Photo by Suzy Hazelwood
The canon wars of the 90s have passed into memory for most. Faced with three choices—maintain the canon, expand it to include diverse voices, or deconstruct the very idea of an aesthetic ideal—traditionalists and progressives reached a tenuous compromise: to maintain but lessen the preponderance of European authors. However, elsewhere, in the departments of education, those who wanted to deconstruct the ideal won out, so the teachers whom these faculties train are now bringing the same arguments to K12 schools, a generation later. I’ve seen these conflicts devolve into shouting matches among my colleagues. The conflict never ended: it just moved.
In the modern iteration of this fight, a new generation of deconstructionists fill departments of education and reject the imposition of any canon—or any teacher-guided content. From this first principle, they develop pedagogy and practice like those outlined in Columbia’s Units of Study, wherein students choose their own books, topics and writing projects.
Opposing them is a new cadre of academics and charter school leaders, who rely on research to advocate for an intentionally sequenced curriculum. While the first canon war remained abstract and ideological, in the modern era a growing mountain of psychological and sociological studies have confirmed the benefits of using complex texts with meaningful ties to history. In other words, there’s data this time around.
Having examined Columbia’s Units of Study, Timothy Shanahan concludes that there’s “not a single study that supports the use of the above methods.” A comprehensive review that he led, at the head of a team of reading researchers, confirmed that Columbia’s methods are “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public school children.”
The most successful schools aren’t following Columbia’s curriculum. With classic texts in hand, high-stakes charter schools often outperform public schools in affluent districts, despite working with disproportionately impoverished students. There are numerous reasons for the success of such charter schools—obligatory parental involvement, school culture and the freedom from regulatory restraints—but one reason, according to Doug Lemov, director of Uncommon Schools, is their commitment to a canon.
A faulty set of practices have become the norm in public schools, despite having been found ineffective by study after study. As a result, for the first time in twenty-five years, a generation after the official canon wars ended, American scores in reading, history, and geography dropped on the NAEP, America’s so-called report card.
What Should Students Read?
Literary canons are elusive things. At no point did a council establish parameters for inclusion, unlike the ecumenical councils that assembled the Bible. Nonetheless, a consensus arose that Shakespeare and Cervantes are in, while Thomas Dekker and George Macdonald aren’t. Ultimately, the question of who to include is an argument for literary critics. As a teacher, I’m interested in a more pragmatic question: what effect does the use of the canon have on student learning and development?
To begin with, it’s essential to literacy. In How the Other Half Learns, Robert Pondiscio summarizes the process of learning to read as having “two distinct parts: the first is your ability to translate written language into sounds, words, and sentences, or decoding. The second part is your ability to make meaning, or comprehension.” In other words, after learning basic phonics, comprehending any real text requires a complex interplay of prior knowledge, which the brain can use to understand the words decoded. American academics may fancy themselves strong readers, but would be helpless if faced with a paragraph on cricket: phonics are of little help if you don’t know the rules of the game.
E. D. Hirsch has documented the many studies that confirm that knowledge is essential to literacy. One study found that a student’s success at comprehending a short text about baseball depended not on her supposed reading level, but on her prior knowledge of the sport. Another found that reader success depended as much on the participants’ knowledge of the subject as on the difficulty of the text.
Columbia’s model functions according to a skill-based—not a knowledge-based—understanding of reading. This approach has severe consequences for impoverished students, who can master the basic skills, but lack vocabulary and awareness of academic culture. As Hirsch writes, “the technical reading skills of disadvantaged children at age six are still on par with those of children from literate families”: it’s only after the basics have been learned that reading scores diverge.
Many of my students from other countries struggle to read To Kill a Mockingbird. They can sound out every word, but it remains incomprehensible to them because they know nothing about Jim Crow, American Christianity, Herbert Hoover or depression-era politics.
In line with Hirsch’s prediction, the NAEP found that reading scores across the nation dropped because the reading scores of the poorest students fell, while the scores of the affluent remained constant. Because the curriculum only featured leveled texts, which are written to be easily understood, students never faced the challenging words that would have helped develop their vocabularies. Given a curriculum of books designed to be culturally relevant, students never learned the history that a supposedly irrelevant text like Of Mice and Men can provide. Knowledge eludes students—and the scores show it.
Clearly, students need a basic grasp of germ theory, personal rights and elementary mathematics to function. The question is whether they need familiarity with specific literary works.
For better or worse, there is a shared set of texts and ideas that influence our culture. To pick up any newspaper in America and fully comprehend the content and its implications, a student should know about the I Have a Dream speech, the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution. “A universally shared national language,” Hirsch writes, “is analogous to a universal currency like the dollar.” To develop a national language, we need a shared set of national texts.
Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools concedes that a list of pre-eminent books may be impossible to create. However, he stresses that text selection cannot be treated with flippancy. The decision cannot be the result of passing fads or adolescent interests.
The utility of a national canon also has implications for personal and national motivations. Abraham Lincoln noted that pro-slavery advocates referred to America’s founding documents as “glittering generalities” and “self-evident lies.” They could not advance their position without condemning the Declaration of Independence. Susan B. Anthony makes ample use of the constitution in a speech in defense of female emancipation. While America’s founding documents may be imperfect, they set out an ideal towards which this country should strive.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton writes:
It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case, he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico … If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.
Loving the texts that are emblematic of one’s culture and country with the kind of almost familial appreciation with which Chesterton suggests that Pimlico locals should love Pimlico can instill people with a desire to improve their country, as the examples of Lincoln and Anthony show.
A recent study sought to determine the effect that a sense of self-agency has on individual actions. Participants were given texts that espoused either fatalism or free will. They were then asked to perform various tasks, during which opportunities to lie and cheat arose. The study found that those who had read fatalistic texts were more likely to lie and cheat, implying that a belief in self-agency promotes positive behavior.
A national canon can help to instill this sense of self-agency. Young adult fiction all too often relies upon tropes and stereotypes: the nerdy white boy, the African-American basketball player, the rebellious teenage girl. Exposure to the great works of a multicultural, international canon—featuring authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Baldwin and Edgar Allan Poe—might reduce racism.
The research does not defend the inclusion of any specific book, but it confirms the necessity of maintaining a commitment to the great works of literature. If a text is removed from the canon, it should be replaced by an equally significant text: the proverbs of Solomon could be replaced by The Tao Te Ching, Tolstoy by Chinua Achebe—but Shakespeare should not be replaced by young adult fiction.
How Should Students Read?
It isn’t just a matter of what students read, but how they read. In my graduate training, we were trained to use the text Critical Encounters, which asks students to analyze poetry through the Marxist, intersectional feminist, Critical Race and deconstructionist lenses collectively called Critical Theory. In this approach, reading becomes an archeological search, in which a text is an artefact used to interrogate the injustices of an era, regardless of authorial intent.
Consider The Odyssey—a text nearly ubiquitous in high school English classes. A critical theory approach would probably involve a postcolonial reading of Odysseus’ travels or a feminist critique of his adultery. Such discussions address important issues, but miss the book’s focus on heroism, existential despair, temptation, fate, freewill, hospitality, hubris and many other issues.
Critical theory treats every book in this way—it is mined for evidence of oppression, while many central ideas are ignored. There are psychological consequences to this approach.
According to psychologist James Marcia, teenagers need to explore possible moralities and make their own commitment to developing a healthy sense of self, in a process Marcia calls identity achievement. If they are prevented from undertaking this process, they experience what Marcia calls either identity foreclosure—a defeated acceptance of norms—or identity moratorium—a listlessness that manifests as anxiety and an inability to undertake much productive action. Just as a child needs to explore and play with physical objects, adolescents need to explore and play with ideas.
Critical theory deconstructs cultural assumptions, but provides no alternatives. Thus, it introduces students to exploration but provides them with no ideals between which to choose. It takes away their toys and gives them nothing studier to grasp. They are then left unable to reach a state of identity achievement.
As Marcia’s theory predicts, the current generation is suffering. Depression, anxiety and suicide rates are increasing, while the amount of time spent socializing with others and experiencing the physical world is decreasing. Contemporary literary theory leaves teachers hamstrung, unable to provide students with much needed inspiration.
In T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, ghosts amble across London Bridge, discussing the bodies of victims of World War I buried in their gardens. Had Eliot written today, he might have described blue-lit apparitions, scrolling through their feeds as they amble down school hallways. A traditional approach to literary criticism can provide students with a means of escaping this media haze.
Eliot believed that the ideal poet introduces the reader to ideas. Understood this way, books give students the opportunities that Marcia recommends: to explore and make choices and thus achieve a healthy mental state.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s A Letter from Birmingham Jail addresses questions of race—but it also depicts the conviction of a reformer. The Odyssey describes relationships between husbands and wives, but it also describes the aims of soldiers and explorers. A student might read Things Fall Apart paired with an essay by C. S. Lewis, to help her consider the utility of her own religious belief or atheism. Rather than being a rote interrogation of oppressive structures, Eliot’s theory gives students the questions and answers any child needs for healthy development.
Teachers can address the ideas taught by critical theory within a traditional approach. With Toni Morrison or Langston Hughes in hand, a student can develop a mature understanding of race and society. Through The Color Purple or Daisy Miller, a teacher can expose students to the difficulties unique to women. These ideas can be taught through books that have something definitive to say about them—rather than mined from texts that are inattentive to them.
I recently had to deal with a young black student, who was in trouble almost daily. Had I followed the dictates of contemporary literary theory and progressive calls to abandon the canon, I would have let him select his own reading matter (he mainly enjoyed obscene humor) and attempted to open his eyes to the racial prejudice and injustice awaiting him. But this is the kind of pessimistic ideology that had made him feel he had no option but to take the easiest route to obtain money and respect: crime.
Ignoring the calls to give him culturally relevant materials, I decided to read Romeo and Juliet with him. Within a few pages, he lifted his head and joined in the discussion: he identified with the depictions of young love, heartbreak, broken families and violence. The experience didn’t turn his life around, but it provided insights that his own self-chosen reading material and interests could not.
Most people do not question the idea that some art works are better than others. A banana duct-taped to a wall is inferior to the impressionism of Van Gogh. The complexity of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps is surely superior to my students’ mindless pencil-drumming on their desks and The Death of Ivan Illich is better than my first scribbles in crayon. Should we be surprised, then, that the students who study classic literature at charter schools do resoundingly better on standardized tests?
It may be nearly impossible to justify the selection of any one text over another in the creation of a specific list of canonical books, but research into adolescent learning and psychology suggests that there is a practical benefit to teaching a canon. Students need to read great works of literature and treat them as if they have something definitive to teach us about history, philosophy and morality. In the original canon wars, competing philosophies fought over abstract ideals. We now have concrete data as to how these ideals have played out in actual schools. The progressive experiment in canonical deconstruction has proved a failure and public schools would be wise to rebuild the canon.