The literary canon is good for you.
So is broccoli.
Anyone who has tried to cajole a floret of broccoli into the mouth of a picky toddler can imagine a similar experience in trying to cajole a (male?) 10th grader to read a chapter of Brave New World on his own. “Read about John the Savage; understanding his alienation is good for you!” a teacher pleads with conviction in an attempt to fatten students with enough prose, poetry, and drama for a lifetime in the perceived literary wasteland of adulthood.
“Eat your canon!” …literally.
Perhaps English teachers see the canon as a means to provide students with a common language in order to understand cultural comparisons to a “Scrooge”, a “Frankenstein” , or a “Mr. D’Arcy.” English teachers know the value in having students recognize the characterization of the human spirit as seen in the camaraderie in the relentless hunt for the white whale, in traveling west on Route 66 in a 1949 Hudson, or in the imagining the filth of the trenches in Paul Baumer’s no-mans land. English teachers firmly believe that students should know how the characters of Huck Finn, Hester Prynne and Gatsby reflect the tumultuous history of our nation, a nation students will inherit.
But perhaps English teachers need to go on a diet. While there are arguments to stuffing students full of great literature before sending them out into the real world, there is also an argument for allowing students the opportunity to bring their choices to the conversations about literature. The recent survey results from Grant Wiggins , co-author of Understand by Design, of 7300 high school students indicates that English Language Arts is near the bottom in the ranking of “favorite” classes. Many students complaints were directed at the literary canon:
- The books chosen have no true connection to my life.
- I do not like to read the books given
- Because the books do not interest me and I feel like we never learn anything applicable to the real world
- do like reading. I don’t like reading books that I am not interested in and we have to read books and stories that I don’t like.
The literary canon is not fixed nor limited to yellowing copies of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (admittedly, my least favorite) or Drieser’s An American Tragedy. The canon is a living body of writing, continuously replenished with contemporary stories with unforgettable characters: Lt. Jimmy Cross (The Things They Carried), Sethe (Beloved), Abaline Clark (The Help), and Hazel (Watership Down). Moreover, what spoke to one generation, may not speak to another. A body of great literature is on the increase, and some English teachers need to open the door even wider in order to include student choice. The banquet of traditional literary offerings must be limited as a matter of practicality; we simply cannot teach everything.
One way to combat the complaints about “books I don’t like” while including more texts is to offer satellite texts which are linked thematically to a whole class read. Perhaps a survey of student interest in themes or genre could determine the course of study, for example, a unit on monsters in literature could include a wide range of materials from picture books to JK Rowling’s characterization of Voldemort to the more complicated stories of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Gardner’s Grendel.
English teachers should not feel the overwhelming responsibility for the selection of all class materials when so much literature is available today in so many different formats. Students should begin to take responsibility for contributing (appropriate) materials for their own interests or to share with others. Even a simple addition of a weekly SSR period to include student selections would counter the arguments that all books read in high school are boring. With ownership in selection, students could be more invested.
Back in 1999, several teachers and I attended a Broadway performance of Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehy. During the intermission a man, obviously moved by the production, stood several seats away sloppily wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. “I know this play,” he was repeating to himself trying to grasp at some memory that was buried long ago, “how do I know this play?”
Of course he knew the play, we scoffed! We envisioned the high school English teacher who years ago had probably forced him to read a part of the drama in class. Maybe the man read the part of Biff or Bernard as the teacher would have had difficulties in providing access to a performance, live or taped. The man may have done well on the final test; he may have relieved when the teacher unit was over. The problems of Willie Loman probably were “boring” or seem distant and trivial to the man, a teenager in high school back in the 1960s.
Years later in the plush seating of the mezzanine on a Friday night performance, the language of Miller’s drama, long ago buried in the man’s brain, suddenly rushed into the his consciousness. His visceral reaction to the production was enhanced by this recollection, but most likely, the man was finally at the age where Willie’s dilemma made sense to him. By the end of the play, the man was sobbing quietly, a testament to Miller’s ability to produce a catharsis.
This incident reinforced my belief that the literary canon is a lifelong experience, not one stop at the “all-you-should-eat” high school buffet and that maybe English teachers should stop panicking that students will never be exposed to great literature in their lives after high school. Quite frankly, the man would have sobbed with or without us.
Most teachers of English recognize the importance of the literary canon as record of experience handed from one generation to the next. But we need to be judicious and select those works that will engage students while meeting our criteria of preparing students for the real world. And in this digital age of multiple media platforms, we also need to let the students share what matters to them. This could be a frightening proposal for some of us as there is risk and uncertainty as to how implementing choice and moving away from the canon could be perceived by stakeholders. For others, however, student selection could be a natural part of the progression in education today. Our standards should be our belief in the stories we teach, our passion for their message, our knowledge of these texts.
In including the students in their education, how will the increase of student choice be accessed? Along with student selection should come the implementing of meaningful, authentic assessments which Wiggins discusses at length in his survey findings. I will address these in my next posting,”Why Don’t They Love English Like We Love English?” Part III.
I happen to love both the literary canon AND broccoli, so when I am confronted with someone who does not like either, I do my best to cajole them into trying “just a bite.” Sometimes a taste is convincing; sometimes it is not. However, I will not stop trying offering because they “don’t like it”. I know the value of both. I also know that many an adult broccoli eater started out as a fussy toddler.