The Real Reason Why English Educators Don’t Like Classic Reading Lists



By 09/09/2009

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This is just a suspicion.

Over the years I’ve participated in many discussions of English curricula at the secondary and post-secondary level, and few topics arouse more tension than that of a recommended reading list.  Raise the prospect and people get uncomfortable.  The idea of selecting certain works for study, creating a canon of novels and poems and plays, fashioning a lineage, however multi-racial and filled with women writers it is, strikes all-too-many curriculum designers as a bad, bad idea.

Everyone knows the ostensible reasons.

One, the race/gender objection: to form a reading list of literature in English from Beowulf forward is to create a nearly all white-male grouping up until the 19th Century.  On sheer numbers it looks exclusionary and biased.

Two, the “reification” objection: the act of picking and choosing itself arrogates high powers to designers, licensing them to apply their own preferences under the guise of assembling a list of Great Books whose greatness is objective, not ideological and subjective.

Three, the local control objection: the act of picking and choosing takes discretion away from the teachers themselves.  We should let them tailor their syllabi to their own classrooms.

Four, the cultural imperialism objection: more and  more students these days are recent immigrants.  Their cultural backgrounds are far from Western traditions, and we have no basis for imposing the latter and erasing the former.

Five, the practical objection: how in the world can people in the room agree on a list without inflating it to ridiculous length?

And six, the child-centered objection: we need to be less prescriptive and give the kids more choice.  This is what the New York Times reported on just a couple of weeks ago in a story headlined “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.”

There are answers to each objection, of course, but in the discussions I’ve witnessed the mere utterances of one or more of them are held as decisive.  People don’t want to talk further, and the resistance to discussing them is an issue in itself.  That the objectors don’t want to go back and forth on the idea and creation of a recommended reading list suggests a deeper dynamic is in play.

I’ll say it.  I think it stems in some degree from embarrassment.  The list of classics from Old to Middle to Modern English makes them uncomfortable not for ideological or identitarian or practical reasons.  It does so for personal reasons that strike deep at their own legitimacy.  For, many of them haven’t read the works that would have to go on the list.  Maybe they got a little Chaucer in high school, a part in Julius Caesar or a paper on Huck Finn.  But it’s been a long time, and Samuel Johnson, George Eliot, Dryden, and Dreiser are far away names.  They have become experts in English Language Arts, but not erudite readers of English literary tradition. Many of them went into reading research and education-related social sciences, not into English.  Others entered English after the Theory years had passed and general reading knowledge had given way to certain interpretative skills and fluencies.

In either case, you end up with people in the English curriculum room who no longer breathe the air of English literary history.  They’ve lost interest in it, and they don’t know enough of it, but they can’t say so.  A journalist at the New York Times, Emily Eakin, proudly announced her classics-free education several years ago in an article entitled “More Ado (Yawn) about Great Books,” a shame-free confession that she “graduated without having read for credit ‘The Odyssey,’ ‘Paradise Lost,’ a single play by Shakespeare or a single novel by Jane Austen, George Eliot or Henry James.”  Blunt declarations like that would disqualify scholars from curricular discussions. Ideological and identitarian objections provide cover for their knowledge deficits, and that’s why they hold them so firmly.

Contrast their attitude to that of this young lady profiled in USA Today.

She loves great novels, and so she’s assembling short videos on them to help students make their way in, a Cliff Notes for the Digital Age. Maybe it won’t work, and the temptation toward dumbing-down and “relevance” and self-display on the part of the founder are a concern, but the simple fact of her focus on Hamlet, Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter, etc. is worth some applause. Her aims are a nice antidote after a quote from Shakespeare leaves blank faces in the curriculum room.




Comment on this article
  • Peter Meyer says:

    For years I have run in to the same problems trying to pitch E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum. Thanks for such a plausible explanation for the objections: fear of knowledge. It just ain’t cool to be “smart” any more; in fact, it has become so uncool you have to put the word in quotes.

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