I found this recent ASCD Education Update article fascinating, especially as we think about what literary works to teach students that will really prepare them for life's challenges.
Looking for the Literary Canon
By Rick Allen
Experts wonder, what happened to the canon? As the English curriculum evolves, are students reading works that will prepare them for college and for life?
Schools have traditionally sought to ground students in the academic skills and literary works that will allow them to thrive in higher education—as readers, thinkers, writers, and speakers, who not only understand and articulate the ideas of others, but also can do the same with their own informed opinions, insights, and conclusions.
But, experts fear, decades of efforts to engage students in the great literary works of Western civilization, including attempts to update or increase variety in the so-called literary canon, have left many high school students with an inconsistent and idiosyncratic English curriculum that neither challenges them nor prepares them for college work.
The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW) surveyed public school English teachers about what book-length works of fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction they assigned in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade standard or honors courses. The survey found little consistency among assigned texts. Even the top three most frequently assigned works, Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Crucible, appeared in less than 25 percent of the curricula surveyed. Thirteen of the top 20 most frequently assigned titles appeared in less than 10 percent of teachers' assignments.
"There is no canon anymore. It may look like a canon, but each school is doing its own thing. And each teacher is doing his or her own thing," says University of Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky, who led the survey.
Stotsky argues that today's high school English classrooms are devoid of a coherent and progressively more difficult curriculum, and she worries that the average American high school student will not become acquainted with the literary and civic heritage of the English-speaking world nor hone the reading and writing skills needed for college.
"English teachers have always prided themselves on being autonomous and addressing the needs of their kids," Stotksy points out. But SAT and ACT scores show that while teachers were experimenting, students were not being prepared for college, she adds.
Not even the Common Core State Standards will bring coherence to the middle school and high school English curriculum, she predicts. "There's no organizing principle for the content of the work. It was intentionally left out," says Stotsky.
Celebrating the Classics
Despite the apparent disarray of the high school literary canon, English teachers are still faced with the prospect of trying to get students to read a number of the literary classics, surrounded as they are by a popular youth culture where compressed, unpunctuated writing is the norm in communication.
When Lauren Gatti was teaching English literature to urban Chicago high schoolers in a poor neighborhood, she wanted them to read classics like the The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick. For poor inner city students as well as wealthy suburban teens, both books are a challenge, seemingly removed from contemporary experience. She gave her students information about the reading preferences of 19th century readers, so students could compare those with their own. Students found that their reading tastes and those of 19th century readers were similar in that both groups wanted a good plot, natural dialogue, and not a lot of moralizing via allegory.
Gatti had her students read and write reviews on excerpts of Moby Dick and compare them to actual reviews of the time. "Many of the students were blown away by the fact that their confusion about the book was the same as the 19th century reviewer. There was this sense that 'it's not just me,'" Gatti says.
Studying the relationship between popular and innovative literature of the past also made students more aware of the complicated interplay between the books they were reading, their own reading tastes, and Gatti's choices for their curriculum.
"Our conversations about literature really opened up," she says.
Does it Have to Hurt?
To help students understand literature, high school English teachers tend to use both the reader-response approach and the close reading approach, according to a 1993 study by Arthur Applebee. In fact, his study shows more teachers favored the reader-response approach over close reading. Reader-response stresses a student's personal interpretation of a work, and close reading stresses finding the meaning of a work in the text itself by analyzing the text's form, structure, themes, and use of literary devices, as well as cultural and historical references.
Noting that trend, the ALSCW's Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey, says the "under-use of analytical reading" and a "stress on personal experience or historical context" to understand imaginative and nonfiction texts may be contributing to high remediation rates in college English and reading courses.
But is it possible that the ascendancy of reader response in high school could be an adverse reaction to an academic mindset, developed by writers and critics during the 20th century, which favors difficulty? Experts speculate that this modern critical tradition of the university academy has trickled down to the secondary level.
"T.S. Eliot believed that the difficult modern world required a difficult literature," notes Christoph Irmscher, an English professor at Indiana University. In Eliot's essay on the Metaphysical poets, Irmscher points out, Eliot writes "the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into meaning."
In other words, a complex world requires complex writing, which in turn generates complex criticism, Irmscher explains. "An aesthetic of difficulty legitimizes the literary critic, as someone who can relocate meaning in the dislocated text, to expound it to a spellbound audience."
Irmscher argues that professors "train future teachers to believe in such difficulty—and they pass this on to their students in the secondary schools." But instead, he says, high school teachers should share their excitement about literature with their students. "I tell my students a poem is good when it matters to you—and when you can tell me why it matters to you."
Engaging the Reader
Engaging students in the act and art of reading is the starting point for appreciating the best in literature, says Yvonne Siu-Runyan, president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).
"Before you can even get to the literary canon, the kids have to find pleasure and enjoyment and purpose in reading," says Siu-Runyan. "You really want them to own what they read. You want them to question what the author is saying."
In her book, Teaching Character Education Through Literature: Awakening the Moral Imagination in Secondary Classrooms, Karen Bohlin, who is also head of the Montrose School in Medfield, Mass., offers teachers strategies to help students unpack the actions and motivations of the protagonists in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
"In firing up the moral imagination, you develop a set of figures in the storehouse of your mind and imagination of people you can admire or people you've learned not to be like under certain circumstances. It has staying power," says Bohlin.
A Window to the Soul
While some educators welcome bringing new titles into high school English classes to help engage students in reading, and even motivate them to read the more difficult selections, others are critical of using high school literature classes to advance a social or political agenda.
"The struggle for the canon is getting darker and more desperate all the time," observes Harold Bloom, the celebrated literary critic and author of The Western Canon, who has been teaching English to Yale undergraduates for nearly six decades.
"To choose works for study by high school students on the basis of ethnicity, sexual orientation, skin pigmentation, gender, or national heritage is ultimately destructive. The only criteria that can matter in the end are intellectual and aesthetic," explains Bloom.
"It isn't professors, or people who make lists, or whole societies even, who establish what the literary canon is. It is the strong writers who come later," Bloom asserts. "They choose the canon for us. Homer is chosen by all the Greek writers who come after him, by Europe, and by the Western world ever since, and Dante is chosen by Chaucer, and all who come after him. Chaucer is chosen by Shakespeare, then Shakespeare is chosen by Milton and everybody else since—and by Charles Dickens. It is not an arbitrary matter—it comes out of the literary tradition itself."
Nor is the literary canon a "closed shop" or "self-perpetuating system," insists Bloom. "It is always open. It is open because as fresh genius comes along, it changes our sense of the traditional order of the canon. It meets our needs at the deepest level—spiritual, intellectual, human—in the full sense."
So what are English teachers supposed to do when faced with an English curriculum, canonical or not, and students who don't realize what they might be missing by avoiding the hard work that's often required to understand the writing of another, especially the literary superstar of centuries ago who expresses his thoughts in an argot of the past?
It requires that teachers, in a very real sense, put themselves on the line.
"Turn to what it is that you yourself, the teacher, are most moved by, the most changed by, in reading Shakespeare, or Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen, or George Eliot, or any canonical writer, as I would call them, and communicate that to the students," advises Bloom. "Tell them how one learns to feel again, and to think again, and even to 'be' again, on the basis of reading those authors."