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Should We Continue Teaching the Literary Canon?

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “A Classic Debate” by Emily Chiariello in Literacy Today, May/June 2017 (Vol. 34, #6, p. 26-29), no e-link; Chiariello can be reached at [email protected].
In this article in Literacy Today, consultant Emily Chiariello weighs the pros and cons of teaching literary “classics” in secondary schools, often including The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, Julius Caesar, Lord of the Flies, Macbeth, Of Mice and Men, Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter, and To Kill a Mockingbird. What are the arguments for continuing to teach these and other “great books”?
- They have beautiful prose, timeless themes, and simpatico characters.
- Students can learn about a time other than their own and gain a deeper understanding of the current era.
- The syntax and idiomatic expressions may be unfamiliar, but teachers can use archaic usage to help students understand how language changes over time.
- If students aren’t familiar with the classics, they won’t understand allusions in everyday discourse. “All one has to do is keep track for a day or two of how many times a character, story, or author is referred to from a classic text in a news story, in another published work, or in passing conversation,” says Hoyt Phillips at Teaching Tolerance. “Without a knowledge of these references, students run the risk of not being able to fully participate in these conversations.”
- This is especially important for marginalized students, who need “cultural literacy” to navigate successfully in the U.S.
- Finally, there’s inertia: teachers have well-developed lesson plans on the classics that they’ve been comfortable using for years.
What are the arguments against the canon?
- There are plenty of contemporary works of literature that are just as worthy and much more relevant to today’s students – for example, The Kite Runner, Life of Pi, Unwind, The Hunger Games. “Students need and demand relevance,” says Phillips. “Teaching classic texts at the expense of more current texts can further alienate students, thus causing them to disengage.”
- Are the themes in the classics really universal, or do they stem from a narrow slice of history and culture? The literary canon is Eurocentric, male-dominated, and heteronormative, “grounded in systems of oppression that have established educational goals and environments with very narrow identity groups in mind,” says diversity consultant Sara Wicht.
- Is the instructional time spent struggling to understand classics’ archaic language worth it? Does this lead to teachers reading for students?
- Isn’t this time especially unproductive for English language learners, who need every minute to become proficient in contemporary English?
- The messages embedded in the classics are all around us – in the media, churches, the legal system, and other institutions – so isn’t reading them in classic literature redundant?
- Some of today’s literature may be classics in 100 years. Students should be thinking about the criteria for being in the canon and getting a jump on tomorrow’s selections.
Chiariello believes there’s a middle ground: “In terms of cultural literacy,” she says, “it can both be true that the classics are lacking in diversity and that a basic understanding of such texts is required in a balanced education.” Atlanta teacher Darnell Fine agrees: “Much of students’ survival, in particular students of color from low-income backgrounds, depends on their ability to navigate worlds that push them to the margins. By not teaching them about the culture of power, it makes it harder for students to gain power and control over their own lives.”
The best compromise may be the “windows and mirrors” approach to selecting works of literature: some books should reflect students’ culture and experiences while others provide windows into unknown worlds that broaden their cultural and literary horizons. “Multicultural reading lists aren’t about displacing classic works of literature from the canon,” says Fine, “but making room for marginalized voices and authors that have been routinely excluded from the core curriculum.” Here are Chiariello’s suggestions for rethinking literary selections:
• Prune the classics list. Keep the works that do the best job of fulfilling learning objectives and discard those that don’t. For example, for a curriculum unit on the dystopian genre, are the traditional texts like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984 really the best, or might Diverse Energies, an anthology of dystopian short stories, be more effective?
• Use excerpts. Close reading of well-chosen passages from texts (for example, on loyalty or foreshadowing) can accomplish as much as reading the whole text, leaving room for more variety in the curriculum. The anti-bias curriculum Perspectives for a Diverse America has more than 300 texts from a variety of sources.
• Teach students to be literary and media critics. As they read and view, students should ask, Whose voice is privileged and whose is missing? What stereotypes are reinforced?
• Compare texts. Students might study similarities and differences between Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Odyssey and Summer of the Mariposas, The Scarlet Letter and Speak, and Romeo and Juliet and Romiette and Julio.
• Read with a different lens. For example, students might read To Kill a Mockingbird with an eye to how the African-American characters respond to the unfolding events.
• Integrate other media. Teachers might use film, music, visual art, podcasts, and social media to introduce, supplement, and reinforce literary themes. The Book Riot website has lots of ideas.
• Connect literature with current events. For example, The Outsiders has links to gang violence, Macbeth to the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. The Learning Network at The New York Times suggests dozens of text-to-text connections between the news and works of literature.

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