The big idea: do we need to dismantle the literary canon?

As someone who writes books, lectures on teacher training courses and spent 15 years teaching English literature, I’m often asked what I think should be included in the literary canon or what should replace the existing canon. It feels like a trick question.

First, a definition might be useful. When we say canon we’re referring to an established selection of works that have been dyed into the fabric of British education. It’s the familiar roll call of names that have featured on the curriculum seemingly for ever, and may well continue to do so. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Orwell, Blake, Priestley, Owen, Larkin … the parade of (largely) dead white men whom successive generations of British students are invited to meet and grapple with on their academic journeys.

But here’s the thing: as timeless as the canon seems, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s older than any of us, but was born of a specific set of ideological viewpoints. So asking me what I think should replace the canon is really asking me how far I’m willing to accept or reject the ideologies that underpin it.

The concept of a canon goes back at least as far as the 1860s, when the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold articulated an idea of culture being the pursuit of the “best that has been thought and said”. This very wording was used to define the aims of England’s national curriculum in 1988 and remains in place to this day.

The idea that there can be an objective “best” sounds benign, and there are many examples of enduring excellence that get dusted off termly because they really are that good. But 1988 was a while ago, and the 1860s even further back. Are we saying that nothing with the potential to shake up the canon has been written in all that time?

When you commit to the notion of the “best that has been thought and said” as conceived from one particular point of view, you automatically commit to whatever ideologies come in tow. Our curriculum is steeped in white supremacy, class and gender bias, and many other blind spots created by societal norms. It’s no accident that white straight men dominate the canon because people with those identities have historically enjoyed privileges denied to others. Add the fact that formal education was largely designed to appeal to the sons of the aspiring Victorian upper middle classes and it’s no wonder that there is a leaning towards a particular kind of “classic”.

At this point, any red-blooded social justice warrior may feel compelled to simply reject the canon and everything it stands for. The temptation is to make the pendulum swing away from all those stale, pale, able-bodied males and replace them with something different, something “other”, authors who have been marginalised by race, gender, ethnicity, class and sexuality. Indeed, I’ve spilt many words recommending authors who fit this bill, contemporary minds writing from so-called diverse perspectives. And then, suddenly, you find yourself on the frontlines of a full-blown culture war against wide-eyed proponents of tradition accusing you of all sorts of anti-British wokery on the assumption that replacing the canon is akin to pulling down statues of ancient heroes.

The questions this raises are profound: is reimagining the canon an act of destruction or invention? Is it resistance or provocation? What does it mean to chisel away at the pillars that have held up our educational system for so long?

Well, to be blunt, I don’t think that education is built with these pillars in the first place. I think that the curriculum lives outside objectivity. I think it lives in us, in our hearts and minds, with all the various lived experiences that different educators can embody. I think the curriculum is anything we want it to be – and this is where the seeming problem of subjectivity (who gets to decide what’s best?) actually becomes the big solution.

I have a list of all the texts I have used over the years to supplement the existing curriculum or explore ideas with students. It’s erratic. It contains everything from picture books by David McKee to extracts from novels by Zadie Smith. The poetry of William Blake juxtaposed with Boy in Da Corner by Dizzee Rascal. Complex nonfiction by Akala or Christopher Booker; lyrics from contemporary grime artists and Glaswegian poetry. Wilfred Owen and Eminem side by side. I’ve used film extensively: the 2010 remake of Karate Kid and the timeless fable that is Groundhog Day – perfect for exploring the idea of personal growth and the human condition. Current events come into play, too. For me, Euro 2020 was more than a football tournament – it became a grounding text for the study of nationhood, race and masculinity.

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“For me.” That previous paragraph is a snapshot of my value judgments, my perspectives, my lived experience and my worldview. It’s personal and varied and, crucially, fully justifiable as worthy of being taught in modern classrooms. It’s liberating to know that the canon lives in our interactions with the world, with history. I’m not for throwing that history into a skip. I’m for curating something new, pruning, rummaging and bringing things together in unexpected ways. And at a time when teaching is facing a crisis of recruitment and retention, it’s vital that educators are encouraged to develop autonomy in their craft.

If we lean into this way of thinking, the game becomes less about building unshakable pillars of knowledge that our Victorian predecessors would understand and respect, and more about being in dialogue with the way things are now. There are immediate and urgent conversations to be had about the overlapping issues of social justice, identity politics, geopolitics and sustainability, and the curriculum can be a starting point for them. This is not only freeing but energising too – an invitation to create new conversations and broaden the range of voices to which successive generations are exposed. We want education, as an institution, to be able to speak to the present and grow confidently into an unknowable future instead of being shackled to a familiar past. This is how to do it.

I Heard What You Said: A Black Teacher, a White System by Jeffrey Boakye is available in paperback (Picador, £10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Further reading

The Great White Bard: Shakespeare, Race and the Future by Farah Karim-Cooper (Oneworld, £22)

This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelves in 50 Books by Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne and Kadija Sesay George (Quercus, £10.99)

Diverse Educators: A Manifesto by Hannah Wilson and Bennie Kara (editors), Hannah Wilson (Legend, £24.99)

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