A MOMENT IN NCTE HISTORY – NCTE ANNUAL CONVENTION
Paul Thomas, Council Historian
Delivered at the Board of Directors Meeting, 2013 National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention
“Not the Time . . . to Follow the Line of Least Resistance”
Honoring our history allows us to acknowledge that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. For those of us teaching English, we recall not only people, their lives, and careers, but also their words—and that words matter.
The Moment of History for NCTE each year, then, confirms our debt to the past and speaks to our obligations for today and tomorrow: And in that spirit, I note that “[t]his is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.”
In the mid-1800s, public education was called a “’dragon. . .devouring the hope of the country as well as religion. [It dispenses] ‘Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism—anything, everything, except religion and patriotism,’” explains Jacoby (2004, pp. 257-258). Bullying public education has deep roots, at least reaching back to the threat of universal public schooling detracting from the Catholic church’s control of education in the nineteenth century.
Education historian Diane Ravitch (2013), in her Reign of Error, details how this historical trend has manifested itself in the current thirty-year accountability era. The media, in documentaries such as Waiting for “Superman” and an endless stream of articles in print and online, along with political leadership at the state and federal levels as well as on both sides of the aisle have offered a steady refrain that public schools are failures and public school teachers are mostly to blame. The solutions for three decades have been more accountability, new standards, and better high-stakes tests.
As teachers of literacy we are squarely in the crosshairs of these claims, and since we all love a good story, we are also major characters in competing narratives about education and education reform in the U.S.Ravitch (2013) documents these narratives well, but also exposes that the dominant and compelling narrative—schools are failures and teachers are to blame—is mostly misleading and that the counter-narrative—expressed by teachers, academics, scholars, and researchers—remains essentially ignored.
Let’s go back in time, then, with our current state of affairs in public education firmly in mind. Let’s go back to 1947 and Lou LaBrant, a few years before her tenure as president of NCTE, in the pages of Elementary English when she laments “…the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87). Later in that piece, LaBrant concludes:
Most thinking persons agree that the existence of civilized man is threatened today. While language is not food or drink, and will not satisfy the hungry and thirsty, it is the medium by which we must do much of our learning and panning, and by which we must think out solutions to our problems if we are not to solve them by the direct method of force. No sensible person believes that language will cure all difficulties; but the thoughtful person will certainly agree that language is a highly important factor in promoting understanding, and a most dangerous factor in promoting understanding between individuals and between the countries individuals represent. Moreover, language is a significant factor in the psychological adjustment of the individual. This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium [emphasis added]. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources and study the answers thoughtfully. The game of Gossip is not for us. (p. 94)
Just three years later, writing about writing instruction, LaBrant (1950) also sounded an alarm about “word magic”:
There is other semantic knowledge with which our students should become familiar. They should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what we say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or the postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word magic. (p. 264)
Now, let’s jump ahead in history to 2001, when No Child Left Behind codified the accountability era and called for “scientifically based research” over 100 times. The implications of this legislation, of course, were that between 1947 and 2001, education had failed to listen to LaBrant.
If we move just a few years further to 2005, the College Board announced a writing section of the SAT. NCTE promptly responded (Ball, et al., 2005) by warning that research suggested that timed, high-stakes tests were likely to damage effective and equitable literacy pedagogy and learning. In subsequent years, some of the power of the SAT has diminished, but high-stakes testing has increased, both in the lives and learning of children and in the evaluation of teachers and schools.
Today, as we now face the implementation of Common Core and the highs-stakes tests related to those new standards, we are again presented with evidence from the National Education Policy Center:
As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012)
In November of 2013, then, it seems all too obvious that echoing LaBrant is necessary as we seek ways in which we can raise the discourse and change the actions of those leading the reform of public schools to fulfill our debt to our past and our obligations to today and tomorrow.
We face “a considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” and “[t]his is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.” And finally, as LaBrant (1950) concluded about word magic:
Perhaps not everyone in the land is ready to read Macbeth or to write a sonnet. Better, it seems to me, that each read what he can honestly understand, and admit on occasion that he is baffled; better that the boy or girl write a simple account of what he saw on the street than that he write a collection of stereotypes on democracy. Let him, perhaps, admit with all of us that he is learning about democracy and has much to read and to think before he can say what should be. Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. Alice was wrong, for once: It makes a great deal of difference whether one says “important” or “unimportant.” (p. 265)
We cannot afford the word magic of the current reform movement any longer. Words matter, and it is time for resistance.
Ball, A., Christensen, L., Fleischer, C., Haswell, R., Ketter, J., Yageldski, R., & Yancey, K. (2005, April 16). The impact of the SAT and ACT timed writing tests. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Jacoby, S. (2004). Freethinkers: A history of American secularism. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writing. Elementary English, 27(4), 261-265.
LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94.
Mathis, W. (2012, October). Research-based options for education policymaking: Common Core State Standards. National Education Policy Center, School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder. Boulder, CO.
Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Knopf.
Thomas, P. L. (2011, November 28). “Not the time…to follow the line of least resistance.” Truthout. Retrieved from