Preserving the Western Canon

As I’ve written about a few times before, I have a love-hate relationship with Harold Bloom (the literary critic), or rather, a love-hate relationship with his views on literature. I like how he wants to preserve what he considers the “Western canon” (the great literary works of the ages), but I don’t like how he seems to think that most modern writing and literature is garbage and that very little of intrinsic beauty and literary worth is being written nowadays. (Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon are two of the modern literary greats, whereas J.K. Rowling and Stephen King are horrible writers.)

I recently read about how schools in North Carolina (in accordance with the national Common Core State Standards) are going to be changing their reading curricula to contain less fiction and more nonfiction, among other sweeping changes, in order to make the United States more able to compete against other countries in the future. Is that a good thing or not? I’m not quite sure. I think most people would argue that learning about fiction is useless, since only a few students will grow up to become authors or English teachers. These days, a lot of emphasis is being placed on the sciences and engineering, because so much of the important work deals with technology and new scientific/medical discoveries.

Back to how Harold Bloom and his Western canon relate to all this… of the fiction that is actually being studied in schools, how much of it is works from the Western canon? I know that in public school, we had to study Shakespeare, Dickinson, Chaucer, whose works are in the Western canon; but we also focused on fiction like The Giver, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Tuck Everlasting, and Where the Red Fern Grows, which are not in the canon at all. Bloom (and those who follow his school of thought; one of my college professors did) believes that less emphasis being placed on works by the former authors, and more emphasis is being placed on works like the latter ones, and that this is a tragedy.

I’m divided. In the elementary and middle grades, it’s fine to talk about modern fiction, like the above-mentioned novels. After all, how many 5th graders will be able to fully comprehend Shakespeare? But in high school and college, students should be more equipped to understand and analyze complicated works like Proust, Faulkner, Joyce, and other items in the Western Canon. Bloom and his followers mention that more college curricula are beginning to require modern works of “literature” to be taught in the classroom, and that the Western canon is fading away from academia.

So… is the Western canon becoming obsolete? Perhaps those works aren’t quite as “timeless” as they seem.

Posted October 12, 2012 by Maggie in Books and Authors


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