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Thoughts on Literary Theory and the Future: Pandora's Box, Genie in A Bottle, or TBA?

Do you want to understand some of the logic behind 21st century Canadian education? Take LTST 612: The Gothic Novel, through Athabasca University. At least, that’s how I’ve reached a workable understanding of the thinking behind the new grades K-12 curriculum in BC. That’s no small feat. Believe me, as a parent of three children in the public education system, as a longstanding high school English teacher, and as someone who was actively involved at district level on a committee for two years regarding the implementation of the new curriculum for English Language Arts 8-12, I have been supportive of its implementation, but have been working hard to figure out the rationale behind it.

The epiphany came after I read several explanatory essays about psychoanalytic, Marxist, cultural, feminist, and combined perspective critical theories and then samples of actual critical essays for various Gothic texts. The many types of contemporary literary theories are more than interesting abstractions, and much more than flavours from which we can choose to critique literary works. Through reading Linda H Peterson’s “Marxist Criticism and Wuthering Heights” (Wuthering Heights: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism),I realized more fully that some famous theorists of the past such as Karl Marx were literary critics (381), as was Sigmund Freud, and others. The theories these critics propounded went on to shape countries and entire fields of study. What I’m realizing is that critical literary theory continues to shape and clarify aspects of our daily lives and that there is tremendous value in knowing what facets of our lives they are influencing.

Here’s my hypothesis thus far. The new BC high school curriculum, mandatory as of fall 2019, is based on a cultural criticism perspective. Specifically in Ross C. Murfin’s essay, “What is Cultural Criticism?” in Wuthering Heights: Case Studies In Contemporary Criticism, edited by Linda H. Peterson, but also in part to earlier readings in the course, I’ve learned that cultural critics adhere to the premise that all culture is important and worthy of study. That means it’s essential to approach literary and media content, Murfin suggests, “as an anthropologist would”, rather than “in the elitist way that academic literary critics have traditionally approached it” (412). When Murfin stated in 2003 that “the future of education is cultural studies” (423), he was stating fact.  The New Curriculum in BC high schools “is cultural studies”.

The new grades 8-12 English Language Arts Curriculum, the part of the new curricula of which I am the most familiar, no longer adheres to a canon of literature. Instead, the focus is on “core competencies” and “big ideas” British Columbia: BC’s New Curriculum (https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/). In English, grades 8-9, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron”, is optional reading. In grades 10-12, students no longer need to study Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, nor may they ever read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or George Orwell’s 1984. Based on the vocabulary used in the Modern Language Association (MLA’s) 8th edition (https://style.mla.org/), the “containers” the information comes in--the sources of a fictional story or nonfiction information, for instance—have been pried wide open in the new BC curriculum.

The grade 8 textbook I just handed out to class, Sightlines 8, the one for which we have the most copies in the school where I teach, is a revelation when pondering where the curriculum was and is going. First, it was published in 1999. One could argue there’s no need for new textbooks if one can use any “container”. Secondly, an even earlier short story book collection would be, well, a short story anthology. This 1999 text has brief articles that really are nonfiction pseudo-psychology clips, song words, radio dramas, myth, fictional and nonfiction stories, and even a picture book minus most of the pictures. Already, in 1999, the focus had moved from specific canon study to generalized study. However, literary classics were also still largely taught.

The lack of canon is now most profound for students in grades 10-12. As of 2019 they must choose from which container(s) they wish to study. For instance, grade 11 students are welcome to select an English course solely focused on podcasts and media data, or instead opt for an English 11 course focused on creative writing. They receive equal grade 11 English credits whether they take New Media 11, Creative Writing 11, Spoken Word 11, Literature 11, English First Peoples 11, or Composition 11. In a forum where culture is given equal importance, the material the students study is of lesser importance than that they are engaged and that they learn to become discerning consumers of said culture.

I predict the New BC Curriculum is taking us to a place beyond cultural criticism. I suggest that because in teaching days gone by I could mention to a senior English class Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Veldt”, or William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and see mostly nodding heads. At some point the students had studied it. Then in the classroom we transitioned to a time when Lemony Snicket and Rick Riordan novels were elementary staples, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games were common ground in high school. Although we may not have actually taught them, most students had read or viewed them on their own.

Now, the mention of any source, even Star Wars, receives a lot of blank stares. Beginning this fall and onward, BC students and teachers will work in a new paradigm of education. In the future, I don’t know what the common ground will be in the classroom, or if there will be a classroom as we know it today. While I believe the New BC Curriculum is based on a cultural criticism premise, I don’t know what the contemporary criticism theory is that can be applied to what’s coming as a result of the New Curriculum. Perhaps I don’t know yet because I haven’t finished the Gothic Novel course or the Master of Arts of Interdisciplinary Studies (MA-IS) program (http://mais.athabascau.ca/program/index.php). Or maybe that literary theory is yet to be discovered.

Sources:

British Columbia New Curriculum, https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/

Modern Language Association, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 8th ed.                              Modern Language Association, 2016.

Murfin, Ross C., “Cultural Critism and Wuthering Heights”, Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Wuthering Heights, 2nd ed., by Emily Bronte, edited by Linda H Peterson, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

Peterson, Linda H., ed. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Wuthering Heights, 2nd      ed., by Emily Bronte, edited by Peterson, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

Sightlines 8, Edited by Alice Barlow-Kedves, Thora O’Grade, Wendy Mathiew, and Judy Onody, Susan Tywoniuk, Prentice Hall/Ginn, 1999.

Comments

  • What unexpected but persuasive connections you make here between certain schools of literary theory (well, cultural theory I guess) and provincial curriculum. The formation, re-formation, and parameters of "the canon" of English literature are always in flux and subject to both dominant pressures and oppositional ones. (John Guillory has a whole book on the subject, titled Cultural Capital.) Among the courses you list, it appears that "Literature 11" might be the one that would retain more of a literary canon in its assigned reading. Although your mention of Shakespeare's effective demotion (ie his work's no longer mandatory) suggests his work's no longer the staple it once was -- or, for that matter, the "third rail" that curriculum designers, at least at the postsecondary level, used to be wary of touching. (When I was in grad school in the early 2000s, my English department's perception was that Shakespeare remained integral to program curriculum partly because, if his work were to be removed from program requirements, parents and media would freak out, since Shakespeare's the most popular signifier of both literary excellence and assigned-for-school reading and his removal would be construed as a kind of "war on the classics." This perception didn't change the otherwise rigorous and pervasive challenges being posed to the traditional canon elsewhere in the program's offerings, though...)

    Mark A. McCutcheon March 4, 2019 - 7:31am

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