The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

National English-teaching group loses grip on reality at terrible time

Risky move to go beyond traditional reading and writing, embrace study of digital media and popular culture

At Mount View High School in Welch, W.Va., students do classroom assignments via computer on Sept. 9, 2019. At the time, the school had not had a full-time English teacher for ninth- or tenth-graders for three years, said Debra Hall, the principal. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress show no more than 37 percent of our children are proficient in reading and writing. For reasons that mystify me, the National Council of Teachers of English thinks this is just the moment to “move beyond the exclusive focus on traditional reading and writing competencies.”

“Students should examine how digital media and popular culture are completely intermingled with language, literature, and writing,” declare the 10 authors of the council’s recent position statement, “Media Education in English Language Arts.”

They say: “The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.”

English teachers often tell their students to avoid jargon. The authors of this statement ignore such advice. They say: “It behooves our profession, as stewards of the communication arts, to confront and challenge the tacit and implicit ways in which print media is valorized above the full range of literacy competencies students should master.”

The council has about 35,000 members. It has done much good in its 111 years of existence.

Amber M. Northern, the senior vice president for research at the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, loved the tips she got from the council’s quarterly newsletter when she taught English in an overcrowded North Carolina high school. In her institute’s “Flypaper” blog, Northern said she benefited from the council’s “resources for the overburdened and creatively challenged educator.”

I noted the council’s new position statement, on the other hand, offers no suggestions on how a teacher struggling to teach the basics can also, as the statement recommends, help students “critically examine popular culture texts” and “productively disrupt classroom hierarchies as learners exercise the right to freedom of expression on issues that are perceived to have meaningful relevance to their identity and values.”

The authors say they want teachers to help students become “empowered change agents” ready to disrupt “the inequalities of contemporary life, including structural racism, sexism, consumerism, and economic injustice.” Students I have interviewed are interested in those issues, but in English class they want to be taught how to express themselves clearly and persuasively so they can succeed in college and in life.

My biggest problem with the position statement is the authors’ apparent assumption that their approach will work in classrooms when they don’t give a single example of a school doing what they recommend.

Despite Northern’s warm memories of the council’s assistance, she called its new statement “ludicrous, not to mention detrimental to students and teachers alike.”

Of the 10 listed authors of the statement, only Seth D. French of Bentonville (Ark.) High teaches in a public school. Most of the rest work in colleges and universities, where I often encounter intriguing but impractical ideas.

University of Rhode Island communication studies professor Renee Hobbs, chair of the group that wrote the position statement, told me by email that the authors were describing “a grassroots initiative driven by teachers” that began years ago. She said her work at Russell Byers Charter School in Philadelphia, resulting in her book “Discovering Media Literacy,” and her studies at Concord (N.H.) High School showed the new methods raised student proficiency in reading and writing.

She called me “smug and whiny,” blessedly simple adjectives I don’t deny. The position statement used jargon, she said, because it “was not designed for lay audiences.” I still don’t think a campaign to “move beyond the exclusive focus on traditional reading and writing” is going to please many parents and legislators.

Education critic and Emory University English professor emeritus Mark Bauerlein, writing in the First Things journal, said the authors’ use of the words “decenter” and “valorize” might seem strange and new but actually arose during the big excitement over deconstructionism 40 years ago.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida got little notice in the wider world for his approach to literary criticism, but he was a rock star in the upper reaches of academia back then. “That NCTE would resort to these old cliches only shows that the progressive, forward-looking, oh-so-modish thought-world of the drafters of the media statement is no such thing,” Bauerlein said.

I don’t quarrel with the authors’ concern about problems in schools today. I just wish they would concede that classroom teachers have neither the time nor the power to deal with many of them. Here’s just one item on their to-do list: “It is important for English educators to advance in our own critical awareness of how issues of power and inequity operate in the greatly invisible computational languages that comprise digital tools, platforms, and applications, especially as a small number of companies dominate our online activities and profit from the data we produce through online interactions.”

Many students today want what I wanted from my teachers: advice on improving their writing. One of my instructors recommended a book, “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. It still helps struggling writers despite being more than a century old.

Here are some Strunk and White rules I try to follow, not always successfully: Write with nouns and verbs. Revise and rewrite. Avoid the use of clarifiers. Do not explain too much. Avoid fancy words. Be clear.

I can see why the authors of the position statement want teachers to “help learners develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies needed for life in an increasingly digital and mediated world.” But could they please put that off for now?

Their students first need more time for reading and writing. One exercise for those young people might be simplifying and clarifying the council’s position statement.