In Defense of Teaching the Literary Canon

In a recent tutorial for my Secondary Teaching class at university, the topic of classic and canonical texts, that is, influential and foundational texts for subjects and disciplines, came up. Specifically, the issue raised was whether such texts should be taught to secondary students or not. In recent years, there has been a decided shift away from such texts towards more contemporary texts. The most recent example of this occurring in an Australian educational context was the recent announcement by the New South Wales government that Year 11 and 12 students no longer had to study a novel or poetry.  As a pre-service teacher, these questions of how I intend to teach in a classroom are important. Even in the first few weeks of classes for my teaching course, I am beginning to think about my teaching philosophy as well as form opinions on trends in contemporary teaching. This question was the first time I found myself being in clear disagreement with the consensus in teaching, so I thought it would make for an interesting topic for a post.

Doug Lemov, the author of ‘Reading Reconsidered’, posits that teaching classic texts from bygone eras, if properly scaffolded for the reading and comprehension levels of a particular class, can be immensely beneficial for students. He argues that text choice is overlooked, with an emphasis almost exclusively on engagement. More difficult texts, including many classic or classic or canon texts are dismissed despite the opportunities present to engage with complex, intriguing themes, literary techniques and cultural context (Lemov, Reading Reconsidered, p.16). I am in agreeance with Lemov on this point. Reading these texts can provide students with the higher-order critical thinking and close reading skills necessary for success in higher education. Learning about these texts themselves allows opens up the opportunity for students to enter discussions about well-known texts and to understand cultural references which otherwise elude them. In a classroom setting, reading well-known texts allows ample opportunities for communal discussion and discourse, an essential element of any effective classroom learning environment. As many modern books reference or are structured on classic texts, there is also important inter-textuality and cross-referencing of books to consider (Lemov, p.22).

Lemov’s argument was presented in the context of English education. I take this argument a step further, as I believe classic and canonical texts should also be more prominent in the education of humanities subjects such as History, Civics and Economics. In the context of a history education, teaching about the works of famed historical figures, such as Plato, Aristotle and Herodotus has clear benefits. As primary sources of the Ancient Greek era, for example, these texts give an important insight into society at the time. They provide an important snapshot into the ways people at the time thought about and engaged with their world. In the teaching of economics, citing the works of important economists and philosophers of economics, such as Keynes, Hayek, and Smith are again important for setting a good foundation of knowledge for students. By directly studying the writings of influential economic theorists, students are much more aware of the principles they espoused which influence modern economics and can add much-overlooked context and nuance. These economists are notoriously misquoted and taken out of context for various ideological and political reasons, so learning directly from the source can help alleviate this problem.

Many of these works, of course, are complex and will require a clear plan and strategy of instruction from a teacher to teach effectively. Teaching entire texts from any of these authors would likely be beyond reasonable expectations for many high school students. Targeted excerpts, or updated adaptations using more modern English, are among ways to make these texts more approachable for students unfamiliar with older texts, while still retaining quality teaching. Aside from the technical skills reading these texts provide, they provide cultural capital and allow students to engage with sections of society they would otherwise not be able to. Lemov, in Chapter One of Reading Reconsidered provides an anecdote of a teacher from Britain, who as a student read the classic works of literature such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet. As a result, he went from being in the bottom tier of achievement in grade school to being top of his class in university. Though being from a working-class background which did not emphasise reading, his continued engagement with these texts allowed him to develop skills such as critical thinking and provided cultural capital necessary to engage with complex texts continually at university. This argument particularly resonated with me, as it reflects closely my own personal experience. As a child from a working-class background myself, reading canon texts of literature, philosophy, history and science has given me a substantial knowledge of the world in which I live and enhanced my critical thinking skills. In the same vein as the anecdote above, this played a major role in me being the first in my family to go to university, graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and continue further study towards my Master’s degree. Having experienced first-hand the potential of reading and engaging with the classics in my own life, I seek to provide the same opportunity as an educator to my students as much as possible.

The Economic Case for Humanities Education

The humanities subjects (History, Geography, Civics, Economics) are often maligned and underappreciated in the context of modern education. The lack of a simple, quantifiable measurement of their importance often results in these subjects being given relatively little attention compared to other core subjects such as English, Maths and Science. This is despite the Humanities, particularly History, being a core subject in the Australian Curriculum. To address this issue and to help promote the importance of Humanities education, a pragmatic line of argument, highlighting economic benefits as well as civic and cultural benefits is required.

The most common argument made against humanities educations in schools is that it holds no relevance to the ‘real world’ or has a clear economic benefit compared to subjects such as maths and science. This argument, however, is beginning to change within the business community. As the economy transitions from a traditional, manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge economy based on technical expertise and overall knowledge of business processes, the skills demanded by employers are changing. Soft skills, such as verbal and written communication skills are more and more in demand. A recent Conversation article found that miscommunication because of a lack of soft skills such as written and verbal communication as well as adaptable thinking, skills which Humanities subjects emphasize, costs businesses hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Addressing these skill shortages is a top priority among all industries. Humanities subjects, particularly subjects such as History, Civics and Economics are crucial in this regard. Mark Cuban, the billionaire investor, is one business leader who subscribes to this argument. He believes that in the future, liberal arts college majors and the soft skills they develop will be in ever-increasing demand by employers.

The cross-cultural knowledge which humanities subjects provides is also important in this argument. As the world becomes more and more globalised, an awareness of world nations and cultures is increasingly important. To be able to effectively do business with and communicate with people from a variety of backgrounds, a detailed knowledge of history, society and civics is imperative. Without this knowledge, businesses cannot adapt as well to the unique circumstances and requirements of each country and society with which it trades and interacts with, costing sales, output and more.

The challenge for humanities educators to prosecute the case for the humanities is clear. As Humanities educators, we are all aware of the benefits of an in-depth Humanities education, in terms of enriching students’ understanding of the world around them and their overall civic knowledge. This argument alone, however, is not a sufficient defence of the Humanities. It is important to also clearly and explicitly explain the economic and business benefits of Humanities majors to policy makers as well as the wider community. Only by doing this will the respect and attention the Humanities requires in relation to the Australian curriculum requires occur.