For some time now an argument has been going on about what students need to understand the reading they are asked to do (the kind of background knowledge they need -- a la E. D. Hirsch) -- this has become a question because of a course here at Elmira College called Freshman Studies: When World's Collide (the first of two courses first year students take; each is supposed to offer material that helps students gain some perspective on college-level learning). The first book that students read for the fall term was James McBride's The Color of Water. During a discussion with colleagues, some expressed dismay that students were unfamiliar with the history of Jim Crow in the US, a bit of information that would really enhance their reading of the experience of McBride's mother (or of his father and step father) navigating personal relationships during the 1930s. "What are they being taught before we get them?" was one lament.
In today's class I tried to approach the question by showing students that the "lesson" in the memoir was not so simple as "with hard work anyone can succeed." Students are prone to reading with that kind of optimism and with that kind of acceptance of the "American Dream." The reality, of course, is a good deal more complicated. And it requires that we bring a range of information to their attention. And we need to do that and not merely bemoan that fact that they may be less sophisticated than we want them to be.
There are two issues here: first, we have a responsibility to introduce students to the complexity of social and historical context. I tried to do this by showing my students extreme examples of Jim Crow using Without Sanctuary (a website devoted to the collection of postcards of American lynchings from the early years of the 20th century). That visual record is truly disturbing and can shock us out of a simple interpretation of the American dream. The fact of the cards and the history behind them deepens the reading of McBride's commentary of American race relations.
The second issue is that sometimes WE need to provide the background material to help students read carefully and deeply. That is, in fact, part of a college instructor's responsibility. If our students arrived knowing everything they needed know, they wouldn't need to be in college and we would not be necessary. It's our position to teach them and to lead them to a broader understanding. Simply to complain about what students don't know borders on a kind of laziness. It is a way to avoid taking responsibility for helping students (and students not only of traditional age but also returning students) see the world.
The first step in any classroom is to figure out where your students are -- what they know that can help them unpack the reading and what they need to know. It helps to see the whole experience as a process, and it's best to begin slowly to build a foundation of content knowledge and students' confidence that learning is as much about having knowledge as about realizing that there is a good deal more to know.