English, K-12, Literature

Whose Canon is it Anyway? (Part II)

shakespeare copyLast week, I posted about questioning the literary canon, and got some fabulous responses. This week, we’ll look at two more arguments for/against the canon. As a refresher, the “Top 4” arguments were:

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.

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

We discussed the first two arguments last week. Now it’s onto numbers 3 & 4!

3. Some books are truly just better than others. Arthur Krystal discusses embracing a plurality of texts in a recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education called, “What do we lose if we lose the canon?” 

“While there is nothing wrong (and perhaps something even right) in praising those whom previously we shunned, a law of diminishing returns kicks in once we stop making distinctions between the great and the good. It’s one thing to acknowledge the subjective factors of canon-building and another to obfuscate the aesthetic underpinnings of works created by human beings who invest time, skill, talent, and knowledge into making a novel or poem…. Some books simply reflect a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships, of literature itself than do other books….”

I do agree with his statement; I am in no way advocating that students read only what’s easy and popular at the time. However, while I agree that some books do “reflect a deeper understanding of the world,” this argument has long been used to preserve the canon-as-is based on a western, white, male aesthetic as to what constitutes great writing; just observe the authors Krystal himself uses to exemplify the “great” writing he argues for: Shakespeare, Keats, Chekhov, and Joyce – notice the pattern?

While no canon-advocate I’ve come across explicitly argues for race or gender as literary gatekeepers, the “aesthetic greatness” argument essentially achieves the same goal: We are taught (largely through reading the canon, ironically) to understand that certain ways of writing exemplify the preferred “skill, talent, and knowledge,” necessary for literary greatness (see my previous posts on dialect privilege). In actuality, these forms align conveniently with dialect features of white, historically privileged classes as well as narrative structures that follow a characteristically western/male form storytelling (e.g. that “plot line” diagram you filled out in school – which a professor of mine once referred to as “the male orgasm” model of western narrative).

Plot line diagram

This, I think, is the toughest argument of all to address, because, as Krystal said, “Just because there is no objective list of Great Books does not mean there are no great books,” and I agree wholeheartedly. We just need to be conscious of whose criteria we are using to define this “greatness” – which brings us to the final argument:

4. The themes of great works transcend time and culture: Basically, some argue that even though the books are old and the authors white, it doesn’t actually matter because the themes in great literature transcend racial, cultural, and historical boundaries. I agree on principle, but when this idea is put into practice, only the canonical texts are allowed to transcend time and culture, while minoritized authors are relegated to specialized elective classes like African American Literature, or British Women Authors.

To me, honestly embracing the “thematic transcendence” argument inherently involves stirring up the canon. If we’re truly interested in themes that transcend race, time and culture, why not actually use TEXTS that transcend these boundaries in the first place? 

We often discuss canonical works as standalone objects, universally great based on their own merit. But, in this way, we forget the interaction that takes place between the text, the reader, and the historical periodThis is what made many of the canonical works “great” in the first place – Not only were they well-written, but they were relevant and powerful to their readers in a specific time and place.

It’s this relevance that needs to be reintroduced into discussions about the canon: Rather than struggling to make a small, homogenous subsection of literature relevant to our culturally, ideologically, and linguistically diverse students, why don’t we just start with the students in the first place? Instead of trying to cram the square-peg of a 1950’s literary curriculum into the round-hole of 21st century classrooms – what might a  21st century literary canon look like (and would it even be a singular, codified canon in the first place)?

Indeed, some themes are timeless. It’s fascinating to discover that young lovers in the 1600’s were just as enamored-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness as teenagers today. However, is Romeo & Juliet really the best literary reflection of the complex relationship choices adolescents are faced with today? Similarly, while Huck Finn is an important tale of friendship and the dehumanizing nature of slavery, is the “black man and white kid become friends” narrative the most fertile ground from which to explore the complexities and subtitles of racism and white privilege we face in the 21st century?

To sum up, there’s nothing wrong about reading the incredible works of literature that constitute the more traditional canon – and excellent teachers who love and value these works can make them riveting and timelessly relevant to students. What I AM against is making knee-jerk literary choices based on codified views – rooted in a history of literary racism and sexism – of what constitutes great literature. Whether it’s intentional or not, unquestioningly accepting the canon-as-is, simply because it’s the canon, does just that. 

Choosing texts is tough, and will always necessitate painful choices about what must be left out. But choosing the literature our students will read is too important to be left to a “default” canon. Instead, we must make meticulous, thoughtful choices based on the individual group of students in front of us. And in fact, these choices may not result in “a canon” at all, but a plurality of voices and literary perspectives that vary year to year, school to school, and even student to student – and the point is: That’s ok. 

What do you think? Is there still value in “the canon?” Did you read the classics and love them? Or missed out on them and regret it? In general, is there a better way to choose what books we teach in school?

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2 thoughts on “Whose Canon is it Anyway? (Part II)”

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