This insightful piece by Caroline Criado-Perez for the Independent questions the idea of canon formation in light of the recent protests around the failure to include ANY female composers in Edexcel’s A-Level syllabus and presents a call to resist the limitations of the male-dominated canon of the Western classical tradition with which we have been encumbered:
“It is hard not to conclude that more lies behind Edexcel’s all-male list of set works than simply the inheritance of a sexist past. Rather, their failure to include women from any epoch suggests the continuation of a perennial problem faced by women artists, whose work has been historically dismissed as little more than domestic, decorative trifles, in contrast to the meaty, hefty works produced by their male contemporaries.
If Edexcel does not wish to collaborate in this tradition, now would be the time to make a change.”
This is clearly a call to change which can and should be directed at many canons and many syllabi, though some are quicker to adapt than others. The importance of education systems in creating and/or transmitting and reinforcing canons is paramount and is one of the many aspects of Women and the Canon that will be up for discussion at our conference in January.
At what stage are these canons inscribed for students? Clearly, as in the case of Jessy McCabe, there are students leading the move to expand our understanding of the ‘taught canon’ – the school, university, or exam syllabus – but are there also cases of students reinforcing canons by asking to be taught certain ‘canonical’ texts (as in the case of Prof Koritha Mitchell’s classes in this article, previously discussed in our post on the #ilooklikeaprofessor twitter movement) to get ‘the best’ or ‘their money’s worth’ out of their teachers? The issue here is, of course, not that students are natural conservatives stymying the efforts of progressive teachers and examiners to expand their cultural horizons, but that traditional canons are being perpetuated sufficiently widely and early that pupils and students arrive in the classroom/lecture theatre/seminar with a firm(ly white, male) picture of what counts as proper literature/music/philosophy/art/scholarship.
As Criado-Perez asks us to consider, at what point do we stop collaborating and effect change?
In the interim, if anyone has experiences of teaching canons, changing canons, trying to change canons, the resilience of canons in an educational context, then please do share them in the comments below!