An interesting conversation popped up yesterday, based around the question - what is the value of an American literary canon? Or is there a value at all?
Concerning education, what is more important - getting students to love reading, however unelevated the subject matter might be, or getting them to read classics, however culturally irrelevant those works might seem to a middle-schooler?
I tend to incline toward favoring a distinct literary canon. A literary canon shapes cultural identity. It unites us with our compatriots. What do we who have grown up in the East know of California except that which John Steinbeck has told us? Just having moved 3,000 miles across the country to a city whose people with whom I presumably should have nothing in common, I find it telling that within the first few days my fellow interns and I began talking about books that we've read. Coming from very different parts of the country, we all have very little actually in common, but literature provides a platform for common understanding.
But enough of my argument for the value of classic literature - the question is can we get students to read it? Recently teachers have been experimenting with using popular literature - things like Harry Potter and Twilight - to inspire students to read. They put Steinbeck and Hemingway back on the shelves in favor of Rowling and Meyer. Is this a good way to get kids to read for the sake of reading, or should we be concerned with whetting their palates for the classics?
And what about students who aren't encouraged to read at home? I heard a story recently from a friend of mine who was working as a tutor who said that her student's parents took away their child's study materials because they were embarassed that their child was more advanced than them. How do teachers combat that?
A study done in 2003 showed that 14% of American adults (about 30 million people) had "below basic" literary skills, and of those with "below basic" skills, 55% did not graduate from high school. Literacy is incontestably important, so what is the best way to get students to learn to read and think critically? By teaching books like Twilight? Or by sticking to our guns?
Interesting conversation to have as I'm about to embark on a yearlong adventure to help students to learn to read.
- More food for thought - Check out ProLiteracy.com.