What if Those Books are “not for us”?

This past semester, an extremely bright student in my senior seminar recounted a story of how her high school debate team, which was very successful, found itself towards the end of the season facing debates against kids from swank private schools. Describing her own school as working-class, she said that the thing that stood out most for her was how extremely well-read those private-school kids were. She felt like there was no way she and her friends could ever catch up. And the more she listened to them talk, and quote things, and drop into conversation–without even thinking–the titles of and ideas from things they’d read, the more she began to think that “those books were a luxury that just wasn’t for us.”

That notion–not that owning physical texts and having the time to read them is a luxury, but that merely having access to them, was a luxury beyond the reach of a working-class student–has haunted me since that September conversation. We were talking about cultural capital, about the possible values of reading widely, but quickly, this became a conversation about privilege, access, and, most importantly, entitlement. It became a conversation about students who were made to feel, on a pretty fundamental level, that certain books were simply not for them.

Teaching as I have for the last fifteen years at a university whose students are predominantly the first in their families to go to college, who are putting themselves through school, who have complicated lives with family commitments and a need to balance full-time employment (when they can get it) with full-time student status in order to make ends meet, I am no stranger to these questions of the power of privilege in fostering literacy. I have long said that the hardest thing to accept as a teacher at a place like this is that there is so precious little a teacher can do in one semester to make up for eighteen years of not reading or being voraciously read to.

But, I am ashamed to say, it had never occurred to me in precisely this way that students would come to me already acculturated to feel disenfranchised by the very books that I was including on my syllabi. This is not to say, of course, that in my classes we do not spend lots of time talking precisely about questions of reading, authorship, and cultural value. The problem of who has had a voice, historically, in print is central to any Victorian literature classroom as far as I’m concerned.

The deeper question of why my own students do or don’t see the value in reading the things I ask them to read, or enjoy the texts, or find themselves deeply engaged in wrestling with their ideas, has always been something I considered in terms of problems of access that had to do with the texts themselves: Victorian prose is dense and slow compared to contemporary voices in print, the culture is foreign in time and custom and politics, the vocabulary and lingering descriptions feel “old” in a way that many students find off-putting. I never really registered that my students may have spent a lifetime of schooling being taught that those books were not for them, and that my job in teaching these books was going to be partly about creating a sense that they were entitled to them too.

Of course, the most self-aware and articulate students will rail against that glass ceiling without my needing to do anything to make that happen. At the end of the term, that same student wrote a really incredible essay on her own growing into cultural literacy, in which she explored (in part) the degree to which the curriculum at her high school was consistently dumbed-down, offering insultingly juvenile books to students as the only ones “appropriate” to their aptitudes. She made the following deeply perceptive observation:

My time rubbing elbows with future Harvard graduates gave me a better perspective on the value of the much maligned humanities. When conservative politicians and spineless democrats argue that we should focus more on STEM at the cost of the arts and humanities, I know this doesn’t apply to their own privileged children. I know that the elite will continue to learn the language of Marx while the rest of us will continue to read textbooks written for fifth graders.

I have nothing to add to this powerful claim except the desire to register publicly that if we support college education for everyone as a democratic goal, then we as faculty need to be highly cognizant of what messages may have become ingrained into our students before they ever reach us. And we need to be really thoughtful about what that will mean for our teaching–since it is only the very tiniest minority of students who are as thoughtfully aware as this one about how their educations have shaped their own sense of value, access, and what they ought to consider theirs.

This all strikes me as particularly important in light of the current spate of articles about higher education that focus so squarely on students and situations at elite colleges and universities as if they are representative of the situations of the majority of college students these days. (I have a lot more to say about those assumptions, but it doesn’t belong here. See the link I provided for a great overview of those essays by David M. Perry.) The difficulties that face faculty and students at non-elite institutions are myriad and necessitate real theoretical and pedagogical work. Thinking hard about entitlement, or lack thereof, is certainly a good place to start.

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