Cast Away from the Canon

The traditional Western canon is under attack — deemed obsolete, offensive or both. But students stand to lose far more than individual literary works.

Recent advocacy in favor of “anti-racist” pedagogy — with particular attention to the K-12 classroom — has resulted in critiques of the “literary canon” and a general move away from teaching what we’ve come to think of as the classics. From Shakespeare to Melville to Orwell, the canon is a “historically white, male and Western” body of work, and calls to teach literature through a social justice lens — and to interrogate canonical texts in order “to destroy white supremacy” — are commonplace.

Expanding the canon? Yes, I unequivocally support that. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, the canon has always been debated and revised in the context of contemporary values. But to dismiss literary classics as exclusively “white, male and Western” — as inherently racist and oppressive — betrays a certain presentism and historical shortsightedness that risks gravely shortchanging our students. Ironically, this approach will reinforce the very kinds of hard boundaries between cultures and peoples that its proponents are aiming to challenge.

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