The Tyranny of Canonical Texts

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.

“Poetry,” Marianne Moore

As a sophomore in high school, I was a nerdy good student who had succeeded in schooling by transferring his mama’s-boy skills into teacher-pleasing dexterity. I was, however, enamored with math and science and just tolerated English and history.

My sophomore and junior years with the same English teacher, Lynn Harrill, were wonderful because of Lynn — not English, which to me was a mind-numbing series of vocabulary tests and a lot of reading I couldn’t have cared less about.

English in junior high had been torture, years and years of grammar book exercises and sentence diagramming.

Once while my tenth-grade peers were suffering through a week-long exploration of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, I was home on the couch, sick. That unit on Tale culminated in a long multiple-choice test, which my classmates scored very low on.

When I returned to class, I had never read that book — started it, of course being a good student, but found it insufferable (I still loath Dickens, much as I do Shakespeare, Austen, and a whole host of canonical authors). Before taking a make-up exam, I chose the Cliff’s Notes route, and scored a sweet 96 on the test — best by far in the class.

Over the next four or so years, a weird thing happened: I graduated high school planning to be a physics major, was enlisted by an English professor to tutor a survey course my first year of college, and then became an English education major at the beginning of my junior year — along the way discovering I was a writer and someone who loves literature as much or more than any other person I have ever met.

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When my college students enter my office for the first time, they invariably pause at this view of my bookshelf, asking, “Have you read all these books?”

I also love English majors; they say things like “canonical” and “epistolary” without any hint that this is not the way humans communicate.

But I have to confront that the biggest obstacle to my life of words was English courses throughout my junior and senior high school years, and a key element of that negative influence was being assigned canonical texts, most of which I found then and continue to find to be dreadful reading.

Concurrent with those cloying experiences with texts, I was collecting and reading thousands of comic books (I had about 7000 Marvel comics when I graduated high school) as well as science fiction novels by Arthur C. Clarke and others.

As I have examined before, my very serious experiences with William Faulkner in high school set me up to be embarrassed when I rediscovered Faulkner in upper-level college English courses.

While teaching high school English for 18 years and then moving to teacher education for 16 years-and-counting now (primarily working with future teachers of English), I remain powerfully aware of the me who was alienated from the things I would come to love — the things that mostly define who I am as a human — by the very environment that should have been the place I discovered what I love.

That alienation I call the tyranny of the canonical text, and it hurts me to watch as many English teachers continue to be agents of that tyranny or co-victims of that tyranny with their students.

As chair of the English department while teaching high school, I worked for years to end or at least modify the required novel and play lists we used in our department. Those efforts were met with a great deal of resistance from my colleagues.

My argument then (and now) was grounded in the fact that between me and the most ardent advocate for canonical texts and required reading lists, we had vastly different reading backgrounds, and none the less were both highly literate, well-read people.

I have read every work by Milan Kundera, Haruki Murakami, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others — but only a few pages of many of the books canon advocates would argue are essential. I have written and edited volumes on Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, and James Baldwin.

My literary life is an example of literacy triumphing over the tyranny of canonical texts. However, I wonder why anyone should have to fight through that tyranny to discover the joy and value of the written word.

Yes, I understand and appreciate the allure of teaching a valued text; I, too, have works that I love to teach, several of which were pure tyranny for my students.

Yes, I understand that reasonable people can agree that some works of literature are, in fact, superior to others; I, too, cringe at the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sorts of popular novels.

And, yes, I recognize that teaching English includes both an obligation to the discipline (composition and literature) and our students.

Ultimately, I have committed in my career to begin with (and to seek never to fail) my obligations to students and their literacy (both the so-called practical aspects of that literacy and the much more important role literacy plays in any person’s full humanity, agency, and joy for living) — some times necessarily sacrificing the finer points of covering canonical texts and authors.

An important element in that commitment is coming to see that when any student balks at a text, I first challenge the text selection, and resist assuming some problem lies in the student.

My deeply insecure self in junior and high school, mortified in the full body brace I wore for scoliosis, would have appreciated greatly someone offering me that opportunity then; instead, my life in literacy came later and only because I somehow fought through the tyranny of canonical texts.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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