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Should Canadian Students Read Foreign Literature?

October 26, 2009

Thomas Hodd of the University of Guelph-Humber issued a ringing declaration in the Toronto Star a few days ago: no high school student in this country should be assigned to kill a mockingbird. I’ll say. While the range of the northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, does extend into southeastern Canada, they’re probably not all that easy to find, and in any case it seems perverse to send our high school students out to shoot songbirds of any description when they could be broadening their minds with the help of great literature or at least experimenting with stimulants of a less intellectual kind out behind the…

Oh, hang on, I’ve left out some italics and capital letters. Hodd was actually protesting against overuse of a certain novel by Harper Lee in the Canadian high school curriculum. Apparently some parent objected to the book, which prompted Hodd to write:

The reason for the parent’s complaint was not mentioned, but I suspect it has something to do with Lee’s use of racialized language. And while I respect the board’s concern over the dangerous precedent this might set, I would go a step further to suggest that no high school student in this country should be assigned To Kill A Mockingbird.

Hodd makes it clear, to his credit, that he doesn’t have much sympathy for the kind of knee-jerk, politically correct censorship that a complaint about “racialized language” would be intended to invoke. Nevertheless, he really does want to see a lot less of To Kill a Mockingbird, and for an interesting reason:

In almost every English-speaking Canadian province, in practically every high-school curriculum, we have been assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies or both. Why? What relevance do they have to the education of Canadian teenagers? One is about the racial history of the United States in the South in the late 1930s. The other is about British private school boys who find themselves on an island and struggle to maintain some semblance of their British class system.

Hodd, then, is on a crusade to get more Canadian literature into our classrooms. I’m broadly in favour, but his remarks seem to veer into unjustified literary xenophobia. It’s true that a Canadian teenager is unlikely to end up marooned on a desert island with tasty pigs, murderous choirboys and a clever bespectacled asthmatic, but I don’t believe this is such a common experience among British teenagers either. Even the most realistic piece of fiction is to some extent a journey of the imagination, and journeys of the imagination don’t have to be constrained by national boundaries – in fact, I can see a lot of merit in exposing students to translated works from nations far more culturally remote than Britain or America.

With that said, there’s also obvious value in fiction with roots a bit closer to home, as Hodd points out. Novels set in Canada can introduce aspects of our geography, culture and possibly history from a literary perspective. Even books that are set in foreign (or imaginary) countries, but are by Canadian writers, can show students what it’s like to look into the distance through a Canadian lens. The real trick is striking a balance between the truly foreign, the only slightly foreign (books from the rest of the English-speaking world, or from France in the case of Québécois students) and the domestic.

I think my own high school English classes got the balance about right, perhaps because the teacher (ironically a Brit, I think from Northern Ireland) insisted that Canadian literature was “the most underrated literature in the world” and gave it a prominent place in his classroom. I remember that we did W. O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen The Wind, Hugh MacLennan’s Each Man’s Son, and John Marlyn’s Under The Ribs of Death. However, we also read our way through Albert Camus’ The Stranger, some Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, and yes, Lord of the Flies (though I don’t recall anything about mockingbirds). Without the Canadian books, the syllabus would probably have seemed deracinated; without the foreign ones, it would have been narrow and impoverished. Our classrooms, and our bookshelves, really should have room for both.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. nmboudin permalink
    October 31, 2009 11:17 am

    Great post, in that it made me think about something that never occurred to me before – why are those two staples of lit de rigeur for Canadian school kids. They are both excellently written with powerful humanist messages. I remember TKAMB in particular being delivered by my teacher with an understated sense of superiority, as if to indicate that the racial inequality issue was a part of someone else’s shameful history. In this way, TKAMB (as mediated through that teacher) made us feel better about ourselves as Canadians.

    LOTF is easier for me to get a handle on why it is an essential read for little forming minds. It is a great book for understanding the human condition, and has a lot to say about how bullies are allowed to rise through passive consensus and eventually full participation.

    I remember the one Canadian book we read was Ondaatje’s dark story labour and immigration in early 20th Century Toronto In The Skin of a Lion. It was harder work to comprehend on first reading, but my unprepared mind knew there was something powerful and subtle. Bravo to that teacher who attempted to teach that.

    I can see TKAMB and LOTF staying in the curriculum, but I believe the time has come to reexamine the canon of youth lit and add more options – there is a wealth of ideas out there.

    I could see adding works of Yann Martel, Chinua Achebe and even JK Rowling to the mix. These authors have said things in new ways, are easily understood and have a knack for making people want to read.

  2. marakardasnelson permalink*
    October 28, 2009 8:46 pm

    Well, I think both Hodd and the original anti-mockingbird crusader are being absurd. Firstly, just because a book uses racist language does not mean that it should automatically be banned, or that the book itself is racist. On the contrary, in the case of Harper’s Mockingbird, the use of racial stereotypes and languages helps to exemplify the racism so historically (and presently, in some cases) pervasive in the southern United States, and further to quite effectively show how wrong and damaging such racism is. Disagreeing with a book, or a book’s language, does not mean that it should not be read, or that it cannot be learned from. Secondly, with regards to Hodd’s argument: it is equally silly. Imagine another country–say, the United States–decided to ban all Canadian literature from it’s classrooms in the name of patriotism. What would Canada’s and Canadians reaction be? I can tell you that it certainly wouldn’t brighten our relations, and for good reason. Such a statement smacks of cultural protectionism and does not allow Canadian students to learn about the world around them. Canada is a country which prides itself on it’s multiculturalism and openness to the world: and what better way than to learn about the world both in and outside of your borders than through books? Banning any books is frighteningly totalitarian and, in this case, disgustingly nationalistic. Most importantly, it goes against the very essence of modern education, specifically within the literary realm: the process of learning from different voices and viewpoints in order to both push the limits of the mind, and open it to the world.

  3. October 26, 2009 3:33 pm

    Well, okay, as is obvious and not said without a little chagrin, urgh, i guess i’m kinda a fan of your posts. Cough. Sniff. Guess i best get on with it, then. Harumph.

    What a fascinating piece! I’ll have to discipline my wayward writerly brain to actually read all of Hodd’s piece – er, what a drag.

    My initial comment as a fan of TKAMB – read the book eons ago as you have described. Yes in grade school. Many years later, the very first dvd given to me by my husband? Long after everyone had a dvd player? Yup. TKAMB.

    Funny. I think about TKAMB quite often, and have thought of it, growing up in Canada. Much applicability to my life, here, really, in all sorts of ways.

    And ditto TLOTF. I think you are correct (eek!) that the key is in balance. Or not. I’m no expert on “how to educate children in the arts” thank god. In fact, I shudder at the thought of there existing any such experts with no disrespect to the legions of great teacher colleges/education faculties out there in Canada-land.

    Any literature i remember from my childhood, that fed me, grew inside me, became me, from M.Lawrence’s Manawaka series to The Slave of the Huns came to me strange, by happen-chance. My parents read a wide assortment of “hot and cold items” (BC Ferries inside joke) and all their reading, all of it, was open to me.

    The value is how the work is approached/taught. There is no formula.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      October 27, 2009 12:39 pm

      Well, okay, as is obvious and not said without a little chagrin, urgh, i guess i’m kinda a fan of your posts.

      Chagrin? I’m not sure I understand why being kinda a fan of my posts is so distressing… but I’m kinda a fan of yours too, if that helps.

      I’ve actually never read “To Kill a Mockingbird”, although I have a copy sitting on my shelf. Maybe your endorsement will prompt me to sit down with it sooner rather than later, although I have “Wagner the Werewolf” (apparently one of the first werewolf stories in English, published in 1847) lined up for Halloween. Should be fun.

      I think you are correct (eek!) that the key is in balance. Or not. I’m no expert on “how to educate children in the arts” thank god. In fact, I shudder at the thought of there existing any such experts with no disrespect to the legions of great teacher colleges/education faculties out there in Canada-land.

      Yeah, I know what you mean. Teaching arts and literature is never going to be like teaching calculus, or even history. But I do think some approaches make more sense than others. It’s hard to predict what will appeal to an individual reader, as your own testimony perhaps makes clear (have to admit I’d never even heard of “The Slave of the Huns”, although it sounds like it might be my kind of book), so it’s probably good to offer a nice wide menu in the course of the high school years. But you’re absolutely right about the absence of a formula, thank goodness.

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