisional “list” on the back and google with embarrassment some the terms that I apparently still don’t “share” with literate Americans.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 03/20/06 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Much of core curriculum consists of subjects that present facts.  Facts give us rational.  Fact tells us that 2 plus 2 equals 4.  But what kind of brain is it that can recite something that is already known.  We must study the facts.  Facts are what many human beings rely upon- and wouldn’t we be ignorant not to study what other humans use as guidance in their lives.  With that being said, facts can only satisfy a mind that is content with the cellophane that wraps around his brain never being piecred.  These people serve a purpose . . . but how sad I would be to be one of those people.  That is when literature, art and culture rush onto the scene before we even know that we had a thought of our own- not a thought of a formulated being’s effort to answer questions seeking approval of others.  Like the day I ran to the library and checked out ten books on different religions because I wanted to know what I thought . . . an apple didn’t determine a life as complicated and utterly amazing as the one i am living . . . i want to know what i think . . . not what someone told me is right.  Literature is the expression one’s own thought process . . . i’m too tired to express this for its’ worth, but i do know that facts gave me the drive to study something that wasn’t so dull, jaded and unoriginal.  you can’t beat that with any mathmatical equation and sure can’t beat it with something of which someone else told you the answer.

By on 03/23/06 at 04:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As an economist who writes on money and banking and who has also spent 15 years thinking about pedagogy and teaching writing to first-year students, let me just add to this discussion that Freire’s banking metaphor displays more ignorance than understanding.  He really doesn’t know how banks work.  If the idea of critical pedagogy is to help students turn our teaching into their own agency in the world, that’s exactly what banks do

Freire seems to think that money gets deposited in banks and banks are merely passive recipients in the process.  He forgets that banks take what one person deposits and actively transforms those resources into value by finding borrowers who will use them more productively.  Good pedagogy is, in my view, a lot like the banking system:  we provide the raw materials for students to take and transform and then create value elsewhere. 

It was hard for me to take Freire seriously when his central analogy was based on a total misunderstanding of the nature of the thing being analogized.

By Steve Horwitz on 03/24/06 at 09:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I come to this discussion via PhiBetaCon at the National Review, so I think I can safely say my perspective differs from most of the commentators here.

I must say I’m surprised that anyone is still reading Paolo Friere.  I read The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the mid-1970s in a graduate education course and was astounded by how bad it was. As an intellectual historian and economist who’s read really quite a bit of Hegel and Marx (much of it in German), it was clear to me that Friere misunderstood Marx’s misunderstanding of Hegel.  Some books are merely bad, others are pernicious. Friere’s book was pernicious. I wish I still had a copy of the paper I wrote demolishing Friere.

I am a firm believer in a core curriculum based on the Western canon in philosophy, literature, history, the arts, and science.  Without that background, a college graduate is simply not competent to understand the Western tradition.  Perhaps I am merely old-fashioned, but it strikes me that it is not possible to make a meaningul critique of the Western canon (or any particular part of it) if one does not have a thorough grounding in it.  When I taught university level history courses, I found students’ often preferred discussing interpretations of historical phenomena without being willing to learn enough basic facts to determine whether an interpretaion was plausible or not. 

I am reminded of the example of the field of sociology: the great originators of the field - one things of Max Weber and Durkheim - had established themselves as scholars in other disciplines (in a day in which one had far more general cultural knowledge than is currently the case) and founded their new discipline essentially because they found they could not satisfactorily answer the questions that interested them within the confines of the fields of their training.  The force of their critique required their thorough knowledge of their own fields.  Their epigoni today don’t have the thorough knowledge of history, economics and psychology the ‘masters’ did, and their work is the poorer for it.

There are a couple of problems with the core curriculum concept in the modern university, aside from the obvious question of what to select—although I think in all honesty there’s a fairly wide area of agreement over the past 100 years.

First of all, I don’t think it can be taught in a single year, even if it took up all of a student’s time.  One of my daughters, now a college junior, took an optional Western canon-based “great conversations” core curriculum spread over two years and at that there were a lot of things that were left out.

Secondly, given the departmental nature of the modern university, it’s difficult to teach a core curriculum that really does cut across departmental lines.  One approach, that followed when I was an undergraduate, is to require separate courses in history, literature, philosophy and the arts as part of a ‘general education’ requirement. Another alternative is the sort of ‘team teaching’ approach of having the course taught by a group of faculty drawn from the various disciplines involved, all contributing to a course that covers the material in an integrated fashion. 

But, however it’s done, I think a solid core curriculum is essential.

By on 03/24/06 at 10:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem with equating “core curriculum” with “cultural literacy” is that they are two very different concepts.

Though I’m not really a fan of the Harvard incarnation of The Core, it does try to articulate a very valuable insight: we have, over time, developed some very different ways of thinking about and studying the world and some significant exposure to scientific, social, literary and philosophical approaches is an essential educational experience. Most distribution curricula do more or less the same thing, utilizing the administrative/theoretical divisions of the academy to force (it is not gentle, but mandatory) students to take at least a few courses in a variety of disciplines. This is not about “cultural literacy” (in the Great Works sense of the word, anyway) as much as it is about skills building and the ideal of a “well-rounded” individual.

Cultural literacy is a life-long process, which even a college education can only be an incremental step towards. It’s not just about “classics” (defined narrowly or broadly), but about contemporary expressions of ongoing issues as well. Someone who’s read the entire “Great Books” series plus an African American Literature minor, for example, is still going to be largely clueless about the cultural landscape of the present.

By Jonathan Dresner on 03/24/06 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther Blisset:  “6. Every class that asks students to write essays should teach those students how to write those essays.”

No.  You’re assuming the essay itself is what’s important.

I teach a course on Program Management (in the Department of Applied Information Technology: we are far from the liberal arts here).  I ask my students to research a real-world project (dig around case studies in the library, typically) and write a paper analyzing its management in terms of the theoretical construct I’ve been giving them.  To tell the truth, I don’t much care how well the paper is written (though I don’t tell them that); the point of the exercise is they should meditate upon the relationship of theory to practice (and thereby perhaps become enlightened).  Doing the research is what counts; the paper is merely an artifact by which I am persuaded the research was done; that it provides an increment towards their grade incentivizes their doing the research.

By jim on 03/24/06 at 09:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Secondly, given the departmental nature of the modern university, it’s difficult to teach a core curriculum that really does cut across departmental lines.  One approach, that followed when I was an undergraduate, is to require separate courses in history, literature, philosophy and the arts as part of a ‘general education’ requirement. Another alternative is the sort of ‘team teaching’ approach of having the course taught by a group of faculty drawn from the various disciplines involved, all contributing to a course that covers the material in an integrated fashion.

Or you can do both.  Team-teaching across departmental, if not divisional, lines is powerfully effective in both helping students to see relationships and connections they wouldn’t otherwise, but also in helping faculty better place their own work in a broader context.  Having a team-taught, cross-disciplinary course as part of a set of general ed requirements is a good combo.

Let me also add that I believe that the skills that a liberal education tries to convey (writing and speaking well, reading critically, finding and evaluating evidence competently, etc.) are far more important than any “core.” Programs of study that focus on content of some “core” rather than on using intellectual content as a vehicle to mentor students in the development of those, might I call them “core”, skills are going to create endless battles over intellectual turf and devolve into incoherence.  I’d much rather light students’ passions with content they can connect to directly, but that is rooted in some element of the Western canon (e.g. use Mill’s *On Liberty* to teach the Danish cartoon controversy), and help them develop the skills they’ll need to attack the rest of the curriculum and core out of their own interest.

By Steve Horwitz on 03/25/06 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me also add that I believe that the skills that a liberal education tries to convey (writing and speaking well, reading critically, finding and evaluating evidence competently, etc.) are far more important than any “core.”

One hears variants on this theme with some regularity.  It seems to me that if the core of the Western canon is taught with any rigor at all, one would have to be either a dullard or utterly indifferent not to develop the skills of critical reading, evaluation of evidence, writing and speaking.  At the same time, it provides the student with the common content of the Western tradition necessary to criticize it intelligently or evaluate others critiques.  Without a thorough grounding in the Western canon, the student simply is unable, sui generis to develop any sense of perspective on civilization and greets every new scheme for human ‘improvement’ with enthusiasm as if it were freshly sprung from the head of Hera.

Even when I was an undergraduate 40 years ago, there was much fevered talk of making the curriculum ‘relevant’ and directly connecting with the students’ interests.  I thought it was risible then, and have not changed my mind since: if one knew one’s interest and what one needed to know, one would hardly need to go to college and be guided in ones learning by those who have presumably made it their life’s work to discover what they think is worth knowing and to help others (their students)discover the range of what’s available, the things they need to know even if it’s not particularly interesting (at least at first blush) or is particularly hard, and to in turn discern where they wish to go in the pursuit of knowledge.  I just don’t see that as possible with the smorgasbord approach of a ‘course from column A and one from column B’.  In history (for example), I think it’s imperative that students take a course in Western civilization before they study other civilizations, and I think it’s doing students a distinct disservice to let them study some other history (or a narrowly focused course) instead of exposing them to a good survey course to begin with.

By on 03/25/06 at 06:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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