Monday, February 12, 2018

Who Decides The Canon?

When I read the article that Duluth was planning to remove Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird from their school's literature curriculum, I sort of sighed. This isn't a new trend, in the grand scheme of things. Some school district somewhere is always getting into trouble for banning a book or removing a book from their curriculum- but removing books from a classroom because of language contained in them, however insensitive should give everyone pause.

I think if you're in the business of education, you have to find a way to balance the sensitivities of your students of color with the need not to whitewash (and yes I'm aware of the irony of using the word 'white' in that word) some very ugly parts of our history. I've got a collection of short stories by Flannery O'Connor kicking around on a bookcase somewhere and I started reading them, but then I had to stop, because she used the n-word more than Jay-Z does on his latest album- hell, probably in his entire discography.

Now, O'Connor is writing from the point of view 1920s Georgia. It's both horrifying to see how people spoke back then and heartening to see the progress we've made since then, but I can see why educators would want to be sensitive to the excessive use of words like that, because if it's hard for me to read as an adult, then without placing these novels in the proper context, it would be easy for teenagers to misunderstand. (This article points out that To Kill A Mockingbird does have a 'white savior narrative,' which is a fair criticism, I have to admit.)

The good thing in this controversy is that people are having a debate about literature, which I'm all about. But whether you think removal of the two books is a good thing or a bad thing, it does raise the question: who decides the canon? And what's the best possible canon of literature you can pick for the students of today?

I think you have to acknowledge from the outset that whatever you pick, the kids will probably hate it- at least in the class at the time. I hated The Great Gatsby when I read it in school, but came to appreciate it more when I picked it up a few years ago. Same thing with The Catcher In The Rye: I hated in high school but appreciated it more when I read it in a non-school setting.

The second thing I think you're going to want is flexibility. Not every school district or every state is going to want to have their kids read the same books. So, let's look at my ideal canon:

1. Shakespeare. I know he's not sufficiently 'woke' for some people these days, but if you're studying the literature of the English language, you have to include him. I'm not sure about every high school out there, but the 'traditional' chestnuts seem to be 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Hamlet' but I would avoid those, because The Bard has far more interesting plays out there.

2. Regional authors. For example, if I'm a student in Nebraska, I should probably be reading some Willa Cather. If I'm in Minnesota, I should be reading Maud Hart Lovelace, Sinclair Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder- you get the idea. Students should be reading some literature that connects to where they live.

3. World Literature: if you're teaching a world lit class, authors from Africa, Central and South America and Asia should all be at the top of your list before you get to anyone from Europe. (Shusaku Endo, Chinua Achebe, Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez are all good examples- though my personal experience tends to be more with South America than Asia or Africa.)

4. American Literature: here's where things get interesting. I don't think you can stick with the traditional Mark Twain/Harper Lee/F Scott Fitzgerald thing anymore, because I don't think they represent the American experience as a whole. Authors like Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, John dos Passos, Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz all have a place in the canon, because when combined with the usual suspects you get a truly complete picture of literature of America. It shouldn't be either or. It should be both.

5. My Personal Wishlist: 'The Martian Chronicles', by Ray Bradbury. 'The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress' by Robert Heinlein (though you could make a case for 'Starship Troopers' or anything else), 'Dune', by Frank Herbert.

So, my Dream/Ideal Lit Class:

Shakespeare + World Lit (Not From Europe) + American Lit (Old Classics + Diverse Voices) + My Personal Wishlist = a well rounded canon. The more voices, the better in my book. But what about you, dear reader- what authors should students be reading in the classrooms of today?

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