There is a strong impulse in American education—curious in a country with such an ornery streak of antitraditionalism—to define achievement and excellence in terms of the acquisition of a historically validated body of knowledge, an authoritative list of books and allusions, a canon. We seek a certification of our national intelligence, indeed, our national virtue, in how diligently our children can display this central corpus of information. This need for certification tends to emerge most dramatically in our educational policy debates during times of real or imagined threat: economic hard times, political crises, sudden increases in immigration. Now is such a time, and it is reflected in a number of influential books and commission reports.
E.D. Hirsch Jr. argues that a core national vocabulary, one oriented toward the English literate tradition—Alice in Wonderland to Zeitgeist—will build a knowledge base that will foster the literacy of all Americans. Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn call for a return to a traditional historical and literary curriculum. Allan Bloom, William Bennett, Mortimer Adler, and a number of others have affirmed, each in their different ways, the necessity of the Great Books. We can call this orientation to educational achievement the canonical orientation.
At times in our past, the call for a shoring up of or return to a canonical curriculum was explicitly elitist. Today, though, most who call for the canon frame their arguments in the language of democracy. They assail mediocre curricula, especially those found in remedial and vocational education, and call into question common assumptions about the capabilities of students, especially so-called slow learners. This challenge is refreshing. But once we grant the desirability of bringing the Western canon to all our students, problems arise.
The canonical orientation encourages a narrowing of focus from learning to that which must be learned: It simplifies the dynamic tension between student and text and reduces the psychological and social dimensions of instruction. The student’s personal history recedes. The encounter of student and text is often portrayed by canonists as a transmission. Information, wisdom, and virtue will pass from the book to the student if the student gives the book the time it merits, carefully traces its argument or narrative or lyrical progression. The model of learning implicit in this orientation seems, at times, more religious than cognitive or social: Truth resides in the printed texts, and if they are presented by someone who knows them well and respects them, that truth will be revealed. (Of all the advocates of the canon, Mortimer Adler has given the most attention to pedagogy—and his Paideia books contain valuable discussions of instruction, coaching, and questioning. But even in his work, there is little acknowledgement that the material in the canon can be not only difficult but also alienating and overwhelming.) The canonists strip learning of confusion, discord, and strong human connection.
Teachers need a better orientation to instruction. Each member of a teacher’s class, poor or advantaged, gives rise to endless decisions: decisions on how to tap strength, plumb confusion, foster growth. The richer your conception of learning and your understanding of its social and psychological dimensions, the more insightful and effective your judgments will be. But the canonical orientation doesn’t help a teacher to think in these broader contexts.
The canonical manifestos, for example, offer little discussion of what to do when students fail. If students have been exposed to at least some elements of the canon before—as many have—why didn’t it take? If students are lost encountering the canon for the first time, how can we determine where they’re located—and what do we do then? There is another concern. The Great Books of the canon could become benchmarks against which the expressions of student literacy would be negatively measured. I think of all the material I’ve used to foster literacy: from shopkeepers’ signs, song lyrics, and auto manuals to Western movies, family stories, and neighborhood tales. How would these everyday sources of literacy be evaluated within the canonical tradition? The effect could be dispiriting for students and could hamper the very thing the canonists say they want: mass literacy.
Although a ghetto child can rise on the lilt of a Homeric line—books can spark dreams—appeals to elevated texts can also divert attention from the conditions that keep a population from realizing its dreams. I believe that teachers need to consider the social context in which learning occurs—the political, economic, and cultural forces that encourage or inhibit it. Good teachers do this, but the canonical orientation doesn’t encourage such analysis. The canonists ask that schools transmit a coherent traditional knowledge to an ever-changing, frequently uprooted community. This discordance between message and audience is seldom examined.
The canonists want their curriculum to do what our politics and our economics have failed to do: diminish differences in achievement, narrow our gaps, bring us together. If this vision is democratic, it is simplistically so; it is not an invitation for people truly to engage each other at the point where cultures and classes intersect. I worry about the effects a canonical approach to education could have on the involvement of an abandoned underclass and on the movement of immigrants into our nation. A canonical uniformity promotes rigor and quality control; it can also squelch new thinking, and diffuse the generative tension between the old and the new.
It is significant that the canonical orientation is voiced with most force during times of challenge and uncertainty, for it promises the authority of tradition, the seeming stability of the past. But the authority is fictive, gained from a misreading of American cultural history. No period of that history was harmoniously stable. Democratic culture is, by definition, vibrant and dynamic, discomforting and unpredictable. It gives rise to apprehension; freedom is not always calming. A truly democratic vision of knowledge and social structure would honor this complexity. The vision might not be soothing, but it would provide guidance as to how to live and teach in a country made up of many cultural traditions.
We are in the middle of an extraordinary social experiment: the attempt to provide education for all members of a vast pluralistic democracy. To have any prayer of success, we’ll need many conceptual blessings: a philosophy of language and literacy that affirms the diverse sources of linguistic competence and deepens our understanding of the ways class and culture blind us to the richness of those sources. We’ll need a revised store of images of educational excellence, ones closer to egalitarian ideals—ones that embody the reward and turmoil of education in a democracy, that celebrate the plural, messy human reality of it. At heart, we’ll need a guiding set of principles that do not encourage us to retreat from, but move us closer to, an understanding of the rich mix of speech and ritual and story that is America.
A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 1982 edition of Education Week as Taking Aim At The Canon