The Power of Words: On "Classics" and "Canon"
The first step is admitting that your ideas need to change.
I've been in a yearlong conversation with myself about "the canon." I am, this year, teaching what I feel is a full-canon list (To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet), as I've done in the past. I have always had my argument for it, that I could teach these books in ways that were powerful for my students as we discussed race, gender, class, and social justice. Atticus Finch was no simplified hero in my class. We discussed the white savior trope and his role in it. I did this in hopes I could still expose my students to works that they might need to know as they move through Western, American culture.
I hope I was able to do that. And it's not like we didn't read other things—I try to incorporate poetry, short stories, nonfiction texts, and more to read alongside these "classic" literary pieces, in hopes that I was providing more windows and mirrors for my students.
In the past few years, though, I've really sat with this question: How much am I actually dismantling systemic oppression in my work if I'm still teaching within the confines of its language?
Then, I was introduced to #DisruptTexts, an amazing group of educators working to "challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve." When another teacher at the National Council of Teachers of English conference expressed a concern about straying from the canon, Tricia Ebarvia-- an amazing teacher and scholar-- asked, simply, "Why?" It made me question myself, too: What exactly am I scared of kids losing if I stray from the canon? Was my fear rooted in an actual fear of missing something with my students, or my own personal fear of the discomfort and unknown?
Tricia expertly talks through some of those issues more here, calling out not only why it's hard (and it is!) but also why it is truly necessary.
Ultimately, the language we use and time we devote to certain kinds of writing and authors color the perception and beliefs about power students have about the world. Words have power. There is power in how we name things, and we must be thoughtful about what we name as "classic," "canon," or "great" when we teach kids.
When we spend the majority of our time and care dissecting the language and stories of primarily Western, white, and male authors, it sends a message about whose voices are worth that time and study.
When the books we name as "the classics" or "the greats" are primarily telling white, Western, and male-driven stories, the message is that voices from other kinds of communities are not also "classic," "great," or worthy of that same study or praise.
Our students deserve to know that their voices and powerful voices from the communities they come from are as brilliant and worthy as those we have been pushed to read for generations before.
This is important work not ONLY in communities of color—where students need their identities validated and uplifted in a world that continually tries to oppress and other them—but in majority-white classrooms as well. ALL students must learn that the single story society has given us about black, Latino, AAPI, indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and other historically silenced communities is untrue, and they should learn about those communities and perspectives from people actually in them, not someone else writing about them.
As librarian and scholar Jillian Heise notes, research shows that the books and representation we show to students 100 percent matters as they better come to understand themselves and their worth:
This one struck me: "Representation in literature is never a purely literary issue, for literary works are both aesthetic and social constructs. Such representation reflects the values, beliefs, and attitudes of those who produce the literature" (Cai, 2002, p. 69).-- Jillian Heise (@heisereads) April 11, 2019
There are a number of arguments about teaching the canon. I list some common ones with responses below. You can also find these in chart form, as well as this infograph.
As I move into my future as an educator, I'm taking these ideas into consideration and planning to make some changes in my classroom. There are still plenty of books considered "canon" that I love, and that I think are perfectly OK to include as part of a curriculum in a classroom.
Still, I know that if I want to really create social change for my students, that means modeling it in my classroom and pushing us to move away from what the system has given us for generations and toward the voices of justice and equity. As Freire also notes, this work must be led by those who have been historically oppressed, and if I want to support them, that means I must work to explore their writing and show my students just how powerful those voices are.
"I loved reading ______ and learned a lot of life lessons from it."
Great! Just because a book is "in the canon" doesn't mean that the book is necessarily bad or wasn't powerful. We're questioning why a list of books that are primarily written from the white, Western, male perspective are ones that we continually pull from, without perhaps asking if we could diversify or stray from that list. There's a lot of other perspectives out there to love that we're not exposing our students to in part because we weren't exposed to it.
We're exposed to valuable messages from white men in nearly every other medium. We can find valuable messages from other communities, too, particularly to give to the next generation in a school setting.
What does it mean when there are only one or two texts from other perspectives in the TONS of reading we did in K-12? What message does that send about what kinds of people are likely to have valuable messages to pass along?
"We can teach the canon and have more contemporary/'diverse' texts offered as recommended or optional reading."
If the canon is historically white, male, and Western, what does it teach students about whose work deserves to be studied and valued by their teachers, and whose work is just "optional"? Relegating other perspectives to outside reading instead of taking the time in the classroom to dissect them with the same level of rigor and care as you would a text from the canon can send some problematic ideas regarding voice and value to students.
"It's a classic! I read it when I was their age!"
What exactly is this text bringing to our students? Is there another text from a different or previously unheard perspective that could also give that to our students? Should we really be reading the same text we've been teaching for ### years?
In addition, it would be good for ALL students to read about other perspectives and have them seen as equally "classic" or "canonical" as the white authors they're reading. What message does it send to students when they don't see many/any authors from a similar background referred to as "classic" or "one of the greats"? And what ideas does that reinforce to white students about whose voices matter and deserve study and understanding?
Why is it that traditional concepts of "good writing" (by white people) asks POC/nondominant groups to try and connect to their experience, but we can't ask the same of the hegemony? There's plenty of "good writing" by noncanonical authors that helps folks understand perspectives NOT widely seen.
"Young adult or contemporary literature isn't as good. The classics are classics because they're good."
It's important to acknowledge that who gets published, promoted, and taught has been highly influenced by who was and is in power. People in power often decide who is allowed to be published and taught, either by outright not publishing certain works (e.g., women have to write under male psedonyms) or making it hard to get access to those books when they were published (e.g., banning certain books from schools).
The concept of "classics" is a societal construct built on people in power deciding that it was worth study and doesn't discount the fact that there were possibly other great books overlooked for other reasons. Why are we willing to accept authors like Hemingway or Cummings when they experimented with language, but assume that contemporary or young adult authors are not equally as brilliant when they do the same? And what does that teach students about what *they* are capable of in the future when they want to share their own voices
Also, young adult and contemporary literature is like ALL literature: Some of it is really great and some of it is not so great. Simply because there are a few examples of more lackluster young adult or contemporary literature doesn't mean that no good literature in those genres exists.
"The goal of a literature course should be to teach literary analysis and critical-reasoning skills. That means we need to choose texts that have the ideas and language for students to study."
There are really great pieces of literature from nonwhite/ noncanon/historically undervalued perspectives that are not only fantastic reads but strong pieces of literature that can be used to teach those skills.
The assumption in this argument is that you can't use representative and diverse texts to teach literary analysis or skills, which appears to discount their merit simply because they're not "in the canon."
"Literature courses need to prep students for cultural conversations around shared knowledge around 'the canon' texts that we all should know."
This argument ignores the fact that, as educator Julia Torres, notes, "... it centers only SOME traditions and SOME shared knowledge. ... So, we need to all circle around whiteness and protect it by making sure kids learn MOSTLY about it for the sake of tradition?" This hardly seems fair, and it's important to question why we don't place equal weight on the shared culture and knowledge of those outside of what is seen as "dominant culture."
In addition, there are ways you can introduce "foundational ideas" (which, again, hopefully questioning "whose foundation?") while pairing it with texts that may resonate more or provide a more enriched perspective to students. What if students read excerpts from To Kill a Mockingbird and compared them to their reading of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky or Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice, or read any number of fabulous texts from an author who was actually African (Achebe's Things Fall Apart is, of course, beloved, and I just read Unbowed by Wangari Maathai and loved it) and compared it with excerpts from Conrad's Heart of Darkness (hopefully Achebe's response, too).
If we're willing to read these canonical texts and provide excerpts from "diverse perspectives," why can't we flip the script the other way?
"Students should read texts and perspectives they may not choose on their own."
There are other really powerful pieces of literature from nonwhite/ noncanon/historically undervalued perspectives that open up students to different styles of writing, historical periods, uses of language, or cultures they may not experience.
It's also beneficial to expose students not just to styles of writing or historical time periods they may not choose but also cultural perspectives they may not have encountered to better build empathy and open them up to understanding about people outside their own communities.
"Students need a historical understanding of literature." or "Students need to engage with texts from the past to understand contemporary texts."
Black, Latino, Asian, LGBTQ+, non-Western literature didn't JUST start existing. We, as a society, have had a lack of exposure and access to it. There are plenty of historical texts from other perspectives outside the canon that have historical and literary merit. Also, while there were white and/or male writers who may have written well about the experience of others (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird), it's still a white or male perspective on other people's experience. That's problematic.
There are powerful books/writings from that time that are NOT in the canon that might prove even more valuable because they teach students using an actual primary source from that culture instead of that culture filtered through the white gaze.
"Texts from the canon deal with contemporary issues, and students should interact with them to understand that."
Yes, canonical texts deal with issues, and yes, a good teacher can teach through a variety of texts, but it's hard to ignore the fact that some of those texts handle those issues in problematic ways. Showing those students only problematic or outdated views of very real issues regarding race, sexuality, mental health, class, gender, etc., perpetuates the "single story" (as Chimamanda Adichie discusses in her TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story") that exists about those issues.
"We read from the canon because these are books or types of texts students will experience on high-stakes testing."
"We can use other texts to teach powerful literacy skills that students can apply to any text. We can also expose students to canon texts without them being their primary mode of learning. By having more diverse options, students can choose which will increase engagement and in turn will make it easier to teach them those important literacy skills. It will also make them more motivated to engage in all texts because they have concrete skills they can use." - Chiara Colicino
"English class/School isn't supposed to be political."
"Teaching is a political act," as Paolo Freire notes in his seminal text, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." James Baldwin also talks about this brilliantly in his speech "A Talk to Teachers." Helping students access critical thinking and sharing knowledge and ideas with them is inherently both political, as our work asks us to let students question the system and world that they live in. As NCTE's Standing Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English notes in their piece, "There Is No Apolitical Classroom: Resources for Teaching in These Times", "English/language arts teachers must examine the ways that racism has personally shaped their beliefs and must examine existing biases that feed systems of oppression."
This also includes math, as Rochelle Gutierrez notes in her piece, "Why (Urban) Mathematics Teachers Need Political Knowledge." Even trying to be "apolitical" is a political choice. Thus, we can choose texts that actively engage our students while uplifting, validating, and exposing them to identities, ideas, and perspectives previously unheard.
"This is what we've always taught, and these are the resources I have access to." or "I want to move away from the canon, but my school/administration/community won't allow me to."
These are understandable arguments that many teachers can empathize with. First, we can acknowledge that the system does not adequately compensate or provide teachers (particularly public school teachers) with the resources, finanical compensation, or time needed in order to properly plan innovative or socially conscious curriculum. This is wrong and something we should also work to change.
In addition to that, though, is the privilege and responsibility we have to our students to give them a just and socially powerful education in not just content areas but as they grow to be justice-oriented and responsibile citizens as well. While it is hard, we must also acknowledge how important the role we play is and seek to do that work for ourselves and support each other to create and share curriculum for teachers (particularly new teachers) to better provide for their students.
There are great organizations and folks online, such as EduColor, #DisruptTexts, and We Need Diverse Books, providing resources for teachers. I hope this helps. Ultimately, the fact that there are a dearth of resources for white and/or male-authored texts and not for others is another example of how power and inequity perpetuate the ideals of the hegemony generation after generation.
Also, it is an unfortunate truth that sometimes administration or communities are not supportive. We encourage teachers to reach out online and in their PLCs about how to have these tough conversations to engage community stakeholders to provide updated curriculum designed to do what's best for students.
Much thanks and appreciation to the following folks for their help on this piece and with the chart, arguments, and responses:
- Tricia Ebarvia
- Lorena Germán
- Dr. Kim Parker
- Julia Torres
- Marybeth Baldwin
- Jillian Heise
- Chiara Colicino
- Angelina Murphy