Paper, Part One

As one of the most important areas of public policy, it is only natural that there is a deep interest in the mechanics of a classroom. What makes a “good” teacher? How do we measure success? And perhaps most controversially, what will be taught? Every year, thousands of books are banned by parents and family groups who wish to interfere with what goes on in classrooms and libraries across the country. There are many real world consequences for picking a book that is deemed inappropriate.

To avoid this, we create lists. A Hundred Books Everyone Should Read Before College. The Greatest Children’s Books of All-Time. The Best Books of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). If you can get it on a list (any list besides the Most Challenged Books), the book is safe. It is praised. It is canonical.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word canon entered the English language in the ninth century, Old English via Latin and Greek, but the word in the sense of “The Canon” is relatively new, cropping up first in 1929[1]. It is a retrospective device, a twentieth century word describing a much older phenomenon–the human desire to separate the good from the bad.

This canon has been developed over the years, culled from the very best novels and treatises and plays and essays and speeches of all time. It has been adapted to suit many agendas. It must be representative, and it must be comprehensive. The list of authors must include every group that could possibly be offended because, in this inclusion, centuries of marginalization can be wiped away (when rather, this perpetuates the cultural trope of the Exceptional woman/minority, great in spite of gender or race). The canon, too, is not immune to censorship. Rather, it is censored in a subtle way by the use of levels. As if someone becomes magically more mature in the three months between high school and college, and then makes another huge leap when they make a decision about their major. Maybe, when you hit the PhD level, you will be allowed some experimentation, but at that point, it’s important to realize that your research will mean very little to most people because high schoolers, undergraduates, and their teachers and professors won’t be able to use it.

But this approach to pedagogy fundamentally takes away from the capacity of students to think for themselves. By putting books on a pedestal, saying, “These books will unlock Western thought for you,” we are bleaching them of all meaning they could possibly have. The canon has become a laundry list. Furthermore, we have become more and more reluctant to add other voices to the canon. We call the beginning of the twentieth century the “Modern” period, and then after we ran out, it became the “Contemporary” and the “Post-Modern.” These days, the term “Post-Post-Modern” only sounds ridiculous if you haven’t read some of the literature out there on it. We’re trapped in this idea that, sometime before WWII but after the Victorian era, humanity stopped writing lasting literature. Sure, it matters to us here in this moment, but what is this moment if not fleeting? A thousand years after the first university, we are going through our moody teenager phase.

The purpose of this paper is not to create a new canon, though certainly it contains suggestions and examples. Rather, this paper seeks to study why canonical books are so important and how best to capture their essence in the modern classroom. It is my conviction that, rather than reading words on a page, we ought to understand why a book is considered important to intellectual tradition and wrestle with the ideas that come out of these works, even if that means sacrificing quantity for quality. We already make that decision anyway, for the whole goal of the canon is to skip the “boring” or “unnecessary” parts of literature. What we’ve lost, however, is the way to articulate why these books are important, and why they changed the world. What I aim to do here is explain that phenomenon, and articulate how we might capture it in the classroom again.

[1] “canon, n.1”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. (accessed November 04, 2013).


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