On teaching the canon

It is a sad fact that there is insufficient time to teach all that we might want to teach. Whether it is periods of history or works of English literature, there is always something else to study, and, inevitably, this means making choices about what is in and what is out. Debates about the curriculum are most frequently about what these choices should be with the recent debates about the history curriculum an example of this. Particularly in English literature, though seen elsewhere as well, the debate revolves around the idea of a ‘canon’. For some, there is a canon of literature, or similarly a body of knowledge, that has a special status that sets it apart from, and in superiority to, other texts or bodies of knowledge. Value is central to the idea, and a canon is supposed to be, in the words of the West London Free School, ‘the best and most important work in the humanities and sciences.’

Inevitably, people disagree about what should be in the canon and what should be out. One has either to cast one’s net very widely, making it impossible to cover a canon in school, or to make tough choices that are likely to be of a highly contentious nature. Dispute emerges for a number of reasons that might include political and social ideology, ethnicity, religion, gender, geographical location or social class. One might try to make a science of canon construction, such as through studying current discourse and picking those texts or ideas which occur most frequently, but even this approach is likely to leave many unhappy. The opposing view – that there is no canon and all texts and knowledge are of equal value – can lead to relativism, though for some this would not be a problem. The idea of a canon is, for all of these reasons, complex and controversial.

One recent suggestion by Tim Taylor for resolving this is that some form of democratic approach to content selection might be the best way forwards. I can see the argument: as a society, we cannot agree on what should be in and what should be out, and therefore it would be better to open up the choice to some form of public vote. I like the idea of encouraging public involvement in the discussion (and I am sure the BBC is already drafting the contract that will let Tim retire (please don’t, by the way)) but I am not convinced that a radical model such as this is the best approach for constructing a canon or a curriculum. There are concerns about the quality of what might come out of this and of the competence of the public for making such choices, though these critiques might be understood as patronising, and in any case the point is that what counts as quality is itself contentious. The winning argument for me, however, is the fact that a democratic vote does not provide an appropriate internal logic for a curriculum. A curriculum does, to my mind, have to be coherent: its parts must relate to the whole and the whole to the parts; to try and produce such coherence ex post facto out of a democratic selection would be to put the cart before the horse.

So who should decide? I am sympathetic to the argument that politicians are not best placed to do this and I have democratic concerns about governments having too much of a hand in planning the detail of the curriculum. I do not mind a government legislating for some kind of framework, but I do not think that politicians should be the ones who populate it; the opportunity for the curriculum to become a political points-scoring toy is too enticing. My preference is terribly dull, and in practice a version of the status quo. I would support some kind of public panel (rather like judges in a supreme court) who make those choices. Tentatively, I would suggest that academic subject experts and representatives from the teaching profession are best placed to serve on such panels. Choosing the panel would be a complex process, but no more so than appointing judges or senior civil servants where it is equally important that ideology does not outdo expertise. A panel approach broadly describes that used over the last twenty years in the UK, though the way those panels worked, particularly in the recent reforms, was far from ideal. This is, nevertheless, a workable model and one worth improving rather than rejecting.

This does not, however, solve the problem that what is then taught in schools is some form of value-laden selection that will never satisfy everyone. Rather than gloss over this with shrugged shoulders, however, I would suggest that the way to deal with this is to address it through the process of teaching, and it is here that I want to draw on work done in the history education community. One way in which history teachers have coped with the existence of a canon is through the idea of ‘historical significance’. This is a concept which causes confusion both within and beyond the profession, but it is best to begin my stating that, in this context, ‘significance’ is not the same as ‘importance’. Studying significance, in this narrow curricular sense, means examining why something is held to be significant by individuals, groups or society as a whole.

The approach I often used to teach significance was to have a focus on it at the end of each term. In particular, I wanted pupils to handle the question of ‘why have you been studying what you have been studying?’ For example, I might get pupils to construct a timeline of the events they had studied (which doubles up as good revision and for building a stronger chronological ‘picture’). I would then provide students with information on other events or developments from the period: ‘we’ve studied the English Civil War, but quickly read this summary of the Thirty Years War’ or ‘we studied the creation of the American republic but let me tell you briefly about the Dutch republic’. Inevitably, one cannot give pupils more than a flavour of what these other events or developments were, but what I provided was usually enough for a meaningful discussion to follow, based around the following questions:

  • Why do you think you studied these events, but not these ones?
  • What arguments might there be for leaving out something that was in?
  • What arguments might there be for including something left out?
  • What criteria were used to select what you did study?
  • If we changed the criteria, would that affect what you studied?

The last two questions are the most important in helping pupils understand the nature of a canon. By making the criteria explicit (and between us we usually composed a good list), pupils could see why certain events and developments had been selected for them: it was not just a random list of things. When I felt pupils could cope with it, I offered them the idea that we might go further by asking additional questions of what was studied. ‘Why did you write this essay instead of this one?’ ‘Why did we cover this as part of this overview instead of as a depth study?’

An approach such as this requires little time (a lesson or so a term) and serves three purposes. It does, first, force pupils to revise what they had learned over the term or year. Secondly, it shows pupils that the curriculum they had been taught was necessarily a selection, and that not everyone agrees with that selection. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it points pupils towards some of those wonderful things that I had no time to teach them in my lessons. I do not kid myself that they all ran off home to look these up, but I at least hope that they left my classroom with the sense that there was a lot more out there worth studying.

The idea of a canon is a problem. Rather than attempt to solve the problem, I would instead argue that our best bet is to engage with the fact that it is, by its nature, problematical; if a canon is going to be a non-democratic selection, then the intellectually honest and socially moral thing to do is to share that fact with pupils.

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