Is English an Emancipatory Discipline?

by Ian Hunter

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On one side of this question we find those who regard English as an essentially libratory project–one whose core was once invested in the creativity of the child and in the openness of literature, but which is today more likely to be found in the repressed potentialities of the working class or women. On the other side there are those who have observed that, no matter how progressive the English class becomes, it continues to deploy a sophisticated technology of surveillance and discipline. This see-sawing has produced some bad consciences and some desperate solutions.

Among the bad consciences are those progressives who have found that, when it comes to problematising undesirable behaviours–such as those associated with sexism or racism it–is not enough to appeal to creativity, and that the working class may be just as guilty as anyone else. In fact the English classroom is a sophisticated mechanism for picking out such conducts as objects of moral attention and for re-setting thresholds of inhibition. The problem is that many teachers are uneasy about presiding over the process of moral training, and they are not helped by those teacher educators who see the process as a sinister form of coercion. Neither is this problem helped in the least by those intellectuals who, charged with high-voltage ‘dialectical’ theory, presume that it can be solved by coining oxymorons like ’emancipatory authority’. 1 According to this principle the teacher is supposed to be able to exercise moral power over the formation of students while simultaneously allowing their inner potential to develop without normative intervention. All that can be said for such magical principles is that their inherent implausibility is not enhanced by the odour of bad faith surrounds them.

These problems are symptoms of the genuine difficulty that we have in understanding the reciprocity of freedom and discipline in the English lesson. This difficulty is compounded by the use of a notion of freedom (as self-determination) that may be far too metaphysical for the reality it is supposed to comprehend. We can attempt to get a clearer view of this perennial difficulty by briefly looking at an episode in which it has recently resurfaced: the use of popular culture in the English classroom. One of rationales given for this tactic is that popular cultural texts run less risk of imposing repressive norms on students and are more open to a diversity of cultural backgrounds than are texts drawn from the high cultural canon. At the same time, teachers advocating the libratory use of popular culture will often point to the dangers of its uncontrolled use and will routinely require students to problematise their usual modes of consumption. But this only seems to reactivate the standard anxiety: How can the use of popular texts as an incitement to free expression be compatible with their use as a means of observing and correcting conduct?

Let us consider a typical if refreshingly candid expression of this anxiety. A recent article by Beavis on the use of popular culture in the secondary classroom suggests that this strategy of ‘starting from where the learner is at’ first emerged in the 1970s. It then goes on to catalogue the worries attending this tactic and to propose a resolution:

Introducing it [popular culture] for formal classroom study raises an interesting set of caveats and bear traps. What happens to a text when it is coopted in this way? How do students’ relationships with those texts come under pressure or change, if classroom study entails the harsh light of analytic criticism of what may previously have been pleasures and attitudes left unexamined deliberately? If the consequence of bringing such texts into the classroom is merely to teach students to disdain and disown this part of their world in favour of something ‘better’, the attempt is probably best never begun [A] focus on popular texts ought to be more exploratory than judgmental, critical in the best sense and respectful ultimately of different reading preferences and positions. 2

Are we right in suggesting that, for all its candour, this response has still not done justice to the problem? Let us begin with an historical point. The strategy of ‘starting from where the learner is at’ emerged not in the progressive 1970s but in the reforming 1830s, where David Stow was already insisting that teaching should give up all formality and situate itself in the playground, ‘the principal scene of the real life of children’. 3 And the tactic of using popular culture to engage the interests and reveal the character of working-class children in the English classroom had received its definitive formulation as early as 1913. It was at this time that J. A. Green published an influential series of articles arguing that the teaching of classic texts to elementary school children bred only rote learning and insincerity of response. If English was to reach such children then it had to begin with their everyday language, including comic books: ‘The boy at school who is desperately bad in his compositions uses language effectively at home or in the playground, and his schoolwork would improve rapidly if he could be led to feel the “reality” of the life he was leading there’.3

Such formulations have of course become second nature to us, and it is only a small step from them to today’s apparently emancipatory uses of popular culture in the classroom. All the more reason to remind ourselves that the combination of elicitation and correction, spontaneity and supervision was there from the beginning. In Green’s words:

Under its [English’s] influence new worlds are being opened out to the boys; new interests are being awakened These things mean inner growth, the development of new needs which call for a more varied, a more delicate instrument of expression . . . Here the boy reveals himself and the teacher may find out whether he has really reached him or no.

At the same time the inner self revealed through this self-expressive exercise is typically one in eminent need of supervision and transformation:

Even a rapid perusal of these typical papers shows clearly that the great majority [of students] live in quite a different world from their teachers. Here are dwarfed little selves whose emotional life is bound up with local gossip, the excitement of football, and a humour so crude that their teachers find it difficult to see any fun whatsoever in it. (24) 4

No doubt there will be some prepared to smile at these last remarks for their quaintness or to denounce them for their repressiveness. But to react in either way is to misunderstand the problem. It is not any particular moral or cultural content that characterises the English lesson, but the reciprocity between self-expression and supervision that allows students to take on new social norms ‘freely’, by problematising themselves. Hence it is beside the point that Green disapproves of football. Today many teachers disapprove of sexism, which may or may not entail the condemnation of football. The objects of moral problematisation vary, although within certain limits. What remains constant is the pedagogical relation in which the problematisation takes place.

To think that this problem can be resolved by being ‘respectful of ultimately different reading positions’ is to avoid the issue and to ignore the form of pastoral discipline that lies at the heart of English pedagogy.5 English emerged as a practice of moral training in which large numbers of children were required to undergo moral problematisation and transformation. To suggest that the exercise of pastoral power involved in this procedure can be erased in favour of a process of free self-determination simply ignores the reality of the teaching milieu. Moreover, it fails to take sufficient note of how productive this exercise of power has been. In assuming the persona of the pastoral guide in order to get students to question their own conduct, teachers are not repressing their students’ inner capacities; they are forming and augmenting such capacities by requiring their cultivation.

It is possible to say therefore that, to the degree that freedom is identified with the capacity to govern one’s own conduct, then English has indeed functioned as an emancipatory discipline. It is equally true though that emancipation here cannot mean free self-determination, because this capacity is formed through a pastoral discipline that individuals are compelled to undergo and whose cultural rarity puts it beyond collective choice. English teachers should therefore feel quite comfortable in exercising this sort of moral discipline. Given the anxieties and obscurities generated by the metaphysical concept of emancipation, however, it is probably best to drop the term altogether and concentrate instead on the specific capacities actually formed by pastoral pedagogy.

Ian Hunter is an Australian Research Council Fellow in Humanities at Griffith University. This piece is extracted from the April 1996 issue of Southern Review. Reprinted with permission. For further information email: [email protected]

Notes and References

1. We owe the term to Giroux, H. (1989). “Schooling as a Form of Cultural Politics: Towards a Pedagogy of and for Difference”. In Giroux and Mclaren, in Giroux, G. & McLaren, P. (1989). Critical Pedagogy, the State, and Cultural Struggle. New York: State University of New York Press.

2. Beavis, C.(1994) “On Not Being Homer: Popular Culture in Lower Secondary English,”, Interpretations 27,58-77.

3. Stow, D. (1850). The Training System, the Moral Training School, and the Normal Seminary, London: Longman, Brown and Green.

4. Green, J. (1913). “The Teaching of English”, The Journal of Experimental Pedagogy and Training College Record, 2, 14-25, 201-9.

5. This lesson is still perhaps yet to be learnt by those who have identified the critique of English with a critique of the canon.It is worth noting that this later critique has recently attained official status. The Australian Vice Chancellor’s Committtee of Academic Standards panel, English, identifies an exclusionary high cultural canon as a major problem but fails to mention the pedagogy in which canons–progressive or conservative–are carried. See Panel, Report of the Academic Standards Panel, English. Canberra: Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, 1994

Related publications by the author:

Hunter, I. (1987). Culture, Education and English: Building “the principal scene of the real life of children”. Economy and Society, 16, 568-88.

Hunter, I. (1988). Culture and Government: The Emergence of Literary Education. London: Macmillan.

Hunter, I. (1991). “Learning the Literature Lesson: The Limits of the Aesthetic Personality”, In Baker and Luke (1991)

Towards a Critical Sociology of Reading Pedagogy.

Hunter, I. (1994a). Rethinking the School: Subjectivity, Bureaucracy, Criticism. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Hunter, I. (1994b). History Lessons for ‘English’. Cultural Studies, 8 (1), 142-62.

Hunter, I. (forthcoming). “After English: Towards a Less Critical Literacy”, In P. Freebody, A. Luke & S Muspratt,(eds) Constructing Critical Literacies New York, Hampton Press.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]