If we concede (as I’ve pointed out here before) that English classes in High Schools are not really about teaching the language of English, but rather about helping students understand the nature of both logical thought as well as the linear nature of communication, the the logical conclusion is that the literature we use in these classes is nothing more than fodder for our thought and communication experiments and practice. As such, it seems that we should not limit ourselves to the standard cannon of literature. The books that occupy places in that cannon are there as a result of their long term relevance to our culture. They have become, so to speak, cultural touchstones that provide a common experience across communities and generations. I’m not interested in discounting the power of those cultural touchstones, but I am interested in evaluation if the range of what we use for literature in our High School classrooms best prepares our students for their adult lives.
While I’m sure you can make a cogent argument about the relevancy of any book we use, I offer that while books were once the only instrument available for the transmission of ideas, they no longer enjoy such a monopoly. Widespread accessible means such as video, graphic, and photographic represents egalitarian means of communication in ways never before possible. It has become incumbent on us, as educators, to ensure that our students are completely literate as they graduate and enter the world.
The classical definition of “literate” is inadequate. The mere ability to both read and write, while extremely important, no longer comprise the only skills needed to be relevant. Media literacy has become a new standard, and one that educators have been woefully slow to embrace. Students must become familiar with video, graphic design, and music. They must understand managing a digital footprint and crafting a brand of themselves. They must know how to compartmentalize and privatize their information. They must understand how to communicate via both long form and short form digital means. Email etiquette. Skype conventions. Instagram behavior. While we’d like to think that our students already know these things, or that they’ll learn them organically, the reality is that they are being left woefully behind to fend for themselves. And not only is there no guidance for them, but they are making mistakes that persist well into their adult lives.
As I’ve said many, many times before: Schools need to be sharks. We die when we stop moving. We must reconsider our view on the integration of new forms of media if we want education to remain relevant.