In Teaching Cultural Literacy, Who Gets To Determine The Canon?

Ferny Reyes is blogging his experience teaching at a charter school in Texas, and has what I think is a valuable post on the challenges of teaching cultural literacy, along with reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic:

What does it mean to prepare a student for college? At our campus, we talk openly about college-readiness as our standard. Our students should be ready to academic handle the rigors of collegiate life, particularly since a large minority of our students will be attending selective or highly-selective universities. Equally important, however, is preparing them for the culture shock that many collegiate environments will be for them, particularly the further away they get from the city of Houston.

A couple of quick anecdotes will suffice: only 6 of my 125 students have seen any Star Wars movie. Only one had seen the Godfather. The concept of ‘philosophy’ is completely foreign to them. Even the game of baseball is a mystery to most them (taking my students to a baseball game is an experience I’ll be recounting another time).

These are not dumb students. Most of them are hard working, quick-witted and sharp. They are held to more rigorous standards that I and many of my fellow Yale alumni were held during high school. However, the gaps in certain cultural knowledge is extreme. This matters. Knowledge of baseball, the Godfather and Star Wars may seem trivial, but they are symptoms of a much larger conundrum: the inability to gather the tokens of a privileged culture they will have to enter in college and in larger American life…

I cannot, in good conscience, pretend that their cultural experiences will be valued for all that they are worth and that they won’t be judged for not having those markers of cultural knowledge.

I read E.D. Hirsch, who Reyes cites, in high school, and while I find the basic idea of a common set of cultural knowledge we could use to talk to each other across race, class, gender, and generational lines compelling, I’ve always been turned off by Hirsch’s antipathy to multiculturalism. If cultural literacy is just about getting people of color to absorb white and dudely classics, and white and dudely rock, and white and dudely nerd artifacts, it’s of limited utility in a world where the U.S. may be majority minority by 2050. If white folks aren’t going to be a majority in America, maybe the canon should include some Tejano music, some Garcia Marquez, and some foundational hip-hop:

The problem is who really gets to define the canon. It’s a monster of a task. Should works be included on a strictly proportional basis that can shift overtime? Based on longevity with some acknowledgment that the relative disempowerment of women, people of color, and gay artists and thinkers have been historically disenfranchised? Have some formula that lets scholarly opinion and popular taste, both of which can evolve over time, each pick some works? And how much should educational institutions be responsible for teaching popular rather than foundational works (if you accept that there’s a difference between them)?

It may not have been an official part of my curriculum, but as someone who grew up with more knowledge of folk music and feminist YA fantasy novels than genuine popular culture, I’ve always been grateful to the teachers who showed me Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, chunks of The Simpsons, and Listen To Me, the first movie I ever appreciated for being so bad it was great. All those teachers gave me both concrete knowledge that helped me to do better in school, but they also provided me with conversational tools that served me well later. There are lots of kinds of assimilation. And the people who determine what counts as mass culture, whether it’s high or low, aren’t always going to be the same.