The Power of the Canon

The Heritage of the West is Neither Irrelevant nor Boring

About three months before I retired from a forty-year career as a high school English teacher, a former student stopped by. After a conversation that involved the saga of my medical and professional challenges, he revealed that he was the head of cardiology at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. We talked for about thirty minutes before he told me the real reason for his visit.

He wanted to share that he now reads about 60 books a year even though when he sat in my class as a 16-year-old he had never read much more than Peanuts and comic books. Our conversation didn't stop there. Just before he left my office, he teared up and told me that in my class he learned there was beauty and that it was all right to appreciate it, that there was truth that was also worthy of admiration, and that sometimes beauty and truth appear together – and that that was a reason for celebration.

This successful doctor had once sat in a classroom where I was teaching a humanities course designed cooperatively with another teacher. In the mid-Seventies, we had recognized that our students frequently registered no recognition of allusions that we took for granted. They missed the references that filled out the meaning of poems and short stories and novels. Moreover, they missed the references in popular songs, movies, and even commercials. They did not have the background knowledge that, at least in part, testifies to the existence of Western civilization.

My colleague and I proceeded to create a course that would begin by reading biblical and classical texts from which that background knowledge springs. Students read the saga of Gilgamesh as well as the story of Noah and the adventures of Odysseus. They read Genesis and Exodus as well as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Hippocratic Oath. They studied the drama of Job and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They followed the quests of Arthur’s knights and of the pilgrim Dante. Then, at the conclusion of the original one-semester course, the students requested a second course to continue the exploration of Western culture. They had discovered the storehouse of Western literature.

With the help of a cooperative administration, my colleague and I assembled a follow-up course that included Boccaccio and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, Lope de Vega and Racine. Within a few years, we introduced a thread of art history and appreciation that focused on the Renaissance, the Baroque, Neoclassism, Romanticism, and Impressionism. Students learned to distinguish those periods as well as individual artists’ styles, to perceive representational art as a kind of storytelling, and to speak and write critically about what they were reading and seeing.

Though some faculty members expected the course to attract too few students to survive, we grew from two sections in each of the first two semesters to six within a few years. By the time my partner who had help develop this course had moved out of state, we needed three teachers to accommodate the demand. Students seemed to hunger for texts that many thought they would find boring or dry. Instead, students asked their families for Christmas presents of copies of other works we would mention in class. They went on family trips to museums to see the art we talked about in class and saw only in slides.

They hungered for the treasures of Western culture and recognized how that culture had shaped the contemporary world. They started to participate in the great conversation that started in ancient times and that continues even today, despite the concerted and destructive efforts of some to silence it.

As I walked the cardiologist back to the Commons where I had greeted him, he told me he wasn't the only one who felt as he did about what he had learned.

After seven years of retirement, I still believe that the voices of the great conversation must be made audible to each new generation so that they can participate in that conversation, to think critically about what they hear, and contribute to its ongoing purpose.

Rick Reed is a retired secondary teacher of English and philosophy. For forty years he challenged students to dive deep into the classics of the Western canon, to think and write analytically, and to find the cultural constants reflected throughout that literature, art, and thought.

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