The 2016 presidential election was one of the most divisive and polemical in recent memory. With terms like “nasty women” and “deplorables” becoming staples in the historical portrait of this election, it’s rather easy to see that discussions regarding civic issues quickly become riddled with utterances of intolerance and incivility towards different ideologies and perspectives. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that America is entering an era of extreme polarization. In their report, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” researchers found that many members of America’s eligible voting public elect to remain within their ideological echo chambers rather than confront difference in public spaces, whether physical or digital.
From work like Cass Sunstein (2008), we might assume that an unwillingness to engage with difference in a productive, civil manner results from a lack of opportunity to do so, regardless of whether that distance from difference is imposed by an individual (e.g. willingly moving to a specific area to be surrounded by like-minded individuals) or by an outside force (e.g. Facebook's algorithm filtering out the posts of conservative individuals for those who identify as ideologically liberal). This lack of exposure can lead to an individual’s inability to consider and situate the cultures that inform and shape the differences they eventually encounter.
In his recent book Political Literacy in Composition and Rhetoric: Defending Academic Discourse Against Postmodern Pluralism (2005), Donald Lazere suggested that compositionists return to a decades-old NCTE outcome to better situate public discourse within writing pedagogy:
Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English support the efforts of English and related subjects to train students in a new literacy encompassing not only the decoding of print but the critical reading, listening, viewing, and thinking skills necessary to enable students to cope with the sophisticated persuasion techniques found in political statements, advertising, entertainment and news. (p. 3)
Directly integrating—through analysis assignments and classroom discussion—the messages students are bombarded with regard to their social and political lives will not only improve their writing and critical thinking abilities, but will also help them become more empathetic to instances of difference that exist outside of their immediate discourse communities. Throughout his work, Lazere argued that an inability to articulate a clear logical argument demonstrating critical thought is, in great part, due to the pedagogical shifts that occurred during the 1966 Dartmouth Conference, in which composition instructors resolved to—pulling from scholars like Stanley Fish, Min-Zhan Lu, and Joseph Harris—avoid correcting students’ writings and understandings of civic messages because of their didactic desire to maintain the students' “right to their own language.”
Lazere dedicated each of the book’s thirteen chapters to critiquing the various postmodernist/pluralist influences that he believes have shifted the focus of the composition classroom away from a space dedicated to developing response strategies to public messages, to a space that focuses on students’ own, locally-cultivated ideas and communications processes. In order to best prepare students for going beyond their immediate native discourses, Lazere initially argued that “we need to reaffirm academic discourse and teachers’ authority to convey information countering student prejudices through ‘the banking method,’ judiciously employed, in areas where [instructors] have far more knowledge or experience” (p. 12). Rather than the instructor helping students synthesize their voices and experiences within the conventions of the academic discourse community, he suggested (through his various critiques regarding postmodern pluralism) that instructors recognize instances in which they can use their expertise and experience to expose students to social considerations that may not exist within their native, local communities.
This review of Lazere’s book is divided into four main sections. Part 1: The View from Middle America covers Chapters 1-3, Part 2: The Excesses of Postmodern Pluralism covers Chapters 4-9, and Part 3: Psychological and Sociological Perspectives covers Chapters 10-13. These sections each have aN Overview page that provides a top-level review of the chapters in that part of the book and a Summary page that summarizes each chapter in the section individually. The fourth section, Classroom Application, discusses what I see as the pedagogical implications of Lazere’s argument and potential uses of the book.