High School English Textbooks: A Critical Examination
In the Preface to their study of the textbooks currently in use in the teaching of English in the United States, James J. Lynch (now deceased) and Bertrand Evans are speaking, in their quiet way, for the importance of a proper literary training for American youth. They quote a statement of President Kennedy’s: “If, in the effective use of language, style is the man, style is the nation too; men, countries, and even entire civilizations have been tested and judged by their literary tone.” Since totalitarianism established for us the part played by ideas and even by modes of sensibility in the modern struggle for power, no gifted politician of democracy can again easily ignore the artist and intellectual in his public programs, or at least in his strategies. But what, for intellectuals, distinguished Kennedy as a President was his ability to make a pronouncement of this kind without its sounding like either a ploy or an embarrassment but like a genuine promise. Thus for the first time in memory one began to imagine for America a culture in which literary style might indeed be taken for what it is, a measure of the individual or national commitment to the civilizing forces in life.
This promise and this imagination have much bearing on Mr. Lynch’s and Mr. Evans’s study. It is a book which could only have been produced, one feels, in the Kennedy period. Certainly an educational investigation so simply civilized and free of cant could not have been possible in the period directly after the war when we were launching, not yet rockets, but the Century of the Common Man. Nor would it have been feasible in the decade preceding Kennedy’s administration, when it seemed that the dominant national tone might soon be expressed in a mathematical formula.
The cumulative effect of those years is, in fact, what Mr. Lynch and Mr. Evans would now rid us of. Among the assumptions of their book none is more basic than that the teaching of literature and writing makes its contribution to culture in ways too subtly complex to be politically or socially specified. This is not an idea that has been readily accommodated by America in recent decades. Even before the era of education for citizenship or of education for achievement, when we were putting our pedagogic emphasis on the free flowering of the individual personality, our goal in the teaching of English was not (to use the words of the authors) the “humanizing” but the “socializing” of American youth.
Yet even those who perceived this tendency in American education could scarcely have been as aware as Mr. Lynch and Mr. Evans are of the depths of vulgarity to which we were carried by our efforts of socialization—the low standards of taste in our choice of reading matter for our young students, the chauvinism, the leering stress on contemporaneity, the egregious flattery of the student’s self-importance, the use of what amounts to advertising …