A Brief Introduction to Critical Literacy/Literary Theory
I’ve recently been investigating the idea of critical literacy through Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. The driving force behind new emphases on critical literacy is the need for individuals in the twenty-first century to be able to approach texts critically–basically, drawing their own conclusions about the world instead of eating up what someone else says. I’m sure there is a much more refined way to define the need for critical literacy, but that’s the gist.
Anyway, interestingly enough, the ideas behind critical literary theory are concepts I encountered frequently as an undergraduate in the History department at Allegheny College. We were constantly encouraged to question–whose history?, to examine events and assumptions about events from multiple perspectives. And that is basically what literary theory does–it considers texts through different “lenses.” For example, if I were to examine To Kill A Mockingbird through a socio-economic (or Marxist) lens, I would ask: Who has power here? Who doesn’t? How do power and class relate? How does class affect the experiences of various characters–of Tom Robinson, Bob Ewell, Atticus Finch? What about Helen Robinson, Mayella Ewell, and Maudie Atkinson? How are their very different lives affected by their socioeconomic status?
Similarly, if I were to examine that same novel through a gender (or feminist) lens, I would consider: Which female characters reinforce society’s gender assumptions? Which rebel against them? How do these female characters reflect the reality of women’s lives at this time? Is Aunt Alexandra a stuck-up b*tch–or is she a woman trapped by society’s expectations? Does she strive to be the perfect Southern lady not because she lacks other ambition, but because it is the only ambition society allowed to her?
To summarize: Critical literary theory asks readers to examine texts from multiple perspectives–from the point of view of author, reader, societal observer, social commentator, language analyst, and even psychologist. There is more than one way to see.
On To A More Personal Note
While we might learn to practice a critical evaluation of the texts we encounter, I wonder how often we apply our critical eye to our personal lives. All too often, we see only what we want to see.
There is a children’s book by the name of Fish is Fish by Leo Lionni. In the book, a tadpole, having become a frog, returns to the water to tell his fish friend of all the wonders he has seen on land . The fish tries to join the tadpole and finds that he can’t survive on the land—he must stay in the water. He only realizes this after he leaps onto the shore and flops around, gasping for air. Oh what will become of our fish!? (SPOILER ALERT:) Though there is a moment there when it gets pretty intense, Frog comes to the rescue, and our fish makes it in the end.
But none of that is important.
On To The Important Part Of The More Personal Note
The key here is what goes on in the fish’s mind while the tadpole describes the sights he has seen on land. Everything looks like a fish. There are fish birds, fish cows, fish people… so on and so forth. Check it out for yourself:
Now, what does this have to do with critical literacy? Well, as I said above, critical literacy (and in literature specifically, critical literary theory) expects readers to consider texts from multiple perspectives, to not simply accept at face value that which is written as truth. Because again: whose truth? (Side Note: That’s a-whole-nother topic that I’m sure you’ll be hearing about in the future as I work my way through my unit plan for Avi’s Nothing But The Truth.)
All too often we see things through our eyes alone, from our perspective alone, and sometimes that means we don’t see things as they really are.
Case In Point: My senior thesis at Allegheny College focused on Native American women in Puritan New England. In the course of my research, I read a number of documents written by New England Puritans, describing the culture and customs of the natives around them. Of particular relevance here are their descriptions of native religion. Though there were a number of cultural groups in New England at the time (Massachusett, Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Narragansett, etc.), they shared many customs and beliefs. These native groups believed in two main spirits — Keihtan, their creator-god, and Hobbomock, a mischievous spirit who could help or hurt. After creating the world, Keihtan pretty much checked out–he (she?) didn’t get involved in human affairs. Hobbomock, on the other hand, was within call, and so spiritual leaders most often worshiped/prayed to Hobbomock. Instead of seeing this very different belief system as something unique to native culture, Puritan observers associated Keihtan with their Christian God and Hobbomock with their Christian Satan. Thus, the natives were devil-worshipers.
Now, I realize this might seem irrelevant, because the Puritans landed in New England a good four hundred-some years ago… but this is a phenomenon that has occurred on a number of cultural fronts.* (I’m pretty sure it’s even an educational pedagogy called schema theory.) When presented with new knowledge, an individual interprets that new knowledge in light of what he/she already knows. Everything is translated to meet our expectations. We see what we expect to see, and oftentimes, we reject what doesn’t fit.
So, how is this personal? Well, all too often we see what we want to see in people, what we hope or expect to see. We don’t see them as they are. Mrs. Bluebird might really wish Flounder had wings, but alas, Flounder is a fish, and a fish is a fish. Flounder will never fly. Did Flounder hide this from Mrs. Bluebird? No, not so much. After all, can you really hide being a fish? No, it wasn’t Flounder’s fault.** Mrs. Bluebird chose to see what she wanted to see (what she expected to see). She disregarded the rest. A little critical analysis could have saved Mrs. Bluebird a good deal of time and heartache.***
Oh well. Lesson learned.
*Check out Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s Indians and English: Facing Off In Early America if you don’t believe me.
**Then again, rarely are things completely one-sided. There may have been just the slightest bit of subterfuge early on in the game on Flounder’s part.
***That said, a little critical analysis could have saved history a good deal of pain and suffering as well. But if that were the case, we might not have America… or the field of genetics.