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.