Academic journal article English Education

Reconciling Rosenblatt and the New Critics: The Quest for an "Experienced Understanding" of Literature

Academic journal article English Education

Reconciling Rosenblatt and the New Critics: The Quest for an "Experienced Understanding" of Literature

Article excerpt

For decades, the training of English teachers and teacher educators has been influenced by the story of Louise Rosenblatt's heroic resistance to New Criticism, the reigning interpretive paradigm in literary studies through much of the twentieth century, and her advocacy for an alternative that would elevate the status of the reader. While New Criticism, which emphasized close analysis of a text's formal features, spawned a rote and lifeless approach to literature in classrooms across the country, Rosenblatt, who was shunned in academia, gave voice and direction to a generation of progressive English teachers who empowered students to become active creators of meaning.

Robert E. Probst (1992) argues that Rosenblatt's vision contradicts "some fundamental assumptions shared by the New Critics," representing "a different conception of the literary experience, with drastically different implications for the classroom" (pp. 54, 56). Probst, whose applications of Rosenblatt's work have had a far-reaching impact on literature pedagogy, implies that New Criticism condemns student readers to inevitable failure, leading them to rely on study aids such as CliffsNotes to ascertain a text's meaning. In contrast, Probst praises Rosenblatt for making correctness "a virtually useless concept," liberating the reader from adherence to "a uniformity or homogeneity that the uniqueness of human personality does not allow" (p. 59). In crediting Rosenblatt with "debunking the old school of the so-called New Critics," Harvey Daniels (2002) repeats a mantra that has become a theme in many English education courses (p. 37).

Without diminishing the significance of Rosenblatt's contributions, I wish to reexamine and reimagine the familiar history of Rosenblatt's rebellion against New Criticism: I will propose that Rosenblatt and the New Critics, particularly Cleanth Brooks, might be viewed as pioneers of parallel, rather than opposing, pedagogical traditions, shaped by the shared influence of I. A. Richards.1 The intellectual lineage of Brooks and Rosenblatt also converges, if less decisively, in the work of John Dewey, whose emphasis on experience seems to be reflected in the writings of both Rosenblatt and Brooks. In the twenty-first century, professional and political discourse surrounding the teaching and learning of literature continues to be dominated and diminished by misinformed caricatures of New Criticism and Reader Response. In highlighting some of the overlapping aims, language, and intellectual heritage of Brooks and Rosenblatt, I hope to provide an opening for more nuanced conversations about close reading and the teaching of literature.

Revisiting a Problematic History

In his authoritative account of the history of English education, Arthur Applebee (1974) indicates that New Criticism gained prominence during a period of "conscious narrowing of the scope and goals of instruction," a conservative reaction to the previous "expansion of the English curriculum around the metaphors of experience and exploration" (p. 139). Miles Myers (1996) connects New Criticism to the "decoding/analytic literacy" classroom, which featured "word-attack" drills, sentence analysis exercises, and "quiz show" -like questions intended to assess a student's understanding (p. 88). In analytic/decoding literacy, Dewey's notions of experiential education were largely cast aside in favor of the factory-based approach to learning popularized by Ellwood P. Cubberley and influenced by the techniques of the mechanical engineer and management consultant Frederick W. Taylor (Myers, 1996, p. 85). New Criticism, Myers implies, was complicit in the industrialization of education: "This approach to literature as form was perfectly suited for a period in which English teachers wanted to make their work more 'scientific,' more 'objective,' more removed from metaphysics and the morality of recitation literacy-indeed, more Cubberley-like, more Taylorized" (p. …

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