How Prep-school Pedagogy Strangles Literature
By Britton Buttrill
I’m a novelist and a playwright living in New York City, but for almost a decade, I’ve paid my bills by teaching secondary-English. I recently transitioned from a Harlem high-needs public school to an elite preparatory school. It is here that, if I ask my students’ opinion why they think literature is part of the required curriculum (i.e. why read books?), they usually reference a social justice concept. These students are quite good at identifying instances of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, etc. in a novel, poem, or play. Yet, asking them to discuss matters of style, aesthetics, literary history, or the beauty and complexity of art is like posing an advanced calculus problem. Indirectly related to this: I haven’t seen The Odyssey, The Iliad, or Edith Hamilton’s Mythology on a Literature syllabus, in either a public or private school, since at least 2016. Whatever comprehension of Classical Mythology exists, it comes from Social Studies courses, private tutoring, or pop culture. Practically speaking, such a lack of exposure to the Western Canon means that I rarely teach literary allusion nowadays because I don’t have time to explain every reference. I believe this is a feature, not a bug. This elite understanding—and I do think it is an attitude prevalent among the socially privileged—of English literature has been shaped by the work of Paulo Freire as summed up in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Freire was a Brazilian educator forced into exile after a 1964 military coup. During the late 1960s, he taught in impoverished neighborhoods in Chile, then he took on a position at Harvard where he wrote his teaching philosophy, aimed at providing teachers with the means to help marginalized populations emancipate themselves. Following from Marxism, the book argues that education systems are designed to disenfranchise the poor and working-class members. For Freire, education under such a rigid order follows a “banking system”, wherein students serve as a repository for ideas imposed on them by the State. Teachers remain unaware of their complicity in this indoctrination, with the cycle of conformity and indoctrination perpetuating itself indefinitely. A ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ presents an alternate framework, where a teacher’s job is to give their students the tools to understand State ideologies, to become co-creators of knowledge, and then to act in collective resistance against the regime.
Critical Pedagogy is valuable for many student populations. It gives teachers in high-needs, impoverished communities, a tool-kit to help better students’ lives. In fact, Freire’s philosophy guided my graduate studies in English teaching, then shaped how I taught in New York City’s high-needs schools. Using Freire’s approach, informed by other critical theories, made Shakespeare and Sophocles conceptually accessible, provided my students with a vocabulary for their lived experience, and created a path towards understanding the power of Literature. I was a proud ‘critical pedagogue’ in these communities. Yet, those students are not the majority in New York City’s elite prep schools.
I’ve come to realize that elite, majority-White institutions have co-opted Critical Pedagogy, resulting in institutional capture. This ‘Criticality’ is degrading literary study, specifically because it is being used in institutions that set educational standards. A cursory example of this is Columbia’s Teacher’s College, which lists Pedagogy of the Oppressed alongside Horace Mann and Rousseau as “foundational texts” in education. Freire’s approach incentivizes the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, degrading the study of language and literature by filling students’ heads with a socially functionalist definition of literature, which is, itself, a ‘banking system’. Students are no longer ‘deconstructing’ the Western Canon—they are blithely unaware of its existence.
As literary scholar, Dr. Rita Felski observes, “ways of reading gradually shift over time” and “it is difficult to imagine how education might proceed without a base level of continuity, repetition, and transmission of prior knowledge.” The ‘inherited body of knowledge’ that we call Literature is being erased by elite educators, who have replaced truth with ideology, admiration with suspicion. In these spaces, Critical Pedagogy’s biggest impact is the propagation of an anti-aesthetic ideology. Writing in The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk called this an “identity synthesis” which is distilled into the idea that human experience is defined by power relationships as seen through essentialist understandings of socially constructed identity categories. Under this framework, an English teacher’s imperative is to negotiate where a book fits into this zero-sum game of Oppressor versus Oppressed. As a result, literature becomes devoid of truth, beauty, and nuance.
I had an internal conflict writing this piece, because Freire and his Critical Pedagogy did allow me to connect with students, to foster their passion for literature, and to give them a vocabulary for the systemic inequities surrounding them. Yet, the ‘privileged’ students learning under this system will one day be in positions of power. What they will have gained, and what they will pass on, from their English instructors is a vacuous, cynical understanding of something to which I have dedicated my life, i.e. the writing and teaching of Literature. However, I am drawn back from total cynicism by the words of Harold Bloom who said, “critical reading, the discipline of how to read and why, will survive in those solitary scholars, out in society, whose single candles Emerson prophesied and Wallace Stevens celebrated.” Perhaps if I’ve fostered one of these solitary scholars, then the job will have been worth it.
• Katz, Leticia; “Paulo Freire Initiative at Columbia University”, Columbia Global Centers: News, (September 21st, 2021)
• “Doctorial Fields of Study: Education & Philosophy: Foundations of Education.” Columbia University Teacher’s College, website.
• Freire, Paulo; Pedagogy of the Oppressed; trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. Continuum International Publishing (New York, 2005)
• Felski, Rita; “Context Stinks!”, New Literary History, vol. 42, No. 4, Context? (AUTUMN 2011), The Johns Hopkins University Press.
• Mounk, Yasha; “Where the New Identity Politics Went Wrong”, The Atlantic, (Sept. 2023)
• Bloom, Harold; Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays with a Forward by Harold Bloom. Princeton University Press. (Princeton, 2000)
Bio: Britton Buttrill is a writer from the American South. He was a finalist for the Nick Darke Award and a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference. His work has been published in The TONIC Journal, SamFiftyFour Literary, Opium Magazine, The New York Public Library ‘Zine, and The New York Times’ “Tiny Love Stories”, among others. His stage plays have been produced off-off Broadway and regionally. He holds an MA in English teaching and an MFA in playwriting. Britton lives in New York with his wife and son. www.brittonbuttrill.com