Why Johnny can't read: an analysis fuzzed by political ideology

On Literacy: The Politics of the Word from Homer to the Age of Rock, by Robert Pattison. New York: Oxford University Press. 246 pp. $6.95 (paperback). MOST teachers of English in American public schools and colleges will no doubt be surprised to learn that they deliberately do not try to teach their students how to think critically. At least this is what Robert Pattison, a teacher of English at Southampton College of Long Island University, claims in ''On Literacy: The Politics of the Word from Homer to the Age of Rock.''

In an attempt to explain why so many college freshmen read and write so poorly today, Pattison suggests it is because they have been taught reading and writing as mechanical skills and have been alienated from meaningful writing by an insistence on Standard English usage. Teachers have done this, Pattison claims, in order to produce obedient and productive workers for a society Pattison sees as controlled by an upper-middle-class elite. This elite, he feels , has been taught, in a few elite schools, the kind of curriculum that develops its critical faculties and enables it to maintain leadership.

As a consequence of this ''two-class system,'' most students, Pattison contends, have developed a preference for an informal, oral ''literacy'' that, according to him, expresses the ''fullness of life'' and the ''power of the living language.'' This ''literacy,'' he suggests, may be best exemplified by the lyrics of rock music.

Pattison sets out to show how this oral ''literacy'' is the revolutionary movement of the future. He does so by tracing the role of literacy in various cultures, from its beginnings in the ancient world, through the Middle Ages, to England from the Renaissance on, and to America today. Pattison suggests that the ''middle-class'' literacy of the West today is like the literacy that was controlled by the church in the Middle Ages, and that the rise of this new oral culture is a rebellion against the language of the middle class in much the same way that the vernacular or native language in the Renaissance was used to oppose the powerful but dead language of the church.

Nevertheless, Pattison admits that the oral ''literates'' of today need to be able to read and use the language that he believes has been used by a middle-class elite to control them. This means that they will have to be taught ''correct English.'' Unfortunately, Pattison offers no clue as to how this is to be done, or how he may have accomplished this himself as a teacher - or even if he did.

Even more unfortunately, the overall educational solution he offers is beset by a major problem. In his final chapter, Pattison recommends that all students study Greek, Latin, and English classics, the kind of curriculum he suggests the middle-class elite has had in its schools. If all students study the ''elite texts,'' he reasons, then all will be eligible for positions of power.

Although Pattison describes himself as a political radical, the program he recommends is exactly the traditional language-and-literature curriculum offered by public high schools many years ago. This curriculum was (and still is) desired by some students - but unwanted by many others. A compulsory classical curriculum for all high school students would not be a ''politically radical'' solution to the problems of the comprehensive American high school. It would be a reactionary one.

It is sad that a writer as literate as Pattison does not use his critical thinking for a non-ideological examination of why students prefer the lyrics of rock to the poetry of Shakespeare or Milton and what teachers could do to broaden their interests. Pattison could have made a genuine case against teaching grammar as a substitute for teaching composition. Instead, he has produced yet another anti-middle-class diatribe that offers no substantive help to educators.

Not only is he contemptuous of English teachers, who, he feels, have exposed students to nothing more than a succession of ''tawdry literature anthologies''; he is contemptuous of his students as well. He refers to them as ''boneheads,'' ''airheads,'' ''college-trained illiterates,'' or as the ''illiterate lower-middle classes.'' The tone of his text does not suggest an educator truly concerned with the development of critical thinking in a generation raised on rock. It suggests, instead, a patrician snob posing as a political radical who wishes to shock the bourgeoisie and who secretly despises the masses he professes to champion.

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