The Canon as a Vehicle of Cultural Subversion: The Role of Literary Classics in the Curriculum
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About The Event
Abstract: This paper takes issue with the view that the many texts of the Western literary canon reflect the interests of the socio-economic establishment and are vehicles of cultural imperialism by the West. I argue that many classic texts are critical of the cruelty and hypocrisy of those who hold power in society. Western literature also includes many texts that subvert notions of occidental cultural superiority. In denouncing, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and all forms of exploitation, many important works of literature undermine occidental cultural preconceptions regarding the status of European civilisation as well as attitudes to religion and to male-female relations. The first part of this paper presents the argument that is the focus of the critique in this paper. This is the argument that the traditional curriculum is itself suborned in the interests of the agencies of social and political control and of Western cultural hegemony. Accordingly teaching many literary texts implies collusion with these malign agencies of power. Against this view, the second part of the paper offers an overview of texts that could be characterised as subversive of the status quo in its socio-political and cultural forms. The third section defends the claim advanced in the paper by exploring in some detail one text, Candide by Voltaire. The conclusion considers the legacy of the canon in our time.
Dr Kevin Williams is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection at the Institute of Education, Dublin City University and a former President of the Educational Studies Association of Ireland. His most recent publications address the place of imaginative literature in education and the rationale of language learning. His books include Faith and the Nation: Religion, Culture, Schooling in Ireland, Education and the Voice of Michael Oakeshott and Religion and Citizenship Education in Europe (2008), written as part of the Children’s Identity and Citizenship Education in Europe (CiCe) project funded by the European Commission.
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