The Disenchanted Classroom
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c h a p t e r t w o The Disenchanted Classroom If a life fulfilled its vocation directly, it would miss it. —Adorno1 Discussions of pedagogy are subject to many different interests, not all of them compatible and some even disagreeable. The genre asks for descriptive pragmatism, a dispassionate account of the materials and strategies of teaching a certain body of texts. But as soon as one begins to reflect on why one does what one does in the classroom, self-justifying and polemical interests inevitably emerge. This essay will not pretend to have avoided such unattractive qualities, even as it argues against self-justification and polemic in the classroom. But whether acknowledged or not, pedagogical practice always rests on theoretical presuppositions, and in the second part of this essay I shall draw upon the work of Max Weber in order to define my own presuppositions. Then in the third part I shall argue that 31 Patterson-02 9/17/09 4:04 PM Page 31 there is a connection between “responsible” pedagogy (in Weberian terms) and the kind of historicist criticism I try to use to explicate Chaucer’s poetry in the classroom. However, I claim neither that what I shall describe as my practice is my actual practice—it is instead a model from which the imperfect reality of day-to-day work doubtless diverges—nor that this practice is appropriate for anyone else. While this essay offers a rationale for teaching literature that means to be valid in general rather than merely personal terms, it also argues that values are by definition incapable of proof, an incapacity that must also apply to mine. Finally, as a last demurral , I shall not appeal to student response as proof of anything. Teaching and learning are different activities, and to measure what students learn from a course in literature would require a serious investigation that cannot be accomplished by the sketchy course evaluations that typically serve as the sole evidence of classroom effectiveness.2 I If the question of “what” cannot be divorced from “why,” neither can it be divorced from “how.” And “how” is conditioned above all by institutional requirements. At present the question of method is understood largely in the terms most influentially expressed by Paolo Freire in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As we all know, perhaps without quite knowing precisely how we know, a distinction has been established between a “banking model” of education, in which students are regarded as empty receptacles into which the all-knowing teacher “deposits” knowledge (bad), and “problem-posing education,” in which the teacher, as a “culture worker,” creates a dialogue with students in order, in Freire’s words, to “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (good).3 In this model—designed by Freire to confront the social needs of his native Brazil—the goal of teaching is to free students from the false consciousness that allows them to accept as inevitable life conditions that can be changed. At every stage the teacher seeks to subvert rather than encourage passivity, a process that requires not monologue but dialogue. Current discussions of pedagogy ring with Freire-inspired manifestos. As the editors of an influential book of essays on teaching declare, “Peda32 Acts of Recognition Patterson-02 9/17/09 4:04 PM Page 32 gogy is about the linkage of teaching to social empowerment, leading to a politics of social strength, but in the context of shared social conceptions of justice and rights—that is to say, the radical pedagogy of the engaged intellectual is connected to the politics of everyday life.”4 Well, maybe. Given the heterogeneity of the students who attend the various kinds of post-secondary institutions available in the United States (not to speak of all the potential students to whom post-secondary education is closed), it would be wrong to declare that this is simply an inappropriate goal for American literary educators. But the Freire model does carry with it four assumptions that actually work against its premise of the dialogic equality of teacher and student. 1) It assumes that the student is actually in a condition of false consciousness concerning contemporary social conditions, which is—at least in my experience as both teacher and parent—a large assumption; 2) it...

Subject Headings

  • Literature and society -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • England -- Civilization -- 1066-1485.
  • Historical criticism (Literature).
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
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