To start with, it’s very strange that such a thing has to be defended as the set of texts that have created the world that we currently live in, a world that may not be perfect but is much better than it has been in the past. However, having gone through the rigors of a college education in literature, and a college education in the teaching of literature, it’s something that must be done.
To start with, we need a definition of terms, because everyone involved in the discussion needs to know what’s being talked about. The canon was defined very ably by my favorite Shakespeare professor when he said that the canon are texts that speak to the human condition, and not just about situations and issues that are happening right now. There are objections to the concept of the canon, but it seems to me that they don’t hold much water, because the canon is something that is constantly expanding as well as being a self-evident since we can see the influence of many canonical texts in the media that we enjoy today.
One important objection is that the canon is just a bunch of dead white men. This actually does have some factual basis to it, because the canon really is mostly populated with white men from times gone past. However, this ignores a few important factors, the largest of which is that it ignores history. Up until very recently, most of the world was illiterate, and were unable to contribute to the world in an artistic way. Those that can write, did. And those that did write, were more often than not, white men. Along with that is the lack of meaningful contact between cultures up until, once again, very recently. Finally is that there were many cultures that did not have a written language in any way shape or form. The fact remains though, that their stories had just as much of an impact on the world as those that were written down. This may seem like a weak defense, but allow me to defend myself.
Prior to the advent of the written word, which in geologic terms, was a very recent advance, humans existed in their current state. Homo Sapiens as we are right now, have existed for more than one hundred thousand years, and there were other species in our lineage who were, probably, just as capable as we are when it comes to symbolic culture (that is to say parts of a species that exist for reasons outside of direct necessity. I’m using the term here to mean speech, artwork and other such things that are meaningful in their symbolic quality). To say that our species in its infancy, as well as other species in our lineage, did not engage in some form of storytelling or another, is nonsensical, whether we have direct evidence for it or not. These stories, due to not being written down, are gone forever, but the evidence for them is everywhere. These are the stories that formed our civilization and species. They’re the true canon, and they’re just as vital and important as the copy of Huck Finn that’s next to my left hand.
This is all very figurative and hypothetical, of course, and something that really can’t be proven, but it’s still a very important part of the discussion when it comes to the literary canon.
Another argument that I hear often is that the canon is above the heads of most students, which I think is incredibly condescending. Of course, I’m not talking about teaching Balzac, Nabokov or Dostoevsky to high school students. I’m talking about Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Bradbury and other writers whose influence echoes throughout history and creates the world that we live in. These authors, and others like them, wrote for teenage and young adult audiences, as well as the poor and working class in the Western world. To say that Shakespeare would go over the heads of modern students is to say that people of the exact same social class, as well as age, were more intelligent and more capable in Elizabethan England. There’s simply no way to take this stance that isn’t condescending in one way or another, and to say that these authors have nothing to say to our modern world is to admit ignorance of the authors and their work.
The fact of the matter is that public school is one of the only opportunities that most students are going to have when it comes to being exposed to the canon. Most students, after they exit The System are not going to go out of their way to pick up Huck Finn or the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Hamlet or the Divine Comedy. Teachers are ignoring a very important part of their job by dropping the canon from their curriculum, a job whose importance cannot be overstated.