A "New American" Literature

By Kocis, Jennifer | Multicultural Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

A "New American" Literature


Kocis, Jennifer, Multicultural Education


Personal Perspective

Having strolled into an American Literature classroom of the year 2001, a Dondero High School alumnus of 1975 would be deeply nostalgic. Not only would the orange walls, green carpeting, and uncomfortable desks be the same, despite blue and white hallway and locker renovations, but the course content itself would have remained essentially unchanged as well. The alumnus might find some new text-- book covers, new computer handouts (rather than dittos), new bodies dressed in modern clothing, and perhaps a new, innovative unit on literature of the Vietnam War, but the curriculum of 2001 would be the same linear-sequential, historical content-focused, white-male canonized curriculum of 1975. In this sense, Dondero is every high school.

An intellectual traditionalist, by W.H. Schubert's (1986) definition, might ask, "Is this so wrong?" Indeed, is there anything wrong with a desire to "develop the mind and become acquainted with life's great ideas and questions" through ". . . acquaintance with great books and ... the great mysteries and events oflife?" (p. 15). Though our curriculum is far from "wrong," we need to make serious efforts to make it more "right" for our students. The modern American culture as a whole, which inevitably encompasses the individual cultures of our students, must be more than merely acknowledged by teachers and curriculum writers; culture must be inherent within the curriculum.

The Canon

While I am not in favor of completely tossing the Western canon and replacing it entirely with "contemporary" literature, I do think that the canon needs to be expanded and redefined. It should be agreed by all that many themes found in "classic" literature are timeless, and that students use these human themes to connect to lives of the past. I truely believe that students should know Shakespeare (not American, but still a classic) because he teaches history and tells a great story at the same time. I think students should read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because Mark Twain unravels the irony and hypocrisy of racism in a way that no other writer can. I think students should read the poetry of e.e. cummings because with it he can tell the story of war like no other. However, a new canon should consist of what we consider "great human" literature, rather than "classic" literature, and "great human" should be redefined.

Great human literature should be delineated as such because it speaks to people-- to all people. Therefore, timeless, historical themes can and should move people in the same way that modern and relevant themes do as well. We, as a literate world, must continually add to our canon because new literature Wills it. Would a new mother deny love to her child because she already had three wonderful children? Likewise, we must not push away contemporary literature because we have "enough good stuff" already.

Moreover, we must invite multicultural authors of American literature into the canon because we are a multicultural society. Rather than acknowledging token writers, just one or two voices from any given group, many voices must be infused. These are the people who write of America now; these are the people who discuss issues which relate to our students' lives as they know them. The bridge between classic and contemporary can only be built if we reconsider what our students will read, as well as how we will teach it.

Modern Versus Postmodern Paradigms

I also believe that the traditional curricular structure of American Literature needs to be revamped in order to meet our students' needs. Very few secondary classrooms are reaching their students by approaching the teaching ofAmerican Literature in anything other than a lock-step manner. While some segments of society may try to move forward, most public schools are stymied by their inability or unwillingness to shift from a modern to postmodern paradigm of educating. …

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