The Importance of Expanding the Canon

The Great Books of the Western World in 60 volumes

Whenever discussing the topic of English education, it’s important to remember the basic individualism that comes from every English class that students take. There are no classes for any grades that are going to be exactly alike, as most teachers or professors have a reasonable expectation to teach the class however they see fit. That being said, most English classes do tend to stick with a same basic group of materials that have been ingrained into popular U.S. culture. Novels such as The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Little Women, and many more, have all been thoroughly taught in middle and high schools. In many ways, this technique makes sense, as it allows teachers to introduce and educate young readers with rich novels that, despite being from a different time period, aren’t so difficult as to alienate young students. However, even with other important material including basic Common Core standards, as well as even just the standard practices of the majority of English classes throughout America, there are not only present issues with sticking to the same canonical literature, but there are surprising benefits to a theoretical expansion as well.

The Western canon is typically defined as a list of highly regarded texts in American literature that are often taught in classrooms. A majority of these books are deemed American classics for a reason, mainly because they are in fact great works of literature with endearing characters and engaging plots that captivate those who read it. However, it’s understandable that many of these hit a sweet spot between being challenging works that weave in themes that were revolutionary at the time, while still being enjoyable and entertaining enough for students who don’t find English to be their passion. However, it’s no big secret that most college courses branch out from what’s considered the status quo for the canon into more diverse and challenging works. With that, it calls into question: why does the canon stick to such a basic viewpoint that often doesn’t branch out to a more ethnically diverse point of view? The answer is mainly because of the dynamics of who exactly had a say in what goes into popular literature back then, most notably, rich, white, men, whose viewpoint, despite mostly being well written, is very one sided. The canon could benefit from being more culturally diverse, challenging and expanding on previously assumed ideals that only were present in predominantly American works that made up the canon. That’s not to say that what’s typically accepted in the canon today are amatuer works, or that anything even vaguely culturally different is automatically deemed superior; rather, that we can only stand to benefit from expanding for other voices and experiences.

This certainly isn’t the first time this suggestion has been brought up, however. Debates regarding the canon have circled around for generations, as important social issues such as civil rights, feminism, and LGBTQ+ debates have always brought up the canon as an example of the grip that predominantly wealthy white men have on our culture. The lack of diversity is a problem, but what people generally tend to mean when they say that the canon is outdated, is that the viewpoint is outdated, due to the canon being controlled by mostly white, male authors. In an article regarding how feminist publishing house Virago took on the canon, Frances Wilson argues that they “take women’s stories, lives and achievements away from the margins and place them in the centre, where they belonged” (Wilson). This is a powerful statement because it encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the idea of the canon in its current form. Not only are they preventing other perspectives and voices to be heard, but oftentimes, literature in the canon misrepresents those voices in ways that can only come from those with an utter lack of personal experience. It almost boils down to what one might find more offensive; misrepresentation of minority groups, or no representation at all? The canon, as is, is led by a white, male viewpoint that is perfectly fine, but not so much as to control all of what is said and taught. There needs to be other voices heard, not only to properly represent themselves, but to rectify the misrepresentation of others who have suffered at the pages from the white and male viewpoint.

Expanding the canon to include more relevant works of fiction to be presented to our young readers isn’t a new idea. However, people often overlook just how beneficial this expansion can be, and merely brush it off and stick to what they know. That isn’t to say that the canon itself in its current form isn’t beneficial at all, as students would be so much worse off having never read various literary classics. Rather, the chance to incorporate others that don’t fit in with the idealistic Americana themes that persist in every novel is an exciting one. It is important to note that the canon isn’t one singular, be-all-end-all thing that everyone follows religiously, as according to Pankaj Mishara: “canons also inevitably shift and expand, not merely enshrining the thought of the past, but reflecting an evolving perception of the worlds and cultures we inhabit in the present” (Mishara). Canons are meant to represent the world at a time, so the fact that many of these older novels are still being held as the standard of the canon don’t properly reflect the ever-evolving world we live in, and can be seen as a detriment to what is supposed to be a constantly progressing narrative that Western civilization often attempts to aggressively promote.

However, even the expansion that does take place doesn’t completely include all works of literature from different perspectives, as there tends to be a still somewhat simple outlook throughout most of them. An expansion of the canon would not only benefit students whose young minds are being nurtured throughout their courses, but also help to further cement other, more progressive and culturally diverse outlooks that could help cement an entire worldview. At the risk of sounding overly idealistic, America excels when diverse voices come together, so by expanding upon the canon, we are challenging our previous viewpoints and compassionately understanding others who we aren’t as familiar with yet. We give them a proper way to have their voices be heard not just by those entrenched in the literary community, but rather, a nationwide expansion to open up younger generations to them. That expansion then leads to theoretical inspiration by those who don’t believe their voices truly matter, to come up with their own works that can progress and inspire our society to acknowledge our discourses that have divided the country so thoroughly. To help this progression, the National Endowment of the Arts Big Read initiative has been set up to promote inclusiveness in what we teach to our children, in order to inspire and promote new ideas in the field. According to their website, “The initiative will provide the framework for the NEA to investigate the conditions and trends affecting, shaping and promoting creativity in the US and examine the ways in which the arts sector, government, for-profit sector, and philanthropic community can collaborate to support the arts, grow our nation’s creative economy, and enhance the contributions of creative workers to our society”. This initiative can be essentially a massive step toward properly expanding the canon in a truly meaningful way that impacts not only those who are already fully aware of the canon, but also those who haven’t even encountered it yet.

Promotional material for the NEA’s Big Read initiative.

One of the big reasons we think so highly of what is typically considered the Western canon in America, is because of the effects it has on our youth. Not everyone is an English scholar, but almost all children in America have dealt with the Western canon in one way or another through school, or even when venturing out on their own literary investigation. People tend to forget just how fragile young minds can be, and that any experience we have with them while they’re still developing mentally, can have a major effect on them when they’re adults. This is why what they read during their development is so important, not just to them, but to what we want our future to be. They are, after all, the future generation who will eventually succeed us and attempt to make our world the best it can be. By showcasing the same viewpoint that often misrepresents women, people of color, and those in the LGBTQ+ community, we not only shelter their perspective into the common mindset of the white man in the 1900’s, but we actively encourage the negative stereotyping that often goes into many of these works of literature.

The front cover for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

By sticking to a basic list of literature that, while obviously classic for a reason due to the impressive storytelling on display, doesn’t offer much perspective on life beyond the viewpoint of the wealthy white man and his subsequent adventures, we are boxing writers into a viewpoint that doesn’t progress much from where we stand on our own now. If we want to get a bit simplistic about it, we are denying ourselves a future built on progress if we teach children nothing but perspectives that they can at least have some understanding of. That’s not to say that any of the literature in the Western canon can’t be labeled as progressive, as To Kill a Mockingbird is a famously progressive screed that gets taught in nearly every classroom in America and has a positive and influential experience to those who read it. In his own classic article entitled “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot claims that “Every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind; and is even more oblivious to the shortcomings and limitations of its critical habits than of those of its creative genius” (Eliot). There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the idea that the cynical side of America can’t quite criticize itself the way others can, but often, that other voices and perspectives can help us further understand how we can advance as a society.

By not expanding the canon of works that are taught in schools, not only are we preventing our young minds the ability to think outside of the box, but we also fail to do any sort of self-examination that would also benefit to progress our culture forward through future generations. It comes as no surprise that younger generations have been more critical about the America that they live in, and are properly calling into question the morals, values, and ideology that the country was built upon. One could certainly argue that this is due to the increasing expansion of diverse works of art by teachers in schools wanting to experiment with their literature. By looking from additional perspectives, we can analyze our own critical shortcomings in a way that allows us to progress as a country, much farther than we ever have before. This could all start with a mere expansion of the Western canon, allowing for more diverse perspectives to come through that don’t necessarily villainize Western culture, but rather, ask ourselves to confront important questions about what exactly our culture stands for, and why others view it the way they do.

Even with the theoretical benefits of expanding the Western canon, there are obviously hurdles to consider when attempting to change a major part of the American culture. The most obvious question to ask, is, what exactly qualifies as something to be put into the Western canon, and do we take out firmly standing ones now to substitute for others? All of the above noted works of literature are in there for a reason, in that they’ve all been widely agreed upon to be, and are an important part of history that shouldn’t be erased due to changing times. Our past shouldn’t be erased as, according to Irving Howe in his article entitled “The Value of the Canon,” he claims that “Knowledge of the past, we felt, could humanize by promoting distance from ourselves and our narrow habits, and this could promote critical thought” (Howe). There is utmost value in keeping our past intact, because it allows us to not make the same mistakes. One could say that we should progress away from the past and leave it behind, but there can’t be any progression without an acknowledgement of the past, which isn’t possible when one is trying to forgo the past in favor of more contemporary material.

As previously said, it’s important for us to confront our past and be critical of ourselves, and we can’t do that without proper historical context that this literature provides for us. It’s important that we do not just erase parts of the canon that have already been established, as that would do nothing but alienate those who have already been taught it, against those learning new material, with the added bruise of having taken away important parts of American history. There isn’t really an upside to removing such an integral part of American history such as To Kill a Mockingbird out of the Western canon, even if it is in favor of something more ethnically diverse. Works such as that have been an institution to the American educational system for generations for a reason, and realistically, it isn’t a feasible option to just yank one out and substitute it for another, more unfamiliar one. One can have a new, much more progressive and ethnically diverse canon, without taking away what gave it its historical importance in the first place. One should use literary classics such as Mockingbird as an opportunity to pair them with something much more contemporary and indicting about American culture from the same period.

Everyone will have different opinions on what exactly to do with the canon, and how we should address it going forward, because of the integral part it has played in nearly everyone’s lives. That being said, just as it is important to often look at and examine ourselves in a critical light, it is important to examine and criticize long standing traditions we’ve held throughout our culture. The canon might be something that nearly everyone has encountered at some point in their lifetime, but it’s not something that isn’t immune to a fair amount of criticism. It’s important to make the argument that we shouldn’t be held back by ideas and themes that were brought up generations ago, no matter how well they are told. We should be looking to the future and looking for fresh, diverse voices to add to the canon, so that we may show future generations how to properly progress their ideas. However, detracting the original literature also does nothing but deny us our basic history.

The solution to the canon situation is merely to add, not subtract, and put further context into the old literature that still often makes up the Western canon to this day, which, to be fair, is what a lot of teachers already do. By adding additional context to previous literature that might carry some unsavory undertones that make today’s audience excessively uncomfortable, we are able to encourage those most affected by the canon to examine both themselves and their nation, in a critical, though still fair light. This expansion and clarification could also go a long way to not only improving today’s teaching as a whole, but inspiring other voices from those who haven’t been heard to realize that anything truly is possible in Western literature, no matter where one originates from. By expanding the canon to include diverse voices, we are able to give readers a brand new perspective on how to see religion, culture, and even life itself in a way that has never really been taught properly before.

Works Cited

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent by T. S. Eliot.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69400/tradition-and-the-individual-talent.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Chelsea House Publishers, 1999, front cover.

Howe, Irving. “The Value of the Canon.” The New Republic, 18 Feb. 1991, newrepublic.com/article/119442/irving-howe-value-canon-essay-literature-and-education.

Hutchins, Robert Maynard. Great Books of the Western World. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1988, front covers.

Mishra, Pankaj, and Daniel Mendelsohn. “How Would a Book Like Harold Bloom’s ‘Western Canon’ Be Received Today?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Mar. 2014,www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/books/review/how-would-a-book-like-harold-blooms-western-canon-be-received-today.html.

“Timeline.” NEA, 23 Feb. 2016, www.arts.gov/50th/timeline#2015.

Wilson, Frances. “How Virago Blew up the Canon.” Prospect Magazine, 5 Mar. 2020, www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/virago-press-history-bite-apple-lennie-goodings-review.

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