Above Jay Mathews’ column this week, the headline screams “National English-teaching group loses grip on reality at terrible time”.
Wow! What on earth has the National Council of Teachers of English, an organization that’s been around since 1911, done to trigger this kind of hyperbole?
Well, this IS from Jay Mathews, so it’s simply a proposed change to the curriculum he doesn’t like.
“Students should examine how digital media and popular culture are completely intermingled with language, literature, and writing,” declare the 10 authors of the council’s recent position statement, “Media Education in English Language Arts.”
They say: “The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.”
English teachers often tell their students to avoid jargon. The authors of this statement ignore such advice. They say: “It behooves our profession, as stewards of the communication arts, to confront and challenge the tacit and implicit ways in which print media is valorized above the full range of literacy competencies students should master.”
In an attempt to voice support for working teachers, he also complains about “the authors’ apparent assumption that their approach will work in classrooms when they don’t give a single example of a school doing what they recommend”.
As with most of Mathews’ writing, he offers lots of vague claims with very little substance.
For “evidence” of his position, Mathews brings in the usual stuff: stats from standardized tests (in this case the NAEP), a consultation with someone at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (a conservative education think tank), and vague “discussions” with an unknown number of educators or students who agree with him.
Plus, of course, his personal experience as a student fifty years ago, this time invoking appreciation for a century-old reference book called “The Elements of Style”.
However, the worst part of this column is that Mathews fails to inform his readers that this proposal, by an independent professional organization, will be discussed, refined, rewritten, and made more specific by many more educators before any of it will actually be proposed for addition to school curriculums.
He also fails to grasp in this hissy fit, given prominent space in a major American newspaper, that a core motivation for the NCTE position – to “move beyond the exclusive focus on traditional reading and writing” – is absolutely correct, and way overdue.
Finally, thanks to Renee Hobbs, chair of the group that wrote the position statement, for calling Mathews “smug and whiny” in her reply to his email. She is also absolutely correct.
And that concisely sums up the approach to most of his Post columns.
The photo is of Ira Gershwin’s typewriter on display at the Library of Congress. Remember when people used those to type the same five paragraph essays and research papers that too many teachers still assign today?