Disruption, or Development?

There are few questions as contentious in education as what the curriculum should be and why. As Charlotte Mason pointed out over a century ago, the books a student reads will shape them in lasting ways that explicit instruction can hardly hope to, and so the choice of those books is a momentous thing. Our upcoming discussion with Dr. Anika Prather and some of her students at Howard University will be covering this very subject.

The #DisruptTexts movement has hit the news once or twice in the last few years. Founded in 2018, its stated goal is “to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum.” The group has been accused of devaluing the great authors of Western literature, and even of calling for them to be eliminated from schools. These accusations, to me, seem less than just; their website states with some emphasis that they have never supported censorship or banning books. West Virginia teacher Jessica Salfia recounted a conversation she had with one of the leaders of #DisruptTexts, in which “she said verbatim, ‘You don’t have to stop teaching Gatsby, but instead, put it in conversation with a text … about the same era that decenters white voices and perspectives.’ #DisruptTexts has always been about telling the whole story—making sure every person’s voice is valued”.

No one, I think, need cavil at that. What texts are part of the “Western canon” has changed over time, and will continue to change as long as Western society produces literature. An educated person in the seventeenth century would have no opportunity to read the works of David Hume, Charlotte Brontë, or Martin Luther King; they have been added. Conversely, books such as Pharsalia or The Romance of the Rose have diminished, not in intrinsic worth or beauty, but in influence—and therefore in importance to what Mortimer Adler called “the Great Conversation.” That conversation develops over time, like any conversation, though on a scale of years and centuries rather than hours. It shapes our whole intellectual life, which in turn has implications for the social, the political, the personal, and—if you believe in that sort of thing—the eternal.

But the statements and strategies of #DisruptTexts remain open to critique, as the leaders themselves would perhaps agree. Their article on Shakespeare is an example:

“We believe that Shakespeare, like any other playwright, no more and no less, has literary merit. He is not ‘universal’ in a way that other authors are not. He is not more ‘timeless’ than anyone else. … Many teachers explain that he is ‘universal’ and that ‘one cannot go a day without seeing a reference to Shakespeare in popular culture.’ People can also argue that one cannot go a day without seeing biblical references, and yet we don’t teach the Bible each year. … So, let us be honest, the conversation really isn’t about universality, and this isn’t about being equipped to identify all possible cultural references.”

But surely this works far better as an argument in favor of reading the Bible than it does as an argument for ignoring Shakespeare? We used to; should we not examine why the Bible was removed from so many curricula in the first place? And surely the fact that Shakespeare continues to be read and performed, and adapted into radically different forms, suggests that his value as a playwright does consist in something more and other than that of a chance selection based on cultural chauvinism?

Actress Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet
in the late nineteenth century

Now, no author is above critique, however illustrious. That is why CLT makes a point of including authors that radically contradict one another on our author bank. And let it be admitted, it is perfectly true that the Western canon consists very largely (though by no means exclusively) in white men, and that that, pardon the pun, colors the perspectives of the authors in question. Insofar as canonical recognition is a measure of influence—one of our chief guiding principles in defining our author bank—the injustices of our society with respect to sex, race, and other social matters are indeed reflected in which authors were permitted to become influential. Books by women and people of color do provide an invaluable corrective to that, whether they are “officially” canon or not, and we fully expect more and more of their work to enter the developing canon as history goes on.

Yet to criticize, we must first comprehend. And if we want to comprehend the society we live in, we have no choice but to grapple with the canon, warts and all. To reduce students’ familiarity with that canon is to reduce their power to understand the world they live in, which those books shaped for good and evil. As C. S. Lewis put it in his introduction to a book by a very old (and, as it happens, African) author, St. Athanasius:

“If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book … The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. … Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and a staff editor for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, where our CEO and founder Jeremy Tate talks with leading intellectuals on question of education and culture.

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