Friday, February 28, 2014

Sample Textual Analysis: About "Why Other Countries Teach Better"

Students, please find below an example of the kind of textual analysis discussed here.  Please note that, when formatted for submission (as the present version is not, owing to the medium), it is most of four pages in length, comfortably within the assigned length for your own submission.

On 17 December 2013, the editors of the New York Times published "Why Other Countries Teach Better."  In the article, the authors assert that the United States needs to adopt some of the teaching methods employed in other countries if the deficiencies of its workers' reasoning skills are to remain competitive against those of workers in other places.  Pedagogical practices in Finland, Canada, and Shanghai are offered as the primary examples; Finland's emphasis on teacher training and retention, Canada's on equality of school funding, and Shanghai's on intra-cultural integration are presented as both singularly effective and markedly different from practices in the United States.  Each country is also portrayed as performing better than the United States in terms of teaching its children.  Such portrayals speak to an expectation on the part of the editors that their readers are going to be relatively politically liberal and comparatively Western-centric.  Indications thereof are in the nature of the publication itself, the consistent depictions of motions toward egalitarianism, and the examples selected for support of the article's central argument.

That the New York Times aims at a relatively liberal readership is to be expected.  As the major newspaper of New York City, the Times can be expected to reflect or directly address the needs and understandings of the populace of New York City--and that population is generally considered liberal, as determined by voting patterns and prevalence of social programs.  The US House of Representatives reports in its directory that all but one of the representatives sent to Congress from the many Congressional districts of New York City is Democrat, and the Democratic Party is strongly associated with liberal politics.  That New York is represented by Democrats, then, marks it as liberal, as does the prevalence of public services available.  Extensive public library systems, public transit, and housing assistance typify New York City, and the city supports an independent system of colleges through the City University of New York.  Each contributes to a massive network of public services available, and that network bespeaks the overall liberal tenor of the Big Apple.  The New York Times will, as what is still at some level a local newspaper, respond to the perceived needs of the identifiably liberal populace, making it more likely to be itself liberal.

Similarly, it is to be expected that the Times will aim at a Western-centered readership.  New York City is often figured as a distillation of the United States, particularly since it is regarded as the major point of entry for many of the people who immigrated to the United States from Western Europe.  It is, in effect, the epicenter of Americanness, and the United States is typically viewed (by itself and others) as the pivotal Western country.  New York City thus becomes among the most Western of Western places, and its local newspaper will necessarily respond thereto.  Also, the major language of publication of the newspaper is English, a West Germanic language (Baugh and Cable 33-34); even in its primary tongue, the paper speaks to a Western audience.

It is not only in the inherent features of the publication that the article indicates its intended audience; it also addresses a liberal readership in its consistent motions towards the egalitarian in its discussion.  One of the underpinnings of liberal political thought is that people deserve to be given equal opportunity, by which is meant beginning on an equal footing.  This tends to imply that explicit measures need to be taken to address systematic inequalities, which is to say that civil programs should tend towards the egalitarian.  The article points out social structures in its examples that function in such a way.  Finland, for example, is shown as providing non means-tested services to students, meaning that need is not a feature in determining what students receive; it is also emphasized that its educational system was set up to "provide a quality, high-level education for poor and wealthy alike."  Similarly, the point is made that "Finnish teachers are not drawn to the profession by the money; they earn only slightly more than the national average salary," which presents a normalizing idea consistent with egalitarian ideas.  A like point is made with Canada in the note that "Americans tend to see such inequalities as the natural order of things.  Canadians do not," and another is made in commenting that Shanghai "has mainly moved away from an elitist system."  Each tends to the idea of better schooling coming from the egalitarian, and so each seems pitched to speak to liberal readers.

The egalitarianism is also framed in terms likely to appeal to Western readers.  For example, Canada is used as almost a byword for egalitarian practices in the United States--already identified as a major pivot of the Western world.  Its egalitarianism, then, is particularly accessible to that most Western of audiences, and its depiction in the New York Times thus bespeaks an expectation that the audience of the article will derive mostly from the Western world.  Similarly, the egalitarianism in Shanghai is framed largely in terms of including the children of migrant workers, putting it into terms likely to resonate with the prototypically Western readers in New York City, a city that makes much of its immigrant history, and of the rest of the United States, which grapples with the idea of migrant workers and their children.

The authors' examples seem calculated to speak directly to liberal readers.  Finland is frequently held up as a model of centralized governmental control.  The egalitarianism that is typically linked to Canada is linked to it by way of liberal policies; it is typically framed in terms of government programs that are at odds with prevailing conservative ideas of appropriate civil structures.  Shanghai, as part of China, is linked with communist doctrine, and communism is seen as the excess of liberalism.  That the examples are used indicates that the authors believe they will be received well by the audience; the authors have to expect that the readers will react well to them.  That they are expected to react well suggests that the assumed readership is fundamentally liberal in orientation.

The choice of examples from which to make the argument indicates also the expectation that the readers of the article will be Western.  Finland, as a Nordic country, is decidedly Western.  Canada, as part of the British Commonwealth, is, as well.  Shanghai might appear to be the outlying example, but Kerrie L. MacPherson of the University of Hong Kong calls it "China's historically most capitalist place" (37), and capitalism is the defining philosophy of the modern Western world.  As such, it joins Finland and Canada in being familiar to Western readers, its invocation a means for the authors to address a Western readership.

That biases towards the Western liberal can be detected in "Why Other Countries Teach Better" does not mean that the article does not do well to raise several points; educational excellence should be a concern of the people of the United States, and it is not yet sufficiently in place (if it ever can be).  What the detectable biases do oblige, however, is careful consideration; while bias is inevitable, it must be known to be accounted for, and it must be accounted for if the works within which it is present are to be used ethically and responsibly.  Such use does much to allow for greater understanding among divergent ideologies; each has something to offer, but that offer can only be known if the source can be acknowledged, and sifting through bias is necessary for that acknowledgement to occur.

Works Cited
  • Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. Fifth ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002. Print.
  • "Directory of Represetatives." US House of Representatives, n.d. Web. 28 February 2014.
  • MacPherson, Kerrie L. "Shanghai's History: Back to the Future." Harvard Asia Pacific Review 6.1 (Spring 2002): 37-40. PDF file.
  • "Why Other Countries Teach Better." New York Times, 17 December 2013. Web. 28 February 2014.

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