High Schools Discard the Canon

Ashley Thorne

Do American high school students read “the canon,” books that have shaped the great ideas of our civilization? That’s what the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW) set out to learn when it conducted a study of English courses in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade (see “The Twilight Generation Can’t Read”).

The education organization ASCD highlights the study, led by NAS’s Arkansas affiliate head Sandra Stotsky, in an article in its August newsletter:

The survey found little consistency among assigned texts. Even the top three most frequently assigned works, Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Crucible, appeared in less than 25 percent of the curricula surveyed. Thirteen of the top 20 most frequently assigned titles appeared in less than 10 percent of teachers' assignments.

"There is no canon anymore. It may look like a canon, but each school is doing its own thing. And each teacher is doing his or her own thing," says University of Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky, who led the survey.

Stotsky argues that today's high school English classrooms are devoid of a coherent and progressively more difficult curriculum, and she worries that the average American high school student will not become acquainted with the literary and civic heritage of the English-speaking world nor hone the reading and writing skills needed for college.

"English teachers have always prided themselves on being autonomous and addressing the needs of their kids," Stotksy points out. But SAT and ACT scores show that while teachers were experimenting, students were not being prepared for college, she adds.

One reason the curriculum lacks coherence is that modern literature courses are too student-focused:

Noting that trend, the ALSCW's Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey, says the "underuse of analytical reading" and a "stress on personal experience or historical context" to understand imaginative and nonfiction texts may be contributing to high remediation rates in college English and reading courses.

The article also quotes Harold Bloom, author of The Western Canon, on what makes a certain books lastingly great:

"It isn't professors, or people who make lists, or whole societies even, who establish what the literary canon is. It is the strong writers who come later," Bloom asserts. "They choose the canon for us. Homer is chosen by all the Greek writers who come after him, by Europe, and by the Western world ever since, and Dante is chosen by Chaucer, and all who come after him. Chaucer is chosen by Shakespeare, then Shakespeare is chosen by Milton and everybody else since—and by Charles Dickens. It is not an arbitrary matter—it comes out of the literary tradition itself."

Nor is the literary canon a "closed shop" or "self-perpetuating system," insists Bloom. "It is always open. It is open because as fresh genius comes along, it changes our sense of the traditional order of the canon. It meets our needs at the deepest level—spiritual, intellectual, human—in the full sense."

Stotsky and the ALSCW’s study of the books taught in our high schools illuminates some of the issues in college reading, which tends to be unchallenging, contemporary, and politically correct. NAS last year offered a list of book recommendations for college common reading programs. We, like Bloom, do not adhere to a rigid list of books chosen by an intellectual elite as “the canon,” but we do distinguish between more and less worthy choices. We hope the ALSCW study brings some needed scrutiny to the way our nation’s educators select books for their classes.

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