Validating the Personal in Katherine Paterson’s Park’s Quest1
I "believe that education," John Dewey wrote in 1897, "is a process of living and not a preparation for future living" ("My Pedagogic Creed," p. 87). Although Dewey expressed this belief a century ago,2 many who currently determine the aims of education, including teachers and administrators, believe that the primary aim of education should be to prepare children for the future. Many educators perceive their mission to be the production of functional citizens for a democratic society: Dewey himself wrote a great deal on democracy and the need for an educational system that fosters a functional citizenry. As teachers we teach our disciplines, whether that discipline is math or science or history or literature, with the hope that our students will take from our classrooms vital skills for living, skills they do not presently possess but need for the future. For example, we teach literature based upon needs and desires determined by external concerns. We try to get our students to find and understand the "correct" meaning of a novel, a meaning that holds specific truths for future living. We ask them to find and understand certain literary devices that lead to this correct meaning of the novel. We require them to analyze the sociological and psychological traits of the characters. These concerns are external in that they are perceived as existing within the text or are truths represented by the text; they exist outside the personal transaction between the reader and the text. In short, we ask our students to enter into the conversation of literary analysis and take away from this study truths and meaning that one day will become relevant in their lives.
Unfortunately, this perception of literary study neglects a vital aspect of who we and our students are and how we learn. Certainly, all students need to acquire and perfect basic skills to be productive in society. However, our students are experiential beings who selectively think and feel based upon their present needs and desires rather than the needs and desires of the teacher or the school system; this thinking and feeling are not skills to be acquired but are habits that need to be nurtured. Although it might be a noble endeavor to prepare our students for the future, we need to incorporate the realm of personal experience in the present into what we do in the classroom. We need to recognize that our students come to our classrooms with needs and desires based on their personal experiences and that these needs and desires directly influence their experiences in the classroom. Recognizing and validating these personal needs and desires moves the aim of education and the methods we use to meet this aim from a future divorced from the present, to the present, which is inextricably tied to the future. In this way, education becomes visionary with explicit implications for present practices.
Rather than asking our students to accept antecedent truths about the literature they are reading and studying, we should be asking them to select that which is relevant to their own lives, create meaning from this relevancy, and then draw certain conclusions about how this might influence their thinking in the present. Attending to the present needs and desires of our students will foster habits that will manifest themselves in the future. Studying literature in this way has similar ends to more traditional studies: productive citizens in a democratic society. The means, however, are very different and are more effective than traditional studies for reaching this aim. More importantly, attending to the present needs and desires of our students opens doors for future possibilities that would otherwise remain closed.
Transactional Theory of Response
Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of response moves literary study from the future back to the present. Rather than focusing on specific skills that will take form at some ambiguous point in the future, transactional theory validates personal experience and calls upon our students to exhibit the necessary skills for understanding the task at hand. Rosenblatt emphasizes the event of reading; this event is to be experienced as any life event would be. The event of reading offers readers experiences that call on them to selectively attend to that which meets their present needs and desires. The poem, defined as the aesthetic product created through the transaction between the reader and the text, is the aim of any reading event (The Reader, the Text, the Poem, p. 12). Before the poem can be created, however, readers must become engaged with the text. They must participate in a give-and-take between their responses and judgments of the text and the text itself. In essence, readers must create their own sense of meaning from the reading event before they can engage in a classroom discussion of literary theory and criticism. Although Rosenblatt is clear in arguing that this personal creation of meaning is not the end of a quality understanding of a literary text (Literature as Exploration, xix), she is equally clear in arguing that this creation is vital for achieving an aesthetic experience in reading (xvi-xvii).3 In this way, "[t]he reader, too, is creative" (p. 34).
Rosenblatt argues that too many times we ask our students to read in a way that hinders the creation of the poem. By quizzing them with objective tests and focusing on the literary merits of the novel, we force our students into an efferent stance of reading (The Reader, the Text, The Poem, p. 24). This stance allows our students to pull factual information from the text rather than creating a personal meaning that attends to their needs and desires. We need to foster an aesthetic stance of reading (p. 24), one that allows our students to draw from their personal experiences and explore their personal reactions to what they read and create a meaning that will lay a foundation for further exploration. Methods, then, that assess this externally defined comprehension or call upon our students to accept truths that do not meet their personal needs and desires will most likely lead them toward an anesthetic reading experience. Experiences such as these do not foster a love of reading. Methods that do not validate personal experience and allow our students to react and respond in a personal way work against what we, as English teachers, should wish to accomplish in our classrooms. Our means, or methods, do not result in our desired end, or the fostering of life-long readers.
While we should first work toward engaging our students in the literature, our aim also should be to move them toward a richer understanding of the text. We engage our students by allowing them to approach and create personal meaning from the literature in a unique and personal way. We move them toward a richer understanding of the text by constructing a democratic community within our classrooms. This community should recognize the diverse nature of reading and understanding. It is important, as well, to recognize that this diversity makes possible a more complete meaning when each student feels comfortable and is able to articulate her understanding within the classroom community. Diversity of thought and understanding is significant only when those who believe differently struggle in a democratic way. In this way, the teacher’s role is much more than the transmission of antecedent truths about literature. Her role, instead, is to construct a democratic community that models the transactional give-and-take necessary in the creation of the poem. Certainly she must exhibit maturity and sophistication as she leads the literary discussion. She must also serve as the directing influence in the classroom. However, she must avoid using her maturity and sophistication as the sole authority in the move toward the creation of the poem. She must be an equal partner in this give-and-take.
A Personal Transaction with Park’s Quest
My purpose here is to further state the significance of Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of response by offering my own transactional reading of Katherine Paterson’s Park’s Quest. I will attend to my own personal needs and desires by emphasizing how certain passages of the novel relate to my experiences. However, this relation becomes significant only when I articulate it within the broader democratic community. At the same time, my understanding of the novel grows when I consider the responses of others within this same community. In the end, I will argue that by adopting a transactional theory of response, we as educators are forced into reconstructing our notions of teaching.
In addressing the complications of the Vietnam War, Park’s Quest can provide a meaningful exercise for understanding a brief, yet powerful, event in American history. For many reasons, the Vietnam War was a disastrous moment in history. We, as a culture, have just begun to understand the implications of engaging in a foreign conflict for over a decade and withdrawing in defeat. Although the thousands of casualties of the war devastated a generation, the war also held consequences for the families of those who were killed. As the numbers of deaths rose each day, thousands of children were forced to grow up without their fathers. For many of these children, their adolescent years were filled with a sense of loss and a need to search for the answers to the questions they found themselves asking. Park’s Quest tells the story of one such adolescent. At age 13, Parkington Waddell Broughton V, a.k.a. Park, grows curious about his own father, a Marine Corps pilot who was killed in Vietnam when Park was only a few months old. He begins asking his mother questions about his father after watching a Veteran’s Day celebration on television. Because she is reluctant to answer his questions, Park decides to search and find his own answers. Like the questing knight of his imagination, Park embarks on his own quest for the elusive nature of the man he knows only by sketchy details and a black and white photograph. He decides that he must journey to the Vietnam Memorial to see his father’s name in spite of his mother’s warning against doing so. Again like the questing knight who must first pass a rite of initiation before the quest, Park attempts to read his father’s books. By doing so, he hopes to gain some insight into the man he wishes to know. Although he cannot understand all that the books have to offer, he completes his initiation and rides the subway to the Wall. His quest has begun.
One of the more moving passages of the novel occurs when Park visits the Wall. Park first has trouble finding the monument and then his father’s name. With the help of a woman visiting the Wall, Park is able to find the name. Quietly standing before it, he recognizes the significance of the moment.
He reached out, grateful that on that tall stone the name he needed could be reached, and lightly traced the letters of his father’s name. The stone felt warm from the winter sun. It wasn’t like a gravestone at all. It was like something alive and lovely. He could see his own hand reflected across his father’s name. Tears started in his eyes, surprising him, because he felt so happy to be there, so close to actually touching that handsome man in his jaunty cap with the tie of his uniform loose and the neck unbuttoned. (pp. 31-32)
Although the novel had been interesting reading for me to this point, it was with this passage that it began to take on a more personal meaning. My father’s name is etched on that Wall; and, as I read Park’s Quest, I felt an abiding feeling that I knew Park’s story all too well.
My father was a career serviceman for the United States Marine Corps. He, along with many of his friends, chose to volunteer for the service soon after graduating from Parkersburg High School in June of 1955. And, like many of his friends, he chose to marry his high school sweetheart. I have seen pictures of the two older teenagers smiling and brimming with life, and like many teenagers who have just tied the knot, planning for the promises of the future. He was trained in Camp Pendleton, California, and he rose through the ranks to become Gunnery Sergeant Robert Lee Lockhart, a position I know very little about, but one which carries my deepest respect to this day. He was stationed at numerous Marine Corps bases over those first years, but it was while stationed at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina that his two sons were born, first me on April 27, 1963, and then my brother on July 3, 1964. A year or so later he was stationed on the U.S.S. Enterprise, "the World’s Mightiest Aircraft Carrier," or so the back of the postcard says in the scrapbook at my home. Within another couple of years, he was stationed in Quantico, Virginia. It was during this assignment that my father first went to Vietnam, an obscure location to this day on my globe.
Gunnery Sergeant Robert Lee Lockhart died at approximately 4:45 p.m. on June 11, 1969, while fighting in the Vietnam province called Quang Ngai. He "was assigned as a Light Weapons Infantry Advisor, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Advisory Team 2," writes First Lieutenant L.J. Bertram in a letter sent to my grandmother. "The helicopter in which your son was a passenger, while on a combat mission," that same letter continues, "encountered mechanical failure upon take-off and crashed into a mine field." The letter goes on to say, confirmed by a Western Union Telegram dated June 13, 1969, 8:39 a.m., that he received multiple injuries and burns over his entire body and died instantly. My father was 32 years old; I was 6.4
I obviously remember very little about those first six years. Was it Piaget who posited that most of what we remember early in our lives is what we have been told about the past rather than what we remember? The first six years of my life passed, and I hold no personal memories of these years. I cannot remember playing or talking with my father. Either I have been told relatively little about those first six years, or my memory fails me. I do remember, as though it were yesterday, that sunny June morning when the two Marine Corps officers walked to our front door. They were brightly clad in their Marine Corps Dress Blues; to this day it is the most beautiful uniform I have ever seen: white hats bearing the polished golden Marine Corps emblem and a shiny black brim, the tight-collared dark blue jacket (I don’t remember their ranks on their sleeves) with brass buttons and cuff links, the royal blue slacks with the bright red stripe down the leg, and spit-shined patent leather shoes.
We lived in a large trailer park occupied mostly by military families. As the two soldiers drove to our trailer, I now imagine faces peering through windows hoping that the car would not stop in front of their homes. It did stop in front of ours; when exactly we knew that they had come to our house, I don’t remember. We did know, and that was all that mattered. I do not remember if they marched down the walk or just walked, but I do remember my mother’s reaction when she first noticed them coming to our door. I will never forget her crying, her knowledge of the fact before ever needing to be told; she almost ceremoniously took my brother and me to our neighbor’s home. I do not remember who those neighbors were, but I am sure the practice of watching other widows’ children was commonplace in that neighborhood. My memory of the rest of that day remains oblivious, no doubt occupying that part of my memory where most of what I was supposed to learn in school is located. My next memory is of standing outside the funeral home in Parkersburg, West Virginia. I do not remember the funeral. I have never asked my mother if I attended the funeral, but it seems somewhat unimportant to me now (except that maybe my fear and hatred of attending funerals to this day stems from some suppressed memory of that first funeral).
I do not remember considering that June day or the funeral over the next several years of my life, but I do remember occasionally foraging through my mother’s drawers pulling out various medals and memorabilia, a Purple Heart medal, a broken gold-colored watch (I believe the crystal was cracked), numerous pictures and letters, and the triangular-folded American flag that draped my father’s coffin. I remember looking through photograph albums at pictures of my father. One photograph I vividly remember was of a man bolted into a torture device with food and other organic material smeared over his face and body; apparently this was a common Navy and Marine Corps ritual for anyone who crossed the equator for the first time. I have never learned if this was my father or not, but I have always suspected it was. I remember looking through my parents’ high school yearbooks and searching for any mention of my father. I was particularly elated to find my father in a picture of the high school football team, the same team I would play for twenty-five years later.
My most vivid memory of those years was our sitting in front of the television sometime during 1973-74 and watching the soldiers returning from Vietnam. My mother was crying. I remember looking for my father. "Maybe they were wrong," I remember saying to myself. "Maybe they confused someone else for my father, and he was still alive after all; maybe he would return to us like so many others did to their families." I do not remember when I stopped looking for him, but I do remember a time when I would not have been surprised to walk down the street and run into him. I did stop looking, though, and it seemed that my emotions over losing my father were behind me until one day in October of my junior year in high school. My step-father, the man my mother married only a year and a half earlier, had died of cancer. I attended that funeral, and I cried as I have never done before or ever would again. I loved my step-father, who was a good and generous person, and I was sorry he was gone. But I was crying for the loss of my father as well. It was my father’s funeral I was attending for the first time, and I finally had the opportunity to mourn for him.
My attention turned toward a more academic approach when I went to college and somehow majored in history. I took many courses, and I learned a great deal, particularly when I consider the fact that I had never shown any real interest in history up to that point in my life. The most significant chunk of courses for me personally were the few I had that dealt specifically with the Vietnam War. Our textbook for one such course was a book by George C. Herring, a noted historian from the University of Kentucky, entitled America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. Through reading this book, I learned for the first time what the war was all about. More importantly, I began to believe we had no business being there after 1965. I remember how angry I felt about this, and I began to understand the rationale for the mountainous protest against our involvement. I now understand this view to be rather simplistic, but then the death of my father dominated my beliefs. American troops certainly had no reason for being in Vietnam after 1968 which made my father’s death in 1969 even more absurd to me. My anger led me to learn more, and another class used the video series entitled Vietnam: A Television History, based on Stanley Karnow’s monumental companion work entitled Vietnam: A History. I watched this series fascinated, and purchased Karnow’s book, voraciously reading it in a weekend. I even purchased and read most of the Time-Life series entitled The Vietnam Experience. I bought and read many other books, which only fueled my anger; I realize now that my attention to the man of my feeble memory was replaced by this anger. This anger remains with me today, and it has just recently been justified by the publishing of Robert McNamara’s memoirs. I cannot muster the courage or desire to read this book, at least not now.
Another very significant event happened during my early college years, an event particularly significant in light of my reading of Park’s Quest. On November 13, 1982, Veteran’s Day, the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated on the Mall in Washington D.C. Although it would take me a few years to see it, I remember the controversy over its construction. I remember most of all the power it held to bring people to talk about their feelings about the war, and these discussions added to my growing anger. I visited the memorial for the first time in 1987, and I was not prepared for it. As a matter of fact, I failed to notice it the first time I walked around the Mall; I had even forgotten its presence. On my second day in the city, however, I stumbled upon it. My life will never be the same. I shall save my reader the expense of a lengthy description, for many others have so eloquently preceded me. I simply will say that it is magnificent. I struggled to find my father’s name and simply stood before the massive granite stone, afraid to touch it, tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. I garnered the courage to reach out and run my fingers over my father’s name, and I took away a rubbing of it for safekeeping. I have visited the memorial twice since that first time, and many friends have brought back rubbings to me. Each time I see it I cry, and I still wonder how different my life would have been had my father not been killed. Most importantly, I still feel my anger that will always be with me.
So when Park reached out to touch the wall, I was not dispassionately reading the story of someone to whom I could not relate. Although Park and I are very different people, at that moment, in the story we were the same person. As Park reached out and touched the black wall, my heart raced because my hand, too, was reaching out. There are many other passages and events in the novel to which I related. For example, hoping to learn even more about his father, Park visits the home of his grandfather in southwest Virginia. Already self-conscious about not fitting in, Park is surprised to find a young Vietnamese girl living there, the girl who would fuel his feelings of insecurity. Partly in anger over her teasing him and partly in his confusion over simply finding her there, Park expresses his emotions after learning her name.
Tahn? What kind of name was that? There were lots of Orientals in his school, mostly refugees. Vietnamese, he decided, or Cambodian. They all looked alike to him – the people who had killed his father. (p. 63)
Although I now understand the naive racism of what Park was feeling and saying, I, again, related to this feeling because I had the same feelings. There was a time when I, too, was blinded by the anger I felt; I remember hoping that I would grow up and have the opportunity to vindicate my father’s death. My own anger and confusion was very similar to Park’s. I was angry that my father was taken away from me and confused about the circumstances of his death. At this moment in the story, Park could not see beyond his own blinding anger. Only by getting beyond this anger will he be able resolve his own conflict.
Later in the novel, Frank, Park’s uncle, offers to teach Park to shoot. He takes him to a far-off field; and, as sets up the targets, he tells Park that he and Park’s father shot at these same targets when they were boys. Park is thrilled.
Your dad and I. The very same target his father had learned to shoot at. Park began to shake. The very same gun, probably. The very same gun. (p. 92)
Perhaps overwhelmed by the situation and certainly because he had never shot a rifle before, Park shot miserably. He is elated, however, and cannot wait to try again. That night, Park’s dreams were consumed by the day’s events and the image of his father’s presence.
Park woke in the night, too excited to sleep well. He lay in the big bed, taking imaginary aim at his father’s old target. This time his first three shots hit fives, then tens. At last - bull’s-eye! "That’s my boy!" He turned at the sound of the proud shout to see a suntanned man in an aviator’s cap, grinning at him with pleasure. (p. 93)
How many times did I have the same dreams as I was growing up? I remember going to my grandmother’s house and playing with toys that belonged to my father. I remember lying in the same bed he once slept in. Many friends and family members would comment to me about my football prowess; "Your father would have been proud!" How many times did I hear my own father exclaiming, "That’s my boy!"?
There are many other passages which I can relate, and in a full transactional reading of the novel I would consider these passages. But the point of this paper has already been made. Park’s Quest is alive for me because as I read it, I walked in Park’s shoes. In a sense, I knew the story before I read the first word. But as I read, I felt a certain kinship with Park. I read with him as he read his father’s books. I walked with him as he first glimpsed the Wall. I ached with him as he wanted to know more. I angered easily with him as he confronted the notion of his father’s death. The passage about Park’s visit to the Wall is moving; most readers probably sense an emotional involvement during this passage. But it was moving even more for me personally because I had had the same experience. Other readers who have not been to the Wall or whose fathers’ names are not on the Wall will have a very different experience than I, even though they might respond in a powerful way. Their responses are no less valid than mine; they are simply of a different nature.
At the same time, other readers will connect to other characters and events in the novel. For example, Park’s grandfather is struggling with his own confusion over losing his son and his incapacitation following a stroke. A student I worked with focused on this struggle and related the experience of the grandfather to her own grandmother’s struggle in dealing with her disability. Another student who loves dogs suddenly became engaged with the novel when Jupe, the farm dog entered the story. Yet another saw his relationship with his mother in Park’s relationship with Mrs. Davenport, the woman who ran the house and took care of the grandfather.
Implications for Teaching
These personal responses are significant for me on a number of levels; but, as I am in the field of teaching and preparing future teachers, it becomes extremely significant. Rosenblatt with her transactional theory of response understands this significance. Arguing that many educational practices hinder the setting for spontaneity in the classroom, Rosenblatt believes that the teacher must first recognize her own love for literature, particularly when that love is fueled by a personal relation with the text.
Unless the teacher himself values literary experience, revision of his aims or his methods will be futile. By implication, any definition of the ideal relation between the student and the literary work applies also to the teacher. As long as an artificial and pedantic notion of literary culture persists, students will continue in their indifference to the great works of the past and the present. (Literature as Exploration, p. 63)
If we are to accept Rosenblatt’s call for a revision of aims and methods, essentially a reformation of how literature should be taught in schools, we must begin by considering our own attachments to the literature we love so much. In looking back on my experiences as a teacher, I found it quite easy to fall into the trap of a more traditional notion of teaching. I found it easy to assume an authoritative role in the classroom and to use this role to express certain beliefs and attitudes about literature. But this notion of teaching ignores the very essence of what happens when we read and prevents us, as well as our students, from spontaneously transacting with the text or texts at hand. Rosenblatt states that "the teacher must liberate himself as well as his pupils from self-defeating practices. He should not relinquish his own zestful sense of literature as a living art" (p. 63). Before I begin to consider teaching Park’s Quest to a group of adolescents, I must first consider my own emotional involvement with the text. After reading Park’s Quest, I cannot deny my personal involvement with Park’s situation. When I recognize that a potential exists that my students will become as emotionally involved as I, my method of teaching will not be to indoctrinate them in the one correct interpretation but to build upon their responses to foster a more relevant interpretation to them. Their personal present experiences will become a central focus of my classroom, and they will be more likely to read again. As I share my own personal responses and understandings of the reading material, I am modeling a more desirable way to interact with the literature. In addition, discussing my engagement with the text might create an interest in those who have not found something to become engaged with.
Certainly Park’s Quest, like the many other novels we choose as teachers for study in the classroom, is written in such a way that we are naturally led into a discussion of its literary merits. I personally found Paterson’s use of Arthurian allusions to be important and fascinating. I emphasize the word personally because my attention to these allusions is most likely driven by my own study and appreciation of the Arthurian legends. A respected English scholar and friend of mine believes these allusions are a bit much, particularly when they, as he believes, unduly interrupt the flow of the novel. At the same time, Park presents an interesting study of the psychological aspects of adolescence: his need for acceptance by others, especially by those his own age; a desire to exert independence from his mother; and his awareness of his own body. But these adolescent characteristics make Park an interesting character to readers who are living through the same needs and desires. My emphasis on them, or my insistence that these are the only important features of the novel, might detract from or reduce the students’ vicarious experiences, creating yet another sterile classroom analysis of yet another sterile novel. My attention to these literary merits are just another dimension of my experience of reading the novel, different in magnitude from my personal connection with Park’s loss of his father and his desire to learn more about him.
This discussion leads to a variety of questions: "so what?" "Why does all of this matter in the classroom?" "Why is it so important that we consider our own response to literature before we enter the classroom?" The answers are both simple and complex. Simply, we must first consider our own response to literature so that we can begin to understand the responses of our students. When we enter the literary discussion of the novel as human beings, we can understand the personal nature of the event of reading. Although we might come to a novel in a more mature and sophisticated way, we still bring our experiences to the reading event. Although we may have read more, studied critical theory, and had more experiences to pull from, the process in which we personally connect with the novel is the same process our students undertake as they make their own connections. In this way, our reading event is no different from our students’ reading events.
The answer becomes complex when we consider our position in the classroom in relation to our students’ position. If we recognize, or validate, our students’ personal responses to literature as well as our own, our role cannot be an authoritarian one. We can no longer enter a classroom discussion with answers. We can no longer begin the discussion at the end. We must enter the discussion at the same point our students enter it. We must begin where our students are most personally involved in the text at hand. More importantly, when we recognize the role of personal response in the discussion of literature, we become equal participants in this discussion. Our maturity and knowledge of literature cannot impinge upon our students’ general and personal responses. Rather, our maturity and knowledge must enhance our students’ literary experience. Any move on our part should build upon the connections our students have already made. In this way, what we, as teachers, bring to the classroom discussion is at the same time the most and least important aspect of the discussion. It is the most important aspect only in that what we bring to the discussion is truly ours; no one can bring the same experiences to the discussion as we do. It is the least important aspect in that we must avoid imposing our knowledge on our students: their experiences become more important than any knowledge we bring to the discussion.
Our role as teachers becomes a philosophical one. We must guide and direct the classroom discussion so that we both validate personal experience and build upon these experiences as we move the discussion toward greater understanding. We must create a community in which we expect our students both to respond in a personal way to the literature they read and to understand that meaning is constructed through the give-and-take struggle between their responses and the text. Methods and strategies that are antagonistic to the creation of this community deny our students’ and our present needs and desires; our present experiences will not be as powerful as they could be. More importantly, not creating this community adversely affects the future.
Returning to the quote by Dewey which opened this paper and Rosenblatt’s call to consider our own responses to literature before we actually teach them, we are also called to question the very basic tenets of our philosophy of teaching. It should be the aim and purpose of every teacher and curriculum to prepare our students for the future. But solely focusing on the future establishes a dualism that can be dangerous for us and our society. By emphasizing growth for the future, we can lose sight of the present. Dewey devoted much time and effort into the project of defining ends and their consequences.5 The significant issues here are that we must not divorce the means from the ends and that we must not forsake the present for the future. We must prepare for the future, certainly. But we must do so in such a way that the future is seen as the logical extension of the present. By fostering the appropriate habits and beliefs in the present, we are greatly influencing the future. In this way, we can say our end is to foster a life-long love of reading; we cannot use means, or methods, that hinder our reaching this end. Methods that reject individual response, both positive and negative, hinder students from achieving an aesthetic experience in their reading that is necessary if they are to love literature.
By seeing education as preparation for life, a life that exists outside the present and somewhere down the road, we cannot begin to understand the importance of literature in the present. Focusing on the ends as most important validates the notion that what we do in the present does not necessarily affect the future. If we do not emphasize personal engagement and response in the present, we are fooling ourselves when we believe it will become important in the future. Personal engagement and response become the means toward reaching the desired end: a society comprised of life-long readers and learners. Personal engagement and response are vital for creating meaning in the present; it is logical to assume that will be important for the future creation of meaning. To engage our students in a personal way, we must choose methods that will expect them to respond and reflect upon their reading in a personal way. Such a method would be both practical and visionary. Although it is not the only solution, transactional theory is both practical and visionary. By reconstructing a philosophy of teaching literature that is centered in transactional theory, we can choose effective methods that meet the needs of the present and the future.
1. This paper is the product of research conducted through an ALAN Foundation grant and was originally written for Chapter 1 of my dissertation. It has been modified to include research conducted since the completion of my dissertation and commentary found in other chapters of my dissertation. I would like to express my gratitude to the ALAN Foundation for its support.
2. This belief is critical for fully understanding Dewey’s philosophy of education, and he devoted much time and effort in expounding its significance. For example, Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, "If education is growth, it must progressively realize present possibilities, and thus make individuals better fitted to cope with later requirements" (p. 60-61). In Experience and Education, Dewey wrote, "What, then, is the true meaning of preparation in the educational scheme? In the first place, it means that a person, young or old, gets out of his present experience all that there is in it for him at the time in which he has it" (p. 29). Yet these references only touch the surface of Dewey’s writings that deal with this notion. The future was extremely important for Dewey, but he was concerned that educational practices not forsake the present for future.
3. The poem and aesthetic experience permeate Rosenblatt’s writings and comprise the majority of her work in both Literature as Exploration and The Reader, the Text, and the Poem. However, what is surprising to me is that even half a century after the original publication of Literature as Exploration, she found the need to further to define and argue their significance in her Preface to the recently published fifth edition.
4. When I first began writing this paper, I was stunned upon realizing that I, too, was 32 years old and my eldest daughter, too, was 6, a fact I found to be more than ironic. I cannot image ever finding myself in a situation when I am not thinking of my daughter. As I wrote, I couldn’t help but wonder if my own father thought about me as he marched through the fields of Vietnam, took aim at the enemy, and more significantly, when his helicopter raced to the earth.
5. Although this occupies much in Dewey’s work, see particularly his Theory of Valuation (1939).
Works CitedDewey, John. Democracy and Education. 1916. John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899-1924. Vol. 9. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
—. Experience and Education. 1938. John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953. Vol 13. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
—. "My Pedagogic Creed." 1897. John Dewey: The Early Works, 1882-1898. Vol. 5. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.
Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. Knopf, 1986.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. Viking, 1983.
Paterson, Katherine. Park’s Quest. Puffin Books, 1989.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. Literature as Exploration. 5th Edition. MLA, 1995.
—. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.
Robert Lockhart is an assistant professor of education at Indiana University in South Bend.
Copyright 1998. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation:. Robert Lockhart (1998). Validating the personal in Katherine PatersonThe ALAN Review, Volume 25, Number 2, 8-15.