Whose Canon is it Anyway?


Few things in education are as spectacularly emotive and ire-inducing as the choice of books we read for English Literature in schools. This last week we have seen Gove receive a full-frontal assault for the mere suggestion of removing books from the GCSE specification (did he or didn’t he – the inspector will likely call). ‘Of Mice and Men‘ and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird‘ were to be untimely ripped from our classrooms The Times told us. An army of pens were raised in a quick, staunch defence of Atticus Finch and George Milton. The fiery battle over the literary canon was kindled anew.

First, may I admit I’m a huge fan of Steinbeck and Lee. I’ve taught ‘Of Mice and Men‘ countless times. Every time I read it I uncover a new layer of subtle meaning I hadn’t noticed before. Its short length belies a complexity that is often felt rather than understood. Atticus Finch, of Mockingbird fame, is truly one of the great literary characters and a personal favourite of mine. The naive worldview of young Scout is illuminated much like each teenager who has the privilege to read this great book.

And yet…and yet.

Every new English Literature course makes new choices and the arguments over omission flare up into fully-fledged uproar. Some books rise and fall with fashion, others endure. No exam board, or Secretary of State, could ever hope to appease our army of English teachers. I doubt we could forge agreement amongst ourselves within a singular English department!

Choosing what we read is at once emotive, ideological, political, psychological and incredibly personal. I would stake a claim for books that would no doubt be vehemently rejected by a kind-hearted colleague. My literary canon is not the same as another.

We may well ask, whose canon is it anyway? The DfE, exam boards, teachers or students?

As much as I love Steinbeck and Lee, I do not fear or loathe their potential removal from GCSE courses. In fact, I quite want the push to not teach ‘Of Mice and Men‘. It is a comfort and a pleasure, but it think I need to kick my habit. Change is unsettling, but it can also shake us out of a stupor and widen our eyes to new possibilities.

Should we read more British literature? Is the pervasive Americanisation of our culture to blame for a shift in emphasis? Is Gove to be demonised? I just don’t know.

I do know that English teachers could and should be trusted with decisions such as these. It is not too far to stretch to imagine a representative organisation making decisive recommendations to exam boards, independent of fly-by-night politicians. There would still likely be a fight, bloggers clashing by night, English offices wrought with tense debate. But if it were the case that teachers felt empowered in the choosing ( I don’t mean flimsy consultations – but involvement proper) perhaps this clash would prove less fiery.

I, for one, am not bewailing the loss of Lennie and George. I could easily be made happy by a reading list of Shakespeare, Webster, Dickens, Hardy and more. The inclusion of Romantic poetry has been bemoaned. Bring it on I say. If we cannot stir the hearts of truculent teens with Blake’s ‘London‘ or Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy‘ then we are doing something wrong.

To bind literature into the geography of our island alone does indeed appear narrow, but alas, we can’t teach everything. A judicious balance is all. I see weighting choices in favour of British literature as a practical consideration for literary study that is preparation for further study for many, but we should, and can, connect our island story to the world.

As the great American songbird, Sam Cooke, said – a change is gonna come. It just may feel a little less American in flavour.

Remember though, it is English teachers who will enact that change. Chains will be shaken off like dew by canny teachers. Ultimately, it will be our canon, in our classrooms. It will become our students and they will make of it what they will.

I will save my sound and fury not for Michael Gove, but for some lively, open debates in my classroom when I get the chance to read some new, different classics that will light my canon.

7 thoughts on “Whose Canon is it Anyway?”

  1. I remember my English teacher allowing us to vote for the books/plays/poetry we want to do from the exam board list for O level English literature. We ‘safe’ girls opted for the classics – Romeo & Juliet, Browning and Tale of Two Cities. She later told us that she had hoped to do something different and was disappointed with our choice. I guess he’d have liked to have her boundaries pushed.
    I like the fact that as a physicist I need pushing to read something different and welcome your mentions of things I haven’t read – I shall be looking for Shelley and Blake soon,

  2. I stand along side the Quigley suggestion that perhaps it is time to move on. For years I have seen the Grapes of Wrath/Mocking Bird/Inspector calls/poetry anthology roll out under our excellent English department’s supervision, thankful in the knowledge that if the department had free choice, one wo/man’s meat is another’s poison.
    In managing (above departmental business) outcomes from English exams in recent years, the huge and diverse range of marks that can emanate from our exam board for both coursework and examination does indicate it’s pretty difficult to secure standards, even when the books don’t change. I led our appeal against Edexcel in 2011, and again in 2012, and in meeting with their lead examiner, was left in no doubt that it was the nuance of suggestion at board training that we’d missed (or some such tripe) when in reality we all know it was the turning down of the gas to ensure the water did not boil over, if you’ll forgive the metaphor.

    Like many centres we now have the iGCSE in the mix to assist us in securing the result we want, which is a great pity, because we shouldn’t have to resort to such a mixed assessment toolkit, but needs must.

    For what it’s worth, I’d add biography into the mix, from Laurie Lee ‘As I walked out one midsummer’s morning’, because that has so much resonance with the European war footing we seem now to be establishing, and Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’. For fiction I’d add a range from the twopenny stuff of Dickens through to the Penny dreadfuls that became Marvel comics, and conjoin with a Hady or Austin. Poetry I’d like to juxtapose the old against the new, perhaps Shakespear’s, & Elizabeth Browning sonnets v modern performance poetry. Showing me age I suspect.

  3. I was on of those (@aubreii) who went off the deep end. I was unhappy, to put it mildly, that there did not seem to be any engagement with teachers on this subject. No question of why should we leave it out, no suggestions for replacement texts asked for. No help buying all the new texts we would need. I think I may be a little to invested in this kicking of give every time something he says is reported, or he is reported to have said something (both of which may of course be untrue.

    Nice article.

  4. In another lifetime, I taught English in secondary schools for 15 years, ending as a senior teacher in a large comprehensive (and once had Chris Bridge as my HoD.) I haven’t taught secondary since 1992. What struck me about this debate was that I could have had the same discussion at any time in my teaching career. In fact, if I delve even further back, what was I given to read as a boy at secondary school in the late sixties? Yep, Of Mice and Bleeding Men and To Kill a Bleeding Mockingbird. Like you, I taught those books quite a few times. Unlike you, I loathed them, or came to do so. (Pedantic point – you mean ‘loathe’ not loath’ above, don’t you?) The main reason for teaching them was that people were comfortable with them, and there were lots of tattered copies in the stock cupboard. One of the perks for me of being a head of dept was that I could avoid teaching these texts. For the first time I can remember, I found myself agreeing with Gove in his Telegraph article the other day. So good for you – shake off the chains, and make it new!

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