Janie B. Cheaney, in the September 11, 2010 issue of World magazine, wrote an article about education and its promotion of a critical stance in regard to texts and ideas and the damage this is doing our students and our culture. It instantly reminded me of a book on Critical Literacy I picked up a few years ago as a teacher. I selected it because I wanted to learn some new strategies I could use to help my students think more deeply about what they read. However, I remember being surprised to discover the book focused exclusively on identifying, questioning, and acting to examine and change power structures in society within the context of the English/Language Arts classroom.
Do not get me wrong. I do not believe oppression, discrimination, or anything that belittles an individual is just and should not be considered and corrected. I am a Christian. I believe I ought to love my neighbor as myself, and that the term “neighbor” applies to pretty much anyone who is not me. I was just dismayed to find the term “critical literacy” employed in such a limited way. I wanted my students to use “critical literacy” not just to identify social ills, but to observe choices and consequences of individuals in their reading, discern character values and the faithfulness of characters in living them out, to look at stories and come away with wisdom and new understandings they can apply to their own lives. Looking at the study of literature as nothing more than a means of bringing about social change, seems to shortchange so much of the wealth to be found in reading.
As a writer, I find this even more disturbing. A scene from the novel A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, by E.L. Konigsburg, remains forever fixed in my mind. It depicts William Shakespeare in heaven being pestered by English teachers who pepper him with questions about his work or point out all the mistakes he made in his plays. I can imagine being taken to task for some social message I never intended to weave in a novel, and how I would grieve if no one noticed the themes relating to living as a loving, responsible individual in a fallen world, the joy and beauty of God’s creation, and the wonder and blessing derived from our expression through and appreciation of the arts.
Literature has so much more to offer than just a critique of the flaws in our social systems. Yes, ideas relating to justice and compassion belong in our literature and literature studies. But they are not the sole topic of literature, and a treasure trove of blessings would be missed were we to focus our critical minds only on this.