"Schlesinger's Canon Vs. My High School's Canon"
In school, whether it be at the high school or college levels, there are usually lists of books thought as being essential reading. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.--a Pulitzer Prize winning historian--calls this list in his book The Disuniting of America, a "canon" or "canonical literature." A problem exists with this canon, at least Schlesinger claims there is. He states that the canon is being used "as an instrument of European oppression enforcing the hegemony of the white race, the male sex, and the capitalist class..." From my high school experience, I believe this is not true. At my high school, teachers encourage students to read not only standard English literature, but also to study the great writers of other cultures.
There is a great deal of European influence in American society and in American education. Some people, like the Afrocentrists, feel that this influence is too heavy and that schools should also be teaching about other cultures in their classes. Schlesinger states in his book that he "believes in the importance of teaching Americans the history of other cultures-East Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Polynesia." Since we live in a multicultural society, we should be teaching a multicultural curriculum.
At my high school, I feel as if I received this type of education. The teachers encourage students to read not only standard English literature, but also to study the great writers of other ethnicities. My high school is a private college preparatory institution in San Francisco. Some authors whose works we read in our English classes consisted of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Ovid, Maya Angelou, Chaim Potok, John Steinbeck, Amy Tan, Chinua Achebe, and C. S. Lewis.
This curriculum is not at all what Schlesinger claims to be the current "American literary canon: Emerson, Jefferson, Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Lincoln, Twain, Dickinson, William and Henry James, Henry Adams, Holmes, Dreiser, Faulknner, O' Neill." We touched on most of these people also, but not nearly as in depth as we did the other authors. Schlesinger's list seems to point out his fact that the canon is being used for European oppression and he deliberately chooses to add to his list only those "white male" authors. But they are not the only authors we study, at least at my school. He deliberately, or so it seems, to neglect current successful authors, like Maya Angelou- who is both female and black- whose books, like her autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," are being used in English classes all around the country.
Chaim Potok, another current author we studied is also neither European nor "white." He was born in New York City and is Jewish. Mr. Potok was educated at Yeshiva University as well as the University of Pennsylvania. He was also trained as a rabbi. His first book "The Chosen" deals with two generations of Brooklyn Hasidic Jews. We also studied the African writer Chinua Achebe and his book "Things Fall Apart." This novel is set in an Ibo village in Nigeria. It recreates the village's first encounter with white male colonialism, their Christianity, and the breaking down of old ways.
As I closely examine the canon at my high school, though, I start to notice some parallels. Through research, I have discovered that a lot of the books we read and their authors had similarities. For instance, Maya Angelou served as the Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1959 to 1960. Jane Austen was the daughter of Reverend George Austen. C. S. Lewis is widely known for his popular religious and moral writings- pertaining to Christianity. Also in novels we read, such as the collection of stories Metamorphoses by Ovid--which was favored by the public in the pagan Rome but disapproved by the Christian Church--had Christian issues. In the epic novel Beowulf, there are strong threads of Christian commentary running throughout the poem.
What is culture? The dictionary defines it as "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought." Does this not constitute religion? If so, then there might be a problem with the literary canon at my high school. If their literary canon is to be "multicultural," they must also teach about different religions and what role they play in different cultures.
Teaching students about different religions can be used to strengthen their own religious beliefs, by examining points in different religions that could actually be harmful to one's spirituality. There were times, like during the reading of Ovid's Metamorphoses when we touched on different world views-such as monotheism and polytheism, but we always had to compare it to Christianity and what we were taught in our religion classes. The teachers made it clear that these stories were superstitions and tales of gods that we were viewing for their imagery and imagination. Instead, if we studied the society that this novel was written for- a pagan Rome- and how and why the stories and the author were disapproved by the Christian Church, I feel it would have benefited us more than just studying the use of imagery.
The teachers at my high school did encourage us to read authors of different races, but their literary canon has a religious bias. At first it seems as though the curriculum at my high school is multicultural, and in a way it is. We did not focus only on European influenced literature and studies, but read a lot of authors of different ethnicity. Even though we did read authors of different ethnicity, there was a lack of viewing other types of religions from the world, and their authors. This lack of not reading from different religions is a big hole in what is culture. Because of this, we did not receive a complete multicultural education.
1. "culture." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Third Edition. 1992.
2. Drabble, Margaret. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1985.
2. Perkins, George and Barbara, and Phillip Leininger. Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia
of American Literature. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.
3. Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a
Multicultural Society. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1992.