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Notion of 'Literary Canon' in Schools Not Valid, Report Says

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A new report by a Harvard University researcher casts doubt on the notion that an unchanging "canon" of literary works is being taught in the nation's secondary schools.

Sandra Stotsky, a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Filene Foundation's Summer Institute on Writing, Reading, and Civic Education, based her conclusions on a synthesis of five studies conducted since the turn of the century on school literature programs. A paper on her findings was presented last month in Atlanta during a meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English.

"For a number of years, charges have flown back and forth about the presence or absence of a literary canon in the secondary schools," Ms. Stotsky writes. "This charge often implies that most English teachers are stodgy, conservative folk clinging to 'standard literary works' or 'great books."'

But, on the contrary, she says, "it may be that most students in this country are not reading even a small body of literary works in common, and have not been doing so for a very long time."

Around the turn of the century, Ms. Stotsky writes, schools mostly assigned literary works by longmale, British authors. A 1907 study of 67 Midwestern high schools, for example, revealed that, of the 40 works most frequently taught in those schools, only 9 were written by American authors.

The mix of literary selections may have begun to change, however, around the middle of the century, according to another study cited by Ms. Stotsky.

In 1950, she reports, the supervisor of English for New York State's education department surveyed 50,000 students in grades 7 through 12 in an effort to determine what books were most popular among students there. More than 600 teachers participating in that study also verified that those titles were being studied in the students' classrooms.

The resulting reading list included many male, British authors, just as in the 1907 study. But, Ms. Stotsky writes, "it is interesting to note that in grades 10-12, half of the top 12 works of fiction liked by girls were by female authors, suggesting that by the 1940's, a number of works by female authors were already studied or read in school."

By 1964, she found, works by American authors, such as Mark Twain and John Steinbeck, began to infiltrate the still "heavily British" reading lists. A nationwide survey conducted that year for the Educational Testing Service indicated that almost half of the top 40 or so titles assigned in grades 7 through 12 were by Americans.

Moreover, even though nine selecon that list were found in more than 30 percent of the 222 schools studied, there was little evidence to suggest that a majority of students were actually being exposed to them.

"If a work was assigned to 1 percent of the classes in [that] sample of 7,100 classes, that meant that only 71 classes studied that work, even if the title was assigned in, say, 8 percent of the schools surveyed," Ms. Stotsky explained in an interview. Only four of the titles on the 1964 list had been assigned in more than 6 percent of the classrooms studied.

That distinction, Ms. Stotsky said, is missing from later research pointing to the existence of a canon. In his nationwide study in 1989, for example, Arthur Applebee of the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature concluded that, again, Shakespeare continued to dominate reading lists among the 322 schools surveyed. And books by Twain, Steinbeck, and Charles Dickens were popular staples just as they were in the 1964 study. (See Education Week, June 6, 1989.)

But, Ms. Stotsky contends, Mr. Applebee looked only at the percentf schools using the books and not at numbers of students who were reading them. She also notes that only four of the books on Mr. Applebee's list were mentioned in the 1907 study.

Ms. Stotsky and a colleague also surveyed 132 English teachers in New England last spring for that region's chapter of the NCTE They asked the teachers, most of whom taught in high schools, to recommend literary works for classroom use.

The teachers generated 720 separate titles, only 5 of which were on the 1907 list, according to Ms. Stotsky. Forty-three of the 68 titles they cited most often were by American authors.

Even A Tale of Two Cities, she reports, was cited only 14 times.

In addition to such staples, Ms. Stotsky's "top 45" list included such contemporary books as Night by Elie Wiesel.

"There are a few works that are still read more often than other works," Ms. Stotsky notes. "As to whether indeed one can say most students read these works, we would certainly have to look at individual students rather than schools."

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