Literacy as a search for identity – Frye On Education

Reading Northrop Frye’s essays on education is an exhilarating experience, because it is the first time I have encountered a Canadian author who can piece together my experience as a liberal arts graduate with what is going on in our schools.

Not that others don’t exist. But some of Frye’s addresses to Ontario English teachers from the 50s and 80s would be unthinkable today (at least in my experience), because they assume an interest or an understanding of bigger questions in political philosophy. I don’t have time to write an essay right now, but I’ll sketch out some of the main themes.

One of the questions that straddles political philosophy and education is whether we can foster a true sense of identity in a world dominated by media.  A decade before Charles Taylor’s Malaise of Modernity (1992), Frye discussed the fundamental challenge facing our society today and the role literature plays in healing the rift.

More and more, he says, we experience the world in a fragmented way (this was 1981). Characteristic of the arts of phantasmagoria, as he calls them, is that they can only stimulate a passive mind, and do not build up habits of learning.

This disorientation leaves us with an anxiety about ourselves – about the possibility of a continuous identity over time. Constant distraction and amusement leads us away from the “why?” questions of life, but we still feel a strong need for fulfillment as individuals. We start to see ourselves as distanced from society, as alienated individuals with no identity.

Seeing yourself as separate from society is a fallacy, argues Frye.   Along with Charles Taylor, he views the individual as a  fundamentally social animal. Only in community do we fulfill our deepest needs, even while we struggle to maintain our freedom:

the central need of our time is the sense of wholeness of vision, the sense of community out of which all individuality grows. (“Education and the Rejection of Reality, 1971, p. 96 in On Education)

The constant rallying cry to educate the “whole child,” and be “child-centred” plays into the false dichotomy that students can have a meaningful identity apart from the community in which they live.

Under this weight of disorientation, the desire to keep things “relevant” for students only exacerbates the situation.

“We begin by trying to relate social phenomena to ourselves, but end by partitioning ourselves among the phenomena.”(16)

To be clear, Frye is saying an emphatic “no” to direct instruction, and believes that the the good teacher is a Socratic one, who explores new realms of thinking undogmatically:

“The teacher’s function is to help create the structure of the subject in the student’s mind. That is why it is the teacher who asks most of the questions and not the student. The student already knows a great deal more than he realizes he knows. But this greater knowledge is concealed from him, partly by the fact that it is unstructured, lying around in bits and pieces, and partly by certain repressions operating in his mind. All around him is a world of advertising, propaganda, brainwashing, casual conversation with all its prejudices, news with all its slants, everything conspiring to say to him: “it’s all you can do just to take things in; if you try to put things together you’ll probably go nuts even if you succeed; let it go. If you go on you’ll become different from other people, and you’re not smart enough to get away with that. This is not a natural state of mind, which is why so many students are at their keenest when still children, before the full force of social conditioning makes itself felt. (13)

Ultimately the only way back to a consistent identity is through a consistent practice or habit and through a particular tradition. This entirely heretical view – that we should have some common culture –  is striking to our ears:

“I suggest that the literary teacher’s role is to stand out in the current drifting towards conformity and work his way upstream, like the fisherman in Yeat’s Tower, towards the headwaters of his cultural tradition.” (17)

In this way, through Socratic education, and maintaining an ironic distance to conformity with one’s culture, one can put the pieces of reality together again and make sense of our world. This is a deeply personal endeavor, and it is the aim of all liberal arts education.

And finally, as a counter-measure to passive and fragmenting experiences, Frye says students need to pursue the active and creative habit of reading:

“The act of reading as a continuous act of judgment is the key to equality, and the key to freedom. Its purpose is the maintaining of the consistent consciousness which is the basis of human freedom and of human dignity.” (100)

What is at stake here is nothing less than our view of ourselves as human subjects, rather than passive objects, as creative members of society, rather than mechanical conformists. This view requires an exposition of our highest ambitions – love, justice, beauty, and wholeness:

… the arts have something to teach beyond themselves, a way of seeing and hearing that nothing else can give, a way of living in society in which the imagination takes its proper central place. Just as the sciences show us the physical world of nature, so the arts show us the human world that man is trying to build out of nature. And, without moralizing, the arts gradually lead us to separate the vision of the world we want to live in from the world that we hate and reject, the ideals of beauty from the horrors portrayed by art when it is in the mood we call ironic. All genuine art leads up to this separation, and that is why it is an educating force.  44

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