Teaching a 10th grade honors English class a few years ago, I assigned a James Baldwin essay that focused on class issues. If you know anything about James Baldwin, then you would accurately expect there is some commentary on race in the essay too. But the essay was centrally and overwhelmingly concerned with class distinctions and the politics of class in America.
I presented my students with a number of reading questions to help them analyze the text and to understand Baldwin’s arguments. When the assignments were turned in and a discussion ensued, I was amazed to find that these honors students had taken the wrong track entirely.
They interpreted the essay as being about race, black and white America. I was shocked, frankly, at how far off these kids were. It wasn’t their fault, of course, not entirely. These students had been indoctrinated with certain race views, ideas of equality and the morality of diversity. The democratic values that these students displayed were admirable. But they were also misplaced.
Having learned to respond to any notions of race with angry indignation at any prejudicial action or race language ultimately led these students to specific kind of blindness. The racial terminology of the James Baldwin essay set off an immediate (learned) reaction in their moral brains. Because the essay mentioned race, for them it had to be about race.
But it wasn’t. It was about class.
The students scored very poorly on that assignment due to the (huge) misinterpretation of the Baldwin text. More discussion followed and I took the class through the essay pointing to the critical passages, clarifying the central argument as it related to class and not race.
They got it after a while, though they seemed to feel that they had been tricked or were being attacked for merely maintaining the moral code that had been beaten into them over the first ten years of their educational lives.
One of the most pleasant and diligent students in the class fell into the moral trap like most of his classmates. He then patiently and attentively followed the lesson that followed the false interpretation debacle. And he seemed ok with the idea that the James Baldwin essay mentioned race but was not centrally concerned with black and white issues.
That didn’t make his grade on the class assignment any better though. This was a student who was currently hovering around a 95% in the course, probably the highest grade for any of the 30 students in the class (which averaged a B+ on the whole).
He was doing very well but when his mother saw the score online she called me up on the classroom phone and wanted to set up a meeting to talk about the assignment.
She had seen the score and asked her son about the assignment. He showed her the Baldwin essay. In her indignation at the low score, she angrily read through the essay coming to an inaccurate reading of the text like many of my students – only her interpretation was a bit more, shall we say, racy.
The student’s mother believed the essay was controversial and a bit outrageous. She was way off the mark, but she was upset. In her own way she was proving the importance of teaching students to read accurately before they become angry, morally rigid adults.
Her reading of the Baldwin essay surprised me when it came out at our meeting. As a young teacher, I had called in backup. The chair of the honor program sat in and defended James Baldwin as one of America’s great writers and suggested that any controversial reading of the text was out of place and should be reconsidered.
I provided a brief version of the lecture I had given to my students about the essay and its intentions and tried to mitigate the woman’s anger by praising her son’s performance in class. He was a good student. He just didn’t get the Baldwin essay. He was not alone.
In the end the episode surrounding this James Baldwin essay showed me a few things about the American education system – a system I was fully a part of as a public high school English teacher. The importance of reading instruction beyond basic literacy was brought home to me. It’s not enough to know what words mean. Americans need to be able to read nuanced argument without looking for buzz words.
There is a form of reading out there that resembles hunt-and-peck typing in which people seem to scan a text for charged terminology that will categorize and objectify a text, effectively obliterating it through simplification. A text is reduced to an attitude. The reader has three or four or five moral categories equipped for well-defined, thoroughly codified ideas and every text, every conversation and every candidate must fit into one of these few categories.
It is a politicizing of the reading process – a rough politicizing of the living process. Education has, as one of its many the difficult tasks, the mandate to teach democratic moral principals to students while at the same time equipping students with the ability to suspend moral judgment and to assess a nuanced argumentative position in a text allowing for accurate interpretation, beyond attitude and polemic.
I know that was a long complex sentence. It’s a big, complex job.
Doing just part of the job can lead to confusion, as my students showed me. They have learned to value diversity. But they haven’t entirely learned to read. And, as the parent in the story taught me, some of us have learned to value diversity without also learning tolerance.
Both moral perspective and critical intelligence are necessary for the life of a culture of tolerance and democractic principle.
More from this Contributor:
James Baldwin: American’s Angry Prophet