A Return to Literature

At the start of this school year, I gave a presentation about my approach to classical education. With with the ongoing discussions surrounding “the” canon and the explosion of social unrest, this made for an interesting discussion (and with the flare of up literature twitter, an even more interesting writing point).

So when an attendee asked me why I went back to the classics after studying what amounted to Marxism and Critical Race Theory with a side of books, I told them the truth-– I didn’t return to classics, I returned to literature. I returned to the shape of sentences on the page. I returned to the complex stories making me consider what it means to be Jasmine. I returned to what made me love my subject in the first place, the escapism of it all.  Though I still consider myself a marxist, as a teacher, how I bring that understanding to a school and with developing students is where I differ from many of my contemporaries. 

I see fellow English teachers rally under the “no dead white men”, and cancelling “the canon”, or claiming that loving the canon is rooted in racism, and I groan and roll my eyes. 

First, forsaking knowledge of the past for the immediacy of whatever was on the news 5 minute ago is the wrong approach. They will have a shallow understanding of the history surrounding these events, how literature has functioned as cultural critique, and we will have told them “right now in this moment, this is exactly what life is”. This isn’t to say that Black children need to read books about white people,  but it is to say that the stories we choose to share with them should allow them a window beyond what they already know, and a window into some of the greatest thinkers we have had, some of whom, yes, will be white (though I don’t know how we can categorize the Romans and Greeks into one lump of an identity). Further, if you don’t think society includes and continues to be influenced by Black intellectuals, that says more about you and a potential gap in knowledge than it does about the field. So yes. The western canon, as we conceive of the west, contains a lot of “white” dudes, but the canon is not limited to them. It is growing, expanding, and developing to become more inclusive as writers and thinkers. We should keep updating and understanding how and where society has come from. 

Secondly, “the” canon does not exist. Each culture or field has decided, however fuzzily, that certain texts are what they want to pass down. Everyone has their canonical texts because they have a budding and growing concept of who they are and a tradition they want to remember and critique, or remember and hold dear. If you study English literature you will study Shakespeare, for the same reason that if you are studying Black feminist theory, you will read the Combahee River Collective Statement; if you study Russina literature, Chekhov; Post-Colonial Theory, Edward Said and literature of Palestinian freedom. These are testaments and thinkers that have influenced modern thought.  And what would these fields be without this tradition and grounding in these thinkers? What are we without tradition? However wrong, or upsetting something is, it still exists, the thought surrounds us, and it is our duty to teach it (and honestly, I love the Great Gatsby because the writing is like poetry. Not because he’s a white dude). 

Instead we’re siloing students  into “literature circles” or limiting them- yes, limiting- with immediately interesting young adult literature because classics “aren’t for them”, or, racistly claiming that Black children, not all of whom even speak african-american English *can’t be expected to learn or read books in other vernaculars. This fixation on the individual, which ironically comes from the left, the ideology that is supposed to champion a common good, is killing us.

I worry that in the current discussion of literature choices (or lack of choices if we are just letting the kids read whatever they want while we model with a few pages) there isn’t enough talk about just reading beautiful texts. A curriculum and pedagogy that represents the diversity of our students is not summed by how many of our racial or gender identity boxes are ticked, it is not diverse when we assume that everyone wants to be tuned into social unrest every day, it is not reflective if some students just want to escape to a world where fighting for their right to exist as a fully realized person isn’t up for debate. Texts that have stood the test of time will often give us that experience because they offer insight into a particular moment and give us something far beyond it.  

We need a mixture of texts like Their Eyes Were Watching God, where they contemplate a Black woman being free to live her own life, or Macbeth where he’s literally murdering someone every other scene and losing his mind because he upset the natural order. We have to stop negating skill and beauty and relegating them to a diversity checkbox. We should go back to the meter of words on the page, and stop stop haphazardly applying literary lenses because we feel our content isn’t academic enough, and instead teach the subject that we are supposed to love.

A couple notes:

  1. Intentionally, this post did not talk about whether we need to study texts by white british or white american authors in order to advance in society. That’s not an add-on. I’ve spoken about it in other places and maybe I’ll write about it another time, but I am not not considering this.
  2. I also didn’t give hard liners for what is and is not canon. The great thing but this is that it’s up for debate and is something that people that study literature for a living engage in all the time. If you’re a person for whom expertise doesn’t matter, we won’t get very far in a dialogue.
  3. ** the owner of this statement has since locked his account after being rightly dragged through the mud
  4. This is a less polished blog than my others. I’m a bit rusty.
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