The Canon - Choosing Texts for Ontario's Classrooms


This wiki page is intended primarily as an introductory exploration of the complexity of choosing books suitable for Ontario's literacy classrooms. The Ontario curriculum does not specify which books, whether fiction or not, are used in the classroom. It does, however, give a clear indication of what reading these books is supposed to accomplish. It is thus the responsibility of teachers to choose and use books that suit the requirements and goals of the Ontario Ministry of Education.

The ancient Greek origins of the word(κανών) give its use in modern English the ideas of "standard" and "rule". Furthermore, the term canonstill has Christian overtones and is even used explicitly as a noun referring to a member of the Catholic clergy. That said, canon can be used when referring simply to a group of texts which scholars are confident were written by a single author. So, there are difficulties in calling a book or group of books canon, as well as the problem of choosing books in the first place.

It is noteworthy that there are two university undergraduate programs in Ontario which offer an intensive reading of the Western canon as the core of their curriculum. Given the rhetoric these programs use to attract potential applicants (especially the College of the Humanities at Carleton University), I think it worth considering that these programs offer students something that the Ontario curriculum does not.

University Liberal Arts Programs: as an introduction to these undergraduate programs conception, listen to the following recording of the CBC radio show Ideas:

Although it focuses on Liberal Arts education in Canadian universities, this show introduces the possibility that Liberal Arts programs were created in part as a response to Liberal Arts education in Ontario's elementary and high schools.

As already mentioned, it is also worthwhile to consider how Liberal Arts programs describe and advertise themselves to prospective students. (The College of the Humanities at Carleton University in fact uses the Ideas radio show as part of its presentation.)

The Bachelor of Humanities at The College of the Humanities, Carleton University:

Here's a link to the general description of the program:College of the Humanities
Here's a link to a more specific description:Program Description
Consider closely the rhetoric used to answer the question: why study humanities? Pay special attention to the third paragraph:

"Canadians growing up at the beginning of the twenty-first century stand at a particular place in the history of the West. We live in a time when the traditional theoretical basis for our culture has been subjected to radical criticism and plays an ever smaller part in public discourse. As educated Canadians, graduates of the Bachelor of Humanities should be able to think through the culture to which they belong, so that they are slaves neither to the latest public trend nor to an earlier age. They should be able to judge both our intellectual heritage and its critics of the last century, seeing both its inner necessity and goodness as well as its shortcomings. The ultimate aim of the curriculum is to produce graduates that are able to understand the world and make free and well-informed judgements." Why Study the Humanities

Centre for Liberal Arts at Brock University:

Here's a link to the general description:LART

The College of the Humanities at Carleton University seems especially aware of the potential for such programs being viewed as conservative and of marginal importance. While both university programs advertise using what is clearly identifiable as books from the Western canon, both also emphasize discussion as part of their curriculum(Carleton).

Further enquiry:
St Timothy's Classical Academy

The following are some journal articles that explore the complexity of teaching from the canon.

Journal Articles:

Black Literature for Whom?
Virginia M. Burke
English Education, Vol. 4, No.2 (1973), pp.85-91.

Burke claimed that English departments in American universities only taught works from an elitist Anglophone literature because of what she refers to as "institutionalized racism". Students must be presented the “fullness of American literary reality” and “literary pluralism.” (pp.87,89) This is a vitriolic piece of rhetoric which was written during a tumultuous period of American history, but it does provide an excellent way of understanding some of the problems with ideas of canon. She hints at the fact that some works contained within the traditional canon might be implicitly racist simply by virtue of their age.

Canadian Literature in Canadian Schools: A Response to Harker
S.D. Robinson
Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadiene de l’éducation, Vol 12, No.3 (1987), pp.433-435.

This article highlights the problem of balancing classic, canonical texts with two other options. Namely, Canadian literature and international literature. Robinson questions the motivation behind Canadian content, especially since he identifies regionalism that affects purchasing of texts for schools. He also shows concern that Canadian literature could become canonized itself. Simply replacing one canon with another is just as problematic.

The Canon Debate, Knowledge Construction, and Multicultural Education
James A. Banks
Educational Researcher, Vol. 22, N0.5 (1993), pp.4-14.

Although writing of American education, Banks highlights the conflict between Western traditionalists, multiculturalists, and Afrocentrists. He wants his reader to think not so much about a canon but about what kinds of knowledge should be taught in schools, unversities etc.

Defining the Canon
Earl R. Anderson
PMLA, Vol. 116 No.5 (2001), pp.1442-1443.

Anderson tackles the problem of defining, and thus constructing, a literary canon by arguing the very idea of a literary canon “can have validity only if defined in terms of its attributes” (p.1443). This article examines the theoretical underpinnings of discussions of the canon.

The Making of the English Canon
Jonathan Brody Kramnick
PMLA, Vol 122, No.5 (1997), pp.1087-1101.

An article discussing the subjective nature of canon formation. In this case, Kramnick discusses how Shakespeare, Spencer, and Milton came to constitute a central trinity in the English canon. This is a useful case study even if does not apply directly to contemporary education in Ontario's schools.

Further reading:
Canadian Arts Education: A Critical Analysus of Selected Elementary Curricula
Betty Hanley
Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadiene de l’éducation, Vol. 19, No. 3 (1994) pp.197-214.

Childern’s Literature across the Curriculum: An Ontario Survey
Sylvia Pantaleo
Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadiene de l’éducation, Vol. 27, No.2/3 (2002), pp.211-230.


Unfortunately, the deeper an enquiry into the complexity of choosing books for Ontario's classrooms, the deeper the confusion and anxiety. That said, books from the traditional Western canon are still studied in classrooms today both at the elementary, high school, and university level. What is crucial to remember, and is clearly demonstrated by the rhetoric used by Carleton University's College of the Humanities, is that books from the canon can be framed differently. That is to say, maybe the question is no longer whether or not a book from the traditional Western canon should be used in an Ontario classroom so much as how it should be framed, how it should be understood. The article by James A. Banks is an excellent demonstration of this idea. Choosing books for Ontario's classrooms should not be governed by fears of simply abiding by the canon. Instead, books should be chosen in accordance with how well they can be used to teach what must be taught in Ontario's classrooms. Simply put, when choosing a book for the classroom, consider why it would be useful first. Indeed, this does not discount what Virginia M. Burke has said about implicit racism present in some canonical texts. Rather, I propose it is the teacher's responsibility to choose a text which is useful for teaching while making students aware of some of the implicit content. As an example, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe need not be avoided in Ontario classrooms. But, given the explicit understanding of race demonstrated in the book, it should be understood within its historical context and its place in the traditional Western canon should be questioned and examined.

Finally, consider the following video excerpted from an interview with M.J. Adler, one of the cofounders of the Great Books movement in the United States:

What Adler points out in this interview is what I propose as the key to choosing texts for Ontario's classrooms. In order for a text to have any value in the classroom, it must challenge students. In light of the journal articles I have introduced, I propose to add to Adler's statement that students must also challenge the texts themselves.

For Further Consideration:

The Great Books Foundation

Question: How is it that the Great Books Foundation can continue to create curriculum for American schools given the general intellectual climate surrounding the idea of the canon?