Ask a random current student if he or she has read something by William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, or Mark Twain, and the answer will almost certainly be a yes— whether that “yes” is voiced with fondness, indifference, or bitterness. Ask that student’s parents or grandparents the same question, and despite generational gaps, the answer likely will not change.
The literary canon, or the elite preserved body of “high-merit” books in Western culture, has served as a backbone for English education across America for hundreds of years. It would seem natural, then, that only the best of the best could survive these centuries of criticism and fluctuating standards. However, despite withstanding the proverbial test of time, the canon is inescapably subjective, which raises a problem for students and teachers alike.
Many of the oldest books that still rest snugly in every curriculum were written by well-off, predominantly white authors, a fact which makes sense when you consider the wealth and respect an author would need to get published at the time. That wealth and respect was reinforced by a patriarchal, generally prejudiced society until revolutionary advocates for women, minorities, and other oppressed groups were able to garner attention.
I don’t want to be misunderstood as demeaning the literary and cultural achievements that our canon currently holds—I’m an English major, for crying out loud—but our tight tether to the past should be loosened to include works that may have gone unappreciated. The common student misconception is that our current curriculum focuses on books that are old, and therefore seemingly unrelatable.
It seems hard to convince an apathetic student otherwise, but perhaps through a wider representation of cultures, genders, and time periods, they may feel a stronger connection to groups from which they would otherwise feel estranged. Why not heap the same praise on Booker T. Washington’s chronicles of slavery as Mark Twain’s, or J.K. Rowling’s tales of fantasy alongside Shakespeare’s stories of wood fairies and sprites?
It is important to preserve our current cornerstones of literature, but they are not the be-all end-all on their subjects; that is exactly what makes literature great. We can expand it, edit it, and enrich it as a curriculum. There is always room for improvement, and everyone can be a critic—what would you like to see added or removed?