I spent the past weekend with two old college friends who both studied literature (one drama, one English) in college. I love both of these women dearly and value their opinions above almost everyone else's. The last two times we've gotten together, we've gotten into hot debates about my stance on reading canonical texts. This past weekend, they really made me think a lot about my position on this issue. I worry a lot about sounding strident. Also about sounding anti-intellectual. So I wanted to try to rehash a few points here (mostly for myself, as this blog is mostly for myself.)
The first and most important is that I DO absolutely believe passionately in liberal education. I'm an English teacher, for crying out loud!! Of course I want my students to read critically, to read difficult texts that challenge their thinking and their use of language, and to think about themes that are, if not universal, then nearly universal to modern human life.
The second thing is that we actually do miss a lot about modern human life if we only teach what the majority of English teachers still call "the classics," books like The Scarlet Letter, Romeo and Juliet, and Huckleberry Finn. These are three of the top ten titles in a study conducted in 1988, in the midst of the culture wars, about the most commonly taught books in American high schools. High schools are like the Alps of the culture wars--they didn't encroach very far. Now, granted, 1988 was a long time ago, but more recent studies in some regions have produced similar results. In 1988 the top ten book-length texts taught in high schools had barely changed from what they were twenty-five years earlier. There was only one book by a woman on the list. There were no books by people of color. Now, you may be saying, but that's only the top ten. I bet all of those schools have books by people of color on their syllabi, just not the same books. But that kind of proves the same point--even books that are practically canonized like Their Eyes Were Watching God or The House on Mango Street or, inscrutably to me, Black Boy still do not appear on these lists. I happen to love To Kill a Mockingbird, but its racial politics are not unproblematic. If that book is the only book featuring African American characters that students across the country read, then we have a problem.
The third thing (which I will try to make the last) is something I worry a lot about now: many English teachers have been persuaded that students should be able to read books that are not "classics," books that include young adult literature and lots of urban fiction. But these same English teachers still create a stark divide between these texts and "classics." It's true that students require more help reading difficult texts and so these texts are better taught as whole-class texts than read independently. But let's not reproduce the old distinction between "high" and "low" literature. Let's instead teach our students that the criteria of literary merit are not set in stone. They are, in fact, always changing, if ever so slightly. If we maintain this high/low divide--especially if we continue to teach the old "classics" while allowing students to read books that "mirror their experiences" by "lesser" authors, then what message are we sending about writers of color? There certainly are great ones out there. Let's teach them, too.