What to Teach
Thus far I have talked about English in terms of goals and methods, but what is it that we are actually teaching? What is the content of English?
To begin with a few words of caution: It is important to note that when questions of content are placed in the foreground, one approach to the discipline tends to be emphasized -- the Carrying on the Tradition approach. Thus discussions of content often overlook questions of methodology and motivation. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that "we" (teachers) "give" literature to "them" (students). This in turn fosters the illusion that if we just find the right materials, all our teaching problems will be solved.
The present focus on content, however, should not be viewed as a way of privileging one approach to English. It simply acknowledges that, regardless of our goals, the choices we make about literature are important. Indeed, those choices have implications that go beyond the schools. When teachers assign books in school, they place a value on them, promoting and promulgating them, thus helping to create, or reinforce, what has come to be known as the literary canon. (For present purposes, let's agree that the canon means "the body of literature deemed worthy of being taught in schools.") Since what we teach influences what people know, the canon has come to represent -- at least in the public imagination -- something about the culture we live in. For many people today, changes in the canon are