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Literacy, Textbooks and Ideology: Postwar Literacy Instruction and the Mythology of Dick and Jane


reviewed by Michael W. Apple - 1989

coverTitle: Literacy, Textbooks and Ideology: Postwar Literacy Instruction and the Mythology of Dick and Jane
Author(s): Allan Luke
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: 185000319X, Pages: , Year:
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In part because of the social protests of African Americans, women, and others and the growth of socially critical curriculum scholarship, it has become more and more difficult to see the knowledge that is taught in schools—and the process by which it gets there—as necessarily neutral. The selection of knowledge is exactly that, a selection from a much wider universe of possible “thats,” “hows,” and “tos.” As recognition of how the curriculum is part of a selective tradition has increased, so too has our sophistication in understanding the politics of school knowledge. A new vocabulary has entered the lexicon of the curriculum field and of educational scholarship in general. Ideology, hegemony, selective tradition, cultural production and reproduction—words that seemed so odd in the overly-psychologized vocabulary of curriculum research a generation ago—have now taken root as a new generation of scholars and politically active curriculum developers and teachers seeks to understand and act on the processes of cultural control in schools. Yet, while immense progress has been made in the past two decades, we actually still have relatively few theoretically, politically, and empirically elegant studies of the complicated relationships between curriculum and ideology. Most of our gains have been at the conceptual level. While this has been of very real benefit, we do need to continue to build on these conceptual insights and apply them to specific and concrete curricular artifacts at the same time. Otherwise we remain unmoored to the concrete realities of teachers and students in classrooms. A significant start has been made on this in the work of Joel Taxel and Linda Christian-Smith.1 Now joining them and extending our tools further is Allan Luke.


Whether we like it or not, the primary curriculum artifact in so many classrooms throughout the world is the standardized textbook. Even given its ubiquitousness, however, it is actually one of the things we know least about. As I argue in Teachers & Texts, it is essential that we uncover what might be called “the cycle of textual production” from its writing, editing, publishing, and selling as a commodity in a market to its selection and use in classrooms.2 Only then can we fully understand the major process by which certain groups' knowledge becomes legitimate or official knowledge in schools.


One of our more important dilemmas is how we should “read” the curriculum ideologically. The curriculum is deceptive. It is not simply there for all to see. On the one hand, it is “there” so to speak, of course. One can see it, and hold it, in the form of the textbook, the curriculum guide, the worksheets, and so on. Yet these physical things have little meaning by themselves. Their meaning comes from a long chain of constructions, from those of the authors, editors, and publishers to those meanings constructed by, say, powerful state textbook selection committees and by teachers and students as they use the material. Thus, it is no easy matter to examine both the messages “carried” by the curriculum and the politics of the process of how they got there. This is exactly what Luke accomplishes.


Luke uncovers the history of the conceptualization, authorship, production, and use of a series of basal readers, the “Dick and Jane readers.” He engages in a creative reading of Dick and Jane. He examines how the texts construct a picture of the ideal “uncritical” reader and how this coheres with the construction of an idealized picture of both the American family and small-town America. By a detailed analysis of the contradictory structures and meanings in the texts—of their semantic and lexical conventions and variability—Luke does an impressive job of demonstrating how the very act of reading is defined for children. The Dick and Jane readers are actually more complicated than one might expect. By drawing primarily on a type of analysis rooted in the work of Umberto Eco, Luke is able to show that these basal readers did more than “simply convey a postwar mythology.” They did so “in such a way that precluded criticism and enabled only a very limited, controlled readership” (p. 119).


Literacy Textbooks and Ideology does not limit itself to a history of the development of Dick and Jane or to a creative reading of the texts themselves, though. It traces as well the internal educational politics and some of the external ideological conditions that led to their use by teachers. By focusing on how they were mandated, taught, and evaluated, as well as on the conditions of their creation, the volume comes as close as any book in recent memory to disclosing the complex historical nexus of forces involved in the cycle of curricular production.


The volume directs a good deal of its attention to the production and use of these textbooks in Canada, especially British Columbia. While such a geographic focus might limit the audience for Luke’s book, it should actually broaden it. By engaging in a detailed discussion of the more general development of these texts and then the path they took in Canada, Luke is able to give us a nuanced and richer portrayal of the actual politics of the textbook. There are few better volumes in this regard. In many ways, it can serve as a model for future investigations.


Like all books, Literacy Textbooks and Ideology is not perfect. Luke occasionally falls prey to conceptual and/or political traps. Even with the subtlety of most of his analysis, he still emphasizes a bit too readily the function of schooling as largely social control, rather than as an arena of social conflict. He does not take as seriously as he might the fact that most curricular content and form are the results of tense compromises among and within class, race, and gender groups, and thus will show the marks of such conflicts. Textbooks are not different in this regard. A somewhat greater emphasis on the contradictory nature of the texts and on the politics of social movements that create the need for compromises over school knowledge would have strengthened his already very interesting discussion. Further, a more extended treatment of the larger crisis in the economy, in ideology, and in authority relations during the period in which the Dick and Jane readers came to be conceived and then came to dominate the curriculum of so many classrooms would have added a more structural sense to Luke’s interpretation.


These, however, are relatively minor points. What Luke has given us is a very real accomplishment. It should be of considerable interest not only to those involved in the critical curriculum community, but to all those who care about reading and literacy instruction, textbooks, and the politics of classroom life.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 1, 1989, p. 127-130
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 447, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:48:15 PM

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