Relativism and Bad Logic in Literature Circles
I’m currently reading Harvey Daniels’ Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups, and while I think it’s a fantastic resource for structuring a literature class, I have one problem with it that I wanted to discuss. Daniels falls into some illogical reasoning when he talks about interpreting and responding to literature.
My criticism comes from a section in Chapter 3 on pages 39-40 called “Reader Response Literary Criticism.” Daniels cites the work of Louise Rosenblatt who “insisted that there is no one correct interpretation of a literary work, but multiple interpretations, each of them profoundly dependent on the prior experience brought to the text by each reader.”
He then goes on to mention the work of Robert Probst as a modern-day interpreter of Rosenblatt’s ideas, who “explains how American teachers, in their hunger to push students up the cognitive ladder to the analysis of literature, forget or refuse to begin with students’ response to their reading. Probst explains that in good teaching, the response always comes first.”
I don’t really have a problem with Probst’s idea of the importance of a reader’s response, but I think both he and Rosenblatt (and by implication, Daniels) are confusing the words “interpretation” and “response.”
Interpretation is the act of seeking accurate meaning from a text. Accuracy has to be the primary concern in interpretation. Daniels himself calls Probst an interpreter of Rosenblatt’s ideas. If there is no one correct interpretation of a literary work, as Rosenblatt argues, then why do we need anyone to interpret her ideas?
Response, on the other hand, is something profoundly different. Response is a complicated reaction to a text. Response is emotional, subjective and powerful, but it is not interpretation. I would change Rosenblatt’s quote to say that “there is no one correct response to a literary work, but multiple responses, each of them profoundly dependent on the prior experience brought to the text by each reader.”
I think deep down, Rosenblatt, Probst and Daniels understand this, perhaps without realizing it. Take this illogical statement Daniels makes on page 38, where he says “While Probst and Rosenblatt both agree that there are better and worse readings of texts, there are not ‘wrong’ ones.”
How can there be “better and worse readings,” without “wrong” ones? For a reading to be better than another there has to be a correct interpretation. For a reading to be worse than another there has to be a wrong interpretation.
This kind of illogical thinking comes from a well-intentioned desire to be tolerant and respectful of students’ responses to texts, but it completely ignores the fact that students misunderstand or inadequately understand texts all the time. To say that their interpretation is never wrong is absurd. It’s relativism at its worst.
One student thinks Animal Farm is a cute story about farm animals, another sees it as a scathing politcal satire. Are they both right? No, of course not. Animal Farm is not Charlotte’s Web. But if teachers just pat both of them on the head and say, “Good job, I like the way you think,” then we are doing them horrible disservice.
Students are entitled to their own responses to a text. One student may be appalled by a character’s action, while another may applaud it. But that says more about the student than it does about the book. It doesn’t take a literature teacher to help a student understand their reactions to a book–it takes a psychologist. The literature teacher’s job is to help students move beyond their initial reactions–to acknowledge them, yes, and validate them–but to help them widen their horizons by moving outside of their own limited experiences and initial responses. Our job is not to play “pop psychologist” with our students, but to give them the encouragement, skills and practice they need to understand others’ ideas.
I agree with Probst that teachers can sometimes get so caught up in the cognitive analysis of literature that we can forget about the power of story and emotion, but the answer is not to confuse terms. The beginning of the answer is to acknowledge the beauty of reading great literature as both an affective and cognitive endeavor. It hits us in our heart and our head, and teachers cannot ignore either domain.
Despite the problems in chapter three, I highly recommend Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. Daniels’ literature circle structure gets kids reading and talking about books in an organic and natural way, which really is the best way to become a good reader.