Mission Impossible: Teaching for Justice without the Canon

by Guest Blogger
May 7th, 2013

In my last post, I noted that teacher educators who put shaping future teachers into social-justice activists above shaping them into effective instructors are, in my opinion, terribly misguided. I strongly agree with diminishing society’s inequities—and I think effective instructors, by narrowing the achievement gap, are doing just that.

One thing I did not mention is that the most effective instructors narrow the achievement gap in two essential ways: they build students’ knowledge and character (both of which contribute to achievement). Talk of character passes in and out of policy circles. Whether it’s shock at more teenage girls joining gangs or buzz about a book like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, leaders tend to use character as an easy clap line without putting much thought into its cultivation.

But there are effective teachers who think about it every day. More importantly, they strengthen it every day.

Take, for example, Jessica Lahey, whose school emphasizes prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice: “In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles’ impulsive rages, King Ozymandias’ petulant demand that we ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,’ Macbeth’s bloody, ‘vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.’ ”

With a rigorous academic program, effective instructors accomplish academic and character goals simultaneously. Assignments that are challenging and thought provoking develop students’ academic knowledge and skills—and also draw them into humanity’s centuries-long debate about what defines a worthy life.

For those of us lucky enough to have a liberal arts education, this makes perfect sense. But many people with advanced degrees never had the benefit of being educated for freedom. They may not be stuck in the cave, but they aren’t enjoying the sunshine either.

I was reminded of this a couple of times over the past few days. The first reminder came with Mark Bauerlein’s excellent commentary, “What does University of Minnesota have against classics?” Bauerlein writes:

Given that only 39 percent of Minnesota eighth-graders score “proficient” in reading, … we might assume that the University of Minnesota would applaud high school English classes that assign great literary works of the last 500 years.

What could be better for students to read than “Macbeth,” “Don Quixote,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Frankenstein,” or the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Wilde, Willa Cather, Camus, Orwell, and Toni Morrison?

Yet sadly, when a high school offered such a syllabus to the University of Minnesota’s College in the Schools program, it was turned down…. CIS provides a reading list of 86 titles, syllabi outlining assignments and policies, and professional development for high school teachers.

The texts that were rejected are some of the most brilliant, demanding and profound writings in history. But they aren’t on the reading list. The list signals a narrow conception of what 17-year-olds should study. The oldest works are Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and two 1899 novels, Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Apart from a few midcentury texts, the rest of the list is entirely contemporary….

The motives behind this restrictive corpus are indicated by the sample syllabi. One announces the goal of the course in terms common to multiculturalist instruction: “students will understand diverse experiences, languages,”…. The other syllabus declares: “Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and other forms of bigotry are inherent in our culture.”…

The point here is not to censure the course for its contemporary, multiculturalist focus…. Instead, what matters is the active exclusion of the great tradition from Chaucer to Austen to Joyce — from the Puritans to Frederick Douglass to Edith Wharton.

Like Bauerlein, I am very concerned about the works being excluded. I am not concerned with constructing a course that uses literature to help students value diversity and challenge bigotry; that is fundamental work in the humanities. But I think that by excluding time-tested works, these courses limit their ability to accomplish their goals.

History offers us a great variety of cultures. Can one seriously engage in multicultural studies without reading broadly across time and space to find that cultures around the world in the past and present have produced works of lasting beauty? Can one really grasp racism, sexism, etc. by looking at them only in the current context?

Let’s hope that the University of Minnesota will reconsider.

Now, onto my other reminder of how many of us are not being educated for freedom. This reminder, happily, came in the form of a blog post by a retired English professor who would create a spectacular course for high school students. A course that would not only beat back bigotry and be worthy of college credit, it would foster virtue.

Spoiler alert—here’s the ending: “Life doesn’t just happen. We make it happen, for good or bad. We do it best when we learn pietas, or character, with its legacy of decency and discipline fostering empowerment and destiny.”

How would this professor teach character? Through great literature:

I’ve read a lot of books across the years, not surprising I suppose for someone who’s invested more than forty-years in academia. Of those many books, there are a chosen few I’d take with me into island exile. Let me list them. I’d add some poets, too, but not right now:

David Copperfield
The Varieties of Religious Experience
On Liberty.
Mill’s Autobiography
The Odyssey
To Have or To Be
How to Find Freedom in an Unfree World
The Aeneid

I fashioned this list in less than a minute, since each of the items triggers easily recalled memories of excited discovery, awe, and insight.  David Copperfield, for example, I read in eighth grade. From the very beginning I loved it, identifying with David, whose childhood, in good measure, mirrored my own as well as that of Dickens.

Walden, with its eloquence, gave sanctuary not only in wilderness, but in its verbal tranquility.

And there’s John Stuart Mill, that proverbial “saint of rationalism,” two of his books here. On Liberty taught me to hold out against censorship for the rest of my days; how to discern between just and unjust laws; the importance of protecting minority voices in a democratic society.

His Autobiography demonstrated a first rate humanity, a life of balanced thought and feeling, a passion for social justice. There isn’t any person I’d like to imitate more.

I could go on about the remaining works, too, as each of them has constituted a grace upon my life–a favoring of wisdom and influence….

When I studied in Europe on two occasions, England and France, I came upon an important word, character, something I find rarely talked about in America.  Europeans would often talk of someone’s character, encompassing integrity markers like dependability, perseverance, equanimity, fairness, empathy, all adding up to a fundamental decency. It’s what Vergil advocated. It’s what Mill is all about. It’s what I’d like, when all things are said and done, people to say of me: “I like his character.” I think it’s what you want too.

It is what I want. And I thank all the effective instructors in my life who put challenging, thought-provoking, freedom-giving works like these in my hands. Teachers who assign works like these set students on a path of finding what matters most—and provide the academic knowledge and skills needed to lead others down the same path.

Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said (quoting Theodore Parker): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

How did King, and Parker, know that? Not by restricting their studies to relatively recent works. Not by schooling more concerned with social justice than with effective instruction. Their deep historical and literary knowledge revealed that humanity was capable of wickedness and beauty—and that inch by inch, the circle of those exposed to beauty is growing.



  1. Alfred North Whitehead wrote: “Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.”

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — May 7, 2013 @ 9:24 am

  2. Two important aspects of education are, one, information about the world and two, information to form character. I believe that teaching the first does also teach the second. However, there is a fine line to be drawn. Ideally, information about the world is given in a values neutral way. To the best acquired knowledge, this is what is, this is what happened; if any new information comes up we will pass it on. It must not be taught as indoctrination. Equally, information about character formation must also avoid indoctrination. Teachers have the right, and the responsibility, of expecting appropriate behavior. But character teaching out of context, so to speak, must not dictate results if the goal of education is that the children learn to think independently.

    Comment by Susan Toth — May 7, 2013 @ 9:48 am

  3. As far as I can see, as currently practiced, social justice is fundamentally anti-academic and anti-individual. There’s nothing in it which encourages individual effort or personal responsibility; it’s all group-defined and separated from any actual achievement or effort. As such, it requires nothing of its advocates, in terms of knowledge, skills or positive habits; political action alone is sufficient. At bottom, the illiterate, innumerate and generally ignorant mob advocating for “more” (from those who earned it), just because they want it but aren’t willing to work for it.

    Comment by momof4 — May 7, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  4. As for me, The Bible would be at the top of my list for island exile. Character education at its best, the cornerstone of what once were great universities, and the book that inspired the original colonists and founders of our country. I’ve only recently discovered it for reading pleasure and am saddened that so few public schools offer the Bible as literature and character education.

    Comment by Cindy — May 7, 2013 @ 11:39 am

  5. Teacher education should ensure that every graduate has the knowledge and skills to succeed as an effective professional teacher. It only makes sense for the content of teacher education to be closely aligned to their intended post-graduation jobs. State standards specify the cognitive knowledge and skills teachers will be assigned for course instruction, but there is no equivalent for character or the other non-cognitive content. The lack of specificity in what a teacher’s job entails related to non-cognitive topics translates to the large variance in teacher education in this area.

    Trying to correct this problem by specifying the literary works that should be used for cognitive and non-cognitive objectives seems like rushing to “how” to teach before clear articulation of the educational objectives for character are established. Hirsch suggested creating a “lexicon of cultural literacy”. Extending that idea, how about a “catalog of cultural literature” with tags for cognitive and non-cognitive content information, vocabulary, and time required . With these tools, learning objectives could be used to find appropriate works for course inclusion and the discussion could be moved to “what” to teach.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — May 7, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

  6. No Shakespeare either. I am a politics geek and I remember how powerful Macbeth and Henry V were to my understanding of power. I actually like the list, but do find it a problem that it does not connect the long history of literature. I would love see how a class would read say the story of Job and Things Fall Apart. Literature is often powerful because it tells us the long story of ourselves as humans and that is in of itself essential to social justice.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 7, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

  7. I believe it is Hillsdale College that has recently declined to provide much of the (fluff and BS)coursework required for public school teacher credentialling. The school has been more content-focused than the average for some time, I believe, but has specifically decided to focus on the content and pedagogy that it feels is most necessary and is gambling on the fact that private/charter schools will recognize the value of their grads. I will be interested to see how it plays out.

    Comment by momof4 — May 7, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  8. Sorry, Lisa, the University of Minnesota will only reconsider around the time Lucy finally allows Charlie Brown to kick the football. Like most of Higher Education these days, their top priority is satisfying the professors and administrators, both financially and ideologically.

    That’s too bad for the students, because one definition for me of a classic is that, whatever its themes are, a classic develops these themes more effectively than other non-classic books.

    A good example is a classic I just completed: Middlemarch. I know that some readers, especially younger ones, find this novel impenetrable and horribly dull, and its Victorian writing style often forces you to slow down around sharp curves. But I thought that Eliot explored the theme of the social oppression of women exceedingly well. Unlike typical contemporary fiction, she didn’t mount a soapbox and deliver an ideological harangue; she let events and dialogue deliver her message in a subtle way that sticks with a careful reader, by observing a cardinal rule of great fiction: show, don’t tell.

    That’s probably a big reason why Virginia Woolf wrote the following: “Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people.” Mrs. Woolf also declared a Dead White Male – Tolstoy – the greatest of all novelists. And in an essay on one of the Bronte sisters’ novels (I forget which), she wrote that the overly didactic feminism in the book detracted from its artistic quality.

    A sterling example of intellectual integrity: the committed feminist Woolf agreeing with a novel’s feminist theme while also maintaining her standards for literary excellence. What 21st century English department would hire a professor who acted like that?

    Comment by John Webster — May 8, 2013 @ 11:59 am

  9. These last few posts have really been at the crux of what is wrong with education in general and teacher education programs specifically.

    Tom makes a good point. Simply designating great works to be taught will fail miserably when the teachers teaching them are not 100% knowledgeable and ideologically behind this approach(It is called Perennialism).

    How are we going to replace thousands of tenured teachers? They certainly are not going to change their approaches at this point. Universities are where the discrediting of the canon originated, and it is only becoming more widespread.

    Here is the mission statement of what is the best college prep. high school in the area:

    “As global citizens at Eugene International High School, we aspire to value diversity,ambiguity, and discovery and to act with responsibility, integrity, and compassion.”

    They don’t read works from the canon such as Shakespeare but instead read aboriginal poetry and other works from the multicultural “genre.”

    Notice the word “ambiguity.” I wish more people were aware of what Postmodernism is and how widespread its influence has been.

    I think these teachers at the Eugene International High school are great people with the best intentions. I think they are doing what they think is best for their students’ education and the larger world. I just think they are going about it wrong.

    A lot of educators never had that great literature teacher or professor who made a classical work come alive. Unfortunately, I think these teachers were never great in number and are becoming rarer.

    I want to start a local charter school built around the humanities, but I am not even certain that there is demand. My research in the coming months will tell me more.

    Comment by Jim — May 8, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

  10. Jim wrote: “Universities are where the discrediting of the canon originated, and it is only becoming more widespread.” I wonder if this came about because colleges and universities over the years had adapted their expectations to what high school graduates were prepared to do. At mid-century my high school program included very little of the canon and never well taught. I experienced it as deliberate. And refer to Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed where he wrote: “I believe that literature is the reflex expression and interpretation of social experience; that hence it must follow upon and not precede such experience.”

    Comment by Susan Toth — May 8, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

  11. Susan (#10) raises an important question with her quote from John Dewey: when are young people actually capable of engaging meaningfully with what we call classic literature? (In Dewey’s sentence, to give a modern flavor substitute the term “life experience” for “social experience”).

    About two years ago, after 30 years of reading nonfiction almost entirely, I joined a classic novels reading group. To my amazement, I’ve come to prefer those novels to all other genres, including the history that was my greatest passion, and I’m getting far more out of fiction than I ever did before.

    Isn’t this because I have 30 more years of adult life experience? I gleaned far more from Middlemarch in later middle-age (I’m 55 today) than I did first reading it in my late 20′s. We CK-types aren’t supposed to like John Dewey, but does he have a point?

    Comment by John Webster — May 8, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

  12. Thanks, John, for your perspective. I do tend to interpret Dewey’s comment as meaning any kind of books, especially fiction. When I was in school I gained a lot of “life experience” by reading age-appropriate novels and biography, on my own, for we read almost nothing in school. It is ridiculous to suggest, as Dewey does, that young people cannot get anything out of literature without any life experience. This point, I think, is crucial.

    As a HS teacher I ran into a lot of resistance for any kind of reading at all. Concerning classic literature, I do think that by HS graduation everyone should have had the opportunity of learning what it is and why it is appreciated. The question of when, how, why is a big one and has been addressed by knowledgeable people, I believe!

    Comment by Susan Toth — May 8, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

  13. I remember when I first encoutered Hirsche’s book, Cultural Literacy, I was a senior in high school. It was a bit daunting to look at his list of references, but I also realized that I did not have to read everything on that list, but I did need to understand at least one or two elements of why it was important. For example I have never read Heller’s Catch 22, but I know what the book is about and understand the reference if I hear it in coversation. I would most definitely benefit if I had read the book, but that applies to more pieces of literature and details of history and science than are realistic for me to know. Sometimes we get bogged down by the need to read that list or know that set of dates, that we miss that having some facts about a lot of literature or history or science may be what we need to be literate and take the deep dive when we need to do so. I think a previous post by Jessica Lahey referenced how she would use a small period of her class to introduce one a phrase or idiom to expand the references her class knew. To me it is not knowing the references that excludes kids from moving up more than not having read this or that specific classic.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 9, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

  14. DC Parent; Exactly. That’s what’s missing in so many schools. The book, A Hope in the Unseen, is about a ’93 grad of one of DC’s worst high schools, whose heroic work ethic got him into Brown as a math major. He describes his inability to understand even the ordinary conversational allusions and references of his classmates, let alone the ones in his English and history classes – he had never read anything by a white person or anything except personal narratives. Regrettably, the same complaint was made in a June 2012 letter to the WaPo, from a Georgetown freshman who had graduated from one of DC’s best charter schools; he did not understand the references, allusions and background knowledge his classmates took for granted because he had never encountered any of them. Thirty years, and kids are still not exposed to the culture that created our country.

    Comment by momof4 — May 9, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

  15. Momof4′s point (#14) is exactly why two prominent Harvard professors – Henry Louis Gate and Orlando Patterson, both black men – have long endorsed the Core Knowledge curriculum. Ditto for the late William Raspberry, longtime liberal columnist for the Washington Post, and also an African-American man.

    Lisa referred to Martin Luther King, Jr. If had lived, King very likely would have endorsed the CK approach for American kids, especially poor black kids. He avidly read philosophy, including that written by Dead White Males, and he always emphasized the importance of education.

    These things are worth knowing, because even today I read a blog comment referring to Mr. Hirsch, and by extension the CK curriculum, as “ethnocentric.” Mr. Hirsch – his work endorsed by three prominent and scholarly black men – is the most unusual ethnocentrist who has ever lived.

    Comment by John Webster — May 9, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

  16. Many schools have simply done away with novels. There is no canon where there is no literature. There is, however, a plethora of skills worksheets and short stories asking students to find the main idea,infer, or to practice meta-cognitive strategies.

    Comment by KP — May 9, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

  17. The single biggest contribution to social justice and the reduction of poverty might just be the return of the social stigma against illegitimacy, with suitable economic incentives. The chance of poverty (economic and cultural)for young, poorly-educated single mothers is very high. Working hard at getting a good education, getting a full-time job and getting married before having kids is the success recipe that the middle-class (and above)follows and expects their kids to follow. It usually works, but we are unwilling to present this as the most desirable set of behaviors and we have been funding and enabling illegitimacy for decades.

    Comment by momof4 — May 10, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

  18. Although these heavy literary works from five hundred years ago are soaked with character driven content and academic sovereignty,that they are not what students today would be inspired to read.In addition, the context which exists five hundred years ago is not the context which exists today.Teachers have to relate teaching to students’ experiences.That is not to say that all the historical literature should be discarded. They have been tested and proven to be valuable. However there must be a balance because students will be better able to interact using contemporary literature which are based on current experiences.

    Comment by Melanie Bynoe — May 22, 2013 @ 10:51 am

  19. “Teachers have to relate teaching to students’ experiences.”
    We have been told this for decades, so no wonder many people believe it! But it makes for a very limited form of instruction. There is no instruction for perspective, no way for young people to even learn that there are other ways of thinking and being. It is quite an insult to the intelligence of students to suggest that they cannot understand anything outside of their own experience,outside of their own context. Furthermore, it is more likely to turn them inward, not outward.

    Comment by Susan Toth — May 22, 2013 @ 11:40 am

  20. I did state that teachers have to relate teaching to students’ experiences but I also stated that there should be a balance which means that the historical literary works should not be totally denied to students but should not be their sole focus in relation to literature. In providing a balance students get to experience both worlds and would be able to compare and contrast the similarities and differences to both eras, and as a result would be better informed.

    Comment by Melanie Bynoe — May 26, 2013 @ 9:13 am

  21. Historical literary works can assist students to build character and knowledge but these are a wide variety of approaches and modern day literary books that teachers can use to provide the same result. For example, the book by Floella Benjamin- “Coming to England” is contemporary literature which can be used to effectively teach character, knowledge and social issues like bigotry, racism and the like. However, this book was based on a biography of Floella’s experience as an immigrant in England in the 1960′s.
    Teachers’ approach to instruction, their love for students, and their knowledge of how students’ learn is the basis for effective teaching, not sole emphasis on early historical literary works.

    Comment by Melanie Bynoe — May 26, 2013 @ 10:21 am

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