Lisa K. Taylor’s (2007) article “Reading desire: from empathy to estrangement, from enlightenment to implication” examines the means of readers’ cultural receptions as they critically build approaches to Arabic literature that expresses and challenges various points of view of preconceived ideas, and further confronts the dilemma of the void of pragmatic and non-sensationalized Arabic literature within school systems. Taylor recognizes a hegemonic schematic within contemporary readers in which interpretive frameworks build into generalization-centered and euro-centralized approach to reading and pedagogical frameworks (p. 298). The article theorizes that the multicultural classroom taught from the lens of self-proclaimed “anti-racist/anti-colonialist white perspectives” leads to limited cross-cultural experiences, limited awareness of their implication in interlocking material and epistemic systems of discrimination/privilege (James, 1995; Taylor, 2007). Taylor designed a qualitative analysis of student response logs to various texts of Arabic literature designed for young adult readers. Subjects all white, college students, self-identified non-racist, non-colonialist in behavior, interpreted contemporary Arabic texts designed for young readers and wrote responses that focused on their connections with characters, themes, and modes of the story. The study focused upon the responses rather than the text themselves; building on a model of Recaptivation (Davis, 1996. As quoted in Taylor, 2007, p. 303), students analyzed and interpreted written journal responses through five various lenses designed to disrupt both their presumed neutrality and coherence as a reader and the text (Taylor, 2007, p. 303,)– these five lenses were:
1. Proliferating and diversifying identifications. 2.Situating ourselves as readers and learning to read our own readings symptomatically. 3. Reading like a writer. 4. Learning to listen, learning to witness. 5. Reading as a social justice teacher.
As students re-evaluated their own responses to journal entries, Taylor finds that students faced their limits of knowing and relating to characters within their interpretative frameworks – that the preconceived notions of Arabic-understandings were challenged when responses were revisioned within her five critical lenses. The response writings focused primarily upon the noticeable implications of their interpretations – noticing sameness and unnoticing cultural differences, external and internal struggle of characters and themes– that students dissolve understandings of historical and personal suffering of Arabic characters and attempt to find their own commonalities within personalities and experiences of sameness (Taylor, 2008, p. 305).
There is a severe and peculiar absence of Arab-based literary programs and units of study within the United States school system. While celebrated literary merits of the remaining world are openly touted in schools, many programs fail to honor centuries of cultural heritage and literary contributions of the Arabic people. Reflecting upon my own public schooling in Vermont, students read and discussed John Hersey’s Hiroshima during the Reagan Administration era’s Cold War and the world implications of nuclear war in contemporary society. American students of the 1980’s watched films such as The Morning After depicting the atrocities of a Soviet-US nuclear standoff and ultimate destruction. There were research projects dedicated to the philosophy and history of the Soviet Union, and my classmates and I had pen pals from a school outside of Moscow, who held the same fears ourselves. These books, activities, and films taught a generation of Cold War kids, whether liberal or conservative, that the end result of war was not worth the honor and glory that films such as “Red Dawn” or “Rambo III”, or sensationalized news medias who openly marketed Soviets as a tool for fear-mongering depicted, and that that distance and political beliefs do not equate into enemies, but linked our own lives to theirs. In the case of my personal educational background, schools balanced media Anti-Soviet sensationalism with pragmatic and thoughtful insight that induced critical thinking skills necessary in a multicultural nation. The result was a generation of empathetic and critically thinking members, willingly socially connected to internal and external societies.
Taylor’s findings do not paint extraordinary or unforeseen results within the Western world’s, euro-centralized, 21st Century’s first generation of readers. Without given a critical lens in which to view Arabic culture and identity, or given a point-of-view structured from within the culture itself and not hegemonic-based assumptions, the structuralized and marketed lens created by 21st Century media outlets and generalization disrupt critical thinking skills of readers. Taylor’s subjects assume that being a self-proclaimed and self-celebrating “non-racist, non-colonialist”, as she and her subjects eagerly label themselves, sustains open-mindedness and somehow devalues the necessary exposure to Arabic culture, neglecting pragmatic implications of experience. Taylor’s results only communicate a positive correlation between cultural exposure and authentic literary compassion by illustrating the illusionary correlation of self-empowered “liberalism” and perceived cultural compassion. We are left with the false assumption that because a white person is self-declared “forward thinking” and “politically correct” that it equates to cultural understanding; this assumption proves to be another form of hegemonic rule, but in ideas rather than culture. Once again, the empirical notion that the white-cultured mind is capable of grasping complex and difficult cultural sureties within the Arabic world without a guided pedagogy is a byproduct of Orientalism. The article and the results of the study solidifies the idea that cultural-understandings do not originate within belief systems, but rather within exposure to Arabic culture and points of view.
Without American school systems continuing the tradition of bridging cultural conflicts of contemporary society, the gap between our rising youth and the future matriculation of our society into Arab society, and Arab into our own, will prove difficult. Regardless, the essential connections between cultural conflict and misunderstandings to the lack of cultural literacy cannot be overstated. It is vital that the public school systems attempt to move our youth away from generalization and sensationalistic depictions of Arabs within pop culture, resulting in either false understandings or utter cultural rejections, and incorporate pragmatic, educated, and thought-provoking literary units to bridge authentic empathy of Arabic cultures through the study of indigenous literature and literature of the Arabic diaspora. Taylor (2007) illustrates the importance of cross-cultural, pragmatic instruction of first-hand Arabic culture through literary and research-based activities within American classrooms and how it produces veritable human understandings in times of great misunderstanding, generalizations, and apathy.
Davis, H.E. (1996) Pleasure, pain, and ethical responsibility: a felt-situated reading of Menace II Society, in M. Katz (Ed.) Philosophy of education 1994: proceedings of 50th annual meeting of the philosophy of education society. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois, 143-151.
James, C. (1995) Seeing ourselves: exploring race, ethinicity and culture. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.
Taylor, L. (2007) Reading desire: from empathy to estrangement, from enlightenment to implication. Intercultural Education, 18(4). 297-316.