Diversifying the Literary Canon

So, for our Critical Issues class, we each chose a “critical issue” in education today and gave a presentation about our given issue. We had presentations on cutting PE out of secondary schools, No Child Left Behind, the WASL, bullying, growing up online, etc. Everyone that I got to see did great! It was fascinating to see what people came up with and to watch them put such passion into a 15-minute bit of teaching. Because this was an individual project on a topic of our choosing, I decided to give a presentation about a Language Arts/English topic. What follows is an approximated written version of the presentation I gave titled “Diversifying the Literary Canon”:

Here is a list of the ten most-taught titles in high school English classes (grades 9-12):

  1. Romeo and Juliet (taught in 84% of 9-12 English classes)William Shakespeare
  2. Macbeth (81)
  3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (70)
  4. Julius Caesar (70)
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird (70)
  6. The Scarlet Letter (62)
  7. Of Mice and Men (56)
  8. Hamlet (55)
  9. The Great Gatsby (54)
  10. Lord of the Flies (54)

What do you notice about these ten books? First of all, all ten of them were written by white authors. Four were written by William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Hamlet), five were written by other American or British male authors (Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lord of the Flies by William Golding), and one was written by an American woman (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee).

“But wait,” you might be saying. “This sort of research isn’t really helpful! We read plenty of books by authors from diverse backgrounds in the secondary schools, there just isn’t a standardized canon of their novels. Therefore, the statistic isn’t significant because it tracks individual titles, not ethnicity of the authors.”

Fortunately, this same study coded each title by the author’s sex, country of origin and ethnicity and ran those statistics. It found that 81% of the books we read in the secondary schools were written by male authors, 98% were written by white (non-Hispanic) authors, and 99% of those were either written in the U.S. (63%), U.K. (28%) or Western Europe (8%).

Why does this keep happening? Why do teachers persist in teaching the “dead white guys” instead of embracing authors from all backgrounds?

Well, there are a number of reasons. First of all, many English/Language Arts teachers remain personally unfamiliar with titles outside of the current literary canon. If they don’t know what great works of literature from other traditions are out there, how will they be able to convey that information to their students? Secondly, teachers are often uncertain about the literary merit of such diverse texts or the potential appeal to students of anything that hasn’t been taught before. If a teacher hasn’t read a book and doesn’t know anyone who has, the search usually ends there.

Finally, teachers are also worried about the potential community reaction that could arise if they change the books taught in their classes. We’re teaching good books in the schools, they just happen to be almost exclusively by a particular ethnic group. I am fully convinced that if one high school student reads 20 books in his high school career and another student reads 20 completely different books, the two could each have complete, enriching educational experiences. By inserting a greater diversity of authors, we would no doubt be leaving out great works of literature. However, we are already leaving out thousands great works of literature from around the globe.

So what? What are we supposed to do with this?

First of all, we have to do away with prescribed lists of authors from the district, state or (God forbid) federal level. Brand new English teachers might benefit from being told exactly what to teach, because they could focus more on learning the mechanics of teaching during their first couple of years. However, these lists will eventually become a crutch that stifles the teacher’s creativity.

Secondly, we must require diversity. That isn’t to say that we need to have quota systems where teachers are required to teach X number of American authors, X number of Asian authors, etc. etc. Instead, we need to require a diversity of genres. The research shows that the biggest cultural gap is in book-length works of literature. In fact, the top poet taught in American high schools today is Langston Hughes, an African-American author during the Harlem Renaissance. That’s a step in the right direction. When more short stories and poems are taught in secondary schools, teachers are generally better at including non-white authors.

Finally, you have to trust English teachers. Ideally, the high school English teacher is a creative trained professional, capable of discerning what literature is right for his or her students and excited to find innovative methods for teaching the lessons to be found in that literature. With a list of what books need to be taught each year, it takes away many opportunities for teachers to use that creativity.

My personal suggestion is to include a “World Literature” course at the high school level instead of squeezing one or two works by diverse authors into an otherwise-dead-white-guy-dominated course. This would get students to really digest the overarching course theme of “understanding different perspectives,” as well as helping to prepare them to be culturally sensitive, global citizens.

At my high school, the English curriculum had two courses at the freshman level (Frosh English and Reg Frosh English, which was remedial), three courses at the sophomore level (Reg Soph English [remedial], Soph English and Advanced Soph English), four at the junior level (Junior English, Humanities 1, Advanced Junior English and AP English 1), and four at the senior level (Senior English, Humanities 2, College Prep English and AP English 2). Speaking from my own experience, Frosh English was a survey class (mostly dead white guys), Advanced Soph English was a survey class (ditto), Advanced Junior English was an American Literature course, and College Prep English was a British Literature course. In my ideal scenario, the freshman and sophomore classes would be directed (American Lit and BritLit). The junior class would become a World Literature course, and the senior class would be a survey encompassing authors from all three categories.

To conclude, here is a sample reading list for a semester-long World Literature class aimed at advanced high school juniors:

[Note: After the presentation, two friends suggested that I add We Never Make Mistakes by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan to the above list. I haven’t read either of these books, but I will soon. My classmates were adamant that these books were fascinating, and I believe them.]


9 Responses to “Diversifying the Literary Canon”

  1. Scott Walker Says:

    I really have a bone to pick with forcing Shakespeare upon teachers and their students. Yes, he is the superman of English literature, but that doesn’t mean he is ideal for adolescent students. He’s very difficult to read. Every little line is packed with a hundred literary devices and ten decipherable meanings. Educators believe that this quality of writing will bring more bang for their buck in terms of teaching English. The same logic is used for Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. They fail to realize that these writers are really intimidating to students cultivating a love and understanding for books.

    Finding good books outside the normal canon is quite tough and requires the English teacher to extend his repetoire of books to choose from. I really wasn’t impressed with House on Mango Street even though it’s becoming very popular among schools today. I’d put in its place Bless Me Ultima, which I had the pleasure of reading when I was in high school. Things Fall Apart wasn’t too bad either.

  2. calebteaches Says:

    Thanks for the note, Scott. I love Shakespeare, but I think what most people don’t realize is that Shakespeare’s plays aren’t meant to be read. They’re meant to be performed. You lose a lot when you’re sitting around by yourself, wrestling with the words on the page. I think high school students can read Shakespeare well, but it takes quite the effort on the teacher’s part (and a good dose of reading aloud / acting / dialogue in class). It takes time to do Shakespeare well, and time is of the essence in high schools. It’s far easier to bark at the text for a couple of weeks and then leave it behind than it is to do a Shakespeare play well.

    And yeah, finding books outside the canon is difficult. Fortunately, looking for ideas is one of the things that is so great about having an online community as a sounding-board. Thanks for your suggestions of Bless Me Ultima and Things Fall Apart – I’ll have to check those out.

  3. Mariela Says:

    Hi Caleb!

    It irks me that Sandra Cisneros is basically the only Hispanic author read. While she is great, and writes about her experiences as a Hispanic in United States with a very unique style, she really has an outsider’s perspective into Hispanic culture, and her views on it tend to be “Americanized.” Why not add in a little Gabriel Garcia Marquez (and I’m not biased because of the name, haha) or Isabel Allende, both of whom grew up surrounded in Latin American culture. They are not any more difficult to read than Shakespeare, and are in fact exposing students to a whole new genre of literature; Magical realism.

    Anyway, I would probably put House of Spirits by Isabel Allende, Chronicle of Death Foretold by GGM, and The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares (the writers of Lost actually based the show on elements in this book), who I just remembered, but also worth adding to the books-Caleb-should-check-out-before-becoming-a-rocking-English-teacher list.

  4. calebteaches Says:

    Hey, Mariela! Awesome!

    Thanks for your perspective into the Hispanic literary culture. Honestly, I added “The House on Mango Street” because it comes well-recommended for a high school audience. In my presentation, I clarified that Cisneros was a Mexican-American author who grew up in Chicago. Your suggestions are well-taken; I actually was going to put Allende on the list, but her books that I know of are pretty dang long for high schoolers. I read Eva Luna in a lit class at Whitworth, and I liked it quite a bit.

    Also, if it’s magical realism you want, The Famished Road by Ben Okri (which I listed) is also representative of that genre.

    I’ll look forward to checking out those books, as well. My reading list keeps getting longer and longer, which is pretty okay if you ask me!

  5. James McPherson Says:

    Caleb, your post reminded me of a favorite comment from a lesbian Latina friend in grad school: “The problem with dead white males is that there aren’t nearly enough of them.” She was kidding… I think.

  6. erin46 Says:

    If we’re going to talk inscrutable, I think it would be incredibly difficult to teach, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Perhaps Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but even then Marquez is a ‘hard teach’. My stepson and his friends loathed it (boys and girls alike) for its style. Sure, Shakespeare’s difficult. Who said that literature, good or great, was supposed to be easy? My students are going to have just as much trouble parsing Saramago as Dostoyevsky.

    Diversity is valuable, but I think it’s a mistake to ignore the canon, simply because it has influenced other literature — to insinuate that these “dead white males” didn’t have an impact on literature is a disservice. The Brits invented the epistolary novel, from which Color Purple takes its narrative style. I can see the same stylistic novelties in James Joyce and Jose Saramago (who, I might mention, takes care not to name any country or character in Blindness. It could be anywhere — and that’s one of the most salient points. Demonizing the British for being white, literate, and prolific isn’t really productive, and to read poor literature just to meet a diversity quota waters down the discipline. Perhaps a different approach might be to read the works in pairs, to see that the human experience is as universal as it is varied. Isn’t the point of literature to read about an individual experience and make universal connections to it? What does it matter if the message comes from Cisneros or Shakespeare, Fitzgerald or Flaubert?

  7. calebteaches Says:

    Hey Erin! Thanks for reading. I agree with you that it would be a mistake to ignore the canon altogether or arbitrarily toss works out. I’m not looking to eliminate the entirety of what we read now, but to supplement it. Some texts would ultimately be cut out, but probably 75-80% would stay the same. Also, if a full World Lit course was added to a high school’s curriculum, it doesn’t necessarily need to replace a course currently offered. It could just be one more option for students. Just having the option of taking a World Lit class would be better than being force-fed countless male European/American authors.

    I think it’s important to note that I’m not looking to demonize the British- far from it. I love British literature, but we should take a long look at the number of British authors we read in our classes. One full class of British literature should be enough for the high school literary experience, especially when they also tend to have a full American lit survey class.

    I don’t want students to read “poor literature” either; It would be better to have students read five great 150-page novels by white 6’2″ English authors named Jake than ten mediocre or bad novels of varying lengths by authors across the globe. But the fact is, there is great literature everywhere.

    Your idea of reading the works in pairs is fascinating. I love it. For example, students could read “Catcher in the Rye” and “House on Mango Street” for two different coming-of-age stories. It would a great way to slip a few authors from different upbringings into the class.

    Finally, my ultimate thought about this argument is: If we have great literature from around the globe (which we do) that is readable at a high school level (which some of it is), then why not diversify the canon? It ties into your salient final point, one that could apply to either side of the argument: “Isn’t the point of literature to read about an individual experience and make universal connections to it? What does it matter if the message comes from Cisneros or Shakespeare, Fitzgerald or Flaubert?”

  8. Lightly Seasoned Says:

    Let’s see, where do we start? World Literature is fairly common at the high school level. The major educational publishers all have anthologies designed for such a course, and these would be a good place to begin if you were to come up with a reading list from scratch. Their selections are usually very good. In my district, we teach it at the sophomore level, but many teach it as a senior course. I teach all those books on the evil white guy list (and am glad I do as they are cultural touchstones), but I also teach many more modern works. Julius Caesar or Oedipus Rex, for example, both pair very well with Things Fall Apart (which is a classic Aristotelian tragedy). Persepolis matches up well with Camus’ The Stranger and Hesse’s Siddhartha in a unit on existentialism.

    I have taught Eva Luna, One Hundred Years of Solitude, etc. to high school Advanced Placement seniors. They are difficult works and contain a great deal of explicit sexual content. I’ve also taught part of the Sugar Street trilogy by Mahfouz, Persepolis, Three Cups of Tea, and The Attack. I am constantly evaluating new novels for inclusion in the curriculum, and explicit sexuality is usually the big kicker (especially in Latin American works). Parents and school boards don’t like it. Frankly, some of the novels I get away with keep the sex metaphorical (we’d never be able to teach Their Eyes Were Watching God if people realized there’s a huge — exquisitely written — masturbation passage in there). The House on Mango Street is typically taught in middle schools and would not be appropriate for advanced juniors. But Bildingsromans are easy to find.

    Keep reading! The issues are more complex than they seem on the surface.

  9. | Mia Minichiello's English Education Blog Says:

    […] are minorities. This, within itself, is not all that surprising. What is, though, is that the top ten titles taught in American high schools are all written by white authors. What’s more, 9 of them are men and all of them are either […]

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