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Roar of the Canon August 15, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Books.

The hoary old dinosaur that is the ‘canon’ of English literature raised its head again yesterday (note: it was ‘yesterday’ when this was first written; unfortunately, the internet has not been a friend to me lately, so it’s now about a week ago. Apologies.), in an intriguing story carried in the Education section of the Guardian.

The British Education Minister, Alan Johnson, has outlined a list of authors from before the first world war who 11-14 year olds will have to choose from as part of their GCSE studies.  The move comes in the middle of a debate about the importance of prescribing texts or authors at all and essentially goes to the heart of the question of what the study of English at secondary level is intended to achieve.

The piece itself focuses on the choice of author (Austen in, Orwell out etc.) and John Sutherland has piece that’s worth reading on the essentially conservative nature of the list.  However, what’s more interesting from a political perspective are the comments made about how the authors who will be included were chosen.  Johnson states that they constitute “a crucial part of our national heritage” while a spokesperson for his Department states that “Whilst there is a need to free up curriculum time, that will not be done by ditching the works of writers who have maintained their status as great and valued works from generation to generation”.  Of course, there’s no discussion or indication of what makes these writers, which include the Brontes, George Eliot and Charles Dickens ( as well as Jonathan Swift, Joseph Conrad and Henry James – which makes one wonder a little which nation Johnson is referring to in the quote above), “great”.  It seems that the Queen Mother criterion is being used – they are ‘much-loved’ in the BBC 2 sense of the term, so it seems a little churlish to ask whether they should be or not.

This isn’t, of course, to diminish the artistic greatness of the writers involved (although is Arthur Conan Doyle really more worthy of study than Forster, Joyce or Steinbeck, all of whom are apparently ‘under threat’?).  Rather, it raises the question of what constitutes a national literary tradition, or canon, in the first place.

As anyone who’s looked into the how English Literature became an object of academic study will know, to suggest that these, or any, authors represent some kind of timeless, unchanging and unbroken tradition of literature which has always been recognised is completely ahistorical.  The creation of the canon, as we understand it, has always been political.  Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory, heavily indebted to Chris Baldick’s The Social Mission of English Criticism, shows how prior to the First World War, the study of English in any kind of systematic way was seen as the poor relation of the humanities in British academic circles.  Why would one need to study English literature, when a well-rounded gentleman would already be familiar with it? If it was studied at all in Oxford and Cambridge, English was primarily a philological subject, looking at Old English texts, far closer to Icelandic than anything we would recognise today. The study of modern writing (modern being anything from Chaucer on) was left to the second rung of the college system, suitable for women and servants. Real men read classics.

The change came with the Great War, and with the need to reassert a defiantly British sense of identity against the irredeemable barbarism of the Teuton (not an easy task, given that the ruling family was essentially German).  English literature was called into service, as emblematic of the superior nature of British culture (the books cited above include some hilariously chauvinistic quotes from the early Professors of the subject).

The creation of the English literary ‘tradition’ (or the Canon) as an object of study was, therefore, part of a wider attempt to great a certain kind of British identity. However, as all projects of this kind, it was faced with a rather troubling paradox.  If the national identity already exists in the form in which its presented, then why is one faced with the necessity to construct it in the first place.  As with the pseudo-ritualistic ceremonies dreamt up to accompany the investiture of Victoria as Empress of India (perhaps the high-point of British Imperialism) or, indeed, as with the ambitions of many of the Gaelic Revivalists (particularly those of the Celtic Dawn persuasion) assembling a national identity in this way must always be accompanied by a kind of double-think: selectively rooting through the cultural artifacts of the past in order to identify those which serve contemporary political needs, while at the same time eliding the contemporary nature of the project and presenting it as the exegesis of something far more permanent.

The history of Irish nationalism, particularly since independence, already provides ample evidence of how a selective approach to the literature of the past can be used in forging what is essentially a rather arbitrary political identity.  The institutionalisation of such a reading through the education system and the creation of a curriculum is crucial in this.  An fascinating example of the same phenomenon, albeit in a different context, is described in Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India.  Viswanathan shows how the teaching of English literature to upper class Indian schoolboys who would go on to be local administrators was central to the inculcation of an imperial identity and, hence, essential to the maintenance of imperial rule in the sub-continent.  What’s most interesting, however, is the way Viswanathan shows how the teaching of literature in India was far more ‘advanced’ than the teaching in the imperial homeland at the same time.  While schoolboys in Britain was given a fairly limited potted literary history of Britain, Indian students were encouraged to go into the works in far more depth, and to use them as a starting point for the exploration of wider questions.  Indeed, what’s taught in schools at senior levels now is far closer to the Indian model than the original British one.  Could it be that the approach adopted by Johnson and his Department is motivated, at least in part, by a similar need to infuse students with a certain kind of British identity?

All of which brings us back to the original question of what the purpose of studying English literature actually is.  I wouldn’t wish to suggest that it’s entirely useless, or even that it should be focused on some kind of narrow utility.  However, I think the kind of emphasis placed on ‘big names’ that Johnson seems to be concerned with is missing the point somewhat.

The most important part of studying English at second level is not who or what you read, but how you read.  A graduating student should be equipped with the skills to analyse and interrogate texts they encounter and come to an informed understanding of what they are saying.  There’s a place of Shakespeare and Austen in this, but also for contemporary writers and for different kinds of texts (including film, television and even advertising).  Despite claims that it represents a lowering of standards, or a ‘dumbing down’ of the subject (it’s rather telling how those who claim to the so concerned with the quality of English taught in schools are so willing to use such an inane cliché without irony), it’s good to see that this seems to the way the curriculum seems to be moving in the Irish system.  Let’s hope it continues that way.


1. Ryano - August 16, 2006

This is what you might call a sop to traditionalists. He’s kind of acknowledging that the study of English is moving away from a set canon, but just in case it moves too far away here’s a set canon of English writers you have to study.

Personally I think the whole concept of a canon was finally killed off by Howard Bloom’s dreadful book The Western Canon. He intended it as a monumental defence of the concept of “great works”, but all he succeeded in doing was to demonstrate the utterly circular nature of the arguments in favour of a canon. Shakespeare is great because “he invented us all”, i.e. we have been reading Shakespeare for centuries so we need to continue reading him in order to understand our Shakespeare-reading civilisation.

If you want to feel bullied by a literary critic, I thoroughly recommend it. He lumps together all modern literary theory (postmodernism, poststructuralism, marxist theory, feminist theory) as the “school of resentment”. I wonder if anyone sells T-Shirts with that slogan?


2. Michael Turley - August 18, 2006

John Careys excellent book “What good are the Arts?” destroys the type of arbitrary assessment which you describe.

I doubt the selection criteria for British or Irish literary “canon”s – an interesting catholic term, probably unsuitable – is subject to a lot of robust debate amongst the decision makers. I wonder if the curriculum was changed radically, would it encourage more students to discover the enjoyable and sometimes educative effects associated with reading?


3. Scrybe - November 19, 2006

major props for this article which I found highly interesting for personal academic reasons, but also incredibly useful for some research I am presently undertaking. Somehow, I had managed to miss these proposal by AJ and, were it not for your blog, II should not have considered them (and rejected them) in the research I am doing. Heavily indebited. Thanks. 🙂

I don’t suppose I could ask you views on the idea of teaching dialect and slang as part of English language education? Just out of interest (should I need to quote you, I’ll post and ask permission first).


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