The western canon

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This generation of teenagers was born after the advent of the internet.  At home, my students have computers, XBOX 360s, iPod touches, and Kindles/Nooks/iPads to keep them occupied, not to mention the latest iPhone or Android model.

So why are we still teaching them the same books?

Most teachers would claim that it’s because the older books are better, the old “they don’t make them like they used to” that is supposed to be a fact, but inevitably falls short.  Granted, there are books on the canon that are important historically: To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, truly chronicles the inequalities pervasive in a not-too-distant American past.

Still, isn’t the point of literature to inspire?  to engage?  to create an escape from our everyday lives so that we can experience another world, new emotions, and new ideas?  If so, then the established canon does none of these things.

How can Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations (which I have both, begrudgingly, taught) inspire today’s youth, when the archaic language creates a barrier through which few can actually see?  How can Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath engage the students who must resentfully wade through the pages upon pages of description, seeking a dialogue but not finding it soon enough?  And who wants to escape to the world of Faulkner’s A Light in August, with superbly unpleasant events, characters, and ending?

Please do not think for a moment that someone like me, who loves to read, does not appreciate the aforementioned novels.  On the contrary, I will be the first to laud the authors’ writing styles, tremendously acute treatment of symbolism, and heck, even their content.

But not all students are like you or me.  Most students need the engagement that only comes from more modern novels that deal with more modern issues, and are written in a more modern way.

And if the whole purpose of teaching English is to pass on to our young people the skills necessary to succeed in college and beyond, then these skills should go beyond deciphering Shakespeare’s English in order to gain a merely rudimentary understanding of storyline.  These skills should be rooted in literature that students can directly relate to because the subject matter is current and interesting to them.  Then, we won’t have to throw candy at students for answering comprehension questions based on stale, outdated writing; students will learn because they truly, finally, are engaged, and teachers won’t have to work as hard to make that happen.

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One thought on “The western canon

  1. I tried typing a comment about this, but it turned into a huge essay of sorts, and I stopped typing. This is a great question I have thought about ever since I began to think about how to teach a novel in my teaching program.

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