A Few Thoughts on (Not Teaching) The Canon

Today I attended the first day of a two-day College Board workshop meant to provide additional training to teachers of Advanced Placement English Language and Composition. I’ve been to a number of these over the years, and College Board’s trainers tend to be better than the average presenters we get in education. The workshops also provide an opportunity to see what teachers at other schools are doing with their students.

Anyway, the only reason I bother to write about this is because of an interesting conversation/confrontation that happened almost immediately at the beginning of the session. As per usual with these things, we were to introduce ourselves–how long we’d been teaching, where we teach, the grade levels we teach, etc. The presenter also asked us to identify the book we most enjoyed “teaching.” That was the verb used–“teaching.” We were in a circle; I was one of the last people to have to introduce myself, and I heard repeatedly “I like to teach Gatsby” or “I like to teach Night” or “I like to teach To Kill a Mockingbird” or “I teach Faulkner.” I was getting a little antsy. Here’s why: 1) I don’t teach books–I don’t even know what it means to teach a book, 2) I rarely have my students read a complete book as part of their curriculum–I abridge almost everything, and 3) I’d been in this same situation more than once, and I knew that saying this was going to rub some of these English teachers the wrong way. And of course it did rub wrong, in particular two musty hags of the old school, one of whom cut me off condescendingly in mid-sentence: “So you’re saying that your kids never read a whole book?”

As pleasantly as possible, I tried to explain that I aim to expose my students to a multiplicity of voices and themes and rhetorical styles and methods, and that I didn’t see my primary job as fostering a love of literature; rather, I believe that the main duty of the English teacher is to facilitate the development of reading, composition, and thinking. I tried to explain that, even in my AP classes, most of my students are not avid readers and most of my students do not read at their grade level, and therefore struggling through 4 or 5 novels or plays over the course of one year didn’t seem as valuable to me as working through over a hundred different writers writing in a variety of styles for a variety of purposes. I tried to explain that reading a selection on slavery from 1789 by Olaudah Equiano in conjunction with a 2005 UN report on human trafficking, and then responding to these text was a far more valuable skill than wading through a dusty “classic” hunting down “universal” themes (whatever those are…).

The response, predictably was: “You mean, your 11th graders don’t read The Scarlet Letter? They don’t read Gatsby? That’s terrible!”

Why? Why should The Scarlett Letter or The Great Gatsby be so reverently “taught” to sixteen and seventeen year olds in this country? I like both of these books–I really do (although I think Gatsby is possibly the most overrated and over-read book ever published, and I’d take Hawthorne’s fabulous short stories any day over dreary Dimsdale and Hester Prynne)–but what purpose is there in making kids read them? Are they truly that relevant, or important?

I should be clear here that I am in no way at all against students reading these books; I wish that they would read these books, in fact. Only, I wish that they would love reading so much that they would be inspired to read books that they’ve heard are great or classic. But here’s the thing: I don’t think that telling a student they must read a book and that that book is a great work of literature and that they should enjoy or be inspired by that book is in any way a fair proposition. It leads only to anxiety, frustration, boredom, and then defeat.

Instead, English teachers should recognize that literature is just one part of reading and writing, and that most of our students are not going to go on to be English teachers or fiction writers. We should focus on a heteroglossic range of voices, styles, and purposes in introducing texts into the classroom. Students should be taught to respond to a variety of texts across a variety of disciplines, not to a few canonical authors. What happens more often than not in English classrooms is something like this: students are forced to read a work too complex for them to comprehend; they rely on the teacher’s interpretation to guide them through the novel (never having been taught a close-reading method that might give them access to the text); the student then writes a meaningless recapitulation of the teacher’s own “universalist” interpretation of the literary work, to the egotistical delight of the teacher who is enthralled that the student has “got it.” What’s lost is the opportunity to engage in relevant, “real-life” writing, writing that enters into an ongoing conversation in a meaningful way.

This is has been a straight-up rant–I’m sorry. I think that the following scene from Freaks and Geeks says it all better than I just did. Kim Kelly (Busy Phillips) critiques On the Road: