ac·a·dem·ic: adjective \a-kə-ˈde-mik\ having no practical importance; not involving or relating to anything real or practical.
Currently, I have three seniors on track to certify as secondary English teachers doing extended field experiences in local schools—one is placed in an eighth-grade ELA class and another is teaching college-bound students in a high school.
While observing at the middle school, I arrived early one day while the full-time teacher was finishing a discussion of Walter Dean Myers’s Monster. The teacher had to cut the read aloud short, and one student begged for him to continue reading. The teacher asked for the books to be passed forward, prompting that same student to ask to hold on to his copy so he could keep reading (the teacher arranged for the student to retrieve a copy later, by the way).
In the high school class, the teacher-to-be has been teaching poetry by Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath—I observed a wonderful discussion of Plath’s “Metaphors”—but the full-time teacher has stressed that students not be offered biographical background information so students could focus on reading the texts cold—in part, as preparation for Advanced Placement Literature testing.
An essential element in the ELA Common Core standards is “close reading,” endorsed by David Coleman (now president of the College Board, home of AP and SAT testing):
Close reading, as it appears in the Common Core, requires readers to emphasize “what lies within the four corners of the text” and de-emphasize their own perspective, background, and biases in order to uncover the author’s meaning in the text.
Although “close reading” is a relatively new term, I have noted that its foundational elements are essentially perpetuating the dominant literary analysis focus of public education throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, New Criticism.
As Ferguson explains, “close reading” is only part of the literacy approach needed by students:
Critical reading, in contrast, concerns itself with those very differences between what does and does not appear in the text. Critical reading includes close reading; critical reading is close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text. For Paulo Freire, critical reading means that “reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”…
Critical literacy argues that students’ sense of their own realities should never be treated as outside the meaning of a text. To do so is to infringe on their rights to literacy. In other words, literacy is a civil and human right; having your own experiences, knowledge, and opinions valued is a right as well. Despite praise for King’s rhetoric, Coleman promotes a system that creates outsiders of students in their own classrooms.
“Close reading,” then, is reading out of context—and ultimately, it isn’t reading at all because the reader and the world are rendered irrelevant.
Prompted by an analysis of people of color in children’s books (what Christopher Myers calls “[t]his apartheid of literature”), Walter Dean Myers examines his own journey as a reader and then a writer in Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?
Myers recalls finding books and reading in his mother’s lap, which led to comic books and eventually what many would consider classic literature:
But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read. I was a person who felt the drama of great pain and greater joys, whose emotions could soar within the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play, or find quiet comfort in the poems of Gabriela Mistral. Every book was a landscape upon which I was free to wander.
The first part of Myers’s story appears nearly idyllic, and could have served as an argument for requiring all students to read the canon, the Great Books argument. But when Myers’s family experienced “dark times,” he concludes:
But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.
And although Myers struggled against his own personal “dark times”—”My post-Army days became dreadful, a drunken stumble through life, with me holding on just enough to survive”—he did discover James Baldwin:
Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.
Ultimately, Myers’s journey is a story itself, a story about the context of reading, the humanity of reading, the inescapable web of reader, writer, text, and world:
Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?
I have read all of his books and am now awaiting the English translation of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. As I typically do, Murakami has a bit of a shrine on my office book shelf:
Until I began reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, however, I was missing a very important element in my love of Murakami’s work. Unlike Myers’s recognition of himself in his discovery of James Baldwin, I did not think about my Self in Murakami, who is Japanese and a generation removed from me about halfway between my father and me.
Since Running is part memoir, I began to see comments by Murakami about his essential nature—claims of his true Self that speak very much to me as well as about me. Murakami, despite the details of our races and our histories, share many traits that I am convinced are at the root of my love for his fiction.
I was also late to the Breaking Bad party, and coincidentally, I was reading Murakami’s Running while I was just getting to Season 3 of Breaking Bad. So I was taken aback when the character Gale Boetticher shared with the main character, Walter White, how he came to cook meth—a journey of rejecting the merely academic world of science for the magic of the lab.
To fully explain his reasons, and despite his embarrassment about his being a self-proclaimed nerd, Boetticher quotes Walt Whitman:
Walt WhitmanWhen I heard the learn’d astronomer,When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
I am reading Murakami’s Running and pausing again and again as his confessions of his true Self are ones I too could make—confessions about solitude, about assuming others will not like him.
But I am also struck by Murakami’s comments about formal education:
I never disliked long-distance running. When I was at school I never much cared for gym class, and always hated Sports Day. This was because these were forced on me from above. I never could stand being forced to do something I didn’t want to do at a time I didn’t want to do it. Whenever I was able to do something I liked to do, though, when I wanted to do it, and the way I wanted to do it, I’d give it everything I had….
If you’ll allow me to take a slight detour from running, I think I can say the same thing about me and studying. From elementary school up to college I was never interested in things I was forced to study….I only began to enjoy studying after I got through the educational system and became a so-called member of society….
I always want to advise teachers not to force all junior and senior high school students to run the same course, but I doubt anybody’s going to listen to me. That’s what schools are like. The most important thing we ever learn at school is the fact that the most important things can’t be learned at school. (pp. 34-35, 45)
It is 1943, and English educator Lou LaBrant is deeply concerned about the teaching of language in a world combating Hitler:
Today in a world of hyperbole, it is easy to make sweeping statements and to have them accepted. We must therefore be cautious when thinking of our work. Teachers are, by the nature of their work, largely outside immediate war activities. They spend their days with children, whose greatest contribution will be made after the war….
Far too often as a people we are led astray by orators or writers whose words sound fine and smooth, but whose meanings are false, shallow, or misleading. We make their path easy when we approve essays, stories, or poems which are imitations or are full of words used for the sake of sound. (pp. 93, 95)
It is 2014, and I am deeply concerned that LaBrant’s warnings are as significant today as teachers of English face the “sweeping statements” of “orators or writers whose words sound fine and smooth” in regards to Common Core and “close reading.”
And I am certain her criticism of how books are assigned rings true today:
Too frequently we give children books which have enough value that we call them “good,” forgetting that there are other, perhaps more important values which we are thereby missing. It is actually possible that reading will narrow rather than broaden understanding. Some children’s books, moreover, are directed toward encouraging a naive, simple acceptance of externals which we seem at times to hold as desirable for children. (p. 95)
Close reading of books assigned to children, books in which children cannot find themselves, is reading out of context, it is merely academic, and without the magic—”I was lifted by it,” Walter Dean Myers says about Baldwin—our students will likely “bec[o]me tired and sick,/Till rising and gliding out [they will wander] off by [themselves],” concluding that teachers, schools, and books have no meaning for them.
Close reading and de-contextualizing books will, I fear, contribute to more of Christopher Myers’s denounced “apartheid of literature”; instead, he asserts:
The children I know, the ones I meet in school visits, in juvenile detention facilities like the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Maryland, in ritzy private schools in Connecticut, in cobbled-together learning centers like the Red Rose School in Kibera, Nairobi — these children are much more outward looking. They see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.
We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed….
So now to do my part — because I can draw a map as well as anybody. I’m talking with a girl. She’s at that age where the edges of the woman she will become are just starting to press against her baby-round face, and I will make a fantastic world, a cartography of all the places a girl like her can go, and put it in a book. The rest of the work lies in the imagination of everyone else along the way, the publishers, librarians, teachers, parents, and all of us, to put that book in her hands.