Mind the Gap: from Literacy to Literature

A few months ago at the OCSTA teacher conference, a secondary English teacher wanted to know the reason behind the increasing complaints about the academic ‘unreadiness’ of students entering their first year of University. What, he wondered, can secondary teachers do to help bridge this growing gap?

As someone who has taught for the past three years in both settings, I have a few ideas.  But before these questions might be answered, I wonder if this growing disconnect between secondary and postsecondary education needs some thought as it relates more specifically to the English department.  I wonder if the source of this disconnect lies in the fact that the English department of most secondary schools (Private and Public) is increasingly concerned with literacy, not literature.

In 2008/09 I studied for my B.Ed. at the University of Toronto with the goal of becoming a secondary English teacher; however, after one year of courses meant to accomplish this purpose, I never once heard anything about the content of the English curriculum. We were to teach communication, interpretation, critical thinking, and persuasive writing alongside a whole host of other “transferrable skills”, and whether we used Robert Browning or Dan Brown was of no particular concern. 

In fact, at another English conference I heard one teacher sharing a story of using a Car Manual in his class because the students enjoyed it.

My response: what the deuce?

Today, most English students and teachers in the secondary system operate on the assumption that secondary curriculum content is only of secondary importance and the true end of English education is to develop effective oral and written communicators, which may, indeed, be the end of English education.  In many ways, English is regarded as a handmaiden to the more important disciplines of Math, Science, and the ever-growing IT departments. This is a problem, and one, I think, that is systemic and needs to be dealt with across departments.

To clarify, I mean that every department must shoulder the burden of student literacy and direct that literacy to the unique concerns of their specific curriculum. Since most departments, sometimes English included, don’t believe that the English department has any real curriculum content of worth, the task of literacy is often unjustly shoveled onto them.  Unless secondary English departments return to a concern with English literature and not simply English literacy, the disconnect between secondary and postsecondary English studies will only get worse.

I would like to suggest a few things secondary English teachers might consider as they develop their English curriculum in a way that will prepare students for University English programs

Note: The following is in NO particular order

First, students need an understanding of why Story is important. Students need to begin thinking seriously about the integral role stories have in their lives. Stories (and imagination, and metaphorical language) have to be firmly placed as central to our lives, rather than something peripheral that only needs marginal attention.

Second, students should have a cursory grasp on the history of the English language and the development of various genres. I always wonder why most disciplines tend to develop over the course of four years and build on prior knowledge whereas English jumps from Beowulf to Blake without any explanation. Would a general understanding of the paradigm shifts from Medieval to Postmodern be too much to ask after four years of secondary school?

Third, students should begin to reflect on “how” stories are read and what they are doing when they interpret a text. Students should be able to interact with a range of different interpretive strategies and start to familiarize themselves with some discipline-specific vocabulary.

Fourth, teachers can begin to help students develop an ability to locate reliable secondary source material, an ability to critically read this material, and an ability to integrate secondary material and opinions/interpretations into coherent papers using proper referencing. 

There is no reason students entering into the University setting should claim they have never done this before.

Fifth, students NEED a revitalized understanding of the essay. Rather than teaching students to impose a rigid five-paragraph structure onto any and every topic they find interesting, we must begin to teach students the ART of the essay. Explain and teach the harmonious relationship between form (Poiema) and content (Logos) in order that students may realize that prose is not an enemy of poetry – both require careful crafting.

Wendell Berry: Where’s the Church?

There’s been a bit of discussion around the absence of an ecclesiology in Berry’s writing.  It seems that the Church is often depicted as something negative. Pastors, especially those “professionals” who move from church to church, get the same treatment.  What are we to make of this?

First, I don’t think Berry’s biggest issue is with Christianity or the Church in general terms, but with a gnostic theology that has crept into the church – a theology that has disembodied and displaced its adherents.  The problem, first and foremost, is any church which has an ‘otherworldly’ focus and causes men and women to abscond from their responsibilities to this good earth.

In his essay “God and Country” (and elsewhere) Berry argues vehemently against certain brands of the church; for example, the organized and institutional church that has wed itself to the modern economy is merely a bastardization of what the church ought to be.  Also, the church that has nothing to say about stewardship of the environment and the importance of our places holds very little esteem in Berry’s thought.

Berry’s own history with church “membership” is quite telling. He actually spent most of his life not attending any local church, but hiking through the woods and writing poetry (hence his Sabbath Poem collections).  He now attends church quite regularly and the church plays a more important role in his later writing, but he’s still quite suspicious of most forms of “organized” church, and particularly suspicious of pastors who are not local and who live transient lifestyles, moving from parish to parish. In fact, I think it is largely due to the mobility of the rural pastor that Berry feels unsettled by the church. Of course, this pastoral transience is somewhat of a norm in many churches, but it is a norm which implies that “place” is something the church does not have to think seriously about.

I think this quote from his novel Jayber Crow is really helpful in establishing a sense of Berry’s own thoughts on the overlap between Church and Community. Here we can see how Berry, through Jayber, shows how Community trumps Church in many ways:

“My vision of the gathered church that had come to me… had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on… It was a community always disappointed in itself,disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”

I know there has been a lot of criticism towards this; in fact, the Christianity and Literature article by Sean Michael Lucas (Lucas, Sean Michael. “God and Country: Wendell Berry’s Theological Vision.” Christian Scholars Review 32:1. Fall 2002. 73 – 93.) deals with these critiques leveled against such a “secular” vision of the church.

I would, in light of this quote, perhaps disagree with those who claim that Berry’s more “Dantean” novels show a movement from secular to sacred institutions since it seems here that the movement is actually in quite the opposite direction.

Is this problematic?  I think so.  I have not yet read anything from Berry which deals with the unique and important role of the church in a community. But I still have lots to read in this regard.

One other thing I might add as I’m thinking about this. It seems that there is a connection, or parallel, to be made between how humanity is connected to the earth and how the church is connected to the community.  The relationship of humankind to earth is supposed to be ‘ecological’ in the sense that we need to see our connectedness to the earth (that we are made from the dust of the earth); conversely, the church needs to see its connectedness to the larger community. This Great Community, as Jayber notices, must be inclusive even to the reprobate.

This is not to deny the special and unique role people have as bearing God’s image. Here we have one of those paradoxes Christians need to wrestle with: too much focus on our ecological connectedness and we can move towards a form of nature worship or Eastern thought (another charge/criticism often brought by Christians to Berry’s thinking), but too much focus on our transcendence will allow us to destroy the earth as if we were not intimately connected to it and thereby destroying ourselves.  IN much the same way this paradox exists for the church.  If it focuses too much on being embedded in the community it can lose the special character it must have as a witness to the truth of Christ in a non-Christian world, but too much focus on its separation from the world and it becomes a walled garrison that has lost its relevance and usefulness in a place.

Is it Berry’s task to create a well-rounded ecclesiology? Definitely not.  His work, however, has been taken up by theologians (Ellen Davis, Norm Wirzba, Craig Bartholomew, to name a few) and is informing ecclesiology in many places. Tim Keller, in fact, often speaks of his indebtedness to Berry for how he thinks of church.  This is definitely a good start, and one in the right direction.

Easter Reflection

I remember this hard, dry field;

’twas being broken by a man.

He tilled the earth in straight furrows;

His farmer’s tools, a cat ‘o nine.

This rustic clown, worked, bent double,

As if he, too, were being broke.

I watched as dust gave way to wind,

And revealed the rich earth below.

From my perch, the man’s broken brow

Smoothed when he saw me; I got down.

I know I have been here before;

Weren’t there two trees on this cliff?

In time, this land gave birth to gold,

Which waved freely in summer’s wind.

What mystery transformed grey dust

In short time to such golden sway.

Was it this field? That day of rest,

When he snapped those gold-heads

And gave a few to each of us

To satisfy our day’s hunger.

I came to watch them collect their

Golden harvest. What violence

There was in their blades. It shook me

To see it; as if ’twere His stories.

They felled each golden stock and shook

Till the chaff took flight ‘pon the wind.

Oh, here is that other tree, but

It is newly cut; a stump here

With rings that span a man’s short life.

Oh, what manner of sign is this?

And that gold, transformed then to loaves,

Sat on market stalls He overturned –

And on tables for usurers

And collectors, and ev’ry form

Of villain one might imagine –

Down their gullets, to satisfy.

Oh, I have seen it all. I have

Been in homes full of bread and death.

And they ate while the poor man starved:

Was this not love, then, that I felt?

But He gave bread; what treachery

‘twas so freely given: “Take. Eat.”

And I ate my judgment that night;

Didn’t we all though? Taking flight

At the first sign of real power.

The sword exposing man’s true heart

More than those infernal stories –

More than that pitiable act.

And now that the golden bread is

Digested, becoming one with

my body, I do not feel light.

I am weighed down by silver weight.

Ah, here is my tree, made ready

Since time’s dawn, no doubt. 

This tree like yours, my lord. It seems

we shall share a similar fate.

They will remember me as one

Who betrayed you; but what of you, me?

I am wretched. I am wretched.

Was I not there with Lazarus?

—–

And Judas jumped from the tree with a rope round his neck,

And the branch snapped with the snapping of his neck.

And his tortured memories blew out upon the wind,

And his broken body was turned back into the earth,

And the silver pieces scattered about the cliff’s foot

And they too, were swallowed into the earth.

Whole.

But in time, they too will be digested.

[Sometimes Easter is a good time for reflection and allowing your mind to wander in church.  I decided to use unrhymed tetrameter couplets (until the end), and I hope you enjoy it.  I rarely write poetry, but since I’m teaching my students to write it, I might as well try my hand at what they are going through] Enjoy. DJS.