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Theory v. Lit Survey – FIGHT!

So, despite having been an English major for quite some time, I am only now taking Critical Theory and Practice — which is, for all intents and purposes, the introductory course to upper level English classes.  One of the main messages I have been getting from the class is that a reader can interpret a text any number of ways and defining if and why a work is good is pretty much impossible.  So the problem for any English class is considering what to teach and why.  From my experience the English canon is pretty much entirely received; we mostly still read the “classics” of literature, or, as someone in my theory class noted, “the books that we are supposed to read.”  Why, if much of that canon was established before Critical Theory had its day, do we continue to read specific hallmarks of “great literature?”  Especially if the insights of theory teach us that if “great literature” exists at all, we can’t really explain why.

I propose that, while theory and the classic mode of teaching literature in the form of literature surveys may seem at odds with one another, they are actually mutually enriching.  Yes, the canon can be argued to be essentially arbitrary, but an arbitrary set of common readings allow theorists to compare their findings in texts that are mutually, if artificially, agreed upon.  By having a canon, any canon, theory gains relevance by virtue of the quantity of opinions gathered when it limits, in some way, its scope of consideration.

Perhaps we have no particular reason to choose this canon, but if there is no canon that would be demonstrably better, why change?  And, considering that the canon we have is a living, changing entity (for example the ever expanding pool of non-white, non-male, non-dead writers admitted to the canon comes to mind) I think it’s fair to say that there really is no fight between Critical Theory and Literature Surveys.  Conflict averted.

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