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Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Modest Proposal (For Literature Curriculum)

(This is a short "essay" I wrote for my pedagogy course. I'm putting it here because I think it might be of interest to you all. No, this is not an "academic" essay. It should be relatively accessible.)

Canonical Chronicle: Thoughts of Pop Literature and Literature Curriculum

One of the principal concerns I have with the present course of pre-college education in literature in the United States—and elsewhere—is the incessant reliance on teaching literature through the limited scope of the Western Canon. Perhaps in other parts of the world this canonical reliance shifts to accommodate different worldviews or interests, but the reliance is still there; thus, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Western Europe seemingly rely on the Western Canon, the Middle East, India, China, and other Asian nations possibly rely on the Eastern Canon, and those left out of this either have their own unique approaches to literature, no approaches whatsoever, or must adopt the educational perspective of other nations as a means of becoming part of the global atmosphere1. These narrowed approaches leave literature in a particularly nasty place: nowhere. How can literature possibly survive in our youth in such rigid, inflexible systems? True, the Western Canon does, on occasion, change, introducing new works of literature2, but these changes do not seem to have much influence on literature curriculum across the country. The same “staples” of literature—style, approved content, etc.—are invoked in these additions.

As a science fiction enthusiast, it has long been an uphill battle—in the snow, during a blizzard—to make the case for popular literature as necessary for literature curriculum in pre-college education. I don’t push for any particular kind of popular literature, even though I see science fiction as one of the most relevant and valuable genres in existence. Instead, my criticisms of modern literature curriculum are with its inability to foster proper attitudes in students towards the process of reading. Standardized education has created a system that relies on repetition, rather than on relevance. As much as Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and Austen are important figures in our literary history, they do not hold the same influence on students today as J. K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephen King, and others. This isn’t to say that students are only influenced by pop-literature icons; some of these students may find themselves attracted to writers like Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Margaraet Atwood, and others who have stormed onto the “literary fiction” scene in recent years, and who are largely unknown to the majority of present-day readers3. The point is that literature curriculum today is, I would argue, outdated in several ways: 1) in being focused on old, classic literature to the point of excess4; 2) in being largely unwilling to shift to more relevant literatures, such as those written by emerging and powerhouse writers of today; and 3) in being unable to accommodate the incredibly short-focused nature of pre-college students in “modern” culture.

The result, based on personal experience as a former pre-college student and as the co-owner of a website for young writers, is that these rigid practices damage reading habits and perpetuate the relative assumption that literature has little meaning in our advanced, technology-driven society. Educational systems that are unable to see this are systems that fail students on a regular basis, creating learning conditions in which students do not see the value in what they are being taught. Why should a student learn about the crusades or world cultures or Charles Dickens when they fail to see the connection of that information to what matters to them now? Learning should be beneficial and self-replicating, rather than seen as a negative force or as simply a requirement that must be fulfilled because adults say so.

What can be done about this? It took Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card almost twenty years to make its way into high school classrooms, and yet it is not as frequently taught as books like 1984 by George Orwell or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, both science fiction texts that, while fantastic and worthy of further study, are still a part of that “old/classical” world. Will it take just as long for books like Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling, or Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie to work their way into pre-college curriculum? Will there have to be a tooth-and-nail fight to get these more relevant books (from the perspective of the students) into classrooms?

Finally, there is the question of “how?” One approach, however chaotic, is the remarkably successful one adopted by Lorrie McNeill of Jonesboro, Georgia:
The approach Ms. McNeill uses, in which students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools. While there is no clear consensus among English teachers, variations on the approach, known as reading workshop, are catching on5.
To be fair, the success is not all that surprising, particularly if you’re someone who actually went through the draining experience of high school English. I find it more surprising that schools are only now beginning to adopt such programs. Letting kids choose what they want to read, as opposed to forcing them only to read what is required by the system in place, produces results that are not only not surprising, but astonishingly obvious: kids actually want to read. Why? There are probably complicated answers to that, but the most obvious is: kids who get to make a choice have a higher likelihood of enjoying that choice.

The concern, then, is with the process of changing our methods of teaching literature, of meeting the demands of students as they change with the future. The classics should still be upheld, even revered for how they have shaped our past, but mixing the old with the new is a way of creating an amalgamated pedagogical monster that does for reading, and literature in general, what J. K. Rowling managed to do with a little boy with a lightning scar. It sounds obvious, and perhaps a tad cliché, to say: make them want to pick up a book and start reading, for the right reasons. But that is where the teaching of literature needs to be; it must move away from forcing students to read towards creating the conditions for better habits and greater interest in literature and literacy combined. How can such a thing be achieved? That’s the question that needs answering; how indeed.

Thoughts? Your opinions are welcome!


Two points can be made here in regards to some omissions:
1) I intentional left Canada out of the figuration of the Western Canon as part of the educational practices of the West primarily because our northern allies have been pushing and succeeded in achieving a “Canadian standard” in literature education by instituting new requirements for students to meet a Canadian literature” requirement. While it is true that Canadian literature is as much a part of the West as anything else on the Western Canon, it is remarkably different from the principle figures of the West (the United States and the United Kingdom) in that its local literatures have yet to be adopted with any regularity, and thus does not share in the convergence of literary voices.
2) I intentionally avoided referring to colonialism here precisely because this is not an essay about colonialism. However, many of the problems with universal education in industrializing or emerging nations are connected to the process of “coming face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country” (Black Skin White Masks (Pluto Edition) 9). The colonized (or postcolonized, if you will) adopts the “culture of the mother country” in numerous ways, but none more terrifying than the adoption of, and absorption by, language.

Though, to be fair, it is uncommon, in my experience, for students in today’s classrooms to be exposed to the newer additions of the canon. There seems to be a need to teach the same thirty to forty books/plays/poems; only the lucky are exposed to newer literatures, such as those works that have yet to make it into the “esteemed” clutches of the Western Canon.
Although, to be fair, an argument could be made to suggest that this isn’t true. Rushdie and Atwood, especially, may, in fact, be quite “mainstream” “literary” authors, particularly because of their histories as writers.
To clarify: I am not suggesting that teaching the classics is inherently bad, just that teaching only the classics, with negligible amounts of variance, does students a disservice.
Motoko Rich, “A New Assigment: Pick Books You Like,” The New York Times, August 29, 2009 (

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  1. I've long thought that using popular literature in English classes is a good way to teach the finer points of reading. Thinking back to my own high school days, I can remember classes plodding through Dickens or Shakespeare where the teacher had to spend most of the class time explaining the archaic language and obscure cultural references. It may not seem archaic to the teacher, but for kids whose idea of ancient history is the 1990s, Pride and Prejudice is written in Old English.

    It seems to me that more familiar literature gives the teacher a better opportunity to teach critical reading. The kids already know what it means, so you have time to get them looking at how that meaning is being conveyed.

    The English teacher I learned the most from used short, fairly simple works, and concentrated on things like symbolism, style, and structure. Hard to do when half the class is struggling just to understand what's being said.

  2. David: Exactly! That's what I think too. Thank you :)

  3. Anonymous12:58 AM

    SMD, how old are you? This argument about the literary canon was already in the retread stage when I was a college student in the mid-90s. (Oh and it's "principal concerns," by the way...)

    I do think Ms McNeill's approach is an excellent innovative idea and it should be implemented more widely. And I agree it shouldn't have to be either / or. Teach great literature side by side with pop lit. The point should not be to make literature "relevant" ("relevance" being a moving target of arguable worth). "Why should a student learn about the crusades or world cultures or Charles Dickens when they fail to see the connection of that information to what matters to them now?" Well, obviously because learning about crusades and world cultures and Charles Dickens is intrinsically worthwhile. That said, I'm all for letting students pick their own books to read in English class, as well as teaching the classics. But who's actually going to make this happen at a national level? Are you thinking of going into teaching perhaps? I hope so :)

    Interesting post, as always! Keep it up.

  4. Anon: I'm 25, but this is still a problem and still something being argued over, so despite it having been prominent in the 90s, it's still relevant today (nothing has really been done; a few victories here or there, but ultimately the old ways are still upheld). (Thanks for the correction, by the way. I have made a note in my brain about that word, because I misuse it all the time.)

    Hopefully you caught my sarcasm in regards to McNeill...those of us who like pop lit in some form weren't all that surprised by her always seemed intuitive.

    I would agree with you, except that what they learn is too basic to be useful anyway, and most of them know nothing more than that the Crusades happened (which they learned in history class).

    And, yes, I am going into teaching. I currently am a teacher (as a grad student; oddly enough I actually am more than just a teaching assistant...I'm in charge of actual classes, lectures, etc.).