Literature, Reading

Whose Canon is it Anyway? (Part I)

ShakespeareConfession: In all my years teaching English, I have never chosen to teach Shakespeare (inbox: brace for hate-mail). It was never really a conscious choice – I have nothing against the Bard; I just knew my students had been/would be exposed to his work and I had other texts I wanted to teach.

Making book choices is a painful process – for teachers and readers alike. Choosing a book is exciting, but it also inherently necessitates choosing to an entire wealth of authors, stories, and perspectives out.

So what’s the go-to literary answer? READ THE CANON. What is the canon? Well see for yourself: Here are the 10 “Most Taught” books in US High Schools (followed by the percentages of schools that reported using them).

Most taught high school books
Source: The Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature

I’m sure you’ll quickly notice how white (all) and male (all except To Kill a Mockingbird) the authors are, but I was also surprised that none of these books were written within the last half century. It’s disturbing to think that, in such a rapidly changing world, our English course lists look largely the same as one from a pre-Sputnik classroom of the 1950’s. Our perspectives on literature – and arguably reality – therefore remain shaped by the same 10 dead anglo-authors.

As a former English teacher, I’ve heard a lot of arguments for the preservation and value of “the canon.” Here are the top four:

1. These texts are part of our literary heritage. 

2. Great literature must stand the “test of time.” 

3. Some books are truly just better than others.

4. The themes of great works transcend time and culture.

Fair enough. We’ll look at 2 arguments this week  and 2 next week. Here we go with the first two:

1. These texts are part of our literary heritage. True. We must know where we’re from to know where we’re going. Part of the literary heritage argument is that there is something arguably powerful about having read the same books as other people you will meet out in “the real world.” I was pretty sure I subscribed to this idea as well, but now I’m struggling to find a concrete example of this. However, I can think of quite a few times when I’ve learned a ton from people who have read different books than I had, as opposed to those with whom I can commonly roll my eyes about having to slog through The Scarlet Letter in high school (which, in my opinion, should have been banned by the Geneva Convention).

Also, when we talk about our literary heritage, it’s important to carefully examine what is meant by “our.” I recently supervised student teachers at a school with an African American Literature elective course. In one sense, students who take that class will be exposed to some incredible texts and a powerful literary movement in an in-depth way that’s not always possible in a general American literature class. But in another sense, why the separation from American literature in the first place? Aren’t African American literary contributions as foundational to the American story as Gatsby or Of Mice and Men? While a class like this may be good intentioned, does having this course simply give an excuse for the continued whiteness of the mainstream English classes that 90% of students exclusively take? More importantly, what message does this course send to students about who is actually considered American and whose heritage counts as “ours?”

2. Great literature must stand the “test of time.” Generations of students and teachers have leaned and loved these books, so they must be great, right? There is some truth to this – but it’s also a self-fulfilling argument. The primary way the canon reproduces itself is through the fact that we tend to teach what we were taught and think it’s valuable because we were taught it, and so on.

But more importantly, “the test of time” argument also obscures the fact that many alternative narratives, until recently, could not be taught – or even worse – could not be written. Is it in any way surprising that we don’t have dramas from a prolific Elizabethan playwright who was a female, or a wide range of racial perspectives on the “roaring 20’s?”

So while, in theory, “the test of time” should be a valid way to determine what books have lasting merit, in actuality, it becomes a de-facto continuation of race and gender based censorship that preserves and extends a prejudiced literary tradition in which alternative narratives are not allowed to be heard

Next week, we’ll look at the other two big arguments: that some books are truly just better than others, and that the themes of great works transcend time and culture.

But in the meantime, are there any major arguments I’m missing? For or against the canon? Any thoughts on the arguments above?

Feel free to comment below, or visit the blog’s Facebook page.

Follow on Twitter @chriskbacon.

6 thoughts on “Whose Canon is it Anyway? (Part I)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s