There are many issues on which I agree with Diane Ravitch, conservative education critic. I was glad when she came out against the incentive program being implemented in some NYC schools this fall. She stated the case against them far more elegantly that I was able to.
But, there are many issues on which I disagree with her. I came across a blog post that she co-wrote with Michael Ravitch entitled "Cultural vandalism". It starts off with a short description of the pair's new book The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know. This seems paired with Diane Ravitch's The American Reader, which thankfully has a different subtitle. I'll let you decide for yourselves about the content of the volumes, but they seem to me to be more of the same old canon fodder with the American volume being a bit more inclusive. (Both volumes seem to stop mid-20th century for some reason.)
It is the subtitle of the latest volume and their blog post where I'd like to focus my attention. The subtitle - What Every Literate Person Needs to Know - is very Hirschian. Ravitch frequently argues for a national curriculum and, in the post with Michael, says, "The young must have heroes; they must have stories that stir them. When the schools strip the history and literature curriculum of significant ideas, people and writings, replacing them with fluff and contemporary concerns, then the future of our culture is jeopardised." They dismiss young adult literature, essays about contemporary social issues, and instruction on how to fill out a job application. By including these, according to the Ravitches, we are putting our culture at risk.
The stories my students have read which have given them heroes and have stirred them are precisely those stories they argue against - young adult literature. These, strangely, are also the texts that have made my students want to read more. (Our culture definitely seems to be at risk from those terrible students who like to read books that interest them and speak to their concerns now.) As my students have become "readers" their tastes in reading grow and begin to expand into the kinds of literature the Ravitches would presumably like. Young adult literature is "a gateway literature". It encourages students to read with themes and language which is appropriate for their lives and skills levels. When they eventually grow out of it (and in both interest and skill level), they move into adult literature. By dismissing young adult literature, the Ravitches are dismissing the most frequent way that students become "literate" (at least as they define it).
Looking at the texts in both Ravitch Readers, I've read many of them. Some in high school honors and AP classes and, to be frank, I didn't get them then. I was exposed to most of them in college (as an English major) and I struggled. Even as an adult, I can say I don't fully understand some of them - the language used is very different and they don't speak to my most current concerns. Imagine many adolescents trying to read them. Texts like those included in both the Ravitch Readers (not all of them, but most) are just inappropriate for adolescent learners - for their skill level or their interest level. The frustration that students face when reading them turn many of them off to reading and the written word altogether. Where will our culture be then?
Most adults in our society live perfectly happy lives never having heard of any of those texts. But, the subtitle remains ... it implies that those people are not literate. I'm surmising that the Ravitches deem people "literate" who have read these canonical works of literature. And, by the shear number of texts, I can surmise that very few people are as literate as the Ravitches would like. This seems terribly elitist to me. These texts are difficult to read for a variety of reasons and to claim that one isn't literate unless they "know" them is just wrong.
Being literate should mean that a person is able to use written and spoken language in every aspect of his or her day-to-day life with skill and mastery. Because everyone's day-to-day life is different, obviously there will be different meanings of literate. Many people don't want to or care to read the canonical pieces of literature and can live very fulfilled lives without them and can be literate individuals.
Given this, continuing to push the canon in our high schools as the only way to be "literate" in our society is dangerous. Imagine if I decided that we couldn't be literate unless we all understood quantum physics and people bought into that. What would happen to you when you don't get it (I'm assuming you wouldn't understand it - excuse my presumption!)? How would you feel about yourself? And, who am I to decide? What authority was given to me?
I, too, believe in the power of literature. Some great literature as withstood the test of time and those of us who choose to read it surely reap benefits. But, that does not mean that we are more literate than anyone else. We've just read different stories.