Changing The Way We Read

Recently, I came across a blog post that brought out a lot of complicated feelings in me. I wanted to leave a comment, but I didn’t think I had dedicated enough time and thought at the time to answer. After taking some time, I’m ready. Just as a friendly reminder: please don’t send any hate towards myself or to the other author of the mentioned blog post. This is just a difference of a opinion, and I would appreciate it if this could remain a civil discussion. At the end of the day, I believe we have the same goal. We just have different ideas of how to get there. 

The blogger in question made the argument that required reading should continue in school for a myriad of reasons. Here are the ones I want to address: 1) cultural capital 2) it validates English as a field of study.

If I’m being honest, I can understand the author’s perspective. I’ve felt embarrassed about earning a B.A. in English. When I go to parties or visit relatives, they always ask what I degree I have. I can almost feel an air of awkwardness when they don’t know how to respond after that. It’s usually, “So you want to be a teacher?” In my opinion, teachers have the most important job. I’m just not cut out of it. It’s also hurtful and annoying that this is the only profession they see use for an English degree. I work in marketing, and I utilize my English degree every day. I can’t speak for the blogger, but I got the distinct sense that she felt the need to validate her choice of education by writing the post that she did. However, I disagree with her on how we should go about doing it.

I agree that English is a field of study, and it should be treated as such. If you pursue English as a degree in most universities, there is a significant portion of dedication to teaching students how to research and analyze texts. In fact, most English majors excel at critical analysis because that’s what they’re trained to do.

However, I don’t think forcing the Western canon down the throats of students is the way to go. Let’s dissect the issues with the Western canon first. It’s elitist. It’s as simple as that. I’ve heard professors in well-established universities say as much. The Western canon is chosen by privileged white men who exclusively select works that fit their narrative. You’ll notice that women are rarely included. If they are, only white women have that honor. Marginalized groups of people are excluded from the Western canon when they shouldn’t be. 

While the degree is titled “English,” we learn more than just how to effectively communicate arguments and read in English. The degree no longer encompasses the Western canon. You’ll notice that more and more universities are requiring classes outside of the Western canon. Yes, it’s still taught because it is important. You can still learn from it; however, it’s no longer the focal point.

We now move on to cultural capital. In short, cultural capital is the idea that we have to study certain topics because it’s necessary to succeed in life. The success doesn’t have to just be monetary; although, it often is. It’s different than just receiving an education.

In antiquated schools of thought, cultural capital is not seen as an issue. Fortunately, more and more people are poking holes in the argument for cultural capital. They don’t deny that cultural capital exists in today’s society. They argue that it is problematic that we need cultural capital to succeed. I agree with them. Cultural capital is a way to continue to promote elitist works and promote the hidden curriculum.

English isn’t viewed as a valid field of study by most people because they don’t understand what it is that we study. However, I don’t think the Western canon is how we prove that. What we need is for more people to enjoy reading and see the value in it. Studies have proven that forcing students to read classics only makes them dislike reading. We don’t like doing things we’re told we have to do.  If we want people to read more classics, we have to let them fall in love with reading first. 

I want to make it clear that I don’t think educators should eliminate the Western canon. However, I do think the approach we take to literary education must change. Students should be encouraged to read books of their choosing more often. When we read books we love, our minds open up to greater possibilities. We start making connections, and that’s how learning to analyze begins.

Discussion Time

I’m curious to know your take on this topic. I know this is a widely contested debate among literary students. Do you think the Western canon deserves to be prioritized as it is? Let’s have a chat in the comments below!

Saloni

 

13 thoughts on “Changing The Way We Read

  1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! I do want to clarify, however, that I was not particularly trying to defend the Western Canon in my post. I am arguing that teachers should be able to teach required reading, whatever that means. They can analyze graphic novels. They look at depictions of women in YA. I don’t care, as long as the teacher has some sort of pedagogical goal in mind. They have a vision for the class and the class analyses literature. This is as opposed to the view that teachers just should tell kids to read each day and some kids never move on last Wimpy Kid and the class never discusses because, well, you can’t discuss books in-depth if thirty people are reading thirty different books.

    Should some Western Canon books still make it into the curriculum, though?Yes, because not all colleges have fully moved past the expectation that students are familiar with it. A lot of non-canon courses are electives or housed in separate departments for Asian literature or women’s studies. So until more time has passed and the curriculum shifts more, college students need to have a basic background knowledge. I am not saying the Western Canon is all we should read. I just know colleges feel a lot of outside pressure from their boards to show they have curricula with the familiar names on it and full change takes time. This shift has been going on for maybe decades already and colleges are still arguing about it.

    Simple solutions might be doing something like reading To Kill a Mockingbird with a modern day YA and comparing how race is addressed. Or reading a Shakespeare play and looking at a YA adaption in conjunction. You get some classics in there along with other works and you get to interrogate those classics in light of how the story might be written today. that is a solid curriculum as opposed to just saying the students can do whatever they feel like and not providing any direction to the class.

    Like

    1. Hey, thanks for leaving a comment! I think for the most part we don’t actually disagree. However, I do have to warn you that your original post sounds like you’re trying to argue for the Western canon. I think some people might appreciate a clarification as well. Would you consider posting your comment onto your post under an edit section? You have a much larger reach than I do, and I’m scared some people might get the wrong idea. I don’t want anyone to get angry with you. I’ve only ever experienced internet hate from fans of the Carolina panthers (this is a story for another time). You can avoid spreading a message you didn’t intend to spread.

      As for every student reading something different, I agree that it isn’t reasonable to expect an entire class designed that way. It isn’t practical, and it wouldn’t result in anything productive. I do think that every now and then it might not be a bad idea. For example, I had a Hero’s Journey project in 10th grade that has stuck with me all this time because I actually enjoyed doing it. We were allowed to pick our own book/movie to dissect into the different parts of Hero’s Journey. A lot of kids got creative with it, and it was an overall enjoyable project. You could feel the genuine excitement coming from these kids. I think sprinkling things in like this might help increase interest in the study of literature.

      I think the only part we disagree on is our attitude towards cultural capital. I don’t think it should be required to succeed. Do I think it helps? Yes, of course. I’ve met plenty of people who earned a degree in English, and didn’t have the same privilege I had growing up. However, I think we’re speaking of experiences from our own universities and universities around us, so we won’t know for sure how other schools are operating!

      I really enjoyed reading your comment, and I hope we can continue to exchange ideas. You seem like a cool person! If you’re ever interested in doing a guest post about this in the future, just let me know! Maybe we can present two opposing sides? Or, maybe we can come up with a way to discuss how teachers can change how we’re educated? Just let me know if you’re ever interested!

      Like

      1. I added a section to the end, so I hope that helps for clarity!

        I do think there is room for self-directed reading and projects in the classroom. Too often the two sides seem to think it’s all one way or the other. Either you have required reading and that’s it or you have self-selected books and that’s it. Ideally, I think that there would be a mix. There would be required reading so students get introduced to things outside their comfort zones–many teachers use this as an opportunity to add diverse books to the curriculum. And there would be times when students could choose their own book and do a project or a book report on it. This is also great because teachers can find new books to teach THEY might never have picked up!

        I can’t speak for every college, but I know that the push for moving away from/expanding the Western canon has been happening since around the 1960s, I believe. There has been progress. Authors like Toni Morrison have been added to the canon. Some schools have added African American literature departments or other departments devoted to expanding and diversifying course offerings. However, there are always debates around these things. Some people see things like the Department of African American literature as a way for a school to look progressive while not actually integrating much change to the curriculum most English students will follow.

        Colleges also have to answer to outside forces. Some require the GRE, not because they value it particularly, but because their boards want “empirical evidence” for students’ worthiness, so to speak. Some want traditional courses still taught in order to validate the degree. Some people honestly don’t believe you should graduate with an English degree without studying Shakespeare. If those people control department funding, the department is going to listen.

        Some colleges are more progressive than others, but, across the country, I would say there is still a lot of tension and debate about what the English degree is and many departments feel they need the canon to validate their existence. You can see this pretty much every year when colleges are accused of being “liberal” for teaching “cultural studies” or “useless” for teaching classes like “zombies.” Classes they want to teach might be classes the general public isn’t wiling to pay for. So they have to think how to make classes they want that will also be classes that will be approved, funded, and attended.

        I suppose one way to look at it is that a lot of the decisions for these things are made by people who are older and were taught certain books and so value those books. As more people come of age who were taught different books, those different books will be valued. And when those people get into positions of power, change may come more quickly.

        Aw, thanks for the guest post offer! I am pretty busy right now, though, and admit I have most of my posts scheduled out through the next two months so I can kind of sit back for awhile. But I will get back to you if I find time later!

        Like

      2. Maybe we are approaching it differently? I think understanding the Canon and why it is taught can help people change it. But maybe there are faster routes to change that I don’t see yet. Maybe ignoring it is a powerful argument, too. I don’t have all the answers, I’m afraid.

        Like

      3. I definitely think the Western canon should be taught. Some of it is enjoyable, and we can learn from the problematic pieces. I don’t think we should ignore it. I think it’s vital to teach kids the opposition to the Western canon as well. A balance is necessary. I think teaching kids to love reading is the first step.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Do you believe that cultural capital shouldn’t exist at all or that it shouldn’t be biased to favour the western canon? If someone is well-versed in say the Indian literature canon, would you want that persons cultural capital to be recognized over someone who doesn’t read at all, or would you prefer that we completely ignored all forms of cultural capital? I can see arguments for both so I’m just curious of what you think.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. This is a really interesting question! I’m glad you asked it! I’ll be honest and admit that I’m only thinking about the United States when I answer this question, but some of the more general aspects might apply to cultures all around the world. For me, it all boils down to privilege. Before I progress, I’ll have to offer up another admission. I’m an idealist. I often get caught up in how I dream the world should be, and I’m afraid that will influence how I answer. I believe cultural capital shouldn’t exist at all because it has a tendency of privileging one group over others. In the United States, it privileges those who are white, heterosexual, straight, and cisgender. The works, not just in literature, tell their stories and their ideals. I can tell you more about the Bible than I can about the Gita. This also leads to South Asian diaspora, but that’s far too heavy of a topic for me to cover in the comments section.

        Let’s say I was well versed in the Gita, it wouldn’t add much value to my cultural capital where I grew up. In fact, it might have made me more of a target for mockery. If I suddenly became an expert on the Bible, things might actually ease up for me. Certain English classes would have been easier not that I had many teachers who forced us to reference the Bible while analyzing texts, but many professors referenced the Bible in class. That made it hard for me to follow along, and it reinforced Western ideals.

        I’m sure my comment makes it sound like I hate the Western canon and all that comes with it. That’s not the case. I think these works have value. You can learn from it and enjoy it. We read Carlyle in my Victorian poetry class not only because we found his writing prolific but because we also wanted to discuss the Islamophobia in some of his most popular works. We also read Toru Dutt, an Indian poetess, in that class because she is a lesser known Victorian writer. Her untimely death didn’t help her popularity rise either. She was an Indian woman writing poetry in a country under the rule of the British Empire, but we rarely read her works in class. Yes, there isn’t much of it out there as she died young but also because most people don’t consider her a Victorian poet. Countless voices like Toru have been silenced thanks to cultural capital. I think of how that might have affected me growing up if I had had the opportunity to read more writers of color. Since we don’t live in my ideal world, I think the best thing to do is follow a similar structure to what my Victorian poetry professor did. She gave the us the tools necessary to discuss Victorian poetry, but she also shared silenced voices.

        To circle back to your initial question, do I think cultural capital should exist? I don’t think it should. I’m more than aware that it does, and I think we should slowly try to change it. I really don’t have a solid plan on how to do it. Hopefully, some educators who are far cleverer than me will come up with a solution. I, of course, am answering this from my own perspective, which is a perspective that’s been hurt by the Western canon. I didn’t write my first Indian-American protagonist until I was months shy of turning 20. When I saw Roshani Chokshi’s name on a book, I almost started crying because it made me think I could publish my own work about characters who shared a background with me, a dream that I’ve had since I was 11. There are more nuances to discuss when it comes to cultural capital, but I don’t want to bore you with this already too long comment, which frankly could be it’s own blog post. I hope this answered your question!

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.