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Whose culture matters? Part I

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted on September 06, 2011

Whose culture matters in classrooms? Since I began teaching English at a school with a diverse population of students, I have thought about this question often. While reading difficult, centuries-old English literature, students frequently asked, “Do we have to read this?” Or, “Why are we reading this?” To the first question, I invariably responded, “Yes!” To the second question, I usually paused and thought. Why do students have to read Canterbury Tales? If you are E. D. Hirsch, the answer is because the bawdy tales are part of a canon that “every American needs to know.”

It doesn’t take long to realize Hirsch is wrong on two levels. First, to say there is a stock of cultural knowledge that all should know, sounds like a worthy claim. The problem occurs when one group tries to define that core. Classical texts do not occur a priori. Their creation and the possibility of their creation is sociohistorically determined. So too are the criteria used to judge them. I have an irrational love for Shakespeare’s writing; however, who’s to say there was not a woman with equal talent during Elizabeth’s reign (for a richer discussion, read Virginia Woolf’s thought-provoking essay, “Shakespeare’s Sister”). Even more, we know there were rich oral traditions occurring on continents across the globe during the 16th century. I’m not arguing that Romeo and Juliet isn’t beautiful. Mercutio’s monologues are nonpareil. I’m arguing that beauty is subjective. By legitimizing one work of art, we de-legitimize another. Beowulf is great, but so are Anansi and Ramayana.

Second, and possibly more to the point, the core knowledge argument is misplaced, especially in the 21st century. Students don’t need to have read a list of books. They need to be literate and critical. Literacy includes print and non-print sources. Being critical includes thinking, reading, and writing skills. In essence, the text—whether it’s Shakespeare or Bashō or a YouTube video—is just a venue for literacy practice. By emphasizing student literacy, we empower them to become better consumers, critics, and producers.

Next week, I will continue this blog, asking “Whose culture matters in neighborhoods?”