Friday 30 January 2009

Research Bulletin: The Canon and Interpretation

The Western Canon is the set of works of great literary art that have contributed to Western culture. The idea is that an educated person should have read a fair number of them.

The Canon gained impetus, I think, with the proposal that not only are there great works of poetry and prose literature but that for each one there is a correct interpretation. A principal in making this proposal was I. A. Richards (1929; for a micro-review, see our Books on the Psychology of Fiction, by clicking here). Richards did the psychological experiment of giving undergraduates in his English classes "at Cambridge and elsewhere" 13 poems (from the Canon, e.g. by John Donne, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, et al.) without attribution, and asking them to "comment freely in writing about them." He was shocked to find an "astonishing variety of human responses:" most people made wrong interpretations. Education in English literature, for several decades under the influence of Richards and the New Critics, then became teaching people not only what to read but how to read. The watchword was "close reading." Then, of course, came post-modernism, with its scepticism about the Canon and interpretation.

This month, in the journal Poetics, Marc Verboord and Kees van Rees have taken an empirical approach, and asked about influences on what gets taught in literature classes in high-schools in Holland. They analyzed the content of textbooks on literature, and teachers' choices among these textbooks. What they found was that, over the last decades of the 20th Century, the way in which literary authors and their works were presented in textbooks increasingly came to be based on students’ reading preferences rather than a Canon specified by literary experts. Over this period, too, teachers seem to have chosen textbooks that were most responsive to students' preferences.

If this trend is a general one, does it represent a diminution in the value of literary expertise, or the kind of democratization called for by some post-modern critics?

What we (members of this research group) would hope is that among future influences on appreciation of literature would be findings of the psychological effects of reading fiction, for instance on understanding others and ourselves. We might hope, too, for a growing sense of what aspects of literature have such effects (see our micro-reviews of Psychologically Significant Fiction, by clicking here).

I. A. Richards (1929). Practical criticism: A study of literary judgement. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Marc Verboord & Kees van Rees (2009). Literary education curriculum and institutional contexts: Textbook content and teachers’ textbook usage in Dutch literary education, 1968–2000. Poetics, 37, 74-97.

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