Thursday, April 21, 2022


First Things

The English Teachers Who Don’t Like Books

by Mark Bauerlein, 4-19-2022

Is there anyone in business, law, science, media, or letters who would say that the overall quality of prose in his field is superb? Would anyone be surprised to learn that reading and writing scores have been dropping for years? Does anybody expect that the lockdowns, which put kids in their rooms in front of screens all day, shall have boosted verbal talents?

Of course not. But NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) has a solution. NCTE is the largest body of primary and secondary English teachers in the country. This organization certifies state-of-the-art teaching and research, hosts conferences, and advocates for the field in public affairs. Earlier this month, NCTE issued a position statement that calls for a fundamental change in the discipline. The heading reads “Media Education in English Language Arts,” which tells you where the shift is headed.

Here are the sentences summarizing the goal:

The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education. Speaking and listening are increasingly valued as forms of expression that are vital to personal and professional success . . . It behooves our profession, as stewards of the communication arts, to confront and challenge the tacit and implicit ways in which print media is valorized above the full range of literacy competencies students should master.

You got all that? It’s quite a mouthful, imparted with all the confidence of experts who know the ways of the world and do not fear breaking old habits and keeping up-to-date. Other points in the statement reiterate the world-is-changing motif. In the 21st century, communication is ever more oral and pictorial, the authors say. Kids, especially, express themselves in non-print ways. Let’s keep pace with the trend in our teaching and testing, NCTE urges, and pull print down from its privileged position in the classroom.

That’s the rationale. “Book reading”—not so big a deal in a time of screens. “Essay writing”—pull it back, think again, ask yourself if it’s really pertinent to the multimedia lives of young (and old) Americans. It may shock many people to hear English teachers downplaying the value of books. They remember a high school teacher who loved Hemingway or Jane Eyre. They may even think it is precisely because of the omnipresence of screens that English teachers should insist ever more firmly on the necessity of books. They hear talk of bad writing in the workplace, too, and want their kids to practice discursive writing in long form (not text-message length) ever more often. Why in the world, they wonder, would English teachers go with the anti-print flow?

Because, the teachers would respond, outsiders don’t understand the nature of English instruction. They don’t know the intricacies of advanced literacy. They don’t realize how the very nature of literacy is undergoing a radical transformation. In other words, a “book-centered” outlook belongs to the pre-digital past. English teachers work in the multimedia present—and rightly so. To hold kids to the old standards, to make them do print exercises first and foremost, is to fail to arm them for life, to inculcate the skills needed for Digital Age success. Worse, it is to alienate them from the other parts of their lives, from the identities they have formed in and through media.

What to say about all this? The assumption about skills needed in college and professional spaces doesn’t hold up, but NCTE holds it too tightly and pleasingly for evidence to shake it loose, no matter how solid that evidence is. NCTE people utter this claim as if it were a nugget of the discipline’s wisdom, and also proof of the utterer’s membership in the ranks. Such revolutionary talk comes up all the time in education circles, in fact, and has for at least two decades, since the Web 2.0 phase of the internet began.

Indeed, if you’ve heard these claims of “new literacies” a few times, you start thinking less about the import of them and more about the language in which they are expressed. After a while, you start to see an irony open up, a gap between the content of the words and the words themselves. We have a radical meaning clothed in banal terms, epochal dimensions offered in clichéd, conventional, pseudo-radical diction. In spite of the declamatory tone and avant-garde ethos, the words are altogether familiar. We’ve heard them many times before. There’s nothing new about them.

The passage above is a case in point. Most of the language is familiar to laymen. Nobody pauses over “book reading. . . essay writing . . . forms of expression. . . success . . . stewards of the communication arts . . . tacit and implicit ways . . . literacy competencies.” They might hesitate over the kind of “confrontation” and “challenge” NCTE envisions as teachers draw their focus away from book reading and essay writing, but the sense of the passage generally is clear.

Two words, however, stand out as unusual: “decenter” and “valorize.” They have a lot of responsibility in that paragraph, but laymen can’t quite apprehend them. Such words don’t come up in ordinary conversation, not even in professional domains. They have the aura of complexity, adding intellectual cachet to the recommendation and making the shift away from print seem sophisticated and disciplinary. That’s the point. “Decentering” and “valorization” sound like acts of expertise. Only a trained person knows how to carry them out adroitly. The terms suggest that only the virtuosi at NCTE know what must be done, and only they are astute enough to do it.

But anyone with long experience in literary theory knows otherwise. The unfortunate truth about this particular locution, which is supposed to denote our proper advance into the 21st century, is that it rests on holdovers from more than 50 years ago. For “decentering” and “valorization” are not the fresh coinages that Digital Age breakthroughs are said to deserve. They come from deconstruction circa 1966. Decentering was an essential move in deconstructionist interpretation as Jacques Derrida laid it out in his hugely influential essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The same is true of valorization—or, rather, devalorization—which Derrida articulated at length in Of Grammatology. By 1980, hundreds of such readings had been carried out, and it had already begun to acquire a mechanical character. That NCTE would resort to these old clichés only shows that the progressive, forward-looking, oh-so-modish thought-world of the drafters of this media statement is no such thing.

The phony sophistication undermines the credibility of NCTE more soundly than does a debate over the status of print in a digital era. The style undoes NCTE more than the content (as does the mixed metaphor in the first sentence of the passage, “decenter . . . pinnacles,” along with the treatment of “media” in the last sentence as singular.) 

The real question is how these middling talents and pompous declaimers ever attained positions of authority within the field. What kind of decadence afflicts us when the pedagogues of print are the vandals of print instruction? How did the guardianship of books become the duty of people who aren’t terribly bookish? 

Our humanistic institutions are in the hands of people whose humanitas is feeble. They’re proud of that fact, though. They believe it’s warranted by social conditions, and they’re ready to pass along their ineptitude to the pupils they’re paid to edify.

[Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.]

Wednesday, April 13, 2022


The loose discipline of the Barbarians always exposed them to the danger of a surprise; but, instead of choosing the dissolute hours of riot and intemperance, Stilicho resolved to attack the Christian Goths, whilst they were devoutly employed in celebrating the festival of Easter. The execution of the stratagem, or, as it was termed by the clergy, of the sacrilege, was intrusted to Saul, a Barbarian and a Pagan, who had served, however, with distinguished reputation among the veteran generals of Theodosius. 

The camp of the Goths, which Alaric had pitched in the neighborhood of Pollentia, was thrown into confusion by the sudden and impetuous charge of the Imperial cavalry; but, in a few moments, the undaunted genius of their leader gave them an order, and a field of battle; and, as soon as they had recovered from their astonishment, the pious confidence, that the God of the Christians would assert their cause, added new strength to their native valor. In this engagement, which was long maintained with equal courage and success, the chief of the Alani, whose diminutive and savage form concealed a magnanimous soul approved his suspected loyalty, by the zeal with which he fought, and fell, in the service of the Republic; and the fame of this gallant Barbarian has been imperfectly preserved in the verses of Claudian, since the poet, who celebrates his virtue, has omitted the mention of his name. 

His death was followed by the flight and dismay of the squadrons which he commanded; and the defeat of the wing of cavalry might have decided the victory of Alaric, if Stilicho had not immediately led the Roman and Barbarian infantry to the attack. The skill of the general, and the bravery of the soldiers, surmounted every obstacle. In the evening of the bloody day, the Goths retreated from the field of battle; the intrenchments of their camp were forced, and the scene of rapine and slaughter made some atonement for the calamities which they had inflicted on the subjects of the empire. The magnificent spoils of Corinth and Argos enriched the veterans of the West; the captive wife of Alaric, who had impatiently claimed his promise of Roman jewels and Patrician handmaids, was reduced to implore the mercy of the insulting foe; and many thousand prisoners, released from the Gothic chains, dispersed through the provinces of Italy the praises of their heroic deliverer. 

The triumph of Stilicho was compared by the poet, and perhaps by the public, to that of Marius; who, in the same part of Italy, had encountered and destroyed another army of Northern Barbarians. The huge bones, and the empty helmets, of the Cimbri and of the Goths, would easily be confounded by succeeding generations; and posterity might erect a common trophy to the memory of the two most illustrious generals, who had vanquished, on the same memorable ground, the two most formidable enemies of Rome.

Edward Gibbon, [1777]. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume 3. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, April 7, 2022


Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (549-553). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Robert Tombs is a professor of history at Cambridge University.

...Parliament responded in 1834 by emancipating 800,000 slaves in the empire, paying a huge £20m in compensation to the owners—equal to a third of the state budget—and requiring a four-year “apprenticeship” by slaves. This was thus a compromise measure, but still its anniversary was publicly celebrated annually by American abolitionists as a great achievement. In 1843 British subjects were forbidden to own slaves anywhere in the world. The abolition of slavery in the empire in practice applied to slave ownership by whites. Greatly affected was the Cape Colony, one of the most rigid and oppressive slave societies in history. The “Boers” (Dutch-speaking settlers) responded by trekking out of British territory, outraged that black people were “placed on an equal footing with Christians, contrary to the laws of God.” 

Traditional forms of servitude remained endemic in Africa and Asia, however, and in places still remain; and colonial authorities were very cautious about tackling them. Even when other states agreed to outlaw slave trafficking—sometimes (as with Spain and Portugal) with compensation paid by Britain—they commonly winked at evasion. So the Royal Navy placed a permanent squadron from 1808 to 1870, at times equal to a sixth of its ships, to try to intercept slavers off West Africa. It was based at Freetown, the capital of the colony for freed slaves at Sierra Leone, which had the first African Anglican bishop, Samuel Crowther, rescued as a boy from a slave ship by the Royal Navy. Patrolling was a thankless and gruelling effort, exposing crews to yellow fever, hardship and even personal legal liability for damages; it also cost a large amount of taxpayers’ money. 
France and the United States refused to allow the Royal Navy to search ships flying their flags. There was continual diplomatic friction with slave-trading states. British officials there were often threatened with violence. During the 1830s and 1840s several American ships forced by bad weather into British colonial territory had the slaves they were carrying released. 

In 1839 in the famous case of the slave ship Amistad, when captives rebelled and killed the captain, British testimony proving illegal action by American officials helped to secure their freedom. A serious dispute with the United States occurred in 1841 when American slaves on the ship Creole, being taken from Virginia to be sold in New Orleans, seized the ship and killed a slave-trader. They were given asylum in the British-ruled Bahamas, where they were acquitted of any crime and declared free. 

Britain signed forty-five treaties with African rulers to stop the traffic at source. They were very reluctant to give it up, even threatening to kill all their slaves if they were prevented from selling them. In several cases, Britain paid them to abandon the traffic. Abolitionists urged that Britain should maintain a territorial presence in West Africa, to combat illegal trafficking and promote legitimate commerce, such as palm oil, to wean African rulers and Liverpool merchants away from slaving and towards soap manufacture—a good example of cleanliness being next to godliness. By 1830 palm oil exports were worth more than the slave trade. 

But the trade continued, and the Royal Navy adopted more aggressive tactics, including blockading rivers and destroying slave pens on shore, even when these were foreign property. In 1861 it occupied Lagos, deposing the ruler who refused to stop the trade, and thus blocked one of the main slave routes. Over sixty years the navy captured hundreds of slave ships off the African coast and freed some 160,000 captives...

Monday, April 4, 2022


2 April 2022

Dear Mr. Fitzhugh,

I hope you are doing well. My name is Andrew Maglio, and I am a senior at Conard High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. Over the years, I’ve emailed you intermittently with questions about my submission to the Review.

Two years ago, when the pandemic began, I took the opportunity afforded by the lack of time engaged in formal classroom learning to start a paper for submission to The Concord Review. I spent the next several months totally engrossed in this endeavor. At the end of it, I had a nearly 60-page research paper analyzing the publication and public debate around Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring.

This year, throughout the college application process and more generally as I have reflected on my life thus far as I prepare to begin a new chapter, I have considered the things that have defined my life. The Concord Review is one of the first things to come to mind. Even though my paper was not published, it is certainly the single-most transformative academic experience I have ever had. Through it, I solidified my interest in studying history and perhaps working professionally in the field. Moreover, it is the first time I conducted this type of rigorous and (equally) rewarding scholarship. Because my paper focused on the history of science, I realized that this was the specific niche I wanted to study in college (at the colleges that I applied to that offer it, of course).

While my paper’s greatest impact was on me personally, I also know it was an integral part of my applications to colleges as a prospective history major. I listed it as one of my top activities, spent considerable essays discussing it or related ideas, and the teacher who advised me in this project wrote one of my recommendations. I believe colleges recognize the immense benefit of writing a paper (published or not) for your publication: I was accepted to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale (among a few other schools) to study history next year. The paper your publication inspired certainly helped me to convey my interest in history and fascination with research to these universities.

I owe you a great debt for the opportunity you have afforded to me and so many other students. Truly The Review is such a wonderful gift to students like me. When I filled out Yale’s short essay on what inspires me, I discussed the work of Albrecht Dürer, a subtle homage to your journal, with some of his illustrations. Your journal continues to inspire me.

Thank you again for all that you do.

[Andrew Maglio
Conard High School Class of 2022
West Hartford, Connecticut]