In his conversation with Sir Roger Scruton, Jordan Peterson mentioned that in his native Ontario, elementary school teachers are teaching children a postmodern approach to literature. I thought that might be an exaggeration. No, it’s not. Here’s a link to the “critical literacy” explainer from the Ontario educational bureaucracy. Excerpt:
1. All texts are constructions. What is written is the product of many decisions and determining factors. Much of our view of reality is based on messages that have been constructed in this way, with the author’s attitudes, interpretations and conclusions already built into the text.
2. All texts contain belief and value messages. Whether oral, print or visual media, texts contain messages which reflect the biases and opinions of their authors/creators; whether intentionally manipulative or not, this means that no text can be neutral or value free.
3. Each person interprets messages differently. Demographic factors such as age, culture, gender and socio-economic status as well as prior experience and knowledge play a role in how we interpret a message.
4. Texts serve different interests. Most media messages are created for profit or to persuade, but all texts are produced intentionally for a purpose. These interests can be commercial, ideological or political.
5. Each medium develops its own “language” in order to position readers/viewers in certain ways. Whether TV program, website or novel, each medium creates meaning differently and each has distinctive techniques, conventions and aesthetics.
It’s not that any of this is … wrong, exactly, but is imbuing kids with a hermeneutic of suspicion as their first exposure to literature really the best approach? Notice what is not included here: the idea that the work of literature might be a vector connecting the reader with Truth, Goodness, or Beauty.
Readers of this monograph will recognize how the expectations of the Ontario Language Curriculum capture the following practices of the four resources model:
1. Code breaking. Students need to be able to identify letters in the alphabet and sounds in words, decipher spelling and grammar conventions such as sentence structure and text organization, and use graphics and other visuals to break the “code” of text. Code breaking is equivalent to basic or functional literacy.
2. Making meaning. Rather than approaching text passively, students need to be encouraged to be a “text participant” – to use their own prior knowledge and experience when reading to interpret what the author is saying and to anticipate where he or she might be going next. They need to learn how to “deconstruct” text, to unmask an author’s purpose and intent, to form interpretations in light of their own knowledge and point of view, and to examine and then find the most effective ways to convey their thinking.
3. Using text. Students need to be introduced to different text forms and how these have different uses which shape the language, structure and organization chosen by the author. Critical literacy teaches students to ask, “What do I do with this text? What will other people do with it? How could it have been written or produced in a different way? It encourages students to become critical consumers of text who understand that meaning is tied not only to the author’s purpose but also to the context in which a text is read and interpreted.
4. Analyzing text. Critical literacy teaches that no text is neutral, that students need to ask, “What is this text trying to convince me of and why?”and “Whose interests does it serve?”. Students need to be encouraged to analyze the author’s motive/intent, to consider fairness, accuracy and reliability and to recognize their own power as readers. They need to be encouraged to evaluate what is said and how it is said in order to uncover and challenge assumptions and ideas about the world, to respond when they disagree and to take social action, even in small ways when they encounter texts that disadvantage certain groups. They need to understand that texts can be changed to recognize or include missing voices and alternative perspectives.
They’re teaching kids to read books through a social justice lens. If a
book text is found by the reader to “disadvantage certain groups,” then Ontario teachers expect the reader “to take social action”. Like what? Push for the book to be banned? What, exactly?
Longtime readers might recall the time I gave a speech on Dante, and a young woman in the audience, during Q&A, asked me in all sincerity why people today have anything to learn from a white European male who, as an inhabitant of late medieval Europe, believed many things that we reject today. I thought she was kidding. We have nothing to learn from Dante because he wasn’t woke?! Really? After the talk, a literature professor told me that this is how so many young people are taught to approach literature. This bright young woman had been crippled by her professors, and had Dante, who is part of her cultural inheritance — indeed, part of the world’s cultural inheritance — ruined for her by these educated barbarians. They maimed her mind.
When I discovered Dante, I found encoded in the Divine Comedy deep truths that set me free (I wrote about the journey of discovery and liberation here). I was fortunate in that I was naive, and didn’t approach the text from any direction other than simply wanting to see what was in it. If I had come to believe as a result of my education that Dante was nothing but a malign example of literary whiteness, I would have missed out on the message in the bottle that turned out to be a map to show me the way out of the prison of my problems.
Critical literacy is an effective vehicle for teaching students how to analyze social issues and unequal power relationships. Critical literacy skills can help students identify, reflect on and analyze underlying power relationships which are seldom apparent and are rarely explored in texts or in the media. As McLaughlin and DeVoogd state, “The teaching of literacy involves the selection and framing of values, ideologies, and contending versions of ‘truth’.” They further define critical literacy as a way of thinking that challenges the inherent meaning of information and, by extension, life situations. Critical literacy is rooted in a rich history of approaching language and communication from a questioning and analytic standpoint.
Critical literacy goes beyond simply decoding and understanding texts; it emphasizes in-depth study in which messages and viewpoints are questioned and the power relationships – both in the text and between the author and readers – are considered. Deepening students’ understanding of social justice through critical literacy equips them with knowledge that may help them to perceive and take action against injustice.
You will not be surprised that the author of this piece claims that critical literacy is necessary to build — wait for it — safer schools.
I see why Peterson is so angry about this stuff. For him, I gather, it’s not about politics; it’s about educating people for mental bondage.
I had not realized either how militantly P.C. the Ontario elementary school teacher’s union is. They’re heavily focused on “social justice” (see this program), and militantly left-wing about cultural matters. Some 81,000 elementary school teachers in Ontario belong to this union. It comes across as a political cult. Those poor children, indoctrinated from such a young age.
It really is the case that classical Christian schools are Benedict Option outposts. If you don’t know what classical Christian education is, spend some time on the Circe Institute website. Here, for example, is a tight little essay by classical Christian teacher Joshua Gibbs, explaining that classical education is not about restoring a Golden Age. There are plenty other resources for classical Christian education online. I bring it up here to let you know that you do not have to despair. There is another way. There are classical Christian schools in Canada too!
Below is a short video from Sequitur Classical Academy here in Baton Rouge. Imagine having a teacher like Thomas Achord leading your children into the “great conversation” — this, as opposed to a grim Social Justice Warrior teaching children to approach literature and the humanities with suspicion and spite.
UPDATE: Reader Joachim:
We did a fair amount of this at my (very liberal) private school and I absolutely detested it, though at the time I couldn’t understand why it felt so soul-crushing.
Critical theory is a hammer. A useful hammer, perhaps, though we may disagree on that point. But the problem here is that children going through this curriculum will arrive on the other end with precisely one thing in their possession: a hammer. Two things, if you count extensive training in how to make anything look like a nail.
They’ll have no conception of what might be built, much less what should be built, and no tools to build with even if they make it past those first two hurdles. Hell, they won’t even know why they’re hammering nails in the first place.