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Critical theory

Gerald Graff and the Future of Critical Pedagogy

Gerald Graff

Gerald Graff

Gerald Graff In his early books, Literature Against Itself (1979) and Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987), Graff took as his main subjects literary theory and the institutional history of departments of English and literature, respectively. Literature Against Itself continues to be of interest and value for its discussion and analysis of competing schools of literary theory; and the historical narrative of the history of the post-secondary teaching of English that informs Professing Literature continues to enlighten anyone interested in curriculum design and canon-making. But perhaps these two early books can also be appreciated for their having afforded Graff the opportunity to work out the foundational arguments and historical perspectives that enabled him in his later books — Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (1992) and Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind(2003) — to effectively argue and explain why students across the curriculum would benefit from a more critical style of pedagogy.

In Literature Against Itself Graff analyzes the premises, conclusions, and implications of various literary theories and contemporary schools of criticism in terms of their validity and effectiveness for pedagogy and criticism. And in Professing Literature Graff shows how the various teaching methods and choices of texts in departments of literature from the nineteenth though the early twentieth century suggest that new methods and new canons of study-worthy texts will continue to appear. In the more recent Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (1992), Graff foregrounds the conclusions and pedagogical injunctions proffered in his earlier books. In the decade following the publication of Beyond the Culture Wars, Graff himself decided to put the pedogogical injunctions based on his conclusions into practice, coediting, with James Phelan, two “critical controversy” textbooks: Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Tempest. Both of these textbooks are in their second editions. In his most recent book, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (2003), Graff continues to explore the pedagogical implications of what he discovered in researching and writing his earlier books on theory and the institutional history of literature departments.

Teaching the controversies or conflicts has ironically even been taken up by a group which eschews rational argument — a sine qua non of Graff’s critical pedagogy: religious fundamentalists. I would agree to a certain extent with anyone who thinks it unfortunate that some religious fundamentalists — in their efforts to get creationist mythology (intelligent design) taught in public school science courses — have co-opted Graff’s phrase “teaching the controversies.” But consider what violence religious fundamentalists of all faiths have resorted to when discussion stops. So, however ironic or unintended, part of Graff’s legacy is to have afforded educators the pedagogic means to obviate the conditions in which thoughts of intellectual, political, or outright physical violence might flourish. So, by all means, let the fundamentalists, in good faith (interesting word!) teach the controversies — but in their religious schools not in public classrooms. Let the conflicts continue to be taught and discussed by everyone — rational free-thinkers and fundamentalists alike.

Let the controversies and the conversations they engender continue.

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