Kissing Canon Goodbye

Let’s pretend you and I didn’t go to high school together. I bet I can still guess which books you were assigned to read in your secondary English classes. The list probably looked something like this:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Romeo & Juliet
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • The Great Gatsby

Maybe you sprinkled in a little Of Mice and Men or Hamlet or A Tale of Two Cities, but for the most part, I’d wager these are the titles that showed up on your English syllabi. Fewer than ten books and plays have dominated English curriculum for decades, and while these are all perfectly reputable titles, they are a microscopic sample of what is available in the world to read.

The modern publishing industry produces around 300,000 new titles per year, with literally millions of self-published and on-demand titles stacking the annual figure to well over three million. Per year.

I didn’t say all of them were good.

Zooming out, those annual titles keep adding to the well over 130 million books in existence today.

And teachers all over the country are giving students access to a measly eight of them. The same eight. Over and over and over again.

This includes me. I still teach The Great Gatsby in my American Literature class, and I still work with Nineteen Eighty-Four in my Modern Media class. They’re good books. But I’ve also introduced newer titles into these classes, books you almost certainly didn’t read in high school: The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas; They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei; and Feed, by M.T. Anderson. Those are good books, too.

I’m lucky to work in a school that lets me teach pretty much whatever I want/whatever the district can afford, but there are many school districts across American where there is no wiggle room. The literary canon is the literary canon, dammit, and there will be no changes. These are the books we’ve always taught, after all, which means these must be the books we shall always teach until forever and ever, amen.

Except do you know why we are assigned those eight books specifically? Because once upon a time, someone built a curriculum in which those texts were prominently featured, and once that curriculum became well-established and lasted decades, it became The Way Things Are. It is very hard to break the habit of The Way Things Are.

If it were easy, humankind never would’ve had to invent to the Shake Weight.

But this particular example of The Way Things Are is problematic, right from the get-go, because the educators who typically built these canons from the late 1800s and into the 1920s were affluent, privileged white fellers. I know the word “privilege” carries certain connotations in 2021, but what I mean by it in this instance is that education and literacy were literal privileges at this time in history, and they were privileges enjoyed almost exclusively by white males.

Knowing this, it’s no surprise that many “educated” folks in today’s world hold a certain disdain for popular fiction. Romance novels are referred to as “trashy,” for example. Graphic novels aren’t seen as “real” books. We’re told that bestsellers like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter don’t carry any literary heft and therefore don’t belong in classrooms. Don’t get me started on how some intellectual types feel about Young Adult literature.

The entire reason we read The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird is because at some point, somebody just decided those were the best books. Fallible humans, just like you and me and every other person on this planet except for Tom Hanks. You know what the difference is between the educators choosing books 100 years ago and the educators choosing books today? Absolutely nothing. We are not beholden to old decisions, and in fact 100 years later, we’re allowed to use hindsight and education to make even better choices for today’s students.

And making new choices for today’s students is incredibly important because they are not reading these canonical books, not really. It doesn’t matter how much I love Fitzgerald and Orwell. Most students are only reading summaries online or doing whatever the bare minimum is to get their homework submitted on time.

Don’t act like you didn’t do it in high school, too.

You know what they will read, though? Graphic novels. Stories about social media and social justice. Books with characters who look and think and exist similarly to how they look and think and exist in the 21st Century. New stories. Modern stories. Relevant stories.

We have a choice, then, as teachers: we can either stubbornly stick to the same ol’ canon that’s been in schools for decades, or we can choose a few other titles to teach among those 130 million books that exist in the world. There are authors of every ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, and creed, and all of them are writing stories that could be meaningful to our students. The goal is to get kids to read, right? So why are we teaching only titles that they absolutely hate to read?

I’ll hear arguments like “Because Text Complexity,” and fine. Whatever. There are all sorts of ways to make a curriculum more rigorous regardless of the novels anchoring that curriculum, but if what we care about is engagement and investment, we’re teaching the wrong books. And we’re only teaching the wrong books because we haven’t considered why we’re teaching those books. Someone just told us it was the right thing to do when we were young teachers, and we’ve gone along with it ever since.

My compromise has been to pair canonical texts with more diverse, “disruptive” texts (#DisruptTexts), and in fact, I wrote a blog for Penguin Random House last year about how I’ve successfully paired the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy with Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. I’ve done the same thing with The Hate U Give and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, as well as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Feed.

I’m still figuring out how to work my favorite movie into the curriculum, though. These kids need to be educated.

In other words, I’ve been able to keep the canon in my classroom while also introducing newer, more exciting, and more relevant texts for my students to gobble up.

Imagine your high school teacher doling out a graphic novel instead of The Grapes of Wrath. What if they replaced Lord of the Flies with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or The Catcher in the Rye with You Should See Me in a Crown? I bet you’d read the newer books. And I bet many of you didn’t read the ones you were actually assigned.

Many of our most treasured cinematic and television franchises are adaptations from text, but entirely too many people never read the books they’re based off of. Why? Maybe it’s because they never got to fall in love with a book in school. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I hope the way I’m teaching English is different. And I hope that people’s high school reading experiences aren’t quite so homogenous going forward. May the country’s many talented teachers work with the world’s many esteemed books in all sorts of creative ways.

There are some great books out there, folks. Let’s try and get more of them into our classrooms.

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