Monday, August 10, 2009

101 Readers Could Use Some Ideological Balance

FROM 2007

The last two years I have taught a course called Advanced Placement English Language and Composition (AP Lang, for short). This course is essentially supposed to duplicate, at the high school level, what used to be called English 101, the introduction to college writing.

Teaching this course has allowed me to study some of the readers that are used in the college version of the course, books with titles like Patterns for College Writing, The Riverside Reader, and The Bedford Reader. The readers include many practical compositions tips, but mostly they are full of models, professionally written essays that are supposed to exemplify the rhetorical modes that students will attempt during the course - narration, cause and effect, division and classification, persuasion and argument, and so on. You read, say, a Sarah Vowell essay comparing cowboys and Mounties, and you think "Hey, I could do that," and then you write an essay comparing boys' and girls' dorm rooms, or something like that.

Most of these books include some essays that have been around so long and reprinted so often that they're surely canonical (Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal", E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake", George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant", MLK's "Letter From Birmingham Jail"), but beyond those the compilers have striven to be current, and in doing so they've gathered a good deal of freshness, variety, and quality. The eighth edition of the Riverside Reader, for example, includes among its 50 some odd pieces excerpts from Nickeled and Dimed and Fast Food Nation, plus a couple of intriguing pieces that began life as New Yorker articles: a Malcolm Gladwell profile of SAT-prep pioneer Stanley Kaplan and a Joan Acocella appreciation of the Harry Potter series.

Though no two compilers have chosen exactly the same texts to anthologize, there seems to be a remarkable degree of unanimity about what principle ought to govern the selection of texts.

That principle is that the best kind of person in the world to be is a liberal, NPR-listening New Yorker subscriber. On one level that doesn't bother me because I happen to be a liberal, NPR-listening New Yorker subscriber, and it is always a pleasure to have one's taste affirmed by the academic publishing industry. Moreover, any anthology that exposes students to the glories of artful long-form journalism (and maybe even gives them an appetite for it) is all right by me. On the other hand, I know that space in one of these readers is prominent literary real estate, and if it goes primarily to the Richard Rodriguezes and Barbara Kingsolvers of the world, then the college freshman English students of America are getting an incomplete education, at least from an ideological standpoint. In these readers one can see a subtle manifestation of the liberal humanities echo chamber that so many right wing critics rail about.

To be sure, none of the readers is overtly left wing. Noam Chomsky and his ilk do not appear in the table of contents of any of the volumes I have at hand. And some of the best pieces in these books defy ideological classification. But it is safe to say that most of the writers who are typically anthologized - Anna Quindlen, Maxine Hong Kingston, David Sedaris, Deborah Tannen - would be more at home in the pages of Harper's than in the pages of First Things.

It is true that a conservative writer sometimes appears (the Riverside has a James Q. Wilson essay on what kinds of preconditions are necessary for democracy to flourish, an essay the architects of the Iraq war would have done well to read about five years ago). However, when we get the work of a conservative writer, it is usually something apolitical and curmudgeonly. If you're perusing a freshman comp reader and come across something by William F. Buckley, it is almost certain to be a piece he wrote for Esquire in 1960 about the unwillingness of the typical American to complain about poor service. Anthologizing this Buckley essay is like making a sixties mix tape and using "Octopus's Garden" as your Beatles song.

Let me make clear that I'm not especially concerned about some artificial notion of balance. The anthologizers should never be bullied into publishing second-rate writing by conservatives just to assuage concerns about liberal bias. But there is splendid, imitation-worthy conservative writing out there in the pages of The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary , and other publications. The compilers of these 101 anthologies should not be oblivious to it. They should try to be fair. They're in the education business, after all, so the debate should be open. And, if they're liberals who care about the future of liberalism, who want to save young liberals from the sin of intellectual laziness, then they should publish some of the best the other side has to offer. It may pain them to publish, say, an elegant skewering of some liberal sacred cow by George Will, but trust me, it will sharpen minds.

NOTE: I composed this piece long before Will's notoriously bogus global warming denialism of last February.

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