Firing the Canon

Posted on February 10, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Reading |

I owe a great deal of my recent thinking about canonical issues to an article that appeared in November/December 2006 issue of Home Education Magazine: “One Mother’s Search for the Meaning of Literacy” by Sheri Kinser. In the article, Kinser discusses the difficulties of determing what it is her son “should” know in order to be considered literate. It’s a thoughtful article and filled with a lot of the same questions I ask myself. However, she ends up consulting E.D. Hirsch’s cultural literacy books and slides into the kind of anxiety only books like Hirsch’s can produce: Do I know enough? Does my child know enough? How is my child going to learn all this material?

I began to wonder how widespread Kinser’s anxiety was, especially among homeschoolers. So I’ve been gathering a little anecodotal information–listening to a lot of conversations and making some discreet inquiries. And guess what? Everybody (homeschoolers, public schoolers, private schoolers) I heard or overheard is concerned about whether our kids know enough of the right stuff to survive out in the world without us. Now, not all of those conversations revolved around book knowledge, but a fair number of them did. And it’s no big surprise.

But what did surprise me was how few of the people I listened to seemed to have ANY idea how the Western Canon came into being. Most people seem to assume there’s this core of books you’re supposed to read just because they’re important books. And here’s where I can feel grad school starting to pay off. On Groundhog Day (And it was about that time that it started being known as Groundhog Day) in 1835, Thomas Macaulay addressed the British Parliment concerning its policy on the education of the people of India. While Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” didn’t break any new ground, it did succinctly put forward several ideas that became key to the British occupation of India for the next 100 years. Macaulay called for the teaching of British materials in all disciplines, for the teaching of those materials in English and for the teaching of only a small segment of the Indian population, who would then be responsible for the education of the rest of the nation.

In its attempts to educate India, the British nation systematized its own cultural heritage–the canon-making process began in earnest. And there were fights even then about what should go in–calls for sealing the canon at the year 1600, for example. By 1909, this obsession with determining the proper books one ought to read in order to be culturally literate had jumped to the U.S. with the publication of the Harvard Classics series. The next big step was the Great Books of the Western World series, edited by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. While the Great Books folks are still around, they are now only one of many sources happy to tell us all what we should know in order to be literate. Harold Bloom, of course, would cheerfully like to be taken as the proper contemporary authority on all such issues.

What’s missing from those programs–from Harvard to Harold and Hirsch–is *why* their particular assemblage of books or facts makes us literate, what such literacy means. The canon that emerged after Macaulay’s speech had a purpose: propaganda and indoctrination. To Macaulay, literacy among the Indians meant grateful acceptance of their status as second-class citizens of the empire. Are we to assume the purpose of each successive rendering of said canon is similar in nature? What about the alternative canons to have emerged? The canon of women’s literature, for example, as exemplified in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women? Or are we to assume each successive rendering of the Western Canon or each variant thereof has its own agenda? Or at this point, is it all about using guilt and anxiety to make money?

I find myself drawn in many different directions by those questions, but what seems clearest to me today is that it’s important to consider the source creating a canon, the contents of the canon, the purpose of the canon and its relevance for our own lives and goals. It would be too easy for me to lay out examples that use the notion of a canon to bully, intimidate, indoctrinate or exclude, so instead I want to offer a couple examples of creative and liberating projects that use the canon idea.

First in line, Ursula LeGuin’s controversial Norton Book of Science Fiction. Norton hired her to produce an anthology of the best science fiction from the last thirty years. And she did–the best ecofeminist science fiction produced from 1960-1990. It certainly isn’t representative of the genre as a whole, but its purpose is clear, its contents are lively and enlightening and, for me anyway, its relevance is both immediate and enduring. It’s just not what Norton thought it was getting.

A second affirmative example comes from the sweltering pit of canon battles over college-bound reading lists. What should kids read to ready them for college? It’s a great question, and it’s been answered in many different, often nuanced and intelligent, ways. My favorite at the moment is the YALSA list of Outstanding Books for the College Bound. I like its inventive blend of young-adult and adult books, its ongoing maintenance (updated every five years), and its clarity of focus.

So, stay tuned. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this issue again. Though for now, I think it’s time I paid some attention to the canon of unread library books likely to topple over on my dog.


One Response to “Firing the Canon”

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Your post got me to thinking about why there are canons at all. I could go look up the definition of “canon”, but the one I constructed for myself is: a list of texts which capture the range of human experience for a particular worldview. That pretty much leaves us Nortons of the world at the mercy of the canonical authorities, unless they are transparent about their worldview. I’ll wager most of them aren’t. But it would stand to reason that texts which are truly universal or apply to multiple worldviews will appear in multiple canons. Canonipedia, anyone?

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