Why Teaching Canonical Texts Still Matters

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Though the literary canon has fallen out of favour with many teachers, introducing it to students is still a valuable and worthwhile exercise.

In one of the first tutorials for my Secondary English class at university, back when I was beginning a Master of Teaching degree a year and a half ago, the topic of classic and canonical texts, that is, influential and foundational texts for subjects and disciplines, came up. Specifically, the issue raised was whether such texts should be taught to secondary students or not. In recent years, there has been a marked shift away from such texts towards more contemporary texts. One of the more recent examples of this occurring in an Australian educational context was the recent announcement by the New South Wales government that Year 11 and 12 students no longer had to study a novel or poetry. As governments and policymakers appear to be moving away from mandating the teaching of novel-length texts, particularly non-contemporary ones, the question is worth asking: is there still a place for teaching canonical texts in schools? In this article, I argue that yes, there is still an place for the literary canon in schools.

Doug Lemov, the author of ‘Reading Reconsidered’, posits that teaching classic texts from bygone eras, if properly scaffolded for the reading and comprehension levels of a particular class, can be immensely beneficial for students. He argues that text choice is overlooked, with an emphasis almost exclusively on engagement. More difficult texts, including many classic and canonical texts are dismissed despite the opportunities present to engage with complex, intriguing themes, literary techniques and cultural context (Lemov, Reading Reconsidered, p.16). Reading these texts provides students with the higher-order critical thinking and close reading skills necessary for success in higher education.

Learning about these texts themselves opens up the opportunity for students to enter discussions about well-known texts and to understand cultural references which otherwise elude them. In a classroom setting, reading well-known texts allows ample opportunities for communal discussion and discourse, an essential element of any effective classroom learning environment. As many modern books reference or are structured on classic texts, there is also important intertextuality and cross-referencing of books to consider (Lemov, p.22).

Lemov’s argument was presented in the context of English education. I wish to take this argument a step further. In my opinion, classic and canon texts should also be more prominent in the education of humanities subjects such as History, Civics and Economics. In the context of a history education, teaching about the works of famed historical figures, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Herodotus has clear benefits. As primary sources of the Ancient Greek era, for example, these texts give an important insight into society at the time. They provide an important snapshot into the ways people at the time thought about and engaged with their world.

In the teaching of economics, citing the works of important economists and philosophers of economics, such as Keynes, Hayek, and Smith are again important for setting a good foundation of knowledge for students. By directly studying the writings of influential economic theorists, students are much more aware of the principles they espoused, which influence modern economics and can add much-overlooked context and nuance. These economists are notoriously misquoted and taken out of context for various ideological and political reasons, so learning directly from the source can help alleviate this problem. Apart from this, the economic theories introduced in classic economics texts provide a framework for students as they consider more technical economic problems as they work their way through an economics course.

Many of these works, of course, are complex and will require a clear plan and strategy of instruction from a teacher to teach effectively. Teaching entire texts from any of these authors would likely be beyond reasonable expectations for many high school students. The limited time allocated for Humanities courses in secondary schools would also impact on the depth of study of these texts. Targeted excerpts, or updated adaptations using more modern English, are some ways to make these texts more approachable for students unfamiliar with older texts while still retaining quality teaching. Aside from the technical skills reading these texts provide, they provide cultural capital and allow students to engage with sections of society they would otherwise not be able to.

Lemov, in Chapter One of Reading Reconsidered, provides an anecdote of a teacher from Britain, who as a student read the classic works of literature such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet. As a result, he went from being in the bottom tier of achievement in grade school to being top of his class in university. Though being from a working-class background which did not emphasise reading, his continued engagement with these texts allowed him to develop skills such as critical thinking and provided cultural capital necessary to engage with complex texts continually at university.

This argument particularly resonated with me, as it reflects closely my own personal experience. As a child from a working-class background myself, reading canon texts of literature, philosophy, history and science has given me substantial knowledge of the world in which I live and enhanced my critical thinking skills. In the same vein as the anecdote above, this played a major role in me being the first in my family to go to university, graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and continue further study towards my Master’s degree. While this is anecdotal evidence of the value of the literary canon, researchers and professors have been able to make a more rigorous and substantive case for the canonical reading and knowledge I obtained during my primary and secondary education.

ED Hirsch, the famed education professor, termed the phrase ‘cultural literacy’. According to Hirsch, the ability to read not only requires the ability to decode words but also a background knowledge of the topic being read about. Educational research has vindicated Hirsch’s theory. Having content and background knowledge is a prerequisite for mastering any particular skill or concept. This is in contrast to a popular idea of general, generic skills which heavily influences curriculum and pedagogy the world over today. Apart from wanting children to be able to read more effectively, there was another reason why Hirsch believed in the idea of cultural literacy. Cultural literacy, Hirsch argues, is one of the more important factors behind social mobility. For middle class children, the cultural literacy he refers to is obtained through day-to-day interaction with other culturally literate persons. For working class children, on the other hand, the primary way this is obtained, if it is obtained, is through schooling. If they do not have this opportunity.

It is popular in modern discourse to discount the value of a shared literary canon. One of the more popular charges laid against it is that it is merely about reading ‘dead white authors‘. While in some instances, the literary canon can be defined rather narrowly, such a statement is too dismissive of the value of a shared canon of literary works and knowledge for students of all backgrounds. Canonical works are an important way of exposing students to perspectives and issues beyond their immediate experience. Such exposure is essential for students’ intellectual growth.

This post is an adaptation of a blogpost of mine entitled “In Defense Of Teaching The Literary Canon”. The original post can be viewed here.

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About Author

Scott Davies is a freelance writer from Adelaide, Australia, with an interest in politics, history and culture. He holds a BA (Honours) in History and is currently studying a Master of Teaching (Secondary).

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