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Letting Go of the Literary Canon

Why We Need to Rethink What Students Read

There is this idea floating around academia that, as an English major, you're supposed to have an appreciation for all the Great Works of Literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Twain, Hemingway, that crowd. Authors like these are ubiquitously present on the curricula of both high school and college level English classes.

Why is that?

Well, essentially, because schools decided a long time ago that this is what you should be reading.

But aren't they Great Works of Literature?

Well, they can be. But rather than accepting the idea that a work of literature is inherently great, I'd like to challenge you to come to grips with the fact that "great" is a subjective word. Someone decided whether or not a book was great. There's no reason why you can't dislike Ernest Hemingway, nor any reason why you can't consider The Hunger Games great literature.

The works that are traditionally taught in English classes are part of something called the "Western Literary Canon." This is an imaginary list of Great Works of Literature that are considered to be the best of the best. These lists might vary slightly between school districts, and even between individuals; overall, though, they remain the same. The literary canon has remained the same for decades.

In an ever more multicultural society, these works are no longer relevant to all sections of our population. Authors of the literary canon are overwhelmingly white heterosexual men, but students are from all kinds of different backgrounds. Teaching only their works is short-sighted since it limits student engagement with literature in general. If students don't recognize themselves in the stories they read, why should they care?

This is not to say that the works of Shakespeare or Hemingway are absolutely worthless. They still portray aspects of the human psyche and speak to someone's truth; however, they are still quite limiting.

I'm now a junior in college. This semester was my first time coming into contact with a piece of Native American literature. I have yet to encounter a book (in a class, anyway) where a character is openly gay or transgender. I've only ever read two books by African American authors.

Naturally, there are classes dedicated to these fields of literature. You can easily take a Native American lit class, or some kind of Gender Studies elective. However, this hardly seems fair: Shakespeare has his own dedicated class, too, but this doesn't prevent him from being taught in basic composition or other English classes. I've read Othello four times at this point in my academic career (and I'm getting pretty tired of it).

Why should we not teach Native American literature in an American lit class? Why can't we teach LGBTQ+ literature in general literature classes? These people are just as much a part of our society as the white authors we read.

I understand that, if you're a teacher, you can't hurl your curriculum around. However, I'd like to challenge you to think outside the box. Is there perhaps a project or paper you could give your students that would allow them to explore authors they might connect with? Could you, perhaps, have them keep some kind of journal to encourage them to read books they themselves have picked out? Even if you don't really have a say in your curriculum, try and find creative ways to incorporate more relevant literature in your lessons.

If anything, I hope that I've convinced you that literature shouldn't be accessible to only a few of us; it should be a universal pleasure.

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Letting Go of the Literary Canon
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