Some thoughts on the Canon

This post is in response to @debrakidd and the very interesting discussion that followed. It was originally intended as a comment, but grew too long and became a blog.

The Canon, in the sense of: “A list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality” – has always seemed to be the province of those who might be described as conservatives (with a small c) or traditionalists. Those on the left or progressives have tended to dismiss the Canon as a list of ‘dead-white-men’.

Here is a video of two academic white-men from either side of this intellectual divide discussing the subject (with thanks to @SurrealAnarchy for sharing this link)

As their conversation moves on it becomes apparent they share a lot of common ground, most importantly they both believe there is such a thing as culture and it is possible to say what has value and what doesn’t, where they disagree is on how such a thing as a Canon might be agreed and what should and shouldn’t be included. The traditionalist (Roger Scruton) believes a Canon does exist and should be the bedrock of a liberal education, the progressive (Terry Eagleton) also believes the Canon exists but it is tainted by the conservative, intellectual elite that created it and should be deconstructed for its historical, political and class bias.

While I have sympathy for this last view – I certainly don’t trust the intellectual, political and economic elite – I also have great sympathy for the traditionalist view that works of great value should be studied and appreciated both in school and in society. The problem with the progressive argument is that it basically deals itself out of the game. By refusing to engage in the discussion of what should be included, the progressive does not prevent the discussion happening and the Canon being established, but merely decides not to be included.

This seems to me a very big mistake.

By not engaging in the debate, other than to say the debate is not worth having, seems to me like intellectual sulking. And the progressives can hardly complain if the Canon is made up of ‘dead-white-men’ if they have just left it to the ‘alive-white-men’ to create it.

To enter the debate seems far more constructive. Not that I expect it will be easy.

The first question is, ‘who decides?’ I would argue everyone should have a voice and everyone should be involved in the final decision. Of course the problems with this approach are obvious and we could easily end up with sludge rather gold. But the alternatives are far worse, leaving it to intellectuals, journalists and (worst of all) politicians would be a disaster.

Does this mean Wayne Rooney gets the same vote as Prof. David Starkey? Yes, and Starkey would just have to get over it. My point is not that everyone knows as much as everyone else, but that if the final decision is democratic than everyone who cares will have to make an argument strong enough to convince those that don’t. If Starkey wants Rooney’s vote for Der Ring des Nibelungen he will have to convince him that it is better than Agadoo.

This means education.

I’m being very rude about Rooney (for all I know he might love Wagner) but most people would need convincing that 15 hours of German Opera is worth including as one of the human races’ greatest achievements. And that is absolutely right. If something is genuinely of the highest value then it should be able to stand on its own two feet, it should be possible for those who know why, to explain to those who don’t, why it is so important. I’m not saying they have to like it, but they should be able to appreciate it. If they don’t, it doesn’t belong in the Canon.

This is my current attitude to Jane Austen. I don’t like her, I find her boring and her books are full of people I don’t care about. However, I have been convinced (by people who know and care a lot more than I do) that she is a great and important literary figure. So, should she go into the Canon? Absolutely, she has my vote.

What about Dostoyevsky? Yep. Simone de Beauvoir? She has my vote. The Bhagavad Gita? Definitely. This is easy. Billy Holiday? Eh, yes, although I guess some would argue. Ok, how about The Beatles, Jack Kerouac, Hilary Mantel and Mondrian?

I said it wasn’t going to be easy. But I think we should welcome the discussion. At the moment the debate is marginalised – a sort of intellectual bun-fight between those on the right who say ‘Canon good’ and those on the left who say ‘Canon bad’. I believe we should drag this debate out of the shadows and on to BBC 1 at 7 O’clock on a Saturday night, every week for a year. It can be hosted by Bruce Forsyth and accompanied by the BBC Big Band, I don’t care, but lets have this fight out in the open. So what if the viewing figures don’t stack up against the X-Factor. I believe if Shostakovich is so blooming good, he’ll eventually win out against a singing dog.

At the end of the year we’ll have a vote and that will become the Canon for the next year. Then we will start the whole process all over again. To start with, I guess, it might be a bit hit and miss, but over time the cream will rise and it won’t be all old and white, it will include all different shades of colour and style.

Call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one (although I probably am on this one). Isn’t education about the journey rather than the destination? Isn’t it better to have strived and failed, than to have never tried at all? Isn’t it the purpose of education to travel not in faith, but in hope?

*At this point the speaker fell of his soapbox and into the road. There was a suggestion someone pushed him.*



Leave a comment
  1. Michael Fordham August 16, 2013 at 4:45 pm #


    Many thanks for this – it’s a very interesting and helpful contribution to a debate which, as you say, can become tired.

    I think further curricular and pedagogical implications flow from this. I’d agree that a canon definitely does exist – or, more specifically, different canons exist, and have changed over time. Mr Gove’s canon is different to mine and both are probably different to yours. If a canon does (or canons do) exist then they are interesting in their own right and as such are worthy of study in school. For this to meaningful to pupils, I’d suggest, it would seem necessary to determine the criteria by which a canon is constructed. If one criteria is ‘influence on subsequent writers’ then one will choose a different set of texts from somebody else. Ensuring that such questions are asked in school means, in some senses, that it does not matter what precise texts are on or off the list, provided pupils have the opportunity to see that the list is by its nature provisional; understanding the provisional and changing nature of a canon by understanding the criteria by which it is constructed would to my mind be a worthwhile goal. We have a similar approach in the history curriculum through considerations of the way in which ‘significance’ is ascribed and there’s a growing literature on this which English Literature specialists might find helpful.

    Before someone accuses me of postmodern nihilism, however, I think the position I’ve taken above does not necessarily imply that all canons are of equal value. (With similar apologies) I suspect I would go more with ‘Starkey’s’ canon over ‘Rooney’s’. My argument would be (in response to the postmodern challenge) that clarity about the criteria and values embedded in a canon allows us to avoid an ‘anything goes’ scenario. The difficulty, of course, is not trying to address the second-order question of canon construction without a knowledge of what the canon contains and what it does not. I’d happily spend time reading Austen with kids, and then sit down for half an hour to discuss why someone (me, the HoD, the head, the SoS) thought they needed to read this.

    Just some thoughts!


    • Tim Taylor August 18, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

      I think you’re right to suggest any debate on the creation of ‘The Canon’ as a distinct, agreed, and established body of work, requires first a debate on criteria. Part of what I was trying to highlight, in my rather jokey blog, was how difficult it would be to agree on anything like a definitive list. People have vastly different and varied opinions on this subject – one person’s Lutoslawski is another’s cacophony of noise. However, just because something is difficult to do, doesn’t mean it is not worth trying.

      I agree we should avoid the postmodern nihilist position – which is really a dead-end – and, if we do eventually want to agree on a Canon, then we most start with a debating on, “What is great art?” Of course there must be an acknowledgement that this question is itself liable to deconstruction, but this does not necessarily mean it will loose all purpose and meaning. In my opinion, it is the great failure of modern philosophy that it has become marginalised and the province of an intellectual elite and is considered ‘unsuitable’ for mass public consumption. I’m quite serious that a Great Debate on the Canon should happen on prime-time telly on the BBC. It is after all our country’s public-service broadcaster.

      It should start with a debate on the criteria, then on establishing a short-list and finish with a national democratic vote to decide on the final works. Like a referendum. Voting for those who vote on our behalf is a cop-out.

      • Jill Berry August 18, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

        (Don’t invite David Starkey to the TV debate, though – have heard him speak live twice and find him unbearably arrogant. I’d be more interested in what Wayne Rooney had to say….)

  2. Debra Kidd August 17, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    I think I would say that there are certain authors who have added such wealth to our understanding of the world that they ought be be included by right of influence and richness of the knowledge they impart. For that reason, obviously, Shakespeare would be up therefore for his contribution to the development of the English Language. But I don’t think that anyone has the right to say which particular work should be studied. who’s to say that one play deserves more attention than another? For me, a canon is related to the notion of core knowledge and it is here where I find some common ground with the core knowledge idea. An avid reader expands core knowledge through reading books – rather than building facts into a curriculum, we could develop reading lists which advance cultural capital. For example, children learn a great deal about the court of Henry VIII through Hilary Mantel or about the history of Afghanistan through The Kite Runner. This would allow a different spin to take hold – the choice would not be about which book is ‘better’ but about which books enhance our understanding of the world.

    I also think that choice is an essential part of becoming a scholar and reader.I studied literature at university and I liked being given a time period from which I would choose authors and works for further study. There was a reading list of suggestions, but students were free to go off piste if they found someone they loved. This is where I think the idea of a canon becomes almost impossible. We will never agree on the books and nor should we. I do love Jane Austen, but I think we learn more about the society she lived in from Mansfield Park than from P&P which is more iconic so which would we put on the canon? I think if Anne Bronte hadn’t died so early on in her career, she would be more renowned than either of her sisters – the work she left behind I prefer, but who would we put on the canon? If it’s only about influencing other writers, we’d have to put Bridget Jones’ diary on there for spawning a tide of chic lit, but I doubt that’s what people mean when they say influence. I just find the whole thing too controlling. But if we were to say that children should study trends or themes or developments in literature, things might get interesting. Let’s say we said that all children should explore the notion of tragedy – you’d have to start with Aristotle and take in Shakespeare and Miller – disparity under a banner.

    I think the debate is an interesting idea, but I fear we’d never reach agreement and I actually think that’s a healthy thing. It says that there is just too much good stuff to try to simplify it all down to a few key books. Get children reading. Get them hungry for more and then they can spend their whole lives amassing their canon.

    • Tim Taylor August 18, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

      Thanks for commenting Debbie. This is where we agree, “I think the debate is an interesting idea, but I fear we’d never reach agreement and I actually think that’s a healthy thing.” And this is where we depart, “It says that there is just too much good stuff to try to simplify it all down to a few key books.”

      For me, the Canon could be an ongoing conversation about what constitutes great art. At the moment, the discussion is limited to a small number of those who are interested, with the rest of society either opting out or simply not engaging. By having an ongoing debate about the “few key books” I would hope the number of those interested would steadily grow and we would see a gradual increase in awareness, perhaps with more people visiting art galleries, reading ‘quality books’ (whatever that ends up meaning) and being more discerning about TV, music etc.

      All very idealistic. But not impossible. I believe its a process that is already happening slowly and has been for a long time. There is a common consensus that people are less educated than they were in the past, less interested in art and less able to concentrate for long periods. I think this is an error, and in fact the opposite is true. I find “Everything Bad is Good for You” is a compelling book on this subject.

      In short, any Canon (however disputed and unsatisfactory) is better than none.

  3. Sue Cowley August 17, 2013 at 11:26 am #

    I’d like to approach this debate from a slightly different angle – thinking about how we can use reading and books and literary analysis to help inspire children to become writers, as well as helping them become knowledgeable readers.

    The books that I read as a child were part of what inspired me to want to make my living as a writer. Being taught books by women, including some modern (and non white) women writers, helped me believe that this was something that I could do myself. It does slightly worry me that so many of the blogs I read are written by men, despite the fact that the profession is more female than male. Traditionally it *has* been harder for women writers to make their voices heard, so logically the older books we value do tend to be written by men. We have to accept that we send a subtle message to young girls if all or most of the books that we say they should study are by men.

    As Debra says, my canon is different to your canon, I like to read different things to you. But, crucially, I do love reading. This, surely, is what we should be after? Sorry I’m not sure what that adds to the debate but these are my concerns.

    • Tim Taylor August 18, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

      Thanks for commenting Sue. I wholeheartedly agree what is crucial (above all else) is that we strive to encourage a love of reading in our students. What really is the point in teaching children to read, if at the end of the process they hate books? Unless, of course, it is just for them to get a good grade in the tests.

      Unfortunately, too many children consider the kinds of books, art, music, theatre etc that might appear on the Canon, as something to be avoided – a chore to dodge under normal circumstances.

      Promoting, rather than imposing. Endearing, rather than foisting. Creating a love of the Canon, rather than an aversion. This is the real challenge. In contrast, agreeing on the works of the Canon would be a stroll in the park.

  4. Jill Berry August 17, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

    I’m another Eng Lit graduate/teacher and I agree that this is a debate worth having and that it’s an important issue to think about. I can’t see how you can ever define the criteria sufficiently to get past the subjectivity (and how passionate people get about such things as a result of this subjectivity) but perhaps that’s not a problem if we accept that it’s the thinking/discussion that matters rather than having any clear outcome?

    But I was struck by Sue’s comment above: “It does slightly worry me that so many of the blogs I read are written by men, despite the fact that the profession is more female than male” – this is making me thoughtful too. I do follow quite a few women bloggers but often the nature of their blogs is quite different from many of the men I follow. Sue and Debra aren’t actually typical of most of the women bloggers whose posts I read, and certainly they’re not typical of women teachers and school leaders I know who say they don’t think they could ever blog. Sue and Debra may be more confident than most and they appear to cope better (in terms of response) to criticism and disagreement (often strongly worded!) which comes with the blogging territory. Is that an outrageous thing for me to have said? (Getting off the ‘canon’ issue, sorry Tim!)

    • Tim Taylor August 18, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

      Hi Jill, thanks for commenting. On your first point, I think you put my argument better than I do, “perhaps that’s not a problem if we accept that it’s the thinking/discussion that matters rather than having any clear outcome?” That’s it in a nutshell!

      On your second point. The argument is very valid, but perhaps the subject of a different blog discussion. Personally, I believe there is a very great deal of truth in what you say. I would certainly be very interested in reading what you, Sue, Debbie and other woman bloggers have to say on the matter.

  5. ChemistryPoet August 18, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    The Canon? There are so many layers to this (obviously). What are the key questions/processes that The Canon needs to answer/initiate? Leveling of the playing field/ effective citizenship/ creating life-long readers/ encouraging writers/ finding English majors/ creating societal common core cultural knowledge/ enabling common understanding???
    And, which of these should schools and teachers be addressing (and which parents or wider society)? Tim’s democratic idea is an interesting one, but we know (deep down) this wouldn’t work. The Canon also has to be limited in scope, otherwise everyone would spend all their time reading (and there are other things that need to be done – alas). I have a tendency towards traditionalism, but hate the idea of defining a Canon (narrow or wide) that people (and children) should/must read. The debate so far demonstrates why. Although most people would agree that some writing has more merit than some others, agreeing on criteria and then on actual works is too subjective, and too open to manipulation (intentional or non-intentional).
    I want schools to open the minds of children; to encourage and empower. Literature is a key part of that process, I think. Generally, I don’t want schools to define what children should read – but I do want them to show children what they could read (which would mean defining what they must read from time to time).

    • Tim Taylor August 18, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

      Thank you for your very interesting comment, I think you correctly list many of the hurdles that face the creation of the Canon. It certainly would be an uphill battle, with little chance of success and an uncertain outcome.

      However – not unsurprisingly – I disagree that ‘deep down’ we know the democratic idea won’t work. Why not? Is it so impossible? We might feel it is extremely unlikely, but unlikely things happen from time to time. What reasons are there for thinking it could never work?

      • ChemistryPoet August 18, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

        Principally, the democratic process would become the focus for dissent. It would become politicised, and open to all the normal tactics of manipulation you find in political debate. It would become polarised and a proxy for ideological debate between ‘traditionalists’, ‘progressives’ and ‘egalitarians’ (and others I haven’t thought of). Even agreement on the purpose wouldn’t be reached. Any resulting Canon would be rejected by individual groups and its status would be disputed. As you point out, there would need to be an ongoing element to this, so the process of reviewing the Canon would itself become a festering wound, and instead of promoting harmony and consensus, it would promote conflict and entrenched ideological divisions. Sorry, a bit negative. However, I don’t think debate should stop:
        A more fruitful approach might be to debate the desirability of a Canon, rather than the content of it. What would it be for (in the context of education)? I don’t think that the answer to this has been explored anywhere near enough, yet. Instead, the debate has moved on to what should be in it. Its purpose is much more important, because identifying unintended consequences is very, very necessary. As I mentioned in my original reply, I am nervous about telling people what they should be interested in, or what they should read. [By the way, I am also nervous about superficial explorations into ‘common cultural currency’, and importing those findings into education.]

  6. Brian Edmiston August 25, 2013 at 12:44 am #

    Sorry I’m a bit of a Johnny-come-lately here. I agree with Tim that it’s the conversation that’s important. Like reading itself, and teaching, I always believe it’s the journey not the arrival that’s more important.

    I’m writing from the US (though I’m from the UK originally) where the Canon has in effect just morphed into a list of “complex texts” attached to the new Common Core State Standards (the first step toward a National Curriculum?). Who got to choose those texts is a poststructural question that I like to raise but as people have noted it’s not going to remove or add to the list which is not going to go away as teachers begin right now across the country to turn to a list to know what they should be reading.

    I don’t have much of a problem with our “Canon” – you’ll likely guess what’s on there. And for teachers who actually look (or are allowed to do so by principals) they’ll see that the list is not prescriptive at all – so in that sense I like it.

    My problem (as always) is with people telling me (as a professional) what I should or should not be doing. That doesn’t mean I don’t want debate (a al this Blog). However, it’s the top-down assumption (by so many living and dead white males and their female wannabes) which is so profoundly undemocratic that I resist. I value dialogue. I’d embrace conversations in schools, and classrooms, about what we could (should?) be reading and studying. That’s at the heart of democracy – the struggle to move forward when there is disagreement.

    What I’d like to see mandated is that the conversations should happen – teachers (and students!) should be required (not all the time!) to create their own Canons (not the plural). Wouldn’t it be great to hear from recent immigrants to a school (and their parents) what they’d like us to read that might enlighten us about their culture. And I’m going to champion Shakespeare (and Homer … and the Beatles) but not just because I’m taller and older (and greyer) so I get to make you read this. No! If I want to bring texts to children (part of what I’m paid to do) I should be able to say why – and defend that with colleagues, and parents – and students. (No more “we do this cos Mr Gove says its good for you but I hate it”. Tim knows what that leads to).

    When I lose faith in democracy I remember the classrooms where I’ve been invited into (I’m an education Professor) where there is an assumption that everyone has a voice – everyone should be heard, everyone can participate in dialogue. I see a huge part of my job as a teacher is to not to let anyone dictate everything that goes on in a classroom space (including me!).

    I think my job is to create the climate and the activities in which we not only dialogue about what we might read but even more important about what we read means. Last year I used (the story and some of the text of) The Illiad with a small group of 14 year old “special” youngsters – supposedly “struggling” readers who were “behind” – their canon was pretty dumbed down material that would send me to sleep in 2 minutes. They loved meeting me-as-Achilles. They read an edited down account of his battle with Hector as we enacted it. And they were disgusted by what happened to the dead body – read it if you don’t know! I didn’t have to defend Homer to them – they told their parents why they loved him. Homer had just entered their Canon. The next time I went in they chose the text – they wanted to read about the sinking of the Titanic … (now which canonical texts would you have read? Mr Cameron? Mr Andrews?)

    My point is that talk about what to read and dialogue about what we read should be local. By all means let those positioned as the good and the wise give us their lists but let those ready to explore literature go for it – knowing that they have to answer anyone who asks why they’re reading that – and why they should not be reading what they are passionate about. I’d say that goes for everyone: children, teachers, parents, principals … and Secretaries of State for Education!


  1. On teaching the canon | Hillwalking et cetera - August 20, 2013

    […] One recent suggestion by Tim Taylor for resolving this is that some form of democratic approach to content selection might be the best way forwards. I can see the argument: as a society, we cannot agree on what should be in and what should be out, and therefore it would be better to open up the choice to some form of public vote. I like the idea of encouraging public involvement in the discussion (and I am sure the BBC is already drafting the contract that will let Tim retire (please don’t, by the way)) but I am not convinced that a radical model such as this is the best approach for constructing a canon or a curriculum. There are concerns about the quality of what might come out of this and of the competence of the public for making such choices, though these critiques might be understood as patronising, and in any case the point is that what counts as quality is itself contentious. The winning argument for me, however, is the fact that a democratic vote does not provide an appropriate internal logic for a curriculum. A curriculum does, to my mind, have to be coherent: its parts must relate to the whole and the whole to the parts; to try and produce such coherence ex post facto out of a democratic selection would be to put the cart before the horse. […]

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