Teaching English: The Heart of the Matter

Robert Root
1987 Language Arts Journal of Michigan  
The origins of our profession record the conflicts of change in Socrates' lament that the increasing tendency toward writing among younger scholars would undermine the oral tradition. Now. roughly two millennia later. in an age more headlong and accelerated than even the darkest. most hallucinogenic classical myth. change is still the greatest challenge in education. Continually we struggle to learn what to let go of. what to hang on to. what of value still lies at the heart of the matter after
more » ... of the matter after the friction of change has worn away tranSitory facades. In our time the challenges of change have come between genera tions. as a print generation Is succeeded by a media generation. as those broadly educated are followed by those encouraged to specialize: they have also come during generations. in the changes that come over students between kindergarten and college. We need to acknowledge and understand these changes if we are to get to the heart of the matter. The changes between generations are the most obvious to discuss and the most encouraging. because the signs are all around us that the education community at large is mobilizing to counteract some of their 52 Volume 3, Number 2 more troubling effects. Film director Steven Spielberg can serve as an e~mple of the kind of change I mean. On a recent Academy Awards telecast, Spielberg was given this year's Irving Thalberg Award, presented for his lifetime contribution to film. In the past the great directors belonged to print generations, and their films were, even at their most original and cinematic, deeply indebted to traditionall1terature. But Spielberg is only the most prominent of a whole generation of filmmakers who grew up in a media age, entranced by and devoted to movies and television. For print generations film has been an extension of literature-it tells stories, discusses issues, dramatizes conflicts; it's about something. For the media generation film is self inclusive, both source and result-it imitates earlier cinematic techniques and forms. focuses on visual effects and impact, and aspires chiefly to be self-reflexively cinematic; it's about itself. Significantly, at the moment when giving Spielberg the Thalberg Award symbolically passed. the torch to a media generation of filmmakers, Spielberg himself seemed troubled by the generaUon gap. In his acceptance speech he emphasized the need to return to the values of a print generation: Most of my life has been spent in the dark watching movies; movies have been the literature of my I1fe. The literature of Irving Thalberg's generation was books and plays. They read the great words of great minds and I think in our romance with technology and in our excitement at exploring all the possib1l1Ues of mm and video we have partially lost something that we now have to reclaim. I think it's time to renew our romance with the word. I'm as culpable as anyone of having exalted the image at the expense of the word but 53 LANGUAGE ARTS JOURNAL OF MICHIGAN only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers. For someone whose Ufetime achievement has been centered on the image. it was a remarkable and encouraging speech. Bu t the change in direction In film. the most graphic example I know of the succession of a print generation by a media generation. is also an example of a trend affecting succeeding generations of practitioners in many fields: the shift from a broad background to a narrow one, from generalization to specialization. Spielberg's remarks also suggest that educational specialization and compartmentalization have been counterproductive even In highly specialtzed fields. His comments come at a propitious moment for English language arts educators, for they epitomize concerns which permeate a wide spectrum of disciplines. The pendulum swing In education toward earlier and more intense specialization has begun to swing back toward the center. Leaders in almost every academic, creative, and commercial field have announced a similar realization that a neglect of English language arts has undermined the quality of the work being done. In recent years widespread support for a revival of language arts teaching has arisen in a variety of forms: the development of primary. secondary, and college writing across the curriculum programs: the establishment of national, state, and local writing projects: communication skills workshops in education. government. and business. We are almost unanimous in every discipline in recognizing that a heedless infatuation with change has led us to neglect the heart of the matter-the language arts. However, while that 54 Volwne 3, Nwnber 2 recognition may be cause for celebration. It shouldn·t be cause for complacency. Resistance to writing across the curriculum programs still arises. usually from misperceptions of what needs to be taught in writing and what value writing has for disciplines outside of EngUsh. For example. content area teachers often complain that they haven't time to teach both their subject matter and English In one course; they suggest that if English teachers only taught English better (by which they usually mean standard usage. spelling. and research formats). then other teachers would be free to concentrate on their own disciplines. Such teachers need to recognize the difference between "English as a content area" and "English as communication skills." English teachers are
doi:10.9707/2168-149x.1721 fatcat:oxlx74cx6rh2tgk3nnoubsnm6y