The Canon and Cultural Studies

Throughout the history of English departments in universities, what has been considered canonical literature has evolved, sometimes very slowly perhaps, but with a major shift towards the end of the 20th century to include more voices from oppressed groups who hadn’t been fully recognized. A professor once told me that the reason Beowulf was taught was because when the study of English Literature first became a major course at Oxford and Cambridge, they needed it to fit the model of the History and Philosophy departments.  In other words, they had to start with the oldest known work written in English and go forwards chronologically.  Does Beowulf fit the criteria of what makes something “literature” according to Culler or is it simply an historical artifact we read in order to trace the development of our language and to trace how styles of narratives have changed.

In 1987, E.D. Hirsch authored Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know a book that greatly shaped my high school education and eventually my approach to teaching.  From an educator’s perspective, this idea that there is a body of knowledge that all college-bound students ought to have at least a cursory association with had its merits in a pre-internet world.  How could a student find mythological and Biblical allusions, for example, if they had no background knowledge in mythology or the Bible?  However, this idea that an “educated” person is one who has a large reservoir of facts at her disposal is one that is really out-moded today, especially when we all carry around little pocket devices that can easily look up whatever information we are curious about.

What cultural studies has done for today’s English departments is hugely important and necessary.  It is more than simply bringing out the underrepresented (women, ethnic and religious minorities, etc.); by questioning what works (or rather texts) belong in the canon, we can dismantle the whole idea of a canon.  Instead of teaching “knowledge” like cultural literacy, schools can focus more on teaching students how to read, why to read, rather than what to read.