Preserving the Canon

26 Oct

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation about blowing up the established reading canon. Matt Ryan disagreed with my guest, so I invited him to also talk. Matt is a high school English teacher from Massachusetts, as well as the host of #CanonChat on Twitter. You can follow him at @MatRyanELATeach.

Marcus: Why do you believe the existing canon is important for students today?

Matt: Why wouldn’t we want students to read the greatest books humanity has to offer? If I were to study painters of the Italian Renaissance, would I not study the works of da Vinci and Michelangelo? The same can be said about literature. When I teach American literature, I would be doing my students a disservice to not expose them to some of our most influential writers. The same writers, by the way, that our contemporary writers have all read. Additionally, classic texts teach universal truths, truths not defined by race or gender, but by human truths. They don’t reflect a particular ideology. They disrupt our own ideologies and nurture our own intellectual independence.

Marcus: What books are “canon” with the kids you work with?

Matt: I don’t teach every single one of these every year; some rotate in and out, depending on a few factors.

  • Freshmen: The Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, A Raisin in the Sun
  • Sophomores: Chronicle of a Death Foretold, The Crucible, The Awakening, The Great Gatsby, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Scarlet Letter, Sula, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Fences, East of Eden
  • Juniors: Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, Waiting for Godot
  • Seniors: Hamlet, Othello, Antigone, Oedipus Rex

It’s important to note, however, that I teach a number of newer titles that aren’t canonical. I’m not advocating that we teach only from the canon. What I typically do is pair texts together, usually an older text with a newer one.

Marcus: You reminded me – yes, we read To Kill a Mockingbird (great), The Crucible (eh), Beowulf (read later with a better translation), and Antigone (okay). From my perspective, I think that it’s often the language that throws me off. As I’ve mentioned before, I turned 180 on Homer once I found a better translation. I was able to read Sherlock Holmes as a teenager, but as I got older, I found I couldn’t read anything written before Hemingway. Nathanial Hawthorne, being a Romance / Victorian writer, uses a lot of phrasing which dates back to a time when people wanted more descriptive terminology… and now, not so much. The old joke that Dickens got paid by the word makes it difficult to wade through the verbiage to get to the story.

Matt: Language is most often the stumbling block with older texts. Knowing this, I generally approach these books differently. I’ll often start a book by reading it in class and discussing the language. Hearing me read the book is often a bridge to greater comprehension. I also share audiobooks with the students and encourage them to listen as they follow along with the text. And I assign fewer pages in a book I know is more complex.

Another stumbling block can be a lack of background knowledge. To give a specific example, when I teach Pride and Prejudice, I use the annotated edition by David M Shapard because it contextualizes a lot of elements foreign to a reader in 2020. Additionally, I work hard to make connections to their own lives. For instance, students often say that the rules that govern how people behaved in society are confusing and silly. So we talk about all the unwritten rules that govern interactions among teens, especially when there are romantic feelings involved. We’ve had some great conversations about how students “date” and promposals. Then they realize that we’re not all that different from the characters in the book.

We’ll finish our conversation with Matt tomorrow. Meanwhile, what do you think? Is Matt on the right track with his students? Or is he off base? Let us know in the comments below!

4 Responses to “Preserving the Canon”

  1. Jnana Hodson October 26, 2020 at 10:37 am #

    Most of the fiction we were required to read as high school students in the Midwest was utterly foreign to our lives and place. Even Huckleberry Finn was essentially Southern, and the river life was a world away from our factories and farms.
    Now that I live in New England, I get a much different feel for The Crucible and Scarlet Letter and House of Seven Gables and Moby Dick (we tackled only two of those, by the way, and they weren’t presented in a way that made connections with our own lives, as Matt attempts). Those books reflect home ground for students in the Bay State but could have been about events in Italy or India, as far as the landscape or culture we knew.
    I agree with the importance of learning to read older English and duly respect the classics, but I have qualms when it comes to sticking to a canon per se.
    A canon, I feel, should have some works that speak for the readers’ own roots and build out from there, and that includes gender and race. (OK, I am of the camp that believes Amelia Bassano was the real author of the Shakespeare opus, which would do a lot to rebalance the canon, or at least its perception.)

  2. Silk Cords October 26, 2020 at 3:17 pm #

    I sadly didn’t get to the earlier posts about breaking the canon yet. Real life problems, but I’ve got them saved and am working backwards through my followed queue.

    THAT said, I have to largely agree with Matt. Classics are classics because they contain universal truths and life lessons. They’re designed to expand our thinking in a healthy way. Sometimes, it takes either being well read already OR a good teacher to help make the connections more apparent, BUT the connections are there. Huck Finn wasn’t about life on the Mississippi to use the previous reply as an example. Nor is it a racist piece of trash as some idiots suggest. It was about having the courage to do the right thing. Huck may have used the N word for Jim, but that was the vernacular of the day. He helped Jim escape and saw him more and more as a person as the book progressed. Tolerance for others, and having the courage to do what’s right when it’s not easy (in multiple instances in the book) are universal ideals… or at least used to be.

    Universal truths like that are needed more than ever nowadays. Montesquieu used to be somebody everyone read. NOW I see articles on the internet ranting that the enlightenment was the beginning of racist thinking and slavery. Scary times.

    All that said, should there still be room for new stuff aside from the canon classics? Absolutely.

  3. masercot November 18, 2020 at 5:30 am #

    I’m disappointed not to see any James Joyce…

    • albigensia November 18, 2020 at 6:00 am #

      Adults have difficulty with James Joyce – I’m not sure teenagers would do better. 😉

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