Arming or disarming the literary canon: Tradition and innovation in the secondary English text-selection process

Date of Completion

January 2002


Education, Language and Literature|Education, Secondary




This inquiry analyzed and interpreted the canon controversy and its role, if any, in the secondary English text-selection process for book-length works taught between 1985 and 1995. It looked at the sociocultural values that were in contention in the selection process, according to Victor Turner's theory of social dramas. It also addressed tradition as process, according to Patricia Weibust's theory of harmonic processes. Actual texts used between 1985 and 1995, when the canon controversy attained national prominence, were examined. These texts showed English departments dealing with both social and educational concerns. The literature utilized in the classroom thus contained insights into the contemporary canon controversy and its workings in secondary schools. ^ Detailed reading lists of book-length works used in secondary English classes from 1985 to 1995 were obtained, and English department heads and teaching staff were interviewed. The material from these reading lists and interviews was analyzed and compared to see values in contention. Through this analysis and examination, it was possible to discover harmonic processes involved in the canon controversy and in the text selection of book-length works in high schools in Hartford, Connecticut, and in the school districts of East Hartford, Glastonbury, Newington, South Windsor, West Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor, towns that are adjacent and contiguous to the Hartford school district and that were named in Sheff v. O'Neill. ^ This study discovered that the national canon controversy did not have any influence on department heads' or teachers' role or text choices in the text-selection process for book-length works. While most department heads were aware of the canon controversy, many teachers did not recognize the term or its significance. Evidence of social dramas and harmonic processes were at work in the text-selection process, and some non-canonical book-length works were allowed to enter the secondary reading canon through limens of literary opportunity. ^