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Teachin'Mine

Great books for girls?

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Sure, we can relativize, we can agree that Italian list won't equal an American one (the whole "Western civilization" is perhaps even an overgeneralization, given the diversity the term aims to cover), but we cannot say there aren't pretty much fixed, canonical readings expected to be read by an educated person, as well as a set of associations related to them. The same applies to the canons of music and visual arts.

But your list of "fixed, canonical readings" is determined by what is taught in a specific type of school in a specific European country, and then you're saying that in order to be considered "an educated person" in any Western culture/country, one must have read this very specific list of books. You're essentially defining the term "educated person" as a person just like you, who received a private, classical education in Italy, which included reading certain books.

 

My point is, it's totally irrelevant at the high school level how those readings came to be in the first place. That's university level studies - the whole "rewriting of the canon", this or that agenda behind the canon, etc. In high school, it's about reading a more or less defined set of readings it's agreed upon that have influenced your own culture - high school is not the time to study some obscure texts, but the time to go through your Dante, your Bible, your Ovid, your Mazoni and your Leopardi (I'm applying this to the Italian context, but you get the point), and through the texts which reflect those texts, through art works that reflect them, philosophy, it's a whole system. A biased system, certainly, but that's what one has inherited.

The whole idea of the "Western canon" as a cultural inheritance raises a lot of other issues. Is the "cultural heritage" of someone raised in Greece or Italy truly the same as the "cultural heritage" of an African-American student raised in Harlem? My son was born in Cambridge, England and my daughter was born in a small village in SE Asia — is the "Western canon" part of my daughter's "cultural heritage" because she's being raised in an English-speaking country? Should I force my son to read Milton, but not my daughter? Why is The Inferno a key component of an American's cultural heritage but Black Elk Speaks is not? Why should African-Americans share the same "canon" with those who enslaved them?

 

I also disagree with the idea that the "Great Books" list represents the only literature truly worthy of study — in high school or any any other context. If the goal of reading great literature is to increase a student's vocabulary, develop an understanding of literary analysis, and provoke discussions about the human condition, then IMO there are many truly great books that didn't make the capital-G list, which can accomplish the same goals.

 

Jackie

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Teachin'Mine -- My dd greatly prefers certain genres like satire, comedy, and fantasy to what we refer to as the Gloom and Doom books. You might find more books that suit her tastes from British lit. They seem to have a very strong strand of such books right in the historical mainstream, from the Anglo-Saxon riddles to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Restoration comedies (there are some that are not too bawdy), Swift to Austen and beyond. Maybe we could start another thread, if people are interested, of this type of reading so we'd have a resource list available.

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(I use "obscure" in the sense of "unknown to the wider public", not in the sense of a value judgment. In a sense of a historical judgment, absolutely.)

 

Regarding political Shakespeare (pun intended)... I can see that point of view, though I disagree with reading Shakespeare that way once we do agree how Shakespeare came to become canonical in the first place: like you, I'm well aware of the fact that the canon formation has only partially to do with "literary value" of the texts which made in, and that there were many other elements that influenced the choice; but once we have the most stumbled-upon and the most mirrored texts in a mirror room, I prefer to leave it at that, without delving into the reasons why we see those texts and don't see some other texts and why do these mirrors distort the images that way and not some other way. Once I do have a set of texts, I work with that set, without dealing with the context of the genesis of that text and its role on the 'power scale' as if it were a text. A difference in approaches, I guess.

But just as you argue that any high schoolers can understand the theory of theater, so I'm arguing that any high schooler -- particularly one who is interested, as the OP's daughter seemed to be -- can understand that canons do not appear from nowhere or descend from above, but that they are made by particular people with particular agendas, that those who are not in power in those circles where such lists are made have no voice in its constitution, and that gender has been historically an enormous factor in the determination of these lists.

But who does think, anyway, that canons descend from above? I'm not discussing that as I find it so obvious that we are aware of all of these things. High school students do get told those things, repeatedly, don't they?

 

But they still give them their Ovid, Dante and Leopardi.

That's what I'm talking about: I don't doubt high school students' cognitive abilities to understand the basics of this debate, but I still think the high school formation should function within the inherited scheme. Obviously, OP is asking about her daughter's reading aside that scheme, and we diverged a bit from that original context, but that's, in my opinion, exactly how things should work.

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I think, Ester Maria, that we're disagreeing on the idea of a single "inherited scheme." There may be a relatively fixed one in other countries. As I have said, in the UK and the US, it is in flux. Therefore to claim priority of one scheme over another is an individual decision, not a cultural consensus here. If what we have here is in flux, then one aspect of the study of literature is precisely that process. This is different from "random political correctness."

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...knowing where one's "classics" come from is as important as knowing about where one's food comes from, how it is produced, by whom, and who profits from it.

:iagree:

 

Also, I find it very interesting that most people here (I mean the WTM board in general) don't seem to assign the same importance to the non-literary works on the Great Books list. Why is the Iliad required reading for every educated person, but the Principia is not? We must read Dante and Melville and Milton, but Huygens, Lyell, Lavoisier, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Planck are totally optional — even though they're on the same list. How many parents here require their students to read the "Great Books" by Leibniz, Hegel, Comte, Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein? Why is it OK for a student who dislikes science or philosophy to skip those books, but its not OK for a student who dislikes books about warfare and bloodshed to skip the Iliad? :confused:

 

Jackie

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Well, I wouldn't trade being like this; many of the things other people struggle with aren't an issue for me. And I have to admit that I would have been pretty upset if my children had not been at least partially like this. And I don't think my husband would love me so much if I weren't. But I still do consider it a handicap. My definition of a handicap is something that prevents one from living like other people. Other people bop (or perhaps blunder is more like it) through life without being late for work because they had to stop to rescue that robin or figure out how to move that giant snapping turtle out of the road, and without having no clean clothes this week because they cry every time they get near the basement where the just-left-for-college child's windsurfer is, and without having to figure out how to politely tell their friends that the movie they recommended so enthusiastically is going to haunt you forever, and without having to rudely interrupt their mother in law when she tries to tell them a cautionary tale of why your children shouldn't do something because they know that they will be haunted forever by the trauma to the child and the example is total overkill, and without having to replay all the conversations they had at church over and over in their head all the next week, and without having to eat cereal for supper because they were too wrapped up in their book to make supper. I find it most definately a handicap to "normal" living.

: )

-Nan

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I'm well aware of the fact that the canon formation has only partially to do with "literary value" of the texts which made in, and that there were many other elements that influenced the choice; but once we have the most stumbled-upon and the most mirrored texts in a mirror room, I prefer to leave it at that, without delving into the reasons why we see those texts and don't see some other texts and why do these mirrors distort the images that way and not some other way. Once I do have a set of texts, I work with that set, without dealing with the context of the genesis of that text and its role on the 'power scale' as if it were a text.

If one acknowledges that the literary value of canonical works is only one of several factors that led to their inclusion, and that high school students are capable of understanding the complexity of those factors, then what is the rationale for excluding discussion of every other factor except literary value in high school? :confused:

 

Jackie

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"Mirror room" has a nice disorganized feel to it, much more like the reality than "recursive".

That was nice and concise, despite the size of the subject. Thank you.

I am learning lots. Well, I guess I sort of knew all this all the way along, but I didn't know I knew it, if that makes sense.

Armed with that, I will now go and enjoy reading the rest of this thread.

-Nan

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And many, many texts by women perform that same mirroring function, but their contribution tends to be downplayed or overlooked.

I'm aware of that, but that ultimately leads to the fact that we don't stumble over those a lot in the mirror room, for whatever reasons. So we don't study them in the context of "general education" because they do turn out to be rather "obscure" (in sense of unknown, unstumbled upon) in that context. I'm toying with the idea now, actually, but I don't think it would end up too well.

But your list of "fixed, canonical readings" is determined by what is taught in a specific type of school in a specific European country, and then you're saying that in order to be considered "an educated person" in any Western culture/country, one must have read this very specific list of books. You're essentially defining the term "educated person" as a person just like you, who received a private, classical education in Italy, which included reading certain books.

I actually do (try to) keep in mind the cultural mismatch between various countries which belong to the "Western culture". There will be overlapping, though, but the writings which have influenced Italy and take part in its commonplaces can never be 100% overlapped with the writings which have influenced Greece. Not even 50%, possibly - we will share a lot of classical antiquity, Bible, and an odd work or two.

 

But ultimately, yes, when talking about that overlapping, I'll be talking about overlapping of two, shall I call it "elite circles" in the first place, participating in the culture which is, essentially, not the culture of your "common man" on the street of either of the two places, even though that "elite" will largely dictate the scheme of his education as well.

Is the "cultural heritage" of someone raised in Greece or Italy truly the same as the "cultural heritage" of an African-American student raised in Harlem? My son was born in Cambridge, England and my daughter was born in a small village in SE Asia — is the "Western canon" part of my daughter's "cultural heritage" because she's being raised in an English-speaking country? Should I force my son to read Milton, but not my daughter? Why is The Inferno a key component of an American's cultural heritage but Black Elk Speaks is not? Why should African-Americans share the same "canon" with those who enslaved them?

Great questions. :)

 

My children read the readings that will make them circle in the society/ies they're being raised in, regardless of their ethnic origin. So they read both the readings pertaining to the Anglo-American set and those from the Italian set. I find it to be more about the tradition of the place you happen to be in than your own personal baggage - unless you wish to carry that baggage with you. We choose to carry it, which is why we never fully assimilated. Others opt to culturally assimilate.

 

Regarding AA... It's a bit like asking why should I read the books of "them" who have been for centuries claiming "us" to have killed their God. I don't like this whole "us" vs. "them" portrayal, since even if I belong to a specific subculture, I largely partake in "their" culture. Most of AA population gets educated in American schools, partakes in American culture (and in their own specific subculture, true, but their educational framework remains quite defined from the outside), and I see no reason not to read the readings which influenced and formed the art expression in literature of the country they live in.

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If you read Angela Thirkell, you will see Trollope mirrored, as well as the funny-because-of-the-phrasing-ness of Three Men in a Boat. I always link AAMilne, Three Men in a Boat, Thirkell, and Wodehouse together because the way they use language is very similar. I think The Casting Away of Mrs Lecks and Mrs Aleshine is similar. It was this very type of humour in my son's speech that started the whole Plug for Great Books thread. I, too, look forward to that thread.

-Nan

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I think, Ester Maria, that we're disagreeing on the idea of a single "inherited scheme." There may be a relatively fixed one in other countries. As I have said, in the UK and the US, it is in flux. Therefore to claim priority of one scheme over another is an individual decision, not a cultural consensus here. If what we have here is in flux, then one aspect of the study of literature is precisely that process. This is different from "random political correctness."

Fair enough. :)

How many parents here require their students to read the "Great Books" by Leibniz, Hegel, Comte, Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein?

:seeya:

 

Here I am. :D

If one acknowledges that the literary value of canonical works is only one of several factors that led to their inclusion, and that high school students are capable of understanding the complexity of those factors, then what is the rationale for excluding discussion of every other factor except literary value in high school? :confused:

Not sure what you're asking here. :confused:

 

Usually there is a certain structure one works by, and there isn't enough loose time to cover all aspects of it; and as you tend to teach "how to read a book" during the process, and underline the differences between artistic text and some other types of texts, usually professors focus on the value of those books chosen (without dedicating too much time to the intricacies on how they ended up chosen in the first place), on their formal and structural qualities, as well as influence on the culture and latter works.

 

Very loosely speaking, there are two main ways how to approach a text (and innumerable nuances in between, of course): you have a more "inside" approach (dealing with the text itself, neglecting much of the context) and a more "outside" approach (the one that reads context as part of the text too). While I agree that those with the "outside" approach have a lot of point in how the canon came to be in the first place, once I do have a text, I focus more on it, not on its genesis, historical context, power relations which promoted it in the first place, etc. I find that great number of professors in high schools have, essentially, such an approach: they make children aware of multiple factors, but when dealing with specific works, they try to approach them a bit more "formally".

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Regarding AA... It's a bit like asking why should I read the books of "them" who have been for centuries claiming "us" to have killed their God. I don't like this whole "us" vs. "them" portrayal, since even if I belong to a specific subculture, I largely partake in "their" culture. Most of AA population gets educated in American schools, partakes in American culture (and in their own specific subculture, true, but their educational framework remains quite defined from the outside), and I see no reason not to read the readings which influenced and formed the art expression in literature of the country they live in.

 

I don't trust myself to even being to address the issue of what the "subculture" label brings up, or the whole can of worms involving race relations and education in this country.

 

I think Jackie's question was more about why the dominant culture, if you want to put it that way, excludes or downgrades writings from other people you define as occupying differing circles, or subcultures. In other words, everyone has to read the dominant culture's great list -- and in fact there is plentiful evidence that women, ethnic minorities, and working class people have all been and continue to be greatly inspired (as well as frustrated) by elite writings -- but we don't have to read anything outside that because it doesn't mirror the great list enough or hasn't had enough influence (although as I argue, it both mirrors and enters into dialogue or debate with that heritage; this is simply discounted).

 

This way of thinking seems to be, by and large, very much a one-way street.

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Jackie, I was thinking that your comment about the relative neglect of scientific and philosophical works and this thread about the place of women -- on a number of levels -- with respect to various canons are brought together in a book by Richard Holmes called The Age of Wonder. It's about the natural science explorations of the Romantics, mostly in Britain; but one of the things that comes out of his work is the vital role of women (sisters, wives, daughters) in the discoveries and fame of the men, and how their contributions disappeared from scientific history.

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I think Jackie's question was more about why the dominant culture, if you want to put it that way, excludes or downgrades writings from other people you define as occupying differing circles, or subcultures. In other words, everyone has to read the dominant culture's great list -- and in fact there is plentiful evidence that women, ethnic minorities, and working class people have all been and continue to be greatly inspired (as well as frustrated) by elite writings -- but we don't have to read anything outside that because it doesn't mirror the great list enough or hasn't had enough influence (although as I argue, it both mirrors and enters into dialogue or debate with that heritage; this is simply discounted).

Exactly.

Why? Because dominant culture is, well, dominant. It projects its values, controls the economic base, is supported by the ideological state apparati, etc. It doesn't need to read other writings, if not out of some sort of special interest. That's how it works, even when if - especially when - it includes subversive elements in it too. You could probably answer Jackie's question better than me, actually; based on your previous replies, you've dealt with those particular areas more than I did.

 

Why don't we read those works? Should we read them in a high school context?

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I do not think anybody is saying lesser known (maybe because of oppression, maybe because of other factors) works by females or minorities are of no value.

But when I select what I consider important for my children to read in high school, one aspect is not just the literary quality but also the impact the work has had on subsequent authors, composers, artists. I think it is quite obvious that books who have been considered important and "part of the canon" have more references, adaptations, allusions to their themes than a book by an obscure (I too do not use this judgmental, but in the sense of "less visible") minority author. If I want my children to understand literature and art, I must acquaint them with the books that have formed the "canon" for centuries because without understanding them, they will not make sense of a lot of later works.

If it are the works of white male authors which have critically shaped and influenced the culture of Europe and the US for the past six hundred years, then we must study them - irrespective of whether we would like things to have been different.

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I don't like this whole "us" vs. "them" portrayal, since even if I belong to a specific subculture, I largely partake in "their" culture. Most of AA population gets educated in American schools, partakes in American culture (and in their own specific subculture, true, but their educational framework remains quite defined from the outside), and I see no reason not to read the readings which influenced and formed the art expression in literature of the country they live in.

I don't like the whole "us" vs "them" distinction either — in fact, that's part of my objection to the whole idea of a single, fixed canon that is largely limited to writings by and about white males who belonged to a narrowly-defined group of cultural elites. ;)

 

I agree that those being raised in a particular culture should be familiar with the important historical/literary/artistic influences of that culture, but I would argue that America's "canon" may actually be quite different from the European canon. For example, one could argue that Jack Kerouac and e.e. cummings have had a greater influence on American culture and literature than Cervantes or Milton. American culture is only a couple of centuries old, rather than millenia, and it was not (for the most part) settled by European elites, so if the argument is that one should be familiar with the "foundational" writings of one's own culture, then there may be a large chunk of the classical Italian canon that is irrelevant here.

 

I'm reading Pliny's Natural History because I find it fascinating, and I'm having my son read it because it's relevant (and amusing) to a future biology/paleontology major. I'm reading Ovid's Metamorphoses because I find Ted Hughes's translation to be incredibly beautiful. I've read the Odyssey more than once, because I love the story. I read things because I enjoy them and feel that they add something to my life, not out of a sense of obligation because some guy in 1950s decided I must read them in order to be considered "an educated person." OTOH, I skimmed the Iliad because I found the battle scenes tedious and found the whole enterprise (the Trojan War) to be stupid and pointless rather than epic and heroic, and I would rather have a root canal than read Paradise Lost or Don Quixote. Am I therefore not sufficiently educated? I have read quite a lot of Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Hume, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Kant, Descartes, Nietzsche, and others on "the list" that many people here haven't read and probably have no interest in, but I would never argue that anyone who hasn't read those authors is not truly educated.

 

I disagree, at the most fundamental level, with the idea that there is a specific list of works that one must read in order to be considered "an educated person."

 

Jackie

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Because dominant culture is, well, dominant. It projects its values, controls the economic base, is supported by the ideological state apparati, etc.

Exactly. And limiting the study of literature in high school to the body of writing that the elites deem worthy of study serves to reinforce the legitimacy of the elites and justify the exclusion of everyone else. Which is precisely why some of us object to that approach. :)

 

There are two primary reasons generally given for requiring the study of the Great Books/Western Canon: (1) it represents our cultural heritage and (2) it's great literature. My argument is that (1) whether or not it truly represents one's "cultural heritage" is going to vary enormously depending on whether one was born into the Italian upper classes or the American working class, and (2) there are plenty of other great literary works out there — including modern works, and those by non-western writers — that are equally valid objects of study, and equally capable of expanding a student's vocabulary, analytical skills, and view of the human condition.

 

Jackie

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Exactly.

Why? Because dominant culture is, well, dominant. It projects its values, controls the economic base, is supported by the ideological state apparati, etc. It doesn't need to read other writings, if not out of some sort of special interest.

 

"It" doesn't need to -- exactly, because that is the way it preserves power in its exclusivity. But do WE need to, as human beings? Do our kids? Is it part of our responsibility as human beings to make visible and see the value in what that state apparatus has erased? Or do we participate in that process of erasure?

 

If the dominant culture provides us with one reading of history and our nation's role, do we want our kids to only read that version and accept its judgment of what and who is valuable?

 

And regentrude, I repeat that women HAVE written works that have been a vital part of, and influenced, the dominant culture; but that these influences have been written out of literary history until relatively recently or downplayed as insignificant in the light of elite male writers.

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Jackie, I was thinking that your comment about the relative neglect of scientific and philosophical works and this thread about the place of women -- on a number of levels -- with respect to various canons are brought together in a book by Richard Holmes called The Age of Wonder. It's about the natural science explorations of the Romantics, mostly in Britain; but one of the things that comes out of his work is the vital role of women (sisters, wives, daughters) in the discoveries and fame of the men, and how their contributions disappeared from scientific history.

I have this book and it looks fabulous! It also links the development of science during this period to the larger zeitgeist, including developments in art and literature. This is exactly the sort of book I like to build courses around, because I believe in studying all subjects with respect to their historical and cultural contexts. I don't see history and literature and science and art as separate subjects, each with it's own discrete body of memorizable facts and data, but rather as an interconnected web in the history of ideas, and understanding the cultural/historical contexts that give rise to these ideas is (IMO) critical to a true understanding of all subjects.

 

Jackie

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"It" doesn't need to -- exactly, because that is the way it preserves power in its exclusivity. But do WE need to, as human beings? Do our kids? Is it part of our responsibility as human beings to make visible and see the value in what that state apparatus has erased? Or do we participate in that process of erasure?

:iagree: Well put!

 

Jackie

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If you read Angela Thirkell, you will see Trollope mirrored, as well as the funny-because-of-the-phrasing-ness of Three Men in a Boat. I always link AAMilne, Three Men in a Boat, Thirkell, and Wodehouse together because the way they use language is very similar. I think The Casting Away of Mrs Lecks and Mrs Aleshine is similar. It was this very type of humour in my son's speech that started the whole Plug for Great Books thread. I, too, look forward to that thread.

-Nan

 

There's a British woman writer who was grew up in India whose works have been, until recently, dismissed as "popular" -- the "real" British writer you were supposed to read on India was E. M. Forster. Recently there has been a fascinating reassessment of Rumer Godden's body of work, and the argument is growing in critical circles that her work is actually much more accurate about the relationship of the British to India than Forster's. The idea that she is a non-elite or non-canonical writer is also being questioned at the moment. Reading the two side by side (not necessarily having a high school student read criticism or research the reassessment) provides enormous amounts of material for discussion on all levels.

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I can tell you personally why I chose to do things the way I did, but I very much doubt my person reasons are the same as the general ones. I had (mainly) two reasons. The first is that by chance, when my two oldest were about 6 and 3, I happened to grab D'Aulier's book of Greek myths at the library to read aloud. They were fascinated and wanted me to read it over and over again, so I read it onto tape. They listened to it ad nauseam. Naturally, that lead to an interest in other things Greek. And made reading the traditional ancient Greek lit much more appealing to them than something like The Great Gatsby. Knights and castles were also of interest, so it was easy for them to read some medieval lit. The second reason is that I think my children are less likely to read The Iliad on their own than some of the other things on the great books list. They are headed into technical fields where they will do lots of science reading, perhaps not early scientific writings, but at least science. I am trying to fill their heads with stories, tons and tons of stories, so that their minds will be rich places for them to live in for the rest of their lives. I'm not saying that the early scientific writings aren't important. Of course they are. If we had time, we would read them. I am hoping that my youngest, who reads more quickly than the older one, will get to read some of them. But I have chosen (and it was a deliberate choice, not an accidental one) to put that sort of reading 7th on the list of must-reads. Stories come first to enrich their lives, then some of the US foundational documents, then some of what I have been calling "moderns" (a mix of peace activism, current global issues, geography, and anthropology), then a little history and philosophy because they are unlikely to do more of this, then modern science books to try to give them some sort of foundation for their further technical studies, then scifi, and then other sorts of reading. I agree with you in not seeing why some other families don't put this sort of reading first. I just don't because I am trying to provide some sort of counterbalance in my children's techically oriented lives. I agonized over this and I'm still not sure I made the decision correctly. My children will tell you in the two seconds just before they die GRIN.

-Nan

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"But then we go back to our good ol' structured vs. unstructured education debate, and I gave up on that on these boards, as we'll probably never reconcile our beliefs with regards to that aspect. This thread, ultimately, comes down to that commonplace of our discussions here."

 

Ester, I think there is too much damage control here going on to come down to anything at all in this regard.

 

-Nan

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I can tell you personally why I chose to do things the way I did, but I very much doubt my person reasons are the same as the general ones....

And I think this is precisely how it should be done — each of us has the right (perhaps even the obligation) to tailor our children's reading lists in a way that we feel best meets their needs. Whether we choose to feed their interests or balance their interests by adding works from other subjects and genres, whether we allow them to choose books that really engage their imaginations or require them to read books from a proscribed list regardless of their tastes and interests, we are all striving to produce well-educated children. It's the idea that there is a certain list, decided by a certain group of people, that everyone must read in order to be considered "an educated person," that I strongly disagree with.

 

Jackie

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I'm trying to figure out how this is related to structured vs. unstructured education. Is there only one possible valid structure (and of course it isn't mine)?

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There's a British woman writer who was grew up in India whose works have been, until recently, dismissed as "popular" -- the "real" British writer you were supposed to read on India was E. M. Forster. Recently there has been a fascinating reassessment of Rumer Godden's body of work, and the argument is growing in critical circles that her work is actually much more accurate about the relationship of the British to India than Forster's. The idea that she is a non-elite or non-canonical writer is also being questioned at the moment. Reading the two side by side (not necessarily having a high school student read criticism or research the reassessment) provides enormous amounts of material for discussion on all levels.

 

I looked up Thirkell and Godden, thinking it would be fun to read a book by them, but they each wrote a LOT of books. Has anyone read any of them to recommend which might be good starting points?

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I looked up Thirkell and Godden, thinking it would be fun to read a book by them, but they each wrote a LOT of books. Has anyone read any of them to recommend which might be good starting points?

 

There's a discussion of Thirkell, including specific book recommendations, in this thread.

 

Jackie

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You know what I find funny about this discussion? Funny/peculiar, not funny/haha? My family and my husband's family are Welsh/English/Scottish/Cornish/Irish. I chose TWTM as a homeschooling method for two reasons - it assumed I had a reading but not yet writing kindergartener (for some reason most curriculums erroneously assume that if you can read, you can write) and its grammar stage literature list was almost identical to my own family's traditional you-can't-grow-up-without-reading-this list. It was natural for me to just keep on using TWTM lists because culturally, they matched my family. I've posted about this from time to time on these boards over the years, pointing out that if my family culture were different, I would look beyond those lists. What I am finding funny now, in this discussion of dominant cultures is that we as Celts are obviously still dealing with the results of being taken over by the Romans. The whole Irish/English thing is the reason my husband's family is here in the US now and I'm still pondering how that links in. Personally, I have used music as the link to the more common culture. I was thinking more in terms of finding primary sources for things like mostly non-literate peoples, but it works from this perspective, too. Wade in the Water, etc., cowboy songs, protest songs from the revolution to claim shanties to civil rights, all the Celtic music like Four Loom Weaver and Dinny the Piper and all those endless songs about my love has gone to America and left me pregnant or the local lord had his way with me... My children have been brought up on those. Even the lullabyes I sang, from All the Pretty Little Horses to By'm'by to the Scottish ones. Jackie, I guess I have been assuming that my children would get the things outside the US version of Ester's cannon (which is most definately a moving target - my son read The Plague Tales as a substitute for The Plague in public high school) outside their academic education, through music and sacred runs and peacewalking. The hive chills down significantly every time I mention that I chose my son's US history book to echo his political activism rather than compliment it. I have picked our literature for different reasons. Perhaps it is a question of what you want to accomplish when you teach literature. I wrote about my individual goals earlier. Are you and Ester using literature for different things? I know I'm sort of looking sideways at this rather than straight on, but I'd still like to know.

-nan

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But I think that in Europe, this is largely true, at least among academics. I have, peacewalking there, run into people who are not part of this, but the very fact that they all feel compelled to rebel so furiously leads me to think that it is still a much more unified, stratified society than the US, even today. It isn't as though I am very familiar with Europe, though. Perhaps I am wrong?

-Nan

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I can. I'll get back to you, ok? If I don't, remind me. I'm horrible at remembering titles, so I will have to go look at the books on shelf.

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As I have looked at the writing programs at different colleges, I thought I might like to attend, I see a lot of literature courses being offered that are NOT Western Canon. I find it interesting to look at the courses offered by women's colleges.

 

What do you all think are the best Women's Studies anthologies and textbooks? What about World Literature anthologies and textbooks that feature stories by matriarchal societies.

 

Rather than just looking for books written by female authors, I am more interested in reading authors from matriarchal societies, where women are valued, and war is not promoted.

 

For those of you who are conservative Great Books advocates, do you think colleges who are teaching more women,s studies and world lit courses are going to welcome these types of books being read during high school?

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What I am finding funny now, in this discussion of dominant cultures is that we as Celts are obviously still dealing with the results of being taken over by the Romans. The whole Irish/English thing is the reason my husband's family is here in the US now and I'm still pondering how that links in.

Yes, and if the point of reading "the canon" is familiarity with one's cultural heritage, then why is the Aeneid a must-read for the Celts among us but the Táin Bó Flidhais and Táin Bó Cuailnge aren't? ;)

 

Perhaps it is a question of what you want to accomplish when you teach literature. I wrote about my individual goals earlier. Are you and Ester using literature for different things? I know I'm sort of looking sideways at this rather than straight on, but I'd still like to know.

I think we are definitely using literature for different things, and in fact I would say that we are pursuing somewhat different goals in education, not just literature. Obviously we're both intent on providing a rigorous, high quality education for our children, but we have different visions of what that looks like.

 

For one thing, I don't start with the assumption that there is a certain list of books, the reading of which qualifies one as an educated person. I'm also not looking to replicate my own education, or my parent's education, or my grandparents education, for my children. My son is ethnically Irish, Norwegian, and German, none of which are particularly well-represented in the Great Books list, and my daughter is Asian, so her cultural heritage is, by definition, excluded from the "Western canon." For these reasons, as well as larger philosophical reasons, I consider my children's "cultural heritage" to be much broader, and to encompass the human cultural heritage rather than just one small corner of it. I want my kids to read the Ramayana and Mahabarata and Monkey as well as the Odyssey. I don't consider Milton and Wordsworth more important than Neruda or Basho. And some of the most emotionally powerful and beautifully written books I've read are not part of the canon/Great Books list: Under the Volcano, Kafka on the Shore, The Rat Man of Paris, Woman in the Dunes, The Unbearable Lightness of Being... I could go on and on. I would much rather share those with my kids than make them slog through Cervantes.

 

Secondly, for me the most important goal of education is not the absorption of specific content, but rather the ability to think critically, and especially to question authority and to find out for themselves if the things they are told are true and valuable and necessary are indeed true and valuable and necessary. Karen's comment about it being just as important to know where your "classics" come from as it is to know where your food comes from, is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about.

 

For this reason, I believe it's just as important to focus on the cultural and historical context of literature, science, politics, economics, etc., as it is to focus on the content standards. Who decides what's important and what's "true"? Should we just accept that all the great literature in the world was written by dead white guys from a certain segment of society in a few countries, or should we question that? Should we accept that GM foods and chemical pesticides and hundreds of artificial additives are safe to eat because the FDA says so, or should we question that? Should we accept that all those drugs we see advertised on TV are safe and effective because the manufacturers say so, or should we look at who's funding that research and ask what they have to gain from it? Should we believe what the media tell us about important political and economic issues, or should we do our own research and make up our own minds?

 

For the same reason, my children's readings within the Western canon are likely to focus much more heavily on the philosophical and scientific works rather than the literary ones. IMHO, understanding the history of science — including the way governmental and religious authorities have often determined what topics (and what results) were "acceptable," and how each generation believes it's science to be "truth" — is important to developing a critical and thoughtful approach to modern science. I also think that understanding the history of philosophy and of how people in different ages — and nonwestern cultures — have conceptualized what it means to be human, what the ideal form of government is, whether some humans (based on birth, race, wealth, or other criteria) are inherently better or smarter or more important than other people, etc., is extremely important. So, while my kids may not read Tacitus or Milton or Dante, they are likely to read Newton and Bohr and Heisenberg. I would rather they be familiar with the writings of Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Sartre than Moliere and Melville. You get the idea. :)

 

Sorry that turned into a dissertation, but I hope it answered your question, Nan!

 

Jackie

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I looked up Thirkell and Godden, thinking it would be fun to read a book by them, but they each wrote a LOT of books. Has anyone read any of them to recommend which might be good starting points?

 

I've read nearly all of Godden. You might start with The River, which is her most famous book because it was made into a movie by Jean Renoir.

 

The book I find the most touching is quite autobiographical; it's called Kingfishers Catch Fire, and is about her attempt to live on her own with her children in Kashmir during World War II.

 

In This House of Brede is very different -- a novel about nuns which is really very good. It also was made into a movie, starring Diana Rigg, which I don't think does the book justice. The book reminds me in a bizarre way of Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, because of the importance (startling to an outsider like myself) of money matters, business, internal squabbling, secrets, etc.

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You did, and made me realize that my children are getting some of that orally while peacewalking with people, with activists, from all over, French farmers, retired South African teachers, veterans, housewives, Japanese nuclear power activists, aboriginals, Ainu, buddhist monks, Roman catholic nuns, quakers, Mohawks and other Native Americans, share croppers, Africans, and many others. Some of them can barely read. Some of them have some very radical ideas, some of which are probably true, as unlikely as they sound, and some of which are wrong and need a basic grasp of science or politics or even geography to debunk. It is vitally important that my children, who travel with radicals out of my sight, be able to question and decide for themselves : ). We have that in common, anyway.

-Nan

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Nan, your children are being exposed to so much more pacifism and matriarchal worldview than the typical young American. I think when this happens it is an amazing opportunity for young people. I think they approach all their reading afterwards differently. They become more discriminating readers, and interesting conversationalists.

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For those of you who are conservative Great Books advocates, do you think colleges who are teaching more women,s studies and world lit courses are going to welcome these types of books being read during high school?

 

I think that when colleges look at the reading list, they look to see that the applicant is able to read and understand complex writing from different eras and different styles. I do not believe their main point is to look for the philosophical viewpoint mirrored by the choice of books.

If a student demonstrates that he has the ability to read a variety of books from Homer to Faulkner, that is a strong statement about the student's literacy. Which, I would guess, would be the college's main concern.

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I don't start with the assumption that there is a certain list of books, the reading of which qualifies one as an educated person.

But neither do I. At least not with the assumption that that's the ultimate criterion of what makes somebody educated, and that the list is extremely rigid and definite (as in, reading 90 out of 100 "disqualifies" you or something of the kind). I do believe, however, that it's one of the necessary components of one's education - but that which "makes somebody educated" cannot be so easily pinpointed or limited to a single area of study.

My son is ethnically Irish, Norwegian, and German, none of which are particularly well-represented in the Great Books list, and my daughter is Asian, so her cultural heritage is, by definition, excluded from the "Western canon."
Cultural heritage =/= necessarily ethnic heritage.

 

There are some French works that are more crucial parts of Italian cultural heritage than many Italian works. Not to even speak of ethnically disconnected classical antiquity or the Bible. Nobody is speaking about picking readings based on the ethnic key - but more based on the territorial key and, in lack of better expression, 'accumulated spirit' of that territory, the readings of previous generations, influences, mirror room and all that. It has very little to do with whether I'm Italian, Jewish or Austrian in sense of the ethnic origin. It's more about living in Italy and acquiring the self-selected culture of the place: what the "place" has selected, over the course of generations, as its most important, representative and mirroring points.

 

I have never felt "disconnected" from the Italian canon whatsoever for being ethnically Jewish. When you're a minority, you need to deal with it on your own terms - and of course that during your formal education you are going to be educated in the spirit, values, traditions and inheritances of somebody else. Even if Jews have been in Italy longer than modern Italians themselves, from the Roman times and well before the formation of the Italian identity. But it's still a minority identity, and by the virtue of living in Italy, among Italians and being educated with them you do acquire their associations, ways and concepts.

 

I met a lot of "Italian Americans" here, but for us, they're just "plain" Americans. They (most of them at least) don't have Italian culture, that which would make them 'firmly' Italian - language(s), specific parts of education, literary inheritance is also one of those elements, etc. Sure, everybody is free to consider themselves whatever they wish, and I'm certainly not telling anyone that they aren't "real Italians", but saying that your average Italian American somehow has a "problem" with the school system and the Ango-American literary tradition is quite ridiculous IMO, since the second generation onward is usually American in the full sense of the word, and that's usually their actual identity (confessed or not), established by living somewhere, circling somewhere and receiving a certain type of education. Their Italianness manifests itself in religion, food, certain customs or an odd dialectal expression - but "mentally", "intellectually", those people are the product of the Anglo-American literary and philosophical tradition, etc. way more than the continental one and specifically Italian one.

 

Therefore, I don't quite see what's the significance of the fact your daughter is of Asian origin, or your son being a mix of this and that, if they have a relatively stable upbringing in a certain place, within a certain language and values, etc. They'll end up what they're taught to be.

the ability to think critically, and especially to question authority
That doesn't contradict the type of education that's strongly rooted in a specific tradition. :) In my view, the ability to think critically is less content-dependent, and more an all across the board skill that one develops in all areas.

 

I'd also like to point to a small, perhaps somewhat neglected point, or the one that's often too obvious to specifically bring up: in order to manipulate the information, one must first HAVE the information. I have found that forcing what's usually referred to as "high level thinking skills" before a solid grounding in the actual content (not implying you do this, just thinking aloud) is often harmful in understanding the content on the level it should be understood first. I can tackle certain things, such as Cruscades through the eyes of Arabs or generally history through a different perspective than the one their "place" has written, only now, and only beginning to. And if I did this for every. single. thing we study, it would be endless and we would get lost. I'm happy with making sure, on a few concrete examples too, that there ARE different perspectives, that there is a complex net which leads to events being written (or canon being chosen), but - for the time being - I find it extremely important that they're versed in the "inheritance", no matter why it came to be that way. Then we can, as they become older, little by little start opening some more difficult questions on that, but there still is a relatively fixed framework of things that are "socially" expected from them to know, and I wouldn't take from that by adding more things into the mix that aren't as directly relevant for us as the "canon".

They can read whatever they like in their free time, though.

 

School is for me both - going through certain content within a certain framework, but also encouraging analytical thinking all across the board, not by "derooting" the framework from our specific culture.

 

As KarenAnne says, though, things really are more flux in the Anglo-American world, so you might have that luxury of doing a mishmash and still fulfilling "societal expectations" (it also nicely fits into the "melting pot" thing, multi-culti society, etc.). But I don't. Diverging from our structure, derooting it, is usually a sign of such a drastic rebellion that, ultimately, your children are going to suffer from it. It doesn't mean we all don't understand how framework-dependent many things we study are. But we still study those, and other things are free time reading.

Should we just accept that all the great literature in the world was written by dead white guys from a certain segment of society in a few countries?
But nobody is saying that. I know you're a smart woman and get what I mean, but you're making it sound as though "the other side" actually claims that.

It doesn't. It's aware of all those processes.

 

And it still adheres to a particular canon of mostly dead white guys. Especially if they come from similar segments of societies in similar few countries - then, by default, it's largely "their" inheritance par excellence.

 

I won't get into the whole "what's art" debate and "whether some art is better than other art", but I'll say I honestly believe that what I choose to teach is largely good and better than many of the other options I know of.

I'm sorry, I'm just not willing to put Amiri Baraka, with all due respect, in the same box I put Dante in. Nor I'm willing to put Duchamp's Fountain in the same box I put Michelangelo in. It doesn't mean that I won't draw my kids' attention to both of these cases (though maybe not require actual study of those), but... I don't know, call me an "elitist" if you need a label; I just don't subscribe to the "it's all equal but different and equally worthy" school of thought (in art or education), even if I still have my own grave doubts about many, many things, especially intangible ones such as "quality" of the things we're discussing now. It's more about relevance at this point.

 

But I'll tell you this. With my conservatism in this area I'm probably just as much the product of my upbringing and education as is somebody willing to relativize it all, without understanding that the (post)modern tyrrany of relativisim also has its roots somewhere and isn't a "given" state of things either (not implying you here).

 

I'll also point to you that you have a whole generation of parents OPTING to educate their children largely AS IF they belonged to those particular parts of those particular societies - whether by homeschooling them by the "(neo-)classical system" (which largely emphasizes it, but it doesn't limit itself to it) or by sending them to carefully chosen private schools where one gets such an education. I don't know, but I like to think a certain number of people has seen first hand where relativism lead to in schools (picking works to study to satisfy women and minorities, e.g.), and are choosing to adhere to a more conservative train of thought with regards to what should be studied as a part of pre-specialized education.

 

Okay, sorry for the rant. This was largely not a direct reply to Jackie, but more my own thinking aloud. If it's incoherent, it's because I had to quit writing a few times to occupy myself with more mundane things, so I probably lost a train of thought somewhere. :)

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I looked up Thirkell and Godden, thinking it would be fun to read a book by them, but they each wrote a LOT of books. Has anyone read any of them to recommend which might be good starting points?

 

We are currently reading Gypsy Girl by Godden aloud and enjoying it very much. It is a children's book.

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I think that when colleges look at the reading list, they look to see that the applicant is able to read and understand complex writing from different eras and different styles. I do not believe their main point is to look for the philosophical viewpoint mirrored by the choice of books.

If a student demonstrates that he has the ability to read a variety of books from Homer to Faulkner, that is a strong statement about the student's literacy. Which, I would guess, would be the college's main concern.

 

College literature courses are a lot more diverse than high school courses. I cannot believe a college wouldn't be impressed with any books, they themselves teach. If they are teaching Inuit mythology, then I think it is safe to put it on a high school reading list.

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For instance, here's a brief illustration by way of canonical scientific history. Today JennW and I were having a conversation about a biography of Mary Anning we'd just read. For those of you who don't recognize the name (and there's a reason you don't), Anning was a Victorian working class woman who discovered some of the first dinosaur fossils in the cliffs of southern England, fossils that were critically important to a generation of men who developed theories of evolution and geologic origins. Anning was barred from appearing in the lecture rooms of the society devoted to discussions of her finds (even had she had funds to get to London), barred from a university education, and with absolute consistency denied credit for what she accomplished. She dissected sea animals that washed up on the beach to get a better understanding of the anatomy of her fossil finds, guided Oxford men around the beaches teaching them about where to find the fossils, understood minute variations that led to classifications as different species, and in general showed the makings of a superb natural historian. But she faced insuperable barriers due to her poverty and to her gender. She was written out of the natural history books and even out of museum exhibit attributions of the fossils she discovered.

 

.

 

 

Right. Another woman worth studying is Sophie Germain. We should all of heard of her. Not, not literature, but a French mathematician. I'll say no more so that people can enjoy finding out about her themselves. I believe tha there's even a full biography out on her somewhere.

 

I fully believe that it is important for teens to learn about women and to seek lit written by women. Some claim that the first modern novel was written by a woman (I can't remember the year, but it was well before Don Quixote.) Women scholars were martyred, as well, and I wish I could remember the name of the woman scholar who was executed somewhere in Alexandria or somewhere like that. No, I'm not an ardent feminist, but I am against oppression & suppression lke this. It's neither biblically nor politically correct. However, when reading the canon, you can still think about what it says and/or implies about women, what ideas there are about women conveyed int it, etc. It's a part of history. I like pointing out to my dd's that not all of Europe is the same historically. How many girls know which European country (or perhaps countries--I may not know of some) gave women rights in the middle ages that included the right of a married woman to retain ownership of land & other goods, the right to divorce on the same grounds as men, etc. That country also prized intelligence as well as beauty in women (not saying that beauty ought be prized, but this was the middle ages and certainly not politically correct!) how about the literature from that country? Is it in the canon, and, if not, why not? If not, does that mean it's not at the same intellectual level, or has it been set aside even if it is at the same level? (kind of a tangent, but not really. I've been seriously questioning the great books canon lately).

 

Something to bear in mind is that there may be literature that was written by women under men's names that we don't know about. I'm not saying that it was common, but I doubt that every woman using a male pen name was discovered. When I was studying women's history I remember reading of a doctor in Canada who had successfully passed herself off as a man until they performed her autopsy; she even showed signs of having given childbirth.

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and I wish I could remember the name of the woman scholar who was executed somewhere in Alexandria or somewhere like that.

 

Did you mean Hypatia?

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Did you mean Hypatia?

 

 

That's the one! I'm not good at remembering names. Those monks might have called themselves Christian, but that was not Christian of them! Hard to compare them with that monk who jumped into the Roman arena to try & stop a killing (who was murdered by the mob, but that helped bring the end of that.) It's also hard to believe that they read the New Testament and saw the women who were working alongside the apostles, etc (but by then some of that may have already been tampered with. At least one woman's name was changed to a man's name, but that man's name doesn't appear on any tombs, etc, until a few hundred years after NT times) and they may have already been wrongly interpreting I Tim 2. As for killing a pagan like that, that isn't right, either.

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Some claim that the first modern novel was written by a woman (I can't remember the year, but it was well before Don Quixote.)

 

You may be referring to The Tale of Genji, written by Lady Murasaki. See the Wikipedia entry here.

 

Regards,

Kareni

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You may be referring to The Tale of Genji, written by Lady Murasaki. See the Wikipedia entry here.

 

Regards,

Kareni

 

Thanks! Actually, I thought it was a European woman, but I could be mixing people up and this might be the one.

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