I recently ran into a fellow English teacher. We started talking about the upcoming school year and she happened to mention that she’d decided not to teach Shakespeare to her 9th and 10th graders. Her reasons involve being culturally competent and the Western Canon not being reflective of the students in her classroom. I don’t disagree.
The texts we use in our classroom should be reflective of the students within that classroom. I also agree that the Western Canon is highly problematic, and it needs to evolve. It needs to become living, flexible, and reflective of our changing world. My willingness to even consider that the Western Canon is worth fixing reflects my own education and bias. I willingly concede that it is a monumental task, and if it can’t become significantly better, it needs to take its rightful place beside all the other obsolete things our world has outgrown.
Here’s where I disagree with my colleague, I don’t think the authors who have become the standard bearers of the Western Canon should be banished to the dusty corners of our book rooms. Shakespeare still has a lot to teach us about language - how to captivate with it, as well as how to play with it. The answer for inclusion is not exclusion. The problem isn’t Shakespeare in the curriculum. The problem is the entirety of school curriculums and the Western Canon look like Shakespeare-old, dead, white, and usually male.
These authors have been trusted to tell every story because for too long we’ve pretended it was the only story. Too often curriculums consider themselves diverse because they’ve included books about the struggles of Black, Latinx, and Asian people, which is itself problematic because too often diversity ends with race. Indulge me this tangent.
Diversity does not end with race. It never did. Yes, we need to reflect the lives and realities of our black and brown students, but we also need to remember there is no universal black story. There is no universal Latinx story. There is no universal Asian story. Because layered within the realities of race are the realities of gender, sexuality, religion, mental health, physical differences, intellectual differences, economic differences, and on it goes. That’s diversity.
Back to my main point.
We know the problem is canon and curriculum. So what’s the answer? There are so many answers. Answers that have been shared and shouted by people with a larger impact than this tiny tiny corner of the Internet. The answers are:
1. Remake the Western Canon in our own image. Let it reflect the right side of history even though the world is currently tearing itself apart. Let’s have the hard conversations about what we teach, why we teach it, and how we teach it. Let’s ask if it still belongs in curriculums. Let’s be honest about the flaws.
2. Choice is what students need. Not censored choice. You don’t think 12-year-olds can handle The Hate U Give. It sounds like the problem is yours. Step aside. I’ll never stop saying this.
3. Pairing those old dusty tomes with the shiny and new. Teach Romeo & Juliet alongside Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park or Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight or Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything or Ibi Zoboi’s Pride or . . . How about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue?
I have two challenges for you:
Ask yourself if what you teach is best for your students. If it reflects their lives, or does it just reflect your education? Are you upholding the Western Canon because someone told you it is the epitome of literary merit? Be reflective.
Pair texts. Let your students pair texts.
It’s time for a change, but we have to stop the nasty education habit of declaring everything we once did a failure and always believing newer means better and best.