What books should be studied in schools? That one, single question is enough to divide people. Teachers. Schools. It is like the ultimate pub discussion. Pick one list over another and you neglect a huge group of people. Where are the females on the list? Ahh, you must hate women! You are trying to repress their voices, you nasty little person.
The problem with a canon, a list of books, is its purpose. It seems to have a mystical and magical purpose in society. Some see it as a source of harmony. Some see it as the glue to unite a nation. Some see it as a flag representing what makes our nation great. Some see it as a personal Jimmy Cricket, whispering into the soul of a child. That’s why people get so passionate about it. Politicians remove books from the canon based on these notions. Teachers get angry.
The canon doesn’t reflect society
There is an expectation that the canon should reflect modern society and culture. My family is Welsh and short so I am disappointed that the cannon doesn’t have many Welsh texts featuring short people. Modern society is complex. A list that reflects our modern world will need to be constantly changing and fairly proportional. Soaps try to emulate modern society, yet they often fail badly. Eastenders is a reflection of no world I know. It isn’t even a reflection of London. It is a watered down version of what we ‘think’ it is. It is a flavour of the modern world. A soap might deal with modern people but they don’t deal with modern situations. I have yet to see a teacher working all the hours God sends in a soap, worrying he is neglecting his family.
If we were to make a list of books for students to read based on the current ethnicity (I could only find statistics dating to 2011) then a canon should look like this:
2.2% Mixed / Multiple Ethnic Groups
3.3% Black / African / Caribbean / Black British
1.0% Other Ethnic Group
Of course, this will change and will continue to change. Then, if it is to reflect modern society, we should have books from different genders, sexual orientations, classes and gender. We also need to consider having a text relating to Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and other commonwealth states. Therefore, the complexity of creating a list to reflect society is complex. We have so many different rich and different elements in society that is hard for a list of books to achieve. The inclusion of one element will negate another element of society. No cannon can accurately reflect society as it is constantly evolving and changing.
I think half our problem is to do with our understanding of what a canon means. There are two main definitions:
1. a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged:
2. a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine
The canon should help students find a voiceThe other argument I have heard about the canon is that the canon doesn’t help students to find their voice. Or, find a text that speaks to them. This is the one argument I really struggle with. I find it a little bit too mystical for my taste. The book that really ‘spoke’ to me was ‘Jane Eyre’ and the bit the resonated with me was the bit where Jane was stuck in the wilderness. It really struck a cord. Why? I don’t know, but it did. Now, obviously my teacher knew me very well so they decided an orphaned, Victorian, governess unlucky in life would talk to my soul. Of course they didn’t. The magic wasn’t created by a teacher who picked a book to speak to me. The magic was that some tiny bit in a great story was profound and meaningful, and affected me. A moment I go back to, time and time again. Either, I was a corseted Victorian lady in a previous life, or good literature makes connections when others don’t see them.
One person I have argued with about the canon was that it limited and stopped people having a voice. I politely disagreed. It might have been an issue in the past to make sure that students experienced others in the same situation as them, but there is this marvellous thing called the internet, where student can now see and communicate with others in the same situation and circumstances as them. Those voices are out there for young people on blogs, Youtube videos and other media platforms. There are hundreds and hundreds of voices. There are even Facebook groups for them. In my day, that wasn’t an option. You were closeted in more ways than one. That’s why the books chosen were probably more important in the past than today. So, any notion that a canon is restricting a child develop a voice is complete hokum. Society is about hundreds and hundreds of voices communicating daily through Facebook and Twitter. One silly list in a classroom is not going to oppress the voices out there. There are thirty different voices. Unless you read thirty different texts, you are not going to hit everybody in the classroom. You will probably appeal to one voice and neglect twenty nine others in your quest to speak to a child’s soul.
TokenismWhen does putting someone on the list become tokenistic? I see society from a disabled person’s point of view. I have a daughter who has to use a wheelchair. Because of that one single thing, I see how society tries, and the key word is tries, to include disabled people in society. All too often it is tokenistic. Oops. We need to tick off the disabled demographic. True, they are included in lists, but they are never presented as full, rounded people. Often, disabled people are presented as people to empathise with or usually feel sympathy for. The inclusion of a disabled person in a story is usually to hit people with the ‘under-dog’ story. My daughter has endless exposure to stories about sympathy inducing disabled people and that affects her mind-set. I don’t want that to happen. Because disability is tokenistic in films, stories and soaps, she can’t identify with these people. I don’t want her to equate disability with failure, fear and challenge. The Paralympics did the exact opposite. They shown disabled people as achieving, fighting, competing and succeeding people. That’s the message I want.
We could all add some other elements to the canon of texts, but wouldn’t it be tokenistic. The books would be there on principle and not merit. It would be paying lip service to it and not actually dealing with it properly. Take the lack of female voices in the canon. Would adding a few female authors change things? Or, would it just be a superficial activity? Things would be studied because someone has been told to study it. For me the best approach, is to integrate things. I teach texts from the canon and then introduce texts for comparison. Look at how this voice presents it. How is it different? Why might their view be different? Oh, it is written from a woman’s point of view – I didn’t see that.Is the problem also that we are too sensitive to things? We are too conscious about gender, ethnicity and class that it is at the front of our minds. Surely, the text is important and that gender, ethnicity and class are incidental things. If we obsess about gender, then the text isn’t a text but a badge of ideology. It stops being a story, a poem, a play, but a calling card for our own ideological persuasion or someone else’s. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is oppression in books in the mind of the reader?
If we define texts by gender, ethnicity, religion and class, then we too are defining people by their gender, ethnicity, religion and class. Equality is seeing through these defining features. A story is a story. It might not be your kind of story, but it will inform you of other peoples' lives. Plus, by learning about others, you learn something about yourself. We, after all, define ourselves in relation to others.
Banning booksThe great thing about the English classroom is that we don’t ban books. They disappear from circulation but we don’t ban them as other countries do. If we did ban book, then I’d agree we have a problem with the canon as it would be fully prescriptive. We don’t ban books so we can and should use other books and authors in the classroom. And, that is down to the school and the teacher.
You might say that Chris, but surely the exam boards are limiting the choices by favouring the canon? Fair point. But, I think the selection of text by the exam boards is down to ease, accessibility and consistency. We could have one exam board studying Latvian love poetry and another focusing on novels written by Welsh pig farmers. The point of judgement must be consistent, clear and transparent. The new GCSEs at least do that to a point.
We need to stop wittering on about a canon. It is the starting point to judge other texts against. The dead white males are there, but do you know what? They are there to compare to other texts to judge and compare against. My job as a teacher is to open doors and make the sparks of connection. If we think a list of books is limiting us, then the problem isn’t the list, it is the teacher. I teach the classics, featuring dead white males and I will break out to read extracts from Alice Walker or Thomas Gunn to judge against the classics. Our students need more and more good quality texts.
One argument we often have about the canon is that it isn’t relevant to things today. Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ has so much relevance to today: an elite few prey on the weak, poor and vulnerable in society and blame them for the evils of society. It is common experience that can translate to all parts of society – a minority as a victim in society. Relevant to today?
A classic book teaches us something about the past, something about today, something new and something we didn’t know about society and ourselves. Why is Shakespeare read in so many different counties? Why are his plays performed in every country? It isn’t because he is a dead white guy; it is because he writes about the experiences we all experience. He doesn’t write about his unique, narrow perspective; he writes about the experiences that connects us together as humans. We all love. We all hate. We all make mistakes. We all have faults. We all laugh. If you cut us, do we not bleed? We all bleed so maybe we should stop looking at the canon as dividing us and maybe see how it unites us. Cut it and see if it bleeds like others.
Thanks for reading,