National Post Barbara Kay: Supplanting literary classics with native literature is a disservice to students

National Post - Tuesday November 5th, 2019

The Greater Essex County District School Board says that in accordance with the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, classic literature such as Shakespeare will be set aside in favour of a Grade 11 course wholly devoted to Indigenous writing.

Some years ago, the late, great writer George Jonas asked me about my intellectual influences. Who did I remember as especially formative? Oh, George Orwell, of course. I read Animal Farm in my mid-teens, 1984 a little later, and most of his other writings over the course of my salad years. It would be hard to overstate his effect on my understanding of concepts like “freedom,” “power” and “decency.”

Since Orwell has never been “owned” by the right or the left, both admiring his prose as a model for clarity and coherence, he is the one English-language writer I would consider indispensable for any high school literature curriculum.

Up to now, most educators have concurred. But the Windsor, Ont.-area Greater Essex County District School Board has announced that, in accordance with the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Orwell and other canon favourites in the Grade 11 literature curriculum, including Shakespeare, will be set aside in favour of a course wholly devoted to Indigenous writing. Eight of the district’s 15 schools have already replaced former standards with such books as Indian Horse, In This Together and Seven Fallen Feathers under the rubric of Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis and Inuit Voices.

Orwell is the one English-language writer I would consider indispensable

“This decision wasn’t made lightly,” said Tina DeCastro, a teacher consultant with the school board’s Indigenous Education Team. The decision arose from a motion passed by the school board’s trustees as a response to TRC calls for action. Eastern Cherokee Sandra Muse Isaacs, Professor of Indigenous Literature at the University of Windsor, defends the radical change as necessary on the grounds that Indigenous stories have been ignored in the past. “Our stories predate Canada. It’s as simple as that.”

Is it really that simple?

I don’t think there is a sentient Canadian today who isn’t aware that Indigenous voices have been neglected in the past, and who would not wholeheartedly support the addition of Indigenous writing to contemporary literature curricula. But an entire year devoted to Indigenous literature that supplants revered works by great writers from the civilization that produced Canada as a nation-state, in order to redress the offence of historical inattention to Indigenous people, is to rob the majority of Canadian students of their cultural patrimony.

George Orwell will be among the authors to be dropped from the Grade 11 literature curriculum in Ontario’s Greater Essex County. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I realize I am “old school” in my classically liberal views on the purpose of education. I believe schools have the responsibility to transmit cultural memory to students. They should prepare them for intelligent participation in their society by encouraging familiarity with the ideas and principles that formed their nation’s values and defining institutions. I therefore incline to the 19th-century Matthew Arnold school of thought (another formative influence), as outlined in Arnold’s remarkable series of essays, Culture and Anarchy, which I was introduced to in the course of my English Language and Literature studies at the University of Toronto.

On the nature of culture, Arnold famously wrote, “(Culture) seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light (…).” A bit utopian, to be sure, but the words “the best that has been thought and known in the world” took hold in a lasting way, and they still ring true to me.

Indeed, studying the “best” in my public high school was my motivation for taking up English literature as my focus in university. If I had studied Indigenous writers instead of Orwell and Shakespeare, I would have come to my studies (if I had wanted to do so at all under such circumstances) with a serious knowledge gap, unlike students who attend private schools, where Shakespeare and Orwell will continue to be taught.

'Best' is now out of favour, replaced by 'equity'

Of founding myths and stories, there is no end. Some kind of triage is necessary. On what principle should the triage pivot? “Best” is now out of favour, replaced by “equity.” The reality is that before the 20th century, few women had the opportunity or educational advantages to write professionally; Aboriginal culture was passed down orally; and Britain was homogeneously white. That’s over. Of course inclusivity and diversity merit their educational niche today, but if “reconciliation” really is the goal, a vote for the present inclusion of the formerly disadvantaged needn’t translate into a veto against literary excellence from the past.

The solution is not to retroactively punish the great white, Christian male writers by disappearing them so that Indigenous voices can shine. Representative Indigenous writing should be featured in a segment of the curriculum, but great English writers deserve to be taught in perpetuity. The zero sum plan adopted by the GECDSB looks a lot more like political pandering than the rounded cultural literacy of students it is the responsibility of school boards to provide.

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