Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Very Short English Literature

Fitting that my Very Short Introduction to English Literature is published on the day that Michael Gove tells the Tory party conference that we need a return to the canon -- to Pope, Dryden, Keats and Shelley. I argue in the book that "repertoire" is a better term than "canon", but I'm hoping for lively debate on the subject.

Meanwhile, I have blogged for the publisher, OUP, on the subject of the book, so I won't do so here, but will merely provide a link.

1 comment:

  1. Being a thinking person and a creative sort, it's in my nature to be at odds with authoritarian suppositions like "canons," much to the chagrin of many a former professor of mine as well a few right-wing blowhards with whom I've contended over the years.

    I cannot accept culture as static, yet the term "canon" carries that very implication--that our understanding of our own culture is and has been satisfactorily defined. The most worrisome issue with such a supposition, especially one so subversively and obtusely implied, is that it discourages critical as well as creative thinking. Canons might as well be affixed as "No more thinking will be required after this point" signs.

    I have no issue with having students read Pope, Keats or any of these historically esteemed writers. However, I would prefer if students were challenged to think about the text and to critically understand, in the greater context of our culture including contemporary culture, why these writers have been esteemed as opposed to asserting "These are the great writers," and then expecting the student to dutifully plow through "The Rape of the Lock" or "The Eve of St. Agnes." I mean, there's culture, and then there's torture.

    Moreover, it would perhaps be better to equip students with the intellectual tools to discern for themselves what is culturally worthy and valid as opposed to simply given them required reading lists. They are, as we all are, participants in our living culture after all, and an education ought to be their doorway into active cultural participation. Canons, by and large, have not proven themselves particularly useful toward that end. For evidence of that, one needn't look further than a recent study by the Pew Research Center here in the US on American religious illiteracy, with American Christians, with their much-thumped Biblical canon, ranking the lowest.

    I much prefer "repertoire" over "canon" because that word carried a sense of intellectually challenging open-endedness as well as the expectation of a level of literacy, fluency and skill. I don't know what argument you make in your book--which I hope to read soon, as I have loved this OUP series so far--but I personally think history offers us many examples of how whenever a rigid orthodoxy is asserted, some degree of culture loss follows. That's a bit ironic when you consider people who often advocate orthodoxy, like Gove, tend to be self-proclaimed "conservatives."

    Nonetheless, the result of education should not be death of culture, and I think that is fair reason enough to look for alternative approaches to teaching culture that avoids such culture-killing orthodoxy.

    Best of luck with the new book, and I hope you get your lively debate. I think it's a worthwhile one.