What James Joyce, Shakespeare Tell Us About Education Battles Today

I happened to pick up Declan Kiberd's new book, Ulysses and us: The art of everyday life in Joyce's masterpiece, for two reasons. First, my son in New York was taking a class on James Joyce's Ulysses. Second, it has a beautiful photo on the cover -- Marilyn Monroe sitting in a park reading the great novel. But Kiberd's argument surprised me -- I caught my breath as I recognized a thoughtful, deeply considered critique of education as it has developed over the past century. His insights push us to think deeply about the purposes of education and the current debates about what should be done.

The thesis Kiberd develops is that this Ulysses, the holy grail of difficult novels of the 20th Century, was never supposed to be a remote, impenetrable text. Indeed Joyce was, like many Irish authors, writing an anti-colonial project, a critique of the master tongue of the King's English, by creating a novel written in multiple viewpoints, often in stream of consciousness -- following the contours of the mind's internal monologue -- and invented words to suit the situations. This way Joyce "connects the reader with his or her inner strangeness, helping us to make friends with our buried selves."

He argues for a democratic approach to literacy, an approach that presupposes that people can engage and appreciate a good text. Joyce himself had only limited formal academic training. He reminds us of Whitman's point that the greatest writers were "only at ease among the unlearned, and that Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare were great precisely because they tapped into the energies of common people." One could add to this list Toni Morrison, Mark Twain, Amitav Ghosh, Junot Diaz, Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes and so many more.

Schooling has been robbed of this welcoming spirit of literature, of the numerous popular and revolutionary voices which populate powerful writing. It has reduced literature to the prescriptive scolds of a Harold Bloom or the forbidding elite museum of a William Bennett. Our students aren't invited to read and engage with literature. They are ordered to decode, to adopt the distant language of eviscerated analytical prose. Kiberd refreshingly reminds us that, just as at a sporting event, everyone should feel entitled to have a valid opinion on the game, even if they are viewing it in different ways.

He points out that in the early twentieth century it was common for reading groups to exist among working people in Ireland and England which did not hesitate at all to take up Shakespeare or any other text. But one of the great travesties of the universities has been to undermine democratic literacy: "Democracy was no longer seen as the sharing of a common fund of textual knowledge but as providing access to this or that super-educated grouping. No longer was the prevailing idea that anyone bright enough could read and understand Hamlet or Ulysses but that anyone sufficiently clever could aspire to become one of the paid specialists who did such things. Today's social movements aim at the inclusion of gifted souls in the dominant structure rather than at the revolutionary transformation of social relations. Hence the pseudo-radical interpretations of Joyce produced over the past two decades of 'critical theory' have challenged neither the growing corporate stranglehold over universities nor the specialist stranglehold over Joyce. They have in fact strengthened both forces. And that is because 'theory' is rarely concerned with linking analysis to real action in the world."
And he is so right.

One of the strangest things to see is the way that "critical theory," which purported to advocate for and empower the marginalized in its inception, has become simply another remote attainment, another academic performance, for the educated elite. Those who have been cast aside by educational institutions are not invited to the dinner table, are not allowed in the conversations.

Take the book which is all the rage in high school English departments, Critical encounters in high school English: Teaching literary theory to adolescents by Deborah Appleman. This strikes me as a book that is not meant for the very black and brown students, the women, the working class, the immigrants that critical theory purports to empower.

Rather it is clever advice for Advanced Placement teachers to prepare students for the remote discourse of university English classes.

Kiberd, like Joyce, like Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, is calling for a democratic education, one accessible to all. Teachers should ask questions, explore legends, contemplate the whole world, near and far. "Democracy should educate and education should democratize," he declares. It calls to mind the complaint of another Irishman, another rebel against the hierarchical and repressive nature of British education, William Butler Yeats who wrote the short, angry poem called "The Scholars":

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love's despair
To flatter beauty's ignorant ear.

All shuffle there, all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbor knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

These are the fundamental questions about education. What is it for? Who has a right to speak? Whose knowledge is ratified and whose is forbidden? Joyce did not set out to make a remote piece. It was the scholars who did that. This reminds us that we cannot let others frame the debate, we cannot simply respond to their arguments when a false premise has been set up.
In government, the right wing has successfully declared that the problem is the budget and that there is no money. Once we try to respond in those terms, we lose the debate. For there is not a budget problem, there is a priority problem. Wall Street, the health care hustlers, and the Pentagon do not deserve the wealth of society. They are the ones bleeding us dry, not the teachers with their modest salaries and benefits.

Likewise in education, we must reject the framing of the right. They have every panel and commentary responding to their proposition that we are facing a crisis of low achievement in science and math. No one questions their premise that science and math will help the United States to stay on top of world power. And certainly it is a matter of faith that it is desirable to dominate and exploit others.

But Kiberd challenges us to take a deep breath and get back to reality. Education for democracy means engaging the joy, the creativity, and the power of people in society. We need to stop chasing the insane goals established by the neo-liberals, the militarists, the privatizers, and be about the business of transformative and deep learning. We need empowered communities -- not passive recipients of charity from above, but communities that demand the resources and freedom to pursue their deep interests. We need a curriculum of inquiry, questioning, critical thinking, curiosity, imagination, one that emphasizes civic discussion and social ethics, that places a high priority on music and the arts as well as new digital media. We need assessments that reflect the complexity and reality of student performance in schools -- not standardized tests but projects, portfolios, and actual work in the real world. And we need science and math curricula that are meaningful, engaging, and rigorous instead of the dreary regime of memorized formulas and the unscientific notion that we are teaching settled, decontextualized truths.

Kiberd reminds us to hold on to, and honor, the truly democratic project that education must be.