The Literary Canon & Educational Psych

I look at the literary canon as being extremely important to students in middle school and high school. These are the texts that students are forced to learn, forced to relate to, and forced to understand. However, the canon is a minuscule collection of works, predominately consisting of white, male authors, having little relation to what’s relevant in contemporary life for students. It’s something that has become widely accepted to study/teach, without ever really granting any explanation of why, which is why theorists contest the notion of the canon and its ‘common-sense’ presence in the literary realm. I’m not trying to argue against the ‘greatness’ or ‘value’ of the chosen works, but instead, make an argument that the canon itself denigrates the value of anything else that could be studied. It promotes Western European/American literature, being told from the same general perspective and racial status. It’s something that works to indirectly marginalize certain groups of people.

Regarding education, the literary canon also impede the ‘sense of self’ that students are developing, in that they are only being exposed to a certain selective group of distant literary texts. It could hinder their sense of identity and individuality, as Culler explains how “literary works characteristically represent individuals, so struggles about identity are struggles within the individual and between individual and group. (111) The literary canon causes the study of literature to be handled with pure poetics, because of its distance from the readers/ students. It doesn’t concern individuality or social identity, and calls into question the reasoning for literary studies as a discipline that goes past forming basic comprehension of reading and writing, and prohibits the school systems from regarding literary studies with as much worth and ability as any other discipline.

That was a pretty roundabout way of explaining how I interpreted the contention between cultural studies and the canon, but I think its a really important topic to consider when thinking about education. In my educational psychology course, we talked about something called the “Rejection-Identification” Hypothesis. It suggests that individuals of marginalized groups, whose identities are generally contested by others, “value their ‘ingroup’ identification more than their ‘outgroup’ identification”, i.e., one identifies with their own ‘collective identity’, when it is rejected by society. So, bringing it back to literary studies, the absence of multiple identities in literature could work against the full integration of social identities in schools, which leads to lack of interest, and, again, the devaluation of literature as a field of study, since the canon offers a (mostly) singular identity when using a cultural, critical lens.


“Reading the silence” in Women’s Literature

I was really intrigued by Barbara Johnson’s notion of writing/literacy used as enslavement. Reading the Fredrick Douglas excerpt refreshed my memory about how severe a threat literacy was to people in power, and how it was important to keep the “others” ignorant of their own self worth and human rights, by intellectually incapacitating them.

This initially sparked an interest because of Johnson’s reference to women’s literature, and how she relates Derrida to a new (at least to me) reading of it. She emphasizes the significance of “reading the silence” in female lit, which, to me, meant zeroing in on the undertones of suppression and submission in women’s writing. However, it occurred to me that Johnson must be achieving something more in a deeper reading of this specific literature. In another class, I read Mary Wroth, an early Renaissance writer who, I would argue to be among the pioneer female authors who helped earn and establish a validated spot for female writing in a male dominated field. In analyzing her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, it was instinctual to read each sonnet within the bounds of its own time, i.e., primarily focusing on the implications of patriarchy on Mary Wroth herself, and how that, in turn, showed up in her writing. This caused my analyses and interpretations to be pretty generalized, as it could be related to any female author, at any time, writing through patriarchy. Instead, I decided to look for the “suppressed, distorted, or disguised messages that women’s writing has encoded.” (Johnson, 47) In doing this, the text went beyond my feminist implications of it being displaced in a general patriarchy, and focused on the value of women within the literacy field of Renaissance poetry, more specifically the ‘complaint’, which is basically a sonnet that expresses dramatic anguish about love.  In looking at the structure of her writing, I noticed she followed the traditional structure of a sonnet, but certain essential thematic values present in other traditional complaints were missing. Through these specific absences, Wroth expresses the value and ability of female writers, specifically regarding the male-dominated authorship of the complaint.

This is one way I felt like I could apply a part of Johnson/Derrida’s methodology in “reading the silence”, i.e., analyzing the absence of something and producing an interpretation with just as much merit, if not more, than it’s presence. It’s also something that I feel “takes full advantage of writing’s capacity to preserve what cannot yet be deciphered”, as the value of women in patriarchy is still questioned today.