Concerns about equity

A final key area informing conversations about the aims and purposes of English in general and studying fiction specifically are questions about equity in education. Which texts we choose to study has the potential to enfranchise some and disenfranchise others. To whom chosen texts appeal and what relevance they have to different student groups is another important consideration. Another common debate in this area focuses on whether there are consequences for individuals who are not familiar with certain works. All of these factors cannot easily be addressed simultaneously. For instance, choosing a novel that is of particular relevance to a cohort of

TABLE 2.1 A comparison of'knowledge deficit’ and ‘critical pedagogy’ views

The ‘Knowledge Deficit’ view The ‘Critical Pedagogy’ view

A Key Figure: E. D. Hirsch Jr. A Key Figure: Paulo Freire.

Identified ‘problems’ with the education system

Lack of explicit knowledge teaching in schools is at the root of inequitable education.

An historic shift away from direct instruction is creating a ‘knowledge deficit’ for socially disadvantaged young people.

Diminishing prominence is being given to ‘powerful’ or ‘core’ knowledge disadvantaging those who do not naturally acquire it at home.

Current ‘progressive’ approaches to education are causing or at least perpetuating inequity. Attainment gaps prove current approaches are not working.

Systemic structural inequity is at the root of inequitable education, which is reflected and perpetuated in schools.

A middle-class curriculum is advantaging middleclass children, perpetuating and propping up wider inequity.

Difference is being wrongly viewed as deficit, treating students as empty vessels to be filled by their teachers, thus delegitimising the knowledge and experiences of some students.

Attainment gaps in school reflect wider social inequity: schools can (and must) help to redress this but not alone. It's unrealistic to expect schools to produce equal outcomes in an inequitable system.

students may well mean not teaching one we feel it is important for them to know about.Teacher specialisms derived from their own studies at university can also play a role in which texts they do and do not feel comfortable covering with their students. As such, just as with topics within English more broadly, texts can find themselves in competition with one another, and discussions can orient from what is an equitable English education to what is the most equitable choice a school or teacher can practically provide.

Activities and Reflections

1. What are your key priorities and concerns (and those of your department and school) relating to equitable education provision in relation to the study of fiction, and why?

Again, there are differing perspectives on what constitutes equity in the school, classroom and university. These broader positions inform the more microcosmic discussions about equitable education in English. To give a sense of how distinct these perspectives can be,Table 2.1 provides an outline of two, with Hirsch’s philosophy broadly aligned with what might be termed ‘traditionalist’ views, and Freire, an oft invoked figure in relation to ‘progressive’ education.

Beliefs about the causes of inequity in education naturally inform the approaches schools and teachers adopt in trying to address it. Beliefs about the aims and purposes of education, in general or in relation to a particular subject, act as the foundation for what is designated as most important.

In the context of studying literature, the tensions between these two distinct conceptions of equitable education can be understood as a means of facilitating students’ personal growth and skills of cultural analysis on the one hand, and an exercise in cultural heritage and accrual of cultural capital on the other. This divide could be characterised as respective emphases on engaging with and responding to texts against learning content (see Chapter 6 for more discussion). This tension is perhaps unsurprising when English education is situated within its historical context explored above.

The notion of literature as powerful knowledge

There has been a surge of support in the last few years from within the profession itself, championing a transmissive model of literature teaching focused explicitly on students accruing knowledge of certain texts. This has historically been a view more characteristic of policymakers than teachers.The influence of E. D. Hirsch is explicitly acknowledged (Hirsch et al. 1988). Hirsch’s work focuses on the idea of'core knowledge’ and ‘cultural literacy’. Hirsch defines being culturally literate as ‘possess[ing] the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world’ (Hirsch et al. 1988: xiii). Although offering a list of 5,000 ‘names, phrases, dates and concepts’, which he argues constitutes this ‘core knowledge’, Hirsch contests the notion that this is prescriptive: ‘cultural literacy is not represented by a prescriptive list of books but rather by a descriptive list of information actually possessed by literate Americans’ (1988: xiv, emphasis in original). With regard to reading literature in particular he defends his list claiming:

the idea of cultural literacy has been attacked by some liberals on the assumption that I must be advocating a list of great books that every child in the land should be forced to read [...] very few specific titles appear on the list and they usually appear as words, not works, because they represent the writings that culturally literate people have read about but haven’t read. Das Kapital is a good example.

(Hirsch et al. 1988: xiv)

Hirsch’s argument explicitly advocates in favour of a cultural heritage approach to teaching fiction, where learning discourse about texts is as good as, if not better than, young people actually reading them, and works that are ‘known by the culturally literate’ - predominantly canonical and ‘the classics’ - should form the exclusive focus of the English literature curriculum. It is important to recognise that this position not only downplays but further actively delegitimises the role of reading the text in the classroom at all, authentically or otherwise. The cultural literacy position has over time become associated with particular teaching methods, generally teacher-led didactic approaches where ‘teacher is expert’ and the main aim of lessons is to transmit knowledge about the class reader.

A useful metaphor with which to conceptualise the kinds of knowledge units championed by these positions is what Paulo Freire referred to as the ‘banking metaphor’ of education. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell (2008: 55) explain that under this paradigm:

teachers treat students as passive, empty receptacles and schooling becomes a process whereby knowledgeable experts ‘deposit’ bits of information into the impoverished minds of students. Instead, Freire advocated a pedagogical practice centred upon dialogue, inquiry and the real exchange of ideas between teachers and students.

This deficit framing of the knowledge and experiences young people bring to the classroom, and the personal responses they provoke, is undoubtedly reflected in both Hirsch’s language and his approach. Cultural literacy is presented as a relatively stable list with no recognition of other knowledge and experience. Whilst the positive intention regarding social justice is clear to see throughout Hirsch’s writing, we would suggest that his approach codifies and perpetuates the very' inequality he seeks to destroy by legitimising one form of knowledge and downgrading or dismissing others. At the same time, the questions of which knowledge is ‘core’, and which texts are the ‘best that have been written’ is a matter of both perspective and opinion. It is undoubtedly true that canonical texts - or‘the classics’ - are currently imbued with a higher degree of cultural capital than, for example, the works of young adult authors such as Malorie Blackman or John Green.Yet, perhaps practitioners ought to reflect on why this is the case before committing large amounts of class time to making sure students learn about these ‘great works’ if it comes at the cost of meaningfully reading and engaging with others. We discuss some of these issues in more detail in Chapter 4.

Activities and Reflections

  • 1. What are your views on the positions taken by Hirsch and Freire?
  • 2. How do these align with policies that exist in your department and school and those that form part of a wider national agenda in education?

Pedagogies oriented towards learning about, rather than authentically engaging with, texts may also encourage homogeneous and less creative responses from students. For example, Xerri (2013) draws on interviews with teachers and students to show how a vicious circle can operate in classrooms where teachers feel pressurised into providing ‘meanings’ of poems, and students are fearful of developing their own responses. In such a classroom, the teacher can be positioned as a ‘gatekeeper to meaning’ (135), with students often concerned with finding information about a poem rather than engaging in the clumsy and uncertain world of shaping and reshaping meaning through reading, discussion and re-reading. Consequently, there is a danger that practitioners lose sight of the importance of viewing reading as a transaction between text and reader where the reader’s role as an active participant is foregrounded and knowledge is understood as negotiated and socially constructed (see for example discussion and associated pedagogies in Benton et al. 1988; Karolides 1999; Giovanelli 2016,2017), rather than fixed as an element of knowledge, and transmitted. We return to these points throughout the remainder of this book, and specifically in Chapters 4 and 6.

Further reading

Simon Gibbons is an authority on the history of English education in the United Kingdom and English subject pedagogy more broadly. We would thoroughly recommend his work to anyone wishing to develop their knowledge of this area. Gibbons (2013) is an accessible entry point to his work; Gibbons (2014,2017) both offer engaging longer treatments of this topic.

Bleiman (2020) is an excellent edited collection exploring the potential purposes of English teaching in general and studying fiction specifically. Eaglestone (2019) is a book-length reflection on the potential values of literary study.The cline of authentic and manufactured reading was first discussed in Giovanelli and Mason (2015) and elaborated in Mason and Giovanelli (2017).This chapter is in part based on these articles.

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