More myths about Critical Literacy

September 21, 2008

Myth two: It’s too hard for high school students

There are some academics (especially literature professors) and a bunch of nongs in the media who claim that critical evaluation of texts is (or should be) beyond the reach of students at high school. This comment is almost universally applied to the study of (‘serious’) literature. That is, the job of high school teachers is to give students a love of books and reading. Only after students are ‘hooked’ are they then capable of evaluating literature critically – under the expert guidance of university academics.

It is a regular criticism that really makes me laugh. Part of the trouble with the claim is it is just so hypocritical and applied so narrowly.  These same people never claim the same for media studies, for example. Why is it that students are to love literature in a completely unqualified way, but they are not encouraged to love the media in an unqualified way? Where are the voices crying against critical evaluation of media products? Where are the voices crying for teachers to encourage students to just ‘love’ advertising whilst at high school and let the academics worry about making them critical once they reach university? The notion that literature should be granted a special status is errant nonsense.

More to the point, where are the same voices saying that students should not be considering ‘politics’ when it comes to subjects such as Media Studies, Modern and Ancient History, Economics and even the Sciences (where the ethics of science is a significant component)? If students at high school are too young to consider the ‘politics of texts’ in English, why aren’t they equally unprepared to study the same thing in other subjects?

Finally, what about the students who will never go to university? Does that mean that they will never learn the skills of critical evaluation? Are high schools to contribute to a system that formalises the notion of the critically empowered Alphas and drone-like Epsilons?

Students in high school (and younger) are much more capable of independent, critical thought than what the whining academics and media commentators understand. It must surely be a core requirement of schooling to produce students who can take their place as active, informed and critical citizens. English can play its role in this. It just requires balance and commonsense on the part of English teachers. Appreciation and critique of literature are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they should be seen as the yin and yang, and a good education system (primary, secondary and tertiary) will encourage both – in ways that are appropriate for the age and maturity of level of students.

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