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.


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.