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Who Are You, Mr. English Professor?
As I was completing this review, my son Daniel, a history teacher in California, phoned to deliver a rant on the corruptions of the capitalist order, his text for the day a Web site devoted entirely to selling essays on Gilgamesh. It is dispiriting to realize how swiftly Cliffs Notes principles have been diffused across the Web. It is even more disturbing to reflect on how minutely the canon of Western literature has been routinized and commodified, murdered and dissected by assembly-line practices, and then to think on how enfeebled must be the reading and writing skills of the poor souls who buy such papers. This factory for Gilgamesh papers—the whole disgraceful industry of which it is a part—is a pitiful and decisive result, Sheridan Blau would argue, of an "interpretive welfare system" (200) that has been in place in our schools for at least two generations, if not much longer, in which students remain dependent on teachers for understanding literary texts, unable to call on their own interpretive powers.
The Literature Workshop distills Blau's forty-year career as a teacher of English and a teacher of teachers. It is addressed to teachers of literature at all levels of schooling but especially the last years of American high school and [End Page 344] the first two years of college and university. The book's central ideas and approach have compelling force in our era of waning confidence in the importance of literature in our culture and in our curricula. The book has a modest, direct tone, but large ambition. From one angle it is an attempt to change the culture of instruction in literature by focusing on questions about learning rather than on questions about the content of what is taught. Implicit in the book is a deep suspicion of lecture courses and large classes, at least until students have achieved genuine autonomy as independent readers of literature.
In one sense it is a perverse book, so narrowly focused—a conversation totally within our own tribal culture of English teachers—as to discourage general readers, who truly would be nourished by its citizenly and communal values.
Here is Blau, for example, on the durable practice of high school and college teachers of "A Modest Proposal" not to tell students before their reading that the essay is satire and must be read ironically. Typically, Blau writes, as the class begins some or many students are oblivious to the irony. Eventually the teacher steers the discussion to passages of particular excess or hyperbole and to other signals of ambiguity or subversion. The satire is revealed to all. Such classes are an instance of "literary miseducation" because they "communicate the idea ... that skilled and sensitive readers will recognize the proposal as satiric immediately ... while those who take the proposal seriously are ... less skilled readers" (91-92).
For Blau these classes misrepresent and mystify "the interpretive skill of the teacher" as well as "the presumed illiteracy and ignorance of the students" (92). Knowledge that the text is satire comes to all, including teachers, not through signals intrinsic to the essay but through extratextual sources such as knowledge of Swift's biography or of the eighteenth century. Blau's defense of the student misreaders demonstrates his respect for them and displays a moral and intellectual clarity all should admire.
For, in a post-Holocaust era, why shouldn't student readers assume that a proposal to butcher and eat the children of the poorest Irish peasants would be offered and taken in earnest by a ruling British colonial government? Why is it more outrageous or impossible to conceive of the commodification of children as meat in the eighteenth century than as lampshades and experimental animals in the twentieth? Would Nazi documents...