Master of Allusions-or-Does "The Canon" Foster Culture?
Lately, I've been in several conversations around what constitutes a good English/Language Arts curriculum. The two things that I keep hearing are these:
- We should abandon the canon.
- There is no reason to teach whole novels in class.
In regard to the first point, by now it's an old argument, and E.D. Hirsch has taken the brunt of the blows from the non-canonists. The Canon, (capital C) is the list of works classified as classics, high Literature (capital L). Examples are The Illiad, the Bible, Romeo and Juliet, Beowulf, etc. I have heard the idea of cultural capital bandied about, as in these are the works we allude to, for example, going on an odyssey, or when one talks of something of biblical proportion. The thing is that as we develop further into a diverse society, we must ask whose culture are we building capital in. There are many who think that for that very reason (and the inaccessibility of some of the more archaic prose) we should abandon the Canon. However, it may be that we are merely chipping away at it, and then replacing those works with others. Some of this is deliberate, for example, I don't know how many students are made to read Heart of Darkness now, due to its depiction of Africa. And some of this is that perhaps the staying power of other works are not as strong as once thought--who reads Pilgrim's Progress, or The Last of the Mohicans now? There is a certain amount of organic shift, and then there are deliberate shifts. It would take a greater effort to displace Dante than Bunyan, primarily because times have changed as has the concept of religion. By abandoning the Canon consciously, what I think we'll find, is that there are certain works that will gain credence organically, for example The House on Mango Street has become fairly widespread in high school curricula. When it comes to Shakespeare and the Bible, I think any Canon-busters have a huge wall to break through. So perhaps a wholesale dismissal of the Canon is not the way to go, no, perhaps we should look at those books just as any other books we might select lessons from. Moby Dick... not an easy read. I didn't get to it until I was 40. It took a long time, but I did like it.
What is the purpose for reading a Canonical book as a class? Is it to know the story? Many of the reading guides I've seen tend to focus on plot. Is it to open a discussion on a topic embedded in the story? That is a different kind of reading. Is it to make the students into better readers? Not every student arrives to a book prepared to read it. Those are only a few questions in regard to how people view ELA novel work. Kelly Gallagher, in Readicide says that there is most definitely a place for the whole class novel in the curriculum. What he doesn't say is that it has to be a Canonical work. When I was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, I would pair it with Of Mice and Men. This was because the concept of lynching showed up in both of them--one was a white man, the other was black. We used these two Canonical works to study the ways in which the story viewed the purpose and then juxtaposed the concepts against the Tuskegee Institute's data on lynchings from the 1800's to the mid 1900's. The books gave some context to those situations, and then the data gave us facts to build hypotheses around. We would then supplement the data and hypotheses with actual historic research. It would seem less fitting for an English class if we had only done the research part. By doing this, we built background knowledge for the texts, and we provided context for the research. The discussions we had helped us build our classroom community as well.
Of course looking at the whole novel lessons, perhaps it is best to be able to rally the class around ideas in the novels, to build knowledge through the test chamber of a hypothetical situation--reading the novel as a case-study or a thing to aid understanding. One of my favorite novels is Monnew by Ahmadou Kourouma. The entire book is focused upon the concept of what monnew is, and its iterations in the culture of Soba (which is a fictional African nation). The word is untranslatable outside of the native language--which is why he needs to write a book. What it comes down to, in this regard, is that without deliberate purpose, certain books may be viewed more as a way of lording culture over kids' heads. As in, "if you don't understand this, you are of the heathen," which is not what anyone's goal should be in education. Instead, the book should have something about it that is akin to, "Hey, look at this thing... What do you think it does?"