Post-Election 2016: What Should We Read?

I was recently drafting a blog about the consequences of taking a behaviorist approach to literacy curricula and the need for more constructivist thinking, particularly when crafting assessments.
After the presidential election, I decided to put that piece on hold.
That blog didn’t seem, as they say, worthy of the moment.
I’m not the only literacy blogger who has taken this approach, of course. You may probably feel fatigued with election reaction and analysis.
It’s too late to discuss whether Donald J. Trump should or should not be the next president. I’ll leave speculation about his education policy to more qualified individuals.
The question I want to deal with is this: What should we read now?
Literature is, after all, often the best tool for making sense of the world. And today, for many of us, and for many of the children we teach, the world doesn’t make sense.
A few years ago, I was sorting through my classroom library and ran across a copy of Madeline L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. I recalled teaching it as a whole class novel before our school adopted a reading workshop approach. For a generation or more, A Wrinkle in Time had been a favorite read for many kids, but I couldn’t remember anyone picking it from the library in a long time. I didn’t use it for read alouds. I didn’t even consider it. I wondered if we had reached a time when warnings against conformity had lost their importance. It seemed that no one worried about the danger of losing freedom of thought. Our self-determination seemed assured.
In retrospect, that may have been an illusion. Possibly a mistake.
We live now more than ever in a time when our individuality and freedom of thought are in danger. In the 1960s, the advertising masterminds of Madison Avenue determined that they could convince us to buy almost anything. They could brainwash us into believing our self-worth was attached to our laundry detergent and ring around the collar threatened human social progress.
The golden age of advertising bore the Black Thing that robbed of us our free will. (For those of you who miss the allusion, the Black Thing is the evil entity that controls human thought and action in A Wrinkle in Time. Explaining an allusion sometimes spoils it, I know. But it seemed necessary at the time. )
Today election cycles market presidential candidates with the same tactics once used to sell breakfast cereal. A few weeks before the election, I re-read some of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign speeches. His prose was elaborate and erudite, steeped in allusion to the classical thinkers of Athens and Rome. Today, candidates speak in 30 second sound bites.
I fear that we have become a people more controlled by media messages than by our ability to think as free individuals for ourselves.
Journalism is no longer about reportage. It’s another vehicle for manipulating how we think, reinforcing our fears, stoking our emotions. You can tune into one network and listen to purely conservative messages. Tune in a separate network for liberal messages. Choose your poison. No need to think for yourself. Let the media do it for you.
I’m not going to champion the cause of liberalism or conservatism. Political and personal philosophies are potentially dangerous things and should exist only as the product of a world closely examined through meditation and self-interrogation. We shouldn’t stumble into a way of thinking. We shouldn’t be lead to one. Curiosity and inquiry should be our only guides.
I believe we should take care not to allow labels to define us. Democrat or Republican. Liberal or conservative. Revolutionary or reactionary. Buying into an entire political philosophy is just another way avoid free, individual thought. We must not allow ourselves or our children to be so easily categorized.
So, I started out with the question, what should we read now? A Wrinkle in Time isn’t a bad place to start. We need to be wary of The Black Things that do our thinking for us.
Animal Farm and Watership Down are allegorical novels with warnings against tyranny and totalitarianism. Let’s not forget 1984. Big Brother is, after all, everywhere. I once thought that, like A Wrinkle in Time, these novels had become dated. I was wrong. We should never lower our defenses against the rise of tyrannical governments and leaders. It takes little to snuff out the flame of liberty.
There’s a temptation to say, “Let’s a read a bunch of dystopias because that’s where we’re heading.” Well… First, it isn’t our place to scare our students, or to suggest that the result of this election will lead to A Clockwork Orange. Again, I don’t wish to promote the cause of any party or candidate. My thesis remains: we need to direct our students to literature that promotes free and critical thinking about all the messages that surround us. We should be reading Feed by MT Anderson. We may not have media connections implanted into our brains yet, but we need to examine how electronic devices like cell phones control our lives.
We should still be reading The Hunger Games to discuss how media may be used to placate and manipulate the masses. Reading the Divergent series can lead to discussions about self-determination in the modern world. Allie Condie’s Matched series can also prompt discussions of how much control of our lives we hand over to the institutions who would rule over society.
Of course, 500 years ago, William Shakespeare warned us against politicians motivated by the forces of pride and ambition. The actions of such leaders produce tragic consequences for those around them. War and death abound in Richard III, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. Tragedies are defined by their unhappy endings. We should genuinely fear those with a driving ambition for power and keep such individuals in check.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau wrote the essays and treatises that defined an American philosophy that emphasized self-reliance and marching to the beat of own drummers. “Whomsoever would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” Emerson wrote. That’s an idea worth exploring in our high school classes.
Thirty years ago I started out as a newspaper reporter, a career I sometimes miss. Not always. Sometimes. Like most young journalists of my generation, I was inspired by Woodward and Bernstein. Kids, high school students, juniors and seniors, should take a class in journalism and one in the influence of the mass media. They should read All the President’s Men when they do.
We should teach students to look at the world critically and even a little skeptically. Our children should learn to doubt the message until the see the evidence. We need to teach the logic of everyday reason, the ability to recognize falsehoods and fallacies.
It is not our place as teachers to indoctrinate our students in any way of thinking, political or otherwise. It is our place as educators to teach our students to defend themselves against unwilling or unwitting indoctrination.
We hear so much today about college and career ready. We take for granted that those are goals children should aspire to through the education we provide.
We’re wrong.
College and career readiness is not the purpose of public education. Those may be beneficial side effects, but the purpose is to prepare our children to participate in something that resembles a democratic form of government. We’ve lost sight of that. We’ve become too obsessed with testing and standards, distractions from the real purpose of our schools.
In 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, a cornerstone in the creation of public education. Jefferson wrote, “The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.”
The power in society should rightly reside with its people, not its government, Jefferson believed. We empower students to take their role in society through education.
We must direct students toward the literature that will not only stimulate their thinking but equip them with the intellectual defenses against those forces that would control their thinking.
Otherwise, the Black Thing flourishes.