This essay argues that approaching all texts as problematic, according to identity politics and systems of power, is a bad idea. Two years ago I would have argued the opposite, and I did.
In my essay Homer, Paul Ramsay and Me: Rewriting the mythology of Western civilisation, published in Meanjin, I tracked the development of the idea that we teach to defend western civilization and how classics and feminism might be positioned within this. My academic field is feminist classical receptions.
This is the paragraph I would now retract.
I’ve been following the arguments made by John Howard, Tony Abbott, Kevin Donnelly, Christopher Pyne and Barry Spurr regarding education for some years. My summary is that they are afraid of postmodernism, critical theory, multimodal texts, identity politics, multiculturalism, feminism and cultural relativism. In 2010 John Howard described senior school English courses as embracing ‘gobbledygook’. Clearly, he dismisses ideas he doesn’t understand.
I now understand why, and I join them in their fears, although not in their politics.
It’s not surprising that politicians call for defunding the humanities when literary theory sounds as incomprehensible as this. This professor of English and Comparative Literature is making no sense. All theories should be tested and reviewed, and they should be explainable; they shouldn’t be taught as ideological indoctrination.
There are writers from the right who are critiquing what is happening in educational institutions and in politics, and it is worthwhile to listen to them and engage with their ideas. However, my reference will come from some writers from the left, three thinkers who work together and separately. They are:
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, who wrote Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity - and Why This Harms Everybody. Helen Pluckrose runs Areo magazine. James Lindsay runs New Discourses. Together with philosophy lecturer Peter Boghossian, who wrote How to Make Atheists, they wrote articles submitted to academic journals now known as the Grievance Paper Hoax. Lindsay and Boghossian also wrote How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide. They all participate in Wiki Letters. You can hear an interview with Lindsay on ABC radio here. And here is Helen Pluckrose's article in The Australian where she explains why they embarked on the Grievance Studies hoax. Pluckrose has launched a website, Counterweight, to provide support for people who need assistance.
In Cynical Theories Pluckrose and Lindsay define the problem in terms of two principles and four themes. The Postmodern Knowledge Principle (radical skepticism as to whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism) and The Postmodern Political Principle (a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how). The four themes they observe are: The blurring of boundaries; The power of language; Cultural relativism; and The loss of the individual and the universal.
They argue for the maintenance of liberal democracy. We need a diversity of voices, not just people who write about their own experience - we want to open up rather than shut down - and add ideas to be publicly challenged and reviewed. This is what academic or scientific rigour is. This is a process, both in the academic circles and in the democratic process, that works for incremental and careful improvements to our systems of knowledge and our systems of power. They want us to see people firstly as individuals, and as individuals sharing our common humanity.
This is their definition of liberalism:
Liberalism is perhaps best understood as a desire to gradually make society fairer, freer, and less cruel, one practical goal after another. This is because liberalism is a system of conflict resolution, not a solution to human conflicts. In being a system that works through the inputs of its participants, it offers up no one in particular in whom to place our trust, which violates our deepest human intuitions. It is not revolutionary, but neither is it reactionary: its impulse is neither to turn society on its head nor to keep it from changing. Instead, liberalism is always a work in progress.
….Liberalism’s success can be put down to a few key points. It is intrinsically goal-oriented, problem-solving, self-correcting, and - despite what postmodernists think - genuinely progressive.
By citing them and their works here, I’m not endorsing all their tweets. These people are not gurus. They are thinking things through.
The field of education attracts people who care about social issues and who regard education as a means of making social change for the better. While this is admirable, the means of doing this needs to be carefully monitored.
So long as educational institutions teach for ideological and political purposes, we will see resources such as this: Disrupt Texts. This US site, run by teachers for teachers, argues that all texts are problematic and that we teach for social justice outcomes. It shares approaches to texts, suggestions and resources which apply this principle. Some quotes from the website:
‘It is part of our mission to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices.’
‘Apply a critical literacy lens to our teaching practices.’
‘While text-dependent analysis and close reading are important skills for students to develop, teachers should also support students in asking questions about the way that such texts are constructed. Ask: How does this text support or challenge issues of representation, fairness, or justice? How does this text perpetuate or subvert dominant power dynamics and ideologies? And how can we ask students to wrestle with these tensions? ‘
About Teaching Shakespeare:
This is about an ingrained and internalized elevation of Shakespeare in a way that excludes other voices. This is about white supremacy and colonization.
About teaching To Kill a Mockingbird
‘So, I use the feelings it engenders for them and then introduce anti-racist ideas and critical race theory to help them see the racism in the text and in their own lives.’
……...We lift it up, look under its pages, between its characters, and expose its gaps.’
Critical thinking means asking who is absent, about representations and biases within systems of power. This is the opposite of close reading of text. This skips the basic questions we ask when we engage with and judge the success of a text: how do the component parts of the text, from the word choice and sound effects, use of repetitions, literal and figurative language, form and features, and the use of any literary devices, contribute to textual cohesion and the meaning of the whole text? Does the writer achieve an impact on the reader, that is either conveying a situation effectively or bringing the reader along a process of thinking, according to purpose and context? Then we can use the text as a tool to think with, consider representations, characterisations, narrative choices, and explore how that story could be told differently. We can relate the text to our own context, knowledge and understandings about the world. We can create new texts in response. But we should not judge a text as problematic for what it is not. No text can be a celebration of all minority groups in every place at all times. Texts exist within their own contexts, and we can consider how they were received then and how we might value them differently now.
We should not criticise a cat for not being a dog.
In our classrooms we should not be asking:
According to identity politics, how do I problematise the text, because all texts are about systems of power in which there are the privileged and the oppressed?
How do I bring my indignation to the text?
How do I take offence at the text for what it is not?
This is the approach of critical race theory, and all critical grievance theories. This approach teaches students to engage combatively, and encourages the same approach to social interactions, such as use of social media. It presumes racism, even where none is present. It emphasises rather than dispels stereotypes.
In teaching literature with an approach that every text is problematic we teach that all white people are racist and there is nothing they can do about it. That all men are sexist and if they don’t admit it then they can’t see their privilege. That all heterosexual people benefit from their privilege and that their biases are unconscious. What do we expect children to do with those messages about systems of power and their places within them? It is akin to telling children that they are born in sin. It encourages guilt, and it encourages victimhood and resentment. How does this impact student mental health in terms of their anxiety and depression?
And where, in this approach, is the pleasure in reading and writing? There is none, except as a ‘gotcha’ moment, which is the basis for many viral tweets, posts, comments, Tik Toks and interviews. Critiquing should not just be about dragging down. Where is the room for building up? There should be room for joy.
With this approach no text can be good. What does this mean for students when we read the texts that they have created? It means that no text a student can create can be good. So, this approach does not empower students to create successful texts. It demoralises students.
Instead, we could ask for good thinking, applying logic supported by evidence. We can apply the principles of textual analysis and intertextuality, which are already core to the study of literature. Yes, we can read and teach a broader range of texts. Yes, we can regard these texts as talking to each other. We can ask: What does the writer do? What do the characters do? What does the text do? What do readers do? But applying critical race theory, or any critical grievance theory, is not helping the study of literature.
I fear that teaching for social justice using applied postmodernism is akin to teaching religious indoctrination. If we endorse teaching for Social Justice then we endorse teaching for any ideology and ideological for political outcomes.
In NSW Department of Education there is a policy called The Controversial Issues in Schools policy. Under this policy teachers and visitors to schools are not to coerce students to political views.
1.3.1 Schools are neutral places for rational discourse and objective study.
1.3.2 Discussion of controversial issues in schools should allow students to explore a range of viewpoints and not advance the interest of any particular group.
A few years ago this policy did not apply to Scripture classes. The instruction during the Scripture timeslot, delivered by private providers, was exempt. Now it is included in the policy.
2.2 This policy applies to visitors and external providers including approved special religious education providers or ethics education providers, conducting activities outside the provisions in the Religious Education Policy and Special Education in Ethics Policy.
Teachers are not to recruit students into religious or ideological groups. Teaching through a lens of identity politics for a social justice outcome is an ideological position.
3.3 Attempting to recruit students or staff into non-school approved groups for religious or ideological reasons is not permitted in schools, nor are aggressive, persistent or unwanted approaches to staff and students. Staff and students may advocate for issues or activities that are important to them in a manner consistent with expectations outlined in the department’s Code of Conduct for staff and Behaviour code for students.
Teaching through a lens of critical race theory, or any critical grievance theory, is in breach of this policy.
There is currently a case in the US where a parent and student are suing the school due to a civics module being compulsory at the high school. The civics module requires students to accept critical race theory. The US government has banned professional development workshops teaching critical race theory. These programs may think that this approach teaches anti-racism; it doesn’t. It divides people by reinforcing their differences and stereotyping them according to race.
We welcome the diversity of human experience, yes - but as individuals and as universal themes - not simply as members of identity groups, which is limiting. Most identity groups are unchangeable. If we see people firstly according to their identity group, we are judging them, paraphrasing Martin Luther King, not according to the content of their character but by the colour of their skin. We would do better to judge people according to what they do rather than who they are by accident of birth or some other self-declared identity. We could empower students not on the basis of their identity but on the basis of their actions. It is likely parents in Australia will also complain to schools or withdraw their children from public schools if they see this kind of indoctrination occurring.
The trio of thinkers, Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian, have some suggestions: Challenge new definitions. Apply science and reason in categorisations. Apply logic. Ask for evidence. Acknowledge facts. Apply Socratic enquiry. Ask what is true and what is objectively, materially, concretely real. Keep conversations respectful and open. Listen and consider. Individuals should not be compelled to represent their identity groups. We think better collaboratively so no idea should be taboo or censored but should be tested amongst others. Don’t be cynical. Support liberalism. Liberalism has provided us with real progress through the civil rights movement, gay pride, and second wave feminism.
My own research aims to create resources to support the teaching of English without applying identity politics. I aim to create an Ovarian Poetics - looking to ancient literature to draw threads currently ignored or forgotten that refocus how we can understand and appreciate texts, arguing that we don't need to apply postmodern theories based upon French Philosophy, as we can find permissions and frameworks for literary creation, appreciation and analysis from the ancient Greeks and Romans. We can consider ancient ways of knowing and understanding, including ancient memory devices, and how we can use these to teach and learn today. We can reference texts written by a range of people over time and place. We can teach based on our shared humanity and freedom of the individual within a secular liberal democracy. We would do well to return to the principles of primary school debates and high school essays: define your terms, present a logical argument supported by evidence, and be respectful. We can be empathetic and use our imaginations. Yes, texts are tools to think with, but we need more utensils than grievance studies approaches to do literature well. We may need to agree that ‘critical thinking’ has been defined under these theories and should be renamed, as for our use in teaching English, perhaps simply as good reading and good thinking.
We all want to make the world a better place, however we need to be careful how we go about it. We already have equal rights under the law. I’m not suggesting that there are no problems in our society; of course there are. But the means of addressing these problems should not be such that they embed more problems. The means are the end. How we get there is what we get. War begets war. Peace begets peace. In the English classroom we can grow cynicism or we can grow joy.