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Reading Against Democracy: The Broken Promises of Reading Instruction

reviewed by Patricia H. Hinchey - July 05, 2007

coverTitle: Reading Against Democracy: The Broken Promises of Reading Instruction
Author(s): Patrick Shannon
Publisher: Heinemann , Portsmouth
ISBN: 0325009767 , Pages: 288, Year: 2007
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For Patrick Shannon, the intersections of business, science and government during the last decade or so amount to a “perfect storm,” generating conditions that “keep even the best school in America in continuous triage activities to keep themselves afloat” (p. 165).  His apt metaphor produces this sketch of public education:

The schools that have not been successful in the past are already submerged below the surface, leaking funds to private businesses, which lurk in the surrounding waters, protected from the same requirements that the schools must now follow.  Some test scores rise for some groups, some fall for others while the tempest blows public schools toward private markets.

Of course this description of business preying on education--thanks to the intervention of the state--will surprise none of the countless critics of No Child Left Behind and certainly none of the vociferous critics of Reading First and the push for “scientific” reading instruction. What Reading Against Democracy does offer out of the ordinary, however, is an unusually thorough and clearly articulated historical account of why and how those of us who sail education’s always turbulent waters have reached this particularly perilous time.

In a useful orientation, Shannon notes that this text began as a revision of his 1989 work, Broken Promises:  Reading Instruction in Twentieth-Century America. That work analyzed and critiqued an increasing reliance on commercially prepared materials to teach reading and a concurrent deskilling of teachers. The promise referenced in that title is the democratic one that public schools would educate all children to become fully literate, able to read and think independently and to make carefully considered decisions in both their public and private lives. That is, all children were promised an education suitable for active democratic life. As Shannon and many others have demonstrated, that promise has long been violated for minorities and for the poor who have routinely been served a far less nourishing curriculum than their more advantaged peers.  

Shannon’s former work morphed into the new text when the author realized that at this moment, the original promise of critical literacy has not only been broken but has been bulldozed out of sight, despite the rhetoric about leaving no child behind. While current legislation promotes the right of every child to read, reading is no longer presented as an essential skill for democratic life. Instead, the government-sponsored education strategies forcing prepackaged materials onto schools and teachers are justified as necessary to be sure that students are qualified to work—that they will be increasingly valuable “human capital” available for use in business and industry. Hence the title, which summarizes Shannon’s main concern:  that the control of reading and reading teachers is actually functioning as a lever against democratic life by ensuring that many of tomorrow’s adults—or more specifically, the many who do not have the means to attend selective schools—will neither develop critical literacy nor even be exposed to a concept of education as anything other than workforce development.  

Shannon’s right, I think, in insisting that a deep understanding of the genesis and import of recent changes requires an understanding of the many long paths that have merged at this point. No Child Left Behind is not simply George W. Bush’s misguided policy; it is the product of decades of influences pushing in a particular direction—always, always with the guiding hand of business exerting its inexorable influence. Understanding educational reform in the twenty-first century, Shannon rightfully argues, means understanding some economic realities—more specifically, it means understanding the impact of market ideology on democratic life, and schooling, over the last century or so.

The same market ideology that led to the rise of reading experts, changed reading textbooks into core reading programs, and invited the federal government to intervene in local schooling during the middle of the last century drives the new promises, policies, and practices of reading education in this one (p. xiii).

Taken as a whole, Shannon’s text does a remarkable job of untangling the complex interplay of forces, allowing the reader to perceive the past not as some incoherent, jagged route to the present but instead as the steady growth of a number of forces consistently pursuing the same set of goals for over a century.

The first chapter, which focuses on reading instruction during the colonial period, offers a demonstration of the ways that dominant ideologies of a society always permeate schooling. While many readers will be fully aware of that fact, others new to discussions of politics and education will find a readily accessible demonstration of schools as sites of struggle among such competing forces as business, social workers, citizens, and various kinds of experts. While the link between this history and today’s conditions may be opaque to some readers, the chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book by demonstrating that from the beginning schools and teachers have been consciously manipulated in an effort to make them produce the kind of citizen that someone—employer or social worker, parent or scientist or clergy—thought desirable.   Pedagogical and curricular contests are about much more than educational policy: they are about what kind of citizen is wanted; about whether the outside expert or the teacher is to have control of the classroom; about whether this theorist or that one will gain fame and fortune. That public schools are inevitably sites of ideological struggle is clear in this material.

Subsequent chapters offer more of the same (sometimes with an overabundance of detail that can become a bit wearing, as can the several spelling errors indicating poor copy editing); however, even when the material is familiar, readers will stumble over a startling nugget here and there that jolts them into a new awareness of how old some of the “new” controversies are. For example, I found myself making a marginal note when I encountered the following script for a teacher:

Approach through the following game.

Teacher:  I know a new game.

    It is a guessing game.

    Would you like to play it? . . . (p. 33)

Of course, such publications as Rethinking Schools (www.rethinkingschools.org) have done a good job of explaining what scripted teaching means to those who have not been forced to experience it, so I wasn’t startled by the fact that a script would dictate a teacher’s exact words. What did startle me was the date of the material: 1927. It is impossible to read the historical material Shannon has compiled and not develop a sense of how intransigent some issues are, or of how long the weather conditions producing today’s perfect storm have been brewing.

By Chapter Five, Shannon has reached the 1980s and the gathering winds are becoming increasingly threatening. The political impact of conservatives, beginning with Ronald Reagan and only slightly ameliorated by the fiscally conservative Bill Clinton, augmented by the increasingly politically active Religious Right, is detailed, as is the impact of the infamous Nation at Risk report. The flow of these years, with public education consistently and increasingly under attack and government taking greater and greater control, is presented as the swelling tide it was, gathering strength and ultimately depositing NCLB, Reading First and other initiatives upon education’s beleaguered shores. Chapter Six details the role business had to play in these efforts and the many ways it has profited from them. Chapter Seven deals with the perversion of “science” as a means of justifying the unjustifiable pronouncements of government “experts” and policymakers about the best way to teach reading (pouring vast sums of money into corporate coffers while simultaneously pretending that mountains of contradictory research evidence simply don’t exist). Chapter Eight explains why it is necessary—from the viewpoint of business and anyone else who wants an uncritical and/or uneducated citizenry—to control and deskill teachers.

Chapter Nine may be especially useful in helping readers to grasp what is at stake in current struggles. Tellingly titled “A Process of Elimination,” it makes clear—in such segments as one titled “Children as Waste”—that the goal of current efforts is in fact to leave behind a certain set of children: those whose languages, customs, backgrounds and values are different from those privileged by the official state version of what school ought to be and do. Only workers who meet the legislative prototype are valuable to employers determined to dominate the world economy; the fate of the others—no longer beneficiaries of a promise to be educated for democratic life—is their own fault and of no concern. Already technical schools that will remove failing students—and their grades—from NCLB reporting systems are growing (p. 206). The stranglehold of conformity and increasing marginalization of the relatively powerless are antithetical to any notion of education for democratic life. Education has become an auxiliary to business, dependent on economics rather than equity for its raison d’être: “Now reading instruction prepares human capital, and not citizens, for a democracy of consumers and consuming” (p. 213).

The final chapter, Chapter Ten, offers a sorely needed glimmer of light at the end of the very dark tunnel the book as a whole represents. In it, Shannon surveys civic groups as well as researchers and educators who are engaging in revitalizing civic life and democratic citizenship, making good use of critical literacy skills to oppose such corporate impositions as large scale hog farms that can lay waste to the ecology of a community. He offers as well a sampling of ideas about resources and strategies for the teacher ready to resist the oppressive imposition of regimented education for the workforce. Rather than leaving the reader lamenting “What now?” at the end of his powerful indictment, Shannon offers a multitude of names and resources that an engaged reader might wisely choose to explore next.

In this case, the whole—which steeps the reader in the history of the current moment, pulling clear and taut the threads that have become woven into the now—is impressively more than the sum of its parts, each of which in isolation may be old news to more sophisticated readers.  Though I passed some familiar terrain as I read, often it was from a new perspective. In the end, I felt that my time travel with the author had been a worthwhile journey.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 05, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14544, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 5:08:55 AM

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About the Author
  • Patricia Hinchey
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    PATRICIA H. HINCHEY is a specialist in language and literacy education and in critical practice who teaches courses in language arts methodology, critical media literacy, contemporary issues in American education, critical teacher inquiry, and gender issues. Her long-time research interests are the successful translation of critical theory to classroom praxis and the development of political awareness among teachers. Recently, her writing has focused on policy analysis, particularly policies that intend to marginalize teachers and to privatize public education. Her most recent book is Becoming a Critical Educator (Peter Lang) and she will soon complete a primer on action research. She is a research fellow of the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University and of the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
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