Rethinking the Literary Canon

About Sherlene Merritt

I am a lead education specialist working in the foremost urban school district,in an effort to reach our future history makers. I am a proven leader, mentor teacher, curriculum designer, and proven classroom educator. With nearly 8 years in the classroom, I am ready to continue my leadership of educators, as we move forward creating a culture of learning for the future.

There have been countless discussions launched about the need to teach the historically accepted literary pieces included in the canon. Just as controversial as the discussions engendered about the canon, so too is the definition. The “canon” is defined by dictionary.com as “a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.”  The very definition sparks a conversation about what makes one piece of literature “sacred” or “genuine” enough to qualify for inclusion in the canon or to find itself worthy of our learners. What becomes problematic is the very narrow parameters of inclusion, and further what has been up for debate is that the definition suggests that those works not yet included are thought to be inferior or unworthy of literary merit. Quite frankly, conversations about the canon itself have become imbued with the idea that subscribing to its validity is equivalent to negating the need to expand the canon to be more inclusive and reflective of the world in which we live today.

This is simply not the case. Certainly, there will be those that argue that an educator’s job is to “meet students where they are,” and these teachers will advocate for young teen literature that speaks to students’ interests with more approachable lexile levels. Moreover, there will be those that argue that students should “see themselves” in the literature, and these educators will push the multicultural literature program as a substitute for canonized literary offerings. However, what each of these arguments fail to see is that intentionally ignoring the canon is to exclude our learners from a larger cultural conversation that occurs in the classroom of the” majority” in America and in the global classrooms abroad every day.

intentionally ignoring the canon is to exclude our learners from a larger cultural conversation Click To Tweet

To a large extent, the canon remains intact for most American learners, and those who study American literature across the globe look to the canon for works worthy of study. Thus, as educators who seek to give our students a truly “world class” educational experience, we should be moved to make works in the canon not only a part of our students’ literary experience, but we should strive to make the teaching of canonical texts whole and relevant. Besides increasing our students’ literary repertoire, we will expose them to these “sacred books” that, despite their characterization as exclusive, are full of universal lessons and truths.

Why The Canon Matters

In many classrooms across America, particularly in urban areas with large minority populations, there has been a move towards teaching “young adult literature”. These teen tales seek to pull our reticent readers into novels that speak to issues that they may be experiencing. While these efforts are great, in that they encourage readership among readers who only want to read what is necessary to pass the class, these efforts ignore a larger need. The efforts to increase reading may be met in such a scenario, but the effort to level the cultural playing field is largely left unmet. Students who are not reading the text with which the “standardized tests” are being crafted are left to struggle with foreign concepts, when they encounter them on test day. Students who have no interaction with texts that are “expected” to be read as one matriculates through middle and high school are robbed of being included in a larger conversation with their peers upon arrival at post-secondary institutions.

Certainly, not engaging the canon is choosing an “alternative education” for our leaners.   Ignoring largely accepted or canonized literary selections leaves these students at a disadvantage that the aforementioned teachers could have avoided by simply selecting canonized texts to teach at the appropriate level. Certainly, teachers can select companion texts to compliment the canon. Further, they can allow the students to specify books they have read or would like to read that touch on the universal concepts explored in canonized texts. However, supplanting one program with the other simply will not do. We must rethink this urge to rethink teaching the canon.

Ignoring largely accepted or canonized literary selections leaves these students at a disadvantage Click To Tweet

Expanding the Canon

Speaking of the urge to challenge the canon, there are those who argue that the canon is too exclusive. These teachers and learners argue that there is a need to see “self” reflected in the literature that is taught in schools today. Certainly, this argument is not without merit. Certainly, strides have been made to address this deficit in diversity as it relates to the literature taught in schools across America. Certainly, as the minority numbers for students has risen, the argument for more inclusive literature has risen to a fever pitch. This argument has been met with offerings like African American and Multi-cultural literature offerings as elective courses. Moreover, this argument has been met with a slow and somewhat steady expansion of the literary canon to include works from formerly marginalized voices- African American, Latino, Asian, etc. I do not believe that anyone would argue against the need for students to be able to relate to the literature and heroes therein that they encounter.

However, there must be attention paid to the conversations of currency, however exclusive, until all voices are included. We must teach the canon, because the canon is the one resounding voice that is being channeled as secondary curriculums are being crafted, as tests are being produced, and learners are being rewarded for mastery of “common” standards. We must teach the canon, because we owe our students trust and faith in the fact that they can struggle with and succeed with complex texts. We must teach the canon, because the canon is the measuring stick with which students will be measured. We must teach the canon, because the canon is “a collection or list” hailed by the “majority” that is not going away. So, I exhort all educators to rethink rethinking teaching the canon.

Making the Canon Accessible

As I look at canonized offerings to teach the literary standards to my students, I am struck by my experiences as an educator. I am left fulfilled when I have engaged my students in hearty discourse with canonized texts. I can recall my 12th grade students coming in after watching a popular television show, “How to Get Away with Murder”. They were tickled about the literary allusion that the characters of the show made to Raskolnikov, a character from Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment. They understood and were participants in the conversation with the text (the show) because they had struggled with the aforementioned complex canonized text, Crime and Punishment (a 500+ page novel). One character on the show retorted “ I feel like Raskolnikov…’surely it isn’t beginning already?’.”  My students came back to class having experienced an epiphany in that moment. They realized that prior to that moment, they had been excluded from a “secret” conversation that had been hidden in plain sight- in the canon. My students came back with a hunger to read and understand the canon that they had not been offered or failed to engage. The statement that students will rise to the level of our expectations is vital in this conversation.

students will rise to the level of our expectations Click To Tweet

Students can and should engage with the canon. That is not to say that they should not read young adult literature and multicultural selections to supplement the canon. Certainly, a well-rounded student should be well read. However, not teaching the canon is equivalent to sending a soldier into a gunfight with a paper sword. Not teaching the canon is telling our students that they are not worth the trouble of making the canon accessible and relevant. Not teaching the canon to all learners is not leveling the educational playing field. So, while we concede that the hallowed halls of the canon must be expanded to include the experiences of this very rich and diverse America, we must also realize that the texts therein share universal lessons and truths with which we all can identify. While we can agree that these texts can be difficult for our learners, we must press forward in our efforts to offer a rich and rewarding educational experience and reconsider reconsidering teaching the canon.

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About the Author:

I am a lead education specialist working in the foremost urban school district,in an effort to reach our future history makers. I am a proven leader, mentor teacher, curriculum designer, and proven classroom educator. With nearly 8 years in the classroom, I am ready to continue my leadership of educators, as we move forward creating a culture of learning for the future.

One Comment

  1. J.Mitchell December 28, 2016 at 11:02 pm - Reply

    This is a conversation that must be had, even as we try to encourage students to read what they want there is a certain expectation for things that they “should” have read.

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