Research Notes: Powerful literature

A couple of months ago, there was an article on Fox News about a woman who was suing the school board of her local county because her son's 8th grade literature textbook included Barack Obama's speech from the 2004 Democratic Convention and an excerpt from his memoir. She claimed that it was a blatant attempt to influence (and in the comments of the article, the word "brainwash" is more often used) her child's political opinions with the upcoming election. The editors of this textbook claim that the reason they had speeches from Barack Obama was because this textbook was used in a district that was over 50% black, and writings from a man who himself has struggled with his identity in America would help them identify in their own search for identity. And while this story may not have made huge news in America (I don't really know, I wasn't there), it certainly incensed the conservative community on the internet.

This got me thinking about the purpose of language arts, or English classes in school. I had always made the simplistic assumption that the purpose of an English class was just that, to teach English. But I guess I had never given it a lot of thought. A 语文 (which translates literally to written language, but for our purposes we should think of this as a Chinese, or language arts class in China) textbook I came across recently I think summed up the purpose of language classes quite well. It claimed:
The use of language is necessary in [understanding] economics, politics, culture, and life; it is something that every person every day cannot live without. If we study the correct use of language, the depths and creativity of our thinking and the extent of our productivity will increase and will have more meaning.
It is not about only teaching the mechanics of language. Language is the means through which we understand ideas; without properly understanding how language can communicate, we cannot fully understand the ideas by which we live (and the work productivity clearly shows communist influence from the 1960s). Therefore, perhaps more than any other class (other than history, no bias there) language arts can be a very powerful political tool. But government propaganda aside (and I would like to think that this Wisconsin language arts book was not blatant propaganda) it is also a way to encourage children to explore their own personal identity. The authors, however, have the very important, and perhaps dangerous, responsibility of creating the parameters within which children can explore their own identity.

I've been recently looking at 语文 textbooks from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and I have found some very interesting trends. One trend that shouldn't be surprising to anyone is the pervasive themes of Communism. In the 1950s and 1960s textbooks especially, the importance of communism and revolution is pervasive. Half of the stories are about Mao Zedong (in ALL of the textbooks), either songs he wrote, stories he wrote, or stories about him, about people going to see him, about his good deeds. There are also occasional stories about communist movements abroad (such as one in Canada; I didn't know there was a communist movement in Canada), or stories about the Korean war. Each textbook, from every time period, began with 1 or 2 revolutionary songs.

There were other trends, however, that I found more interesting. In the textbooks from the 1950s and 60s, there was an emphasis on youth empowerment, both male and female. There were many stories about children who stood up to thieves or landlords, about children who traveled thousands of miles to see Mao Zedong. Either way, the emphasis is on the importance of children. I would estimate (and this is a very gross estimation) that nearly 1/3 of the stories in the early textbooks are about children. Also, it is important to note that the children whom we should be imitating are both male and female.

This trend changes in the 1970s. Gone are the stories of child empowerment and instead we have stories about the greatness of adults, and there are many essays on the importance of child self criticism (a subject absent from earlier textbooks). Mao still writes many of the essays, but they are not about him as a child and a revolutionary, but instead about him as a leader (an adult leader). There also essays about the responsibility of children, which is to study for the purpose of the revolution. And, in a new twist, there is an emphasis on youth movements of the 1920s, thus looking backwards for influence from youth movements that advocated change and reform.

This shows us the parameters within which children should form their own identity. In the earlier communist period, the textbook writers wanted children to feel their own empowerment, to understand what children could do and their place in creating a new society, both men and women (which is reminiscent of stories children in America learn about following dreams and doing the best they can at anything). By the 1970s, China had learned what happened when too much control is given to adolescents, and so they held back a bit on child empowerment.

This is not unlike America. When I read stories from these Chinese textbooks, and the heroine was a woman, a felt a small surge of pride just like I did when we read about female heroes in high school (my favorite, though I can't remember her name, was a woman who during the civil war hiked up her pants and helped load cannons). Literature and language are the means through which we explore ideas, and if students can't identify with any of the literature or the authors, then we have a pretty unsuccessful class. This is why having stories with which black children, Asian children, Hispanic children, and females can identify is so important. Stories like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, and The Awakening are important (although I will admit, while I understand the significance now, I never really identified with the heroine of The Awakening. I personally felt more of a connection with Atticus Finch). This is why Obama's memoir is important, to allow minority children, black children especially, to see a current, contemporary hero (Martin Luther King, while important, I would assume is starting to get old) who also struggled with his own place in society. Shakespeare is certainly important to learn, but with nothing to identify with, children have a much more difficult time exploring the potential behind expression through the richness of language.

To connect this back with China, their language textbooks directly correlate with the sense of youth empowerment that we see in the early communist period. According to many memoirs, women had very little sense of gender consciousness, never felt unequal in school. Children felt like they were the center of the revolution, and many of them felt a very emotional and personal connection with Mao and the Communist Party. Literature with which they could identify allowed them to form this connection. Some even went the extra mile to use literature to express their own ideas (the collection Some of Us has a great piece by Xiaomei Chen, a young girl who as a young girl in the 1950s wrote an award winning essay about being a part of the Communist movement).

I never thought about any of this in high school, but it makes sense to me now. I think more than anything this research has shown me how important education is. I never thought of language textbooks being so powerful, but they in fact are.

I cannot for the life of me find this article again on the internet, but I did find a video from Fox News with much of the same information. http://www.foxnews.com/video-search/m/21258867/fair_and_balanced.htm?pageid=47147&seek=9.014

中等专业学校材 语文: 上册. 北京:高等教育出版社, 1959, p 1.
1958 59 学年度上海市高中毕业班复习参考资料语文. 上海:上海教育出版社, 1958 59; 初级中学课本语文。上海:教育出版社,1958; 周建威。 小学课本语文。 上海:华东人民出版社,1952; 上海市中学课本语文。 上海:中小学教材编, 1972; 五年制中学课本语文,上海:教育出版社,1960.

Xiaomei Chen. “From ‘Lighthouse’ to the Northeast Wilderness: Growing Up among the Ordinary Stars,” in Some of Us, ed. Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, Bai Di, 55–57.

1 comment:

  1. Gina, one theorist (and practitioner) I found interesting along these lines was Paulo Freire. In particular, his _Pedagogy of the Oppressed_, _Education for Critical Consciousness_ and _The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Education.

    Happy (Western) new year! And happy (soon to be Chinese) new Year!