While we writers often look to other writers for support and (one hopes) are good literary citizens ourselves, we shouldn’t limit the notion of literary citizenship to other writers and our partners in the publishing industry. We should reach beyond the boundaries of our community and cross-pollinate with other types of communities, rooting out and connecting with anyone who has a passion for the written word, which of course, means expanding our idea of our own citizenship.
Because I chair English for 7-12 grades at Flint Hill, a day school outside of DC, I’ve become aware of what good literary citizenship looks like in secondary education. Our education system in America isn’t structured to support a love of reading. The proliferation of standardized testing and the college application process with its emphasis on test scores and APs attempts to quantify, reduce, and box learning, which places great importance on the acquisition of information and the automatization of skills, and de-emphasizes (or altogether ignores) the richness and diversity of aesthetic experience.
The system, you see, is inherently suspicious of emotional response, of intimate connection. Defining how a story or poem makes you feel and the exploration of why it made you feel that way is a rigorous step toward self-understanding. It’s the only way literature has a chance of helping us become better people. Tests, however, can’t quantify that sort of exploration—it’s not compliant enough and much too slippery, too out of the lines—so test preparation doesn’t emphasize or value it.
To build future literary citizens, which I believe is a significant act of literary citizenship, is working against the flow of contemporary education. I’m happy to be a part of an educational institution that, given the constraints of being a college preparatory school, does understand this, but it’s not true for many schools, even despite the many passionate English teachers out there.
At Flint Hill, we weave living writers into the curriculum (Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Chris Cleave, Gene Luen Yang, Khaled Hosseini, Alan Moore, and Cormac McCarthy to name a few), exposing our students to narratives and voices that immediately resonate with them. We also fund a professional author to visit for a Writers’ Day celebration, during which we honor student writers for their excellence in creative and academic writing, and provide the time for students to interact with the visiting author. All of this is our way of suggesting to students the idea that literature isn’t primarily a thing of the past, but a thing of the present—and that reading can be about experiencing something, not just acquiring information, all with the hope of building future readers of contemporary writers, perhaps even future literary citizens.
So I encourage writers to pair with teachers whenever they can to fight this trend and find a way (even if it seems mildly subversive) to reach those students blue about being in a box and hungry for aesthetic experience.
This post originally appeared as part of the Gertrude Stein blog series on the Renegade Writers’ Collective website.