Role of Literary Canon

Roleof Literary Canon

Theimportance of literary works cannot be understated as far as thegrowth and development of a particular society is concerned. Indeed,literary works play a fundamental role in enhancing the process ofchange for the society. However, it is well acknowledged that moreoften than not, literary works follow particular sequences ornotions. This may be seen in terms of the laid out syllabuses orcurricula that educators are required to adhere to. This introducesthe concept of literary canon, which frequently comes up especiallyin the context of discussions pertaining to the place of literaturein curriculum programs and syllabuses. Of course, it is wellacknowledged that the decisions that policy makers, curriculumdevelopers and educators make pertaining to the content of aparticular literature curriculum comes with certain predisposingpolitical and theoretical implications or effects. For instance, thecanon is usually accused of being a representation of ethnocentricvalues that are positional to diversity and are an embodiment ofhistorical and absolute judgments that can never be sustained.

Definingthe Literary Canon

Theterm “canon” in English has been derived from Greek “kanon”which underlines a measuring rod and rule in law. This wordeventually obtained a religious meaning with regard to canon law and,consequently, came to underline an authoritative list pertaining toapproved books. Within the educational context, this term usuallyunderlines the specification pertaining to literature texts that haveto be incorporated within the syllabus of a university of school. Ofparticular note is the need to distinguish or differentiate theofficial canon as prescribed by the local and national curriculumdocuments and the de facto canon emanate from actual practice and,which may not incorporate any official status. The concept ofliterary canon may also be defined as a collection of narratives,books and other texts that may be considered as the most influentialand important for a particular place or time period (Guzzetti 56).With the literary canon, an individual or reader would be exposed toa collection, version or type of texts that has, in one way oranother, been determined as being representative of the important oressential movements, authors and historical events in the region inthe course of the time in question. In the course of education, whenan individual is asked to read a poem, essay, novel or any other formof text, it is often because a particular entity, whether it is theeducators, instructors or policymakers, have made decisionspertaining to the texts that must be canonized. In essence, canonsmay be comprehended as value-determining lists that are integrated oringrained in a particular education system (Guzzetti 59).

Thispaper will analyze both the role of the literary canon in the pastand its role in the present modern societies. The traditional roleof canons was to facilitate the selection of quality literature andbest authors to be used in a particular society and be passed over toother generations. Canons originated from the understanding that thesocieties could not pass over everything that was printed by themedia and thus, had to come up with the criteria of selecting thequality prints that could be passed to other generations (Guzzetti63). Secondly, canons aimed at selecting texts that were seen as arepresentative of the style and genres in the period underconsideration and also texts which address issues of nationalsignificance or have had a positive impact on culture over time. Theytherefore helped to preserve the best of cultural heritage

Consequently,they brought together all the material writings that were believed toequip the readers with the necessary reading and writing skillsneeded in the society thereby creating standards that were used torate someone as competent to proceed to the next level say from highschool to college.

Canonswere also used as a representation of shared values and collectiveidentity. They were made from a consensus of leaders in theparticular society and were not static or immune from change. Canonsare said to be revised over time

Inthe modern society, current argument focuses more on the amendment ofthe canons other than abolition of the same. Canons are still seen tobe playing a major role in setting the parameters for determiningreadings that are more desirable and applicable to the moderncurriculum. They are defined as value determining lists of books thatare encompassed in the education system. The arguments are not toabolish them but to make them more inclusive. The curriculumdevelopers therefore, should come up with canons that are moreflexible for teachers and pupils integrating both cultural andnational aspects.

Canonsalso serve as a major basis of comparison of different generations.By bringing together values and cultural practices at a particulartime, they create an archive where pupils in the modern society willconceptualize literature more by comparing what used to happen in thepast versus what is happening now (Guzzetti 64). Students areconsequently able to understand and articulate the ideas of otherswhile at the same time express their own opinions, insights and maketheir own conclusions.

Canonsalso raise the standards of literature by availing accurate texts anddefining terms and conditions by which such texts are studied. Byavailing the literature material globally as it’s the case in themodern societies, people are able to study how literature is createdthus becoming better readers. Readers are therefore responsible forchoosing which literature interests them most thus developing anindividual sense of taste in literary practice.

The‘influential people’ charged with the responsibility of coming upwith the literary canons ranges from the teachers and religiousleaders in the past to scholars and curriculum developers in themodern societies.

Thematerial to be included in the canon and what to be left out wasdetermined by the leaders charged with that mandate. According toStephen Behrendt, an English professor, most of the educators whocontributed to canonization in the past were teachers and religiousleaders. They canonized materials which they believed to apprehendthe moral values and sanctions approved in their respectivesocieties. The western literary canon was dictated by the peopleknown to be well educated, socially privileged and economicallysecure. They were referred to us the cultural elite (Guzzetti 45).They selected texts and materials by race, gender and social settingsup until in the 1960s when scholars emanating from diversedemographics took part in reforming the biased and outdated cannons.They introduced changes that incorporated social, political, andmoral and gender aspects that were ignored in the prior paradigm. Inthe modern societies, the academic curriculum developers in liaisonwith the scholars come up with modern canons (Ross 56).

Thecanon concept largely influences the general public by making thembelieve that their works can only be publicized if it is compatibleor in line with the approved texts and key accepted titles worthy ofreading in the society irrespective of whether they have beenproperly written down. People have been conditioned to depend on thejudgement made by the arbitrators of canons. They are made to believethat the work of a listed author is most appropriate for reading.This subjects them to major weaknesses as the works of a certainauthor are not of the same quality.

Thecanons also have a major impact on education. The curriculumdevelopers have set out the specifications of literature texts andbooks that should be included in the syllabus in every level of theeducation, be it high schools or universities. This has conditionedpupils mind towards the limited number of books listed under thecanon. Even with the availability of all variety of books in theinternet in form of Google books and internet archives and in majorresearch libraries around the world, the readers will not undertaketheir personal initiative to read other books other than those listedas important in the canon. Canons therefore limit the student’sability to read and make their own judgments (Guillory 45). Somesyllabuses limit the range of the books published within certainduration such as not earlier than 1950s or use genre to prescribewhat should be included in the texts such as drama and poetry.

Canonsare specific to each country, where by each country has its own listof what texts and works of authors have should be included in thecanon. There is no internationally accepted canons rather thecountries operate by their own rules. However, this does notundermine the fact that some countries may influence others to takeup other tasks. For instance, it has been acknowledged that theBritish curricula was primarily adopted in its colonies for a longtime and to this day, few former colonies have managed to cut thechords with regard to the traditions or conventions that they use inselecting their literary works in any given time period (Guillory49).

Nevertheless,there were changes in the literary traditions that were adopted inthe 60s in a large number of countries. It may well be acknowledgedthat writers are inspired to compose works on the basis of thedynamics of the societies within which they live. In the 60s, themain occurrences revolved around matters pertaining to race, class,ethnicity and the civil rights movement (Bloom 61). As much as theremay have been other elements such as the continuing Cold War and theVietnam Wars, the civil rights movements were quite fundamental tothe extent of inspiring changes in the contents of literary works.Essentially, this also inspired changes in the syllabuses and thecurricula that was adopted in the schools or rather that writersfocused on at that time (Bloom 63). In the case of Brazil andPortugal, it became imperative that the education curriculum andsyllabuses that they had be aimed at ensuring social changes andeliminating classes or rather the status quo. Essentially, thecurriculum was primarily leftist in nature as the governments ofthese places sought considerably more equitable social structures fortheir countries and societies. The adoption of Marxist policies andthe incorporation of the same in the syllabuses was the main featureat this time.

Atthe turn of the century, however, there was a fundamental change inthe focus of the countries. Of particular note is the fact that theyhad been under the influence of other powers such as the Britons andthe United States, in which case the syllabuses that they adopted orthe topics that were popular in the mainstream curricular were moreor less inspired by these countries (BaroliniandWayne70). At the turn of the century and millennium, it became apparent inthe two countries that there was a dire need for the curricular to beaimed at creating opportunities for the masses and aligning theircapabilities or energies to the achievement of more equality.Instead, the curricular that was adopted in the two countriesprimarily entailed imbuing or imparting real life skills to thepopulace particularly the youth so as to enable them to change thesociety in which they lived. Of course, they never abandoned thegoals of enhancing equality in their societies.

Asscholars have noted, the rereading of the Brazilian contemporaryculture and literature coupled with their consequences takes placesimultaneously with the review of Brazilian cultural and literarypast. In this case, the new history brought other modernities thatthen deconstruct and relate with the canonic modernities. Theseinclude the critical re-evaluation of the modernism itself andvanguard concretism (Kolbas 56). It may also be noted that theMarxism did not take root for long. Indeed, scholars acknowledge thatthe literary trend was characterized by a movement fromauthoritarianism to democratization, as well as the slowrelinquishing of Marxist and structuralist formalisms in favor oflinguistic pragmatism, as well as the deconstruction.

Inthe case of semi-peripheral countries like Portugal, curriculaemergence may be associated with emergence of public schools that laythe basis for its conventions. In spite of the varying politicalorientations, the curriculum structures remained centralized,concentrating fully on administrative competencies. Initially, thehigher education based teacher education was institutionalized withthe curriculum including theory and compulsory subject matters.Nevertheless, the globalization has largely influenced the Portuguesecurricular context. This becomes evident in the resignification ofcurriculum within the level of assessment, contents and organization(BaroliniandWayne72). A change of the notion of knowledge was effected with theconcept gaining new value and being perceived as a commodity thatrelates to valuing of numerous competencies and particularly subjectssuch as English, technology and math. It is acknowledged that as muchas there may have been an increase in the emphasis of scholars onthese subjects, the manner in which the curriculum was imparted inthe students also changed. Rather than have a teacher focusedcurriculum, the country adopted a student focused curriculum andteaching practice where the students were allowed to take up morefundamental and descriptive roles in the determination of the contentand the manner in which they will be taught. It became necessary thatthe content of literary works be aligned to the national goals, inwhich case the skills that individuals obtained from the works weresuited for the requirements of the job market. This means that thecurricula did not operate in a vacuum rather it was dictated by theenvironment and the occurrences that were observed in the society atthat time. Key among the objectives was to break ties with theBritons and other European countries in determining the form ofeducation that was provided in the country (Kolbas 59). Whether ornot this has been achieved remains controversial and subject todebate. Nevertheless, it may be acknowledged that the changes wereprimarily aimed at matching the requirements of the contemporarysociety to the curricula or the knowledge that was imbued, as well ascutting links with the influence of other countries. This isessentially the role that raptures of literary canons play. It isnoted that literary works are supposed to allow for theaccomplishment of particular goals. In instances, where there is amismatch between the provisions of the curricular and therequirements of the generations at that time, there is bound to be achange in the literary canons of that country or even across theglobe.

Raptureswith Literary trends

Asnoted earlier, literary works often follow particular conventions ortraditions as it is required that they align themselves to what isaccepted. However, there are instances where individuals break awayfrom the traditions and adopt structures that are different from theones that have been espoused in the conventional literary works(BaroliniandWayne73). This implies that they may not even go as far as being acceptedin the mainstream educational curricula as they are deemed tooradical. However, the radical literary works that do not adhere tothe laid out conventions still get adopted, thereby breaking awayfrom tradition. This is what is called rupture with literarytraditions.

Ofcourse, there is not structured way or time within which ruptureswith literary canons or traditions occur. However, it may be notedthat there are some fundamental reasons or factors that must bepresent for the rupture to occur. More often than not, ruptures areacknowledged to occur in instances where the policymakers ineducation curricula become dissatisfied with the results of theliterature that is being used or incorporated in the curricula(BaroliniandWayne76). This is more or less a natural process that takes place ininstances where the demands of the society at a particular time areinconsistent with the provisions of particular curricula, in whichcase it becomes imperative that the literary traditions are changed.

The6thdecade was, with no doubt, a period that saw fundamental changes notonly within the literary front but also the social and politicalelements of the country. It may be noted that literary works are aproduct of the society within which they are created, in which caseany changes in the social and political elements of the same arebound to cause a change in the literary traditions. Essentially,being a time when the civil rights movement was at its peak, itbecame imperative that changes are made in the literary traditions,with scrutiny being increased on the content of the books. Scholarsnote that books that touched on race or ethnic aspects were deemedinappropriate, with policymakers favoring texts that never mentionedthe topic at all (Bloom 69). This was also the case in the turn ofthe century when it became apparent that the baby-boomer generationwas no longer the target audience but another entirely new generationwhose attention span was considerably short. Essentially, it becameimperative that curricula is changed so as to allow students to takea more active role in their education and the manner in which theywere instructed in the long-term.

The60s saw drastic changes in the educational curricula of theBrazilians. Scholars have acknowledged that the industrializationprocess resulted in drastic modifications of the social structureswhile there was a sharp increase in inequality between the powerfulindividuals and the individuals that existed at the subsistencelevel. It is noted that Paulo Freire comprehended the fact that theeducation system encouraged status quo, where the lower classes werebeing domesticated rather than being educated. While he believed thatthe lives of individuals could only be changed through education, heimbued Marxist or leftist themes that would imbue changes in thesocial structure to allow all people to lead dignified lives. Similarchanges were seen in the case of Portugal where the new educationalsociology came up within the context of critiquing British sociologyof education (SouzaandValter55). Prior to the changes the British sociology of education had adominant conceptual framework that entailed functionalism founded onpolitical arithmetic or methodology pertaining to fundamentalenquiries that were applied. The changes were aimed at moving to afunctioning education system that allowed for the predominance ofconnections between schooling and social structure. As was the casein the 60s, the new millennium saw fundamental changes being carriedout in the education and curricula of Portugal. Scholars acknowledgethat the Portuguese curricula construction and especially theschool-based curricular tradition was immensely influenced by thestrategic thoughts pertaining to transnational and supranationalorganizations rather than by discussions occurring in universities.The increased globalization of the 21stcentury was characterized by political and economical issues thatdefine the highly structuring and common agenda for education andculture (SouzaandValter56). The country adopted cosmopolitan curriculum that enabledstudents to engage in the curricula rather than simply memorizingconcepts and being introduced to great works.

Ofcourse, the changes in the literary cannons or rather the rupturefrom literary traditions were the result the works of numerousauthors and writers at that time. Some of the key players in thischange included Ana Mafalda Leite, Antonio Candido, Fatima Mendonca,and Francisco Noa. In the United States or Americas, writers such asNina Serrano, Jonah Raskin, Hilton Obenzinger, Elaine Elinson andBarry Willdorf (Luke et al ). Of particular note is the fact thattheir works did not simply entail the works or traditions that wereallowed at that time but rather explored beyond the conventions andcame up with ideas that were seen as considerably radical. Theyexplored topics that were deemed as taboo including books such as“WhereverThere’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants,Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California”, “Out of the Whale: Growing Up in the American Left”, “TheRadical Jack London&nbsp” as well as other books that explored theexploits of the war veterans in Vietnam or issues pertaining to race,class and families.


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