Making Room in the Canon – A question of adding rather than subtracting

This week, Mr. Kristopher Churchill considers the role of literary “classics” in the modern English classroom. At TCS since 2009, Mr. Churchill is the head of Senior School - academics & student life.

Written by guest blogger, Kristopher Churchill

The thoughtfulness of our colleagues in the English department is impressive as they regularly weigh and select novels, short stories, plays and poetry for the English classroom and the edification of our students.

As an engaged supporter and observer of their collective efforts, I ask if there is still room in the canon for the works many my age read in high school, including Lord of the Flies, Little Women, The Odyssey and Of Mice and Men.

I delight in the continued engaging dialogue on what texts will be of interest and relevance to students while continuously seeking a better variety of representative authorial voices. As colleague and Head of English, Barb Brough thoughtfully suggests,

“There is power in language. When we talk about literature, we must be thoughtful about naming a text as a ‘classic’ or ‘great.’ Because, when these ‘classics’ from the canon are primarily telling white, Western and male-driven stories, the implied message is that voices from other communities are not also ‘classic’ or worthy of study or praise.”


Of course, this insight begs the question of what works are to be included as “great reads” and which have run their course and should make way – and it is a territory where exclusion on the syllabus can be as telling as inclusion.

Are more traditional selections class-based and exclusionary?

Yes, often.

At the same time, many represent significant and influential authors with endearing characters and engaging storylines rooted in a given time and place: works that, in some cases, have inspired more contemporary retellings that address pertinent social issues. On the whole, these works are worthy of some continued consideration. In fact, great works should endure the scrutiny of evolving audiences and can teach us much about what, how and who was valued at any time, then and now.

Why the more general proclivity to draw continually from familiar sources, though? Do we want our students to read only what tends to mirror a set or presumed experience, or do we wish to open windows for them – to expand their worldviews?

I say both.

I would quickly add that, with students from over 30 countries in our care, the “classics” in the traditional sense do not reflect many of our current students to start.

As I said, their constant value may be in shedding light on what is and was essential to a particular epoch of writers and readers at a particular point in time. There is no need for erasure if you share my view that progress starts with understanding and acknowledging where we came from.

At the same time, as our TCS colleagues continue to prove, any established repertoire benefits from adding more culturally diverse works through an expansion of voices and experiences in a continued quest for knowledge, enjoyment, touchstones of literary analysis, aesthetics and the acquisition of skills. Perhaps, most importantly, the approach can foster further reflective conversation about one’s place and responsibilities in the world beyond the classroom.

In addition, of course, to re-reading the “classics” with a more critical eye. I would encourage readers to test titles our students are now reading, including Don’t Label Me by Irshad Manji, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Also, the graphic novels Maus l and Maus ll by Art Spiegelman, the former being the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The world continues to evolve, and so do our collective ideas of what makes a great book. Additionally, I agree with my colleagues that representative voices should not be figuratively marginalized within the syllabus as mere electives unshelved only for literature circles.

The many rich, new selections TCS students are reading are positioned front and centre and depict strong individuals with agency – voices of women, people of colour, and those who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community – these books deserve that primacy.

An expanded canon and a critical eye on the past? Yes to both.

What is wrong with allowing our students to see themselves? Or at least attempt to place themselves in the shoes of others who may be living lives sometimes vastly different than their own? Celebrating voices that were long muted?

That, too, is education.



Who Gets to Decide What Belongs in the ‘Canon’?

The Importance of Expanding the Canon

Canons and Classics: Are They Still Relevant?

classics english high school literature