The Debate on the Canon Continues

Shayna Murphy recently posted an intriguing blog arguing that too many classics taught in today’s high schools may not “necessarily [be] the right fit for a modern-day classroom.”[1] This argument is hardly new, but she thoughtfully suggests more modern and accessible books that address some of the same issues. Murphy also suggests that we can always teach both – unlikely given today’s packed curriculum.

I enjoyed following her thought process and liked many of her choices. Why not replace Moby Dick with The Martian or The Scarlet Letter with Handmaid’s Tale? But I’m having second thoughts… based on why I believe in teaching literature in the first place.

Great books open up the world to readers, who:

  • can’t help but recognize that across time and place, people are basically still people
  • also can’t avoid the reality that the times shape the culture, and we can gain a better understanding of the human experience as it changes and evolves
  • can understand the issues they face in their lives by exploring them through the lens of a book
  • can begin to recognize the diversity of human experience instead of assuming that their own way of life is universal

“Literary study should … provide us with many complex models for understanding and responding to others and to ourselves,” said University of Connecticut professor Patrick Hogan.[2]

So I have no qualms about selecting books and asking my student readers to stretch themselves to understand. Through books they can expand their understanding of people and human nature. Some of the traditional canon excels at that. Limiting their reading to contemporary works may be easier, but it deprives them of a global view of human nature over time.

I’m a Margaret Atwood fan and read Handmaid’s Tale when it was first published. As a teacher, though, I can’t help but wonder if my students might read it on their own or at least watch the televised version. Is it valuable to ground the oppression of women in a book like The Scarlet Letter? And Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying may be a challenging read due to its rotating cast of narrators and his extremely long and complex sentences. But recognizing the impact of point of view, learning to appreciate a different approach to language and style, discovering the society of the Gothic South in the 1930s – how does the value of these compare to the relatively easy read of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is far more sentimental and also available on video. And are we ready to ignore the role that As I Lay Dying and others on the list, like The Great Gatsby have on the novels that follow them?

I know Beowulf was tough to teach, but surely it’s another seminal, foundational work. J.R. Tolkien, whose work many of my students read avidly, called Beowulf  “’this greatest of the surviving works of ancient English poetic art,’… [and it] informed his thinking about myth and language.”[3] Don’t students benefit from learning more about how novels and other forms have evolved?

I’m all for opening up the canon. My last two years of teaching we rolled out a regular sophomore English class that included eight books, half of which were non-fiction [often neglected] and all of which were relatively contemporary. But we could do that because we had so many classic works embedded in the English classes of other years. We don’t need to make the canon a binary choice. Let’s be more inclusive as we keep some classics. Let’s help our students discover many worlds beyond their own.


[1] https://www.bookbub.com/blog/2016/09/01/books-we-should-stop-making-high-schoolers-read

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/04/educating-teenagers-emotions-through-literature/476790/

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/books/jrr-tolkiens-translation-of-beowulf-is-published.html

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