"Schlesinger\'s Canon Vs. My High School\'s Canon"


In school, whether it be at the high school or college levels, there are
usually lists of books thought as being essential reading. Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr.--a Pulitzer Prize winning historian--calls this list in his
book The Disuniting of America, a "canon" or "canonical literature." A problem
exists with this canon, at least Schlesinger claims there is. He states that
the canon is being used "as an instrument of European oppression enforcing the
hegemony of the white race, the male sex, and the capitalist class…" From my
high school experience, I believe this is not true. At my high school, teachers
encourage students to read not only standard English literature, but also to
study the great writers of other cultures.
There is a great deal of European influence in American society and in
American education. Some people, like the Afrocentrists, feel that this
influence is too heavy and that schools should also be teaching about other
cultures in their classes. Schlesinger states in his book that he "believes in
the importance of teaching Americans the history of other cultures—East Asia,
Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Polynesia." Since we live in a
multicultural society, we should be teaching a multicultural curriculum.
At my high school, I feel as if I received this type of education. The
teachers encourage students to read not only standard English literature, but
also to study the great writers of other ethnicities. My high school is a
private college preparatory institution in San Francisco. Some authors whose
works we read in our English classes consisted of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Jane
Austen, Ovid, Maya Angelou, Chaim Potok, John Steinbeck, Amy Tan, Chinua Achebe,
and C. S. Lewis.
This curriculum is not at all what Schlesinger claims to be the current
"American literary canon: Emerson, Jefferson, Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne,
Thoreau, Lincoln, Twain, Dickinson, William and Henry James, Henry Adams, Holmes,
Dreiser, Faulknner, O\' Neill." We touched on most of these people also, but
not nearly as in depth as we did the other authors. Schlesinger\'s list seems to
point out his fact that the canon is being used for European oppression and he
deliberately chooses to add to his list only those "white male" authors. But
they are not the only authors we study, at least at my school. He deliberately,
or so it seems, to neglect current successful authors, like Maya Angelou- who is
both female and black- whose books, like her autobiography "I Know Why the Caged
Bird Sings," are being used in English classes all around the country.
Chaim Potok, another current author we studied is also neither European nor
"white." He was born in New York City and is Jewish. Mr. Potok was educated at
Yeshiva University as well as the University of Pennsylvania. He was also
trained as a rabbi. His first book "The Chosen" deals with two generations of
Brooklyn Hasidic Jews. We also studied the African writer Chinua Achebe and his
book "Things Fall Apart." This novel is set in an Ibo village in Nigeria. It
recreates the village\'s first encounter with white male colonialism, their
Christianity, and the breaking down of old ways.
As I closely examine the canon at my high school, though, I start to notice
some parallels. Through research, I have discovered that a lot of the books we
read and their authors had similarities. For instance, Maya Angelou served as
the Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from
1959 to 1960. Jane Austen was the daughter of Reverend George Austen. C. S.
Lewis is widely known for his popular religious and moral writings- pertaining
to Christianity. Also in novels we read, such as the collection of stories
Metamorphoses by Ovid--which was favored by the public in the pagan Rome but
disapproved by the Christian Church--had Christian issues. In the epic novel
Beowulf, there are strong threads of Christian commentary running throughout the
poem.
What is culture? The dictionary defines it as "the totality of socially
transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other
products of human work and thought." Does this not constitute religion? If so,
then there might be a problem with the literary canon at my high school. If
their literary canon is to be "multicultural," they must also teach about
different religions and what role they play in different cultures.
Teaching students about different religions can be used to strengthen
their own religious beliefs, by examining points in different religions that
could actually be harmful to one\'s spirituality. There were times, like during
the reading of Ovid\'s Metamorphoses when we touched on different world