Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Students less familiar with canon

I'm interested in the findings of the Siena Research Institute, which chart a decline in student familiarity with a set list of 30 Classics selected in 1984 by then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities William Bennett, but I'm not sure what conclusions I should be drawing from them, especially since the study itself isn't online for perusal.

First, I do believe that high schools that offer English as a semester course--as more seem to be doing--will be turning out students who have read less than those taking a traditional year of English. It is, of course, possible for teachers to cram a year's worth of reading into a semester, but based both on the reading reports from my son's public school counterparts and the many search attempts here for Cliff's Notes and summaries for short stories, I am skeptical that as much reading is taking place in school these days as any English teacher would like.

But beyond that, I'm not sure how concerned I should be that all the titles listed below aren't being taught in the schools to the same degree that they were back in 1984. What's being taught in their place should matter, shouldn't it? Is it somehow better for a student to encounter Dickens in high school than, say, Camus or Kafka? Would a college professor expect more from a student if she's read The Scarlet Letter instead of The Handmaid's Tale? What if we substitute The Brothers Karamazov for Crime and Punishment? How about The House of the Spirits instead of Pride and Prejudice? How about Chronicle of a Death Foretold or some Vonnegut instead of The Catcher in the Rye? Is a field of 30 too limiting for gauging how well the classic classics are doing or ample proof that modern and multi-cultural classics have won?

I just can't get worked up that high school students aren't reading War and Peace (I never knew they were). But if they're not reading 1984. . . then I guess we find ourselves with a bunch of politicans who've used it a a how-to-guide instead of as an admonitory tale.

Here's the list of works (shamelessly lifted from Books Blog) and, for what it's worth (little), when my daughter, a college junior/senior, my son, a high school senior, and I first read them:

1. The Works of Shakespeare (I was required to read R&J, JC, and Macbeth in the 70s; my daughter was required to read only R&J and Macbeth; my son's read nine altogether, I think)

2. The Declaration of Independence (we've all read it)

3. Twain, Mark, Huckleberry Finn (9th grade for me, 8th for my son)

4. The poems of Emily Dickinson (just a few for all three of us in school)

5. The poems of Robert Frost (just a few for all three of us in school)

6. Hawthorne, Nathaniel, Scarlet Letter (high school for son and me)

7. Fitzgerald, Scott F., The Great Gatsby (high school for daughter and me; my son expected to read it in the spring)

8. Orwell, George, 1984 (high school for all three of us)

9. Homer, Odyssey and Iliad (bits and pieces for me in high school; full works for my daughter in college, my son in high school)

10. Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities ( my son read Tale in 8th grade; I was never required to read Dickens except for Hard Times in a college history class; I don't believe my daughter's read any Dickens)

11. Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales (bits and pieces in high school for both my son and I)

12. Salinger, J.D., Catcher in the Rye (daughter and I both read this extracurricularly during high school)

13. The Bible (most, if not all, for me outside school; bits and pieces for the kids outside school)

14. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (excerpts for both son and me during high school)

15. Sophocles, Oedipus (high school, everyone)

16. Steinbeck, John, the Grapes of Wrath (high school for me, next spring for my son)

17. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and poems (excerpts, son and me)

18. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (I think daughter read this while living in Germany, but none of us read Austen for school; daughter was required to read Jane Eyre)

19. Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass (excerpts, high school for son and me)

20. The novels of William Faulkner (I read "A Rose for Miss Emily" in school; my daughter read Light in August)

21. Melville, Herman, Moby Dick (son and I, high school)

22. Milton, John, Paradise Lost (no one required to read more than a few poems of Milton)

23. Vergil, Aeneid (I translated excerpts from Latin in high school)

24. Plato, The Republic (no one, unless daughter read excerpts for philosophy class in college)

25. Marx, Karl, Communist Manifesto (college for me, daughter probably the same)

26. Machiavelli, Niccolo, the Prince (excerpts in high school for my son)

27. Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America (college for me)

28. Dostoevski, Feodor, Crime and Punishment (high school for daughter and me)

29. Aristotle, Politics (no one required to read)

30. Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace (no one required to read, although I read it several years back)

Maybe I'll have a more coherent thought about this once the Christmas prep is complete (panic has truly set in). Is it just that students are reading less these days or are college faculty truly frustrated that students haven't read from a set canon? And is William Bennett's list of 30 classics truly the best of the best for high school students?


  1. I'm going to have to give this some thought.

    Off-the-cuff, I'd say students are reading less; colleges have become quite eccentric in their own observance of canon (which influences future high school teachers); and although the 30 classics listed are excellent, they are a personal choice and other well-educated, well-intentioned individuals would make different choices, at least in part.

  2. Anonymous9:11 AM

    What an interesting post. Like you, I think students, at all levels, should be reading more. It's in these early years that people set their reading habits and if they don't start in their youth they won't be likely to read later.

    I think students should be reading Dickens rather than Kafka in large part because they need to be familiar with literature from our English tradition. But if the curriculum were in my hands I'd also assign some Marquez and other major modern novelists writing in other languages.

    I'm not particular which classics kids read, or if more modern or less "classic" works are assigned, as long as they read, read, read. (And write, write, write, but that's another problem.)


  3. I read a great deal. My own choices from the library. The few books I was made to read for school, I still hate. My antipathy to poetry stems from having to memorize poems for school. Although once I read "Satire, that blasted art:" I didn't mind having The Road Less Taken memorized, because I could mock my teacher's maudlin reading of it.

    I feared the classics, because I assumed they were hard - or why else would they have to make people read them?

    I have since tried to read Dostoevski and Dickens, both wound up thrown across the room. But I love Austin, and the Brontes. I don't think LeCarre is any less a writer than Kipling, and with far less racism and misogyny. Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie touched me more than Grapes of Wrath. Genre literature is no less good writing than the 'classics.' If the 'great writing' were taught more as history than literature, I think I could be more accepting of it. But making it 'great literature' implies that I'd damn well better like it, or I have no taste.

    Reading a bible synopsis started me on the road to atheism. So that was good.

    Some students need guidance to read. But readers need to be offered merest suggestions. I will avoid a book on a list, just because of the expectation. My spouse has a very hard time reading anything suggested to him, which he occasionally overcomes.

  4. Anonymous5:35 PM

    Interesting post--I need to give it some thought, too. I think I read about half the list in school(either in the piece's entirety or abridged--we had those big anthologies in school), but there are lots of books that I think I missed out on--why I am trying to read more classics now. I think it is sort of true (I am sorry to say) that youth is wasted on the young--if that can be applied to this situation. I know I appreciate many of the classics now that I would have suffered through at 16. I do think sometimes students see it as being crammed down their throats and then are turned off it. I don't think I was ever turned off it, but I think I did not have as much reading guidance as I might have had and was left to read whatever I felt like. I think it is good to read a lot and maybe not all of it needs to be "classic literature", but I also think there is a reason that say Dante's works or Homer's works are still around and works by others are not. There are some excellent contemporary writers and I think their books will be thought of as classics, too. I don't really have a problem with students reading multicultural literature--they should be exposed to a variety of books. I really do think literature/english should be mandatory every year in school personally. I don't ever remember not taking english class in school. And is there even a set canon of works that has to be taught each year? I don't think there is.

  5. Anonymous5:46 PM

    I think I read about half the books on the list in high school or college and i was an English major in college. I am mixed about canons. I think they are helpful in providing a sense of commonality in experience and education, but at the same time, the politics of who gets to decide what that commonality will be is a snake pit. So I often ponder whether it really matters what someone reads in school as long as what they read is well written? I've not come to an answer yet though.

  6. Anonymous7:58 PM

    Keep in mind that 13 of the 30 are American classics, not necessarily world classics.

    And I can't believe they left out Dante!

  7. Oh, that's because Dante's now a horse out in Utah. Doesn't play nicely with the other horses, but man, his trot is so sweet, I hope I get to ride him again next October. ;)

    But seriously, I was surprised that Bill Bennett would leave Dante off his list. Almost as surprised as I am that he'd put Salinger on. . .

    I try to do a mix with my son--works that continue to resonate through our culture, works that are important historically, works that I think will speak to him personally or that he'll just flat out enjoy. There've been only a few that he's bailed out on--I definitely allow bailing on a book--which I think is pretty incredible considering how hard he was to please as a child--he'd slam the cover on a book that didn't provide ALL the info he wanted in the first paragraph, sometime even the first sentence. I don't expect him to be an English major, so what I'm really after is turning him into a reader.

    I appreciate everyone's insight!

  8. Hi, a lurker here :) I'm in college, and in my high school English classes (which were one semester long) the teachers would either have us read certain books (sometimes, but usually not, from the list), or present a list of books for us to choose. In some cases each person would choose a different book or author and make a presentation to the rest of the class. Other times we would be in groups that chose a few books and created projects to present. Sometimes the teachers would teach a book without requiring more than excerpts (like Paradise Lost or Plato).

    I think the result was that we read things that our peers mostly didn't (Potok, Markandaya, Achebe, that sort of thing) but still had a basic grasp of what they did (the "classics"). Although the class was only a semester, we also wound up being familiar with many books without having read them.

    That said, I think whether or not divergence from the "cannon" is a bad thing depends on what's being read in its place. And none of my professors have yet been amazed that most of us haven't made it through Paradise Lost or War and Peace, so I think they would agree. ;)


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