The canon.

I’m no arts expert, but this whole debate about what makes up the English canon seems absurd to me.

My starting points:

1. Cognitivist science is clear: skills require knowledge first.

2. We want kids in the poorest schools to have access to the best universities and highly academic careers. We want them to be able to hold forth in a Newsnight debate and understand a New Statesman article.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was at Oxford that I met an improbably high number of people who had read the Bible beginning to end as a teenager, for interest and understanding, not religious reasons.

There is a canon of literature that has had more of an effect that any other on the shape of our society today. References to Shakespeare, the Bible, Aesop’s fables, Dickens, Jane Austen, Marx and so on are just part of the fabric of remotely intellectual life.

That the canon is mainly written by white men may be considered sad, but it doesn’t actually change that reality.

But if we only teach this canon to more white men, then that fact is never going to change. How can we expect students to be writing first class essays at Oxford if they don’t have this breadth of cultural literacy and references that is standard in academia? How can we expect them to converse with the most powerful people in society, to win them over in interviews and successfully debate them?

Depriving pupils of cultural literacy out of some weak attempt at cultural sensitivity is ultimately entrenching the white male privilege people are so enraged about.

12 thoughts on “The canon.

  1. tabularasaeducation

    Yes! You are absolutely right! Prescribing knowledge is not a ‘Trojan horse for the white man’s agenda’, it is about giving every child the cultural capital they need in order to be a fully functioning member of society!

    Love this, well done Red!

  2. English teacher's daughter

    ‘There is a canon of literature that has had more of an effect that any other on the shape of our society today.’

    But…it’s quite big, and everyone has their own ideas about what counts as the core of the canon. If you tried to go for all of it you’d end up in the crazy position that the history teachers are potentially in, of information overload and the danger of a shallow approach because of time issues. Literary/influential importance is only one criterion for selection; some things surely need to be chosen not because they are themselves core canon, but because they act as a bridge to canonical texts which might be encountered later on (at university or as a general reader).

    Personally I’d prefer the decision about *which bits* of the canon are chosen, and how they’re included *alongside* a broader set of texts, to be taken by teachers through a professional body (a ‘Royal College of Teachers’, or similar), possibly in partnership with universities (or at least with their advice), than a ministry-controlled curriculum, whatever the political stripe.

    As well as avoiding the charge of a political agenda, this would also have the potential to engage the English-teaching profession more closely in the shape of the curriculum. I think it would be absolutely wonderful if the current debates were to lead to this. The Heads’ Roundtable seem to be making a good start on a framework:

    My worry is that although knowledge and ‘cultural capital’ are obviously crucial, it’s also important not to get swept along in the current fad for the kind of content-heavy approach which plays to a certain kind of prescriptive idea of how success can/should be measured.

    Always remember that the greater the emphasis on ‘facts’ as opposed to ‘skills’ (as if such things can really be separated), the easier it is for schools’ performance to be measured by tick-boxes. There is a vested interest in pushing the value of ‘facts’ if you are involved in the corporate education periphery – this is partly why it’s such a big issue in the US, I think, where these companies are much more deeply embedded.

    Not that ‘facts’ themselves are bad; just that it’s vital to look at the agenda of those who are promoting them – just as, as has been pointed out, it’s important to look at whether there is an agenda behind the ‘content is irrelevant’ approach.

    1. ed_podesta (@ed_podesta)

      The voice of sanity from the English Teacher’s Daughter! There is a middle ground. We need to understand that ‘the canon’ might be loaded with political significance in the same way that ‘skills based learning’ can be.

      The two cannot be separated – we cannot know without doing, and we can’t do without knowing. We can do both at the same time.

      I’d love to know which ‘cognitivist scientists’ have shown that knowledge is required _first_.

    2. RedGreen Post author

      Willingham has a chapter in “why don’t students like school?” on teaching skills. You can pull it up on goggle books. The thrust is you can’t just teach skills like thinking; one needs something to think about.

  3. Gerald Haigh

    Young schoolchildren of all backgrounds are already learning the traditional stories of the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean, which have their own cultural resonances.
    On a slightly different tack, ‘English Teacher’s Daughter’ is right to say that, whatever the philosophical position, emphasis on ‘facts’ can, at the pragmatic level, play to the agenda of vested interests.

  4. English teacher's daughter

    RedGreen, this is a straw man. Nobody is saying you should teach ‘thinking’ without any content to ‘think about’. In fact I think it’s probably an epistomological impossibility, even in the furthest reaches of mathematical philosophy.

    The issue is, really, what is being used and how. Non-progressives (is that how they like to think of themselves? I don’t know…) seem to fetishize the literary canon at the expense of other material which may be worthy of study. I made the point on a recent Tabula Rasa blog post, about a similar subject, that this is a little odd, since the canon itself represents a vast body of voices of dissent against the norms of their time.

    A lot of past literary writing, the sort with difficult vocabulary and syntax and written by dead white men is, I can tell you, utterly turgid tosh. Some of it was once required reading for students of the past – part of their ‘canon’. The canon evolves and changes over time, and some things appear and disappear as part of that process. The criteria of what should be taught are for us as a culture, and English teachers as a profession, to decide; but the canon itself is not, and should not be, set in stone.

    Greater thinkers than Daniel Willingham have turned their minds to what knowledge is (, and the formation and use of the canon is a very nuanced subject (see eg There are also *other* useful perspectives on how to solve the problem of pupil (dis)engagement, which dig deeper than what seems to me to be a pretty superficial ‘cultural capital’ concept, such as (which isn’t a laborious read).

    1. English teacher's daughter

      I’ve just realized it wasn’t on TR’s post, it was this one! Anyway, you get my point.

    2. RedGreen Post author

      Urgh just commented and it seems to have disappeared into the ether. My summary of Willingham was poor and facetious, rather than an attempt to misrepresent your argument. The point is, to analyse or evaluate or discuss effectively, you need facts and context to work with. Hence the idea that skills are ridiculous without knowledge first.

      Second, I’m not too concerned with minor disagreements about the contents of the canon (nor do I think it’s static). Any variation has got to be better than the Stone Cold and Heat magazine lessons that are all too common at the moment.

    3. English teacher's daughter

      I’m sorry, but you haven’t addressed *who* you believe is saying that there should be skills without knowledge. Who is claiming to be able to teach skills *without content*? I’d be amazed if you could give examples of such a practice: as I said above, it’s basically impossible. The view that you are perpetuating remains a straw man. You are arguing against something which does not happen.

      Hence, again, my point that it’s a question of *what* knowledge is used to teach the skills.

      It’s actually quite important for young people to learn not to take ‘Heat’ at face value; that in itself is a key kind of knowledge (and skill) when navigating today’s culture. The pressures on young people from those kinds of publications can be damaging, so a critique of their manipulations can only be helpful in getting a bit of perspective.

      But *obviously* that shouldn’t be the only thing young people learn about. I don’t believe any English teacher would say that it is. And I’d like to see an exam syllabus which allowed for such an approach.

      As I’ve said, if a tweak or two is necessary to redress the balance, then fine. But a claim that English teachers are deliberately ‘depriving’ children of ‘cultural capital’ out of some kind of misguided progressivist ideology is plain daft when you look at what is in the set texts.

      And why the harping on Willingham? There are many other people you could have mentioned. You and Tessa Tabula Rasa sound as if you’ve both been working somewhat uncritically through @toryeducation’s rather uninspiring pedagogical reading list…. 🙂

  5. RedGreen Post author

    Why Willingham: you asked, I clarified…

    I didn’t ever claim anyone was teaching skills without content. That’s not central to my argument; it’s a starting point which means we need to consider content. Hence the rest of my post on why I consider “canon” content the right choice.

    I work in a school with pretty entrenched low expectations. Of Mice and Men is seen as a fearsome tome. Rigour and/or influence are certainly not the barometers used for choosing texts prior to GCSE. The idea that “content matters” is just alien to the department; as long as it is possible to write a PEE paragraph out of it, they are happy and not remotely ashamed by teaching that content.

    I don’t want to slaughter the English department in my school because I honestly think it’s a far wider problem than just them. They are a committed team but it seems all their training, CPD, and experience at other challenging schools has blinkered them to this extremely skills based view of the subject.

    1. English teacher's daughter

      Well, since as you say, you don’t really think skills can be taught before knowledge, it seems to me that the argument is really about choice of content. Which is not so much a cognitive issue as a cultural and sociological one; it’s about value judgments inside and outside schools. Does that sound reasonable? You sound passionate about widening access to areas of knowledge which have depth, and what one might call good provenance. I think that’s wonderful.

      But when you suggest that teachers using material outside the canon are ‘Depriving pupils of cultural literacy out of some weak attempt at cultural sensitivity’, that’s pretty strong stuff, and quite judgmental. It’s good that someone from a different department is showing interest in the English department, as you are, but I’m sure there are issues within your own department which would not be best addressed by people who do not know the subject well. This may also be the case with the English staff at your school.

      It does seem to me that there is perhaps a pattern here (and I speak as someone with experience of unhappy organizations and teams in the past, and who attended a struggling comp in pre-Baker days). Both you and Tessa TR posted in your blogs about particular knowledge-based approaches, which, understandably perhaps, you’re both keen on because they seem to offer a solution to issues which you perceive within your respective schools.

      After a bit of discussion, though, it seems that in both cases the issue can be unpicked as not so much a simple question of curriculum choice, but of compromises which you both feel have been made in challenging circumstances in specific departments. Does that sound fair?

      If that’s the case, then it seems to me that the thing to work towards might be a means to share and develop best practice, rather than simply pushing for a more prescriptive use of the canon while putting down the work that’s happening at the moment.

      I suggested to Tessa that she try and start something on Facebook or somewhere to get people talking about the curriculum in a broader way. History teachers have started to do that, in response to the draft curriculum, and it seems to be leading to some great debate among practitioners. I’m certain there would be some fabulous teachers out there who could contribute to an English one.

      I think it’s great, by the way, to have the ideas out there and discussed; and I agree that if there are unhappy teachers or departments who feel embattled, then something needs to be done to remedy the situation, because that’s not good for anyone. But (from experience, again) it’s generally more effective to find ways to take people with you – the image of pulling on a piece of string so it moves along, vs pushing it so it crumples, springs to mind. Maybe I should write management self-help books 😉

      One last suggestion, which is not the most fast-paced read in the world but I think utterly fascinating in its implications: a friend of mine lent me Pasi Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons, and I thought his ideas, although sometimes counterintuitive, were really interesting.

      Now I really must go and make the dinner.

  6. ed_podesta (@ed_podesta)

    It’s the addition of the _first_ that’s confusing us. I’ve not read Willingam, blame my politcal correctness if you like, but I’ll put him on the list (along with the Finnish Lessons).

    However, I’d be really sceptical of your claim that you have to teach knowledge first. I suspect that teaching either skills or knowledge ‘first’ would be equally ineffective. You cannot do one without the other. Be careful that you don’t react to your colleagues entrenched views by replacing them with a set of your own :).

    You should also re-read English Teacher’s Daughters comments again – she’s very wise! If one is to change people’s attitudes, a direct confrontation seldom works, and usually either entrenches views, or sends them underground


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