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Pedagogy 4.3 (2004) 469-474

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Active Learning:

Some Questions for Literary Studies

[Works Cited for Roundtable]
Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning. By Martin Bickman. New York: Teachers College Press, 2003.

In the introduction to his new book, Martin Bickman asserts that literature, creative writing, and critical theory may have something to offer an American tradition of active learning (3). This seems to be his reason for including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, John Dewey, George Dennison, and John Holt (among others) all in the same monograph. Two aims seem especially compelling to him. The first is his desire to "rescue the Transcendentalists from the restricted realm of belles lettres." A second, much broader, though certainly related goal is "to . . . see what insights literary studies can bring to our educational thinking" (3). Bickman does attempt early on to trace suggestions from what are usually configured as literary concerns to their implications in pedagogy. Yet I find it problematic that he does almost nothing to connect his "tradition" with recent scholarship in active learning. Almost immediately it becomes apparent that the emphasis on literary studies will put him at cross-purposes with any "tradition" of active learning that he wants to reclaim. [End Page 469]

This is perhaps most evident in the last chapter, though there are problems along these lines throughout this work, and it leads me to suspect one of three problems in the mix: either he is still making connections in his reading of the literature on active learning (this is a process that can be ongoing); he is ignoring literature on active learning because he wants to demonstrate how far the study of literature can take us in that direction (perhaps, but why do this?); or the attempt to draw pedagogy from literature, creative writing, and critical theory does not hold out much promise after all (about this, I would like to reserve judgment).

Bickman is a scholar of American romanticism, and he seems to have an interest in recent culture debates about education reform. In fact, yet another stated aim of this book is to provide dialogue between educational progressives and conservatives over the future direction of literacy education in this country. Bickman situates his monograph in the context of Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000), noting that while Ravitch convincingly shows the "anti-intellectual" nature of many efforts that have described themselves as "progressive reform movements" (2), she fails to critique anti-intellectual tendencies in conservative movements.

Though the discussion is occasionally inflected by this reading of education reform (Dennison and Holt, for example), this concern is often superceded by an interest in literary analysis. An example of this comes early in the second chapter, "Romantic Wholism," where Bickman seems to drop the discussion of active learning entirely (except to note the connection to action and thought in Margaret Fuller's language) and instead constructs a Jungian analysis of Fuller's poetry. Though he sustains this analysis by occasionally asserting the connection between thought and action in Emerson, this chapter is given entirely to explicating Fuller's poems for their contribution to literary romanticism.

In his reclamation efforts here, Bickman does manage to challenge some common assumptions about teaching. To his credit, his language is almost always concrete. This is significant, for Minding American Education seems directed at confronting Western metaphysical assumptions that produce the mind-body and subject-object dualisms often lurking behind traditional ideas of teaching. But so do a number of other works concerned with critical theory, and Bickman does little to show the specific connection to pedagogy. This becomes especially problematic as Bickman himself seems to lament a disconnection between theory and practice in much graduate education, which he describes as being influenced, on the one hand, by post-structuralist [End Page 470] theory, and yet delivered, on the other, as lectures in courses where lip service is given to the possibility of there being more than one right way to interpret a text (152). Initially, it would...


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