The English Department is currently debating whether canonical literature should be a primary part of Deerfield’s English curriculum.
The canon refers to books traditionally taught in high school English classes, but some educators question whether these canonical works still hold value for young readers today, many of whom find trouble relating to the characters and subject matter, find political fault with an author’s biases, or are simply unexcited by the idea of reading books by people long before our time.
Many point out that the traditional Western canon is made up of authors who are predominantly male, white, and heterosexual.
Some contemporary readers find the lack of diversity and the presence of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism in some canonical literature troubling.
English Teacher Andy Stallings has advocated for moving away from teaching the canon. “Any books [are educational] if the students are taking the charge to think critically as a serious charge,” he said.
However, many educators, including Deerfield teachers, advocate that a traditional canon remains a valuable aspect of literature.
English Department Chair Michael Schloat said, “Classics are important to study for the foundation they offer students—from The Odyssey to the Bible to Shakespeare—for future study, and so they can see how certain stories echo through time.”
English Teacher Mark Scandling similarly believes that the canon can be seen as a measure of social progress.
In the classroom, he likes to frame canonical texts in their historical contexts while observing them from our modern day.
He explained, “Even when we focus on works that seem secure in the ever-changing canon, we try to help students see those old texts both in the cultural contexts in which they were written and in the context in which they are now read.”
Mr. Schloat agreed, “A thorough understanding of the arc of our species’ moral evolution is a necessary part of continuing that progression.”
English Teacher Delano Copprue also believes that the canon still holds worth for modern readers, saying, “While the idea of a seemingly exclusive canon within our own cultural moment of inclusion and social justice strikes some as anachronistic, the teachings of those canonical writers, even with their flawed humanity, have much to teach about life.”
He explained, “When we turn our attention away from the canon, we miss abundant opportunities to learn about ourselves, especially our shortcomings.”
English Teacher Melissa Dickey sees both perspectives; she believes that teaching the canon is important as long as its flaws are discussed, in addition to its beauty.
“I’m happy to teach the writers of the canon whom I love and who move me – and the more I pay attention, the more that is true,” Ms. Dickey further explained. “[I teach] critically—discussing the choices the author made, thinking about their perspective, culture, and experiences, but engaging with the flaws and limits there, too.”
Mr. Scandling feels that the English Department has to strive for a balanced curriculum that will both inform and excite students.
“My sense is that the department has always believed in championing books that will at times broaden the students’ perspectives and at other times allow them perhaps to identify with some of the challenges and experiences the characters face,” he commented. “We want to take students to places familiar and unfamiliar.”
Dr. Copprue pointed out that there is no perfect English curriculum, and that students should analytically approach all literature, especially the canon, with an open and eager mind.
He concluded, “When it comes to studying the canon, our curiosity is the only ticket needed for admission.”