Cultural Literacy: It’s not The Canon

A common concern about the ICS approach to teaching English is that the stories and experiences we teach are part of the Western Canon; ‘dead white men’ as postmodernists like to say.

Setting aside the issue of whether and how children in America are taught the history and culture at the foundation of their country, the assertion misrepresents what we do and believe.

The Canon is ever-evolving and ever-moving. This came to mind as my daughter told me about her life saving class. She just learned CPR. I asked if she knew the chest compression rate was the same as the beats in the BeeGee’s hit, “Staying Alive“?

“Who?,” she replied, quizzically.

Artists, writers, philosophers have always looked to the future through the lens of the past; When”Empire State of Mind” was topping the charts, I explained to my then nine-year old son that Jay Z was paying homage to the past when he rapped:

I’m the new Sinatra, and… since I made it here
I can make it anywhere, yea, they love me everywhere

My son was incredulous that Sean Carter from Marcy knew about Sinatra. Or that the skinny Italian from Hoboken was once so edgy that my grandfather threatened to throw out my mother’s collection of his albums. (Thankfully he did not, and we still have them). The Canon is not static.

A few years before Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Texas author Lawrence Wright won it for “Looming Tower,” his account of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His most recent book is about his home state.

Discussing Texas culture and its many layers, he writes, the base is “Aggressive, innovative, self-assured.” But as Texas looked outward, it mimicked external influences. This Wright calls layer two. In the third layer the culture absorbs external influences and “returns to its primitive origins to renew itself.”

The best examples of Level Three tend to be origin stories. Beyoncé’s album Lemonade absorbed the street talk and country music and the church choir of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, and enlarged the tablet of popular music.

I hope there will always be a Western Canon. We know Shakespeare because his extraordinary insight into the universal human condition makes him as relevant today as when he was alive. Leonardo DaVinci, bastard child of a teenaged mother, understood science hundreds of years before society caught up. Voltaire, Smith, and Locke inspired Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson to imagine a country and government that had never existed.

When we teach systematic phonics and expose kids broadly to history, geography, literature, art, music and science we are not imposing a dominant world view that sanctifies one group. We’re laying a foundation that helps them to make sense of the past and the present. And prepares them for the future.