Should Canadian Students Read Foreign Literature?
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.