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Susan Swan

Why aren't we teaching more of these books? Add to ...

Never mind the acclaim of Canadian writers abroad and this fall's wealth of literary festivals and big book prizes. There's a shocking disconnect between the international success of Canadian writing and how Canadian literature is viewed in our schools.

For starters, few Canadian books are taught in our schools, and with one or two exceptions, no province has a mandatory course in Canadian literature.

British Columbia and Saskatchewan have legislation ensuring that high-school students study novels and non-fiction books by Canadian writers. And some provinces, like Quebec and Newfoundland, enjoy teaching their own writers.

But for the rest of the country, there's still a lingering attitude that Canadian literature is substandard, according to Jean Baird, a publishing consultant who fought for legislation that now makes it mandatory for every English Language Arts student in B.C. to study at least one Canadian text a year from Grade 8 to Grade 12.

"We may be one of the few countries in the developed world that doesn't teach our own literature," says Ms. Baird, who believes our education system is failing to grow the next generation of readers.

Eight years ago, Ms. Baird did a comprehensive survey of teachers, students and school boards for the Canada Council and found that not many high-school and elementary students could identify Canadian authors. As little as 31 per cent of schools had courses in Canadian literature.

Ms. Baird says things haven't changed much since her report. While Canadian literature has grown more popular and diverse, the lack of Canadian textbooks may be worse than the 1950s when I was a high school student.

Why the weird disconnect? There are five major reasons, and some of them are dumb.

The first is that education is a provincial matter so it's difficult for schools to co-ordinate a national curriculum.

A second reason is harsh budget cuts to education. Few English departments have the money to buy new texts so they rely on old copies of novels by foreign authors, such as To Kill a Mocking Bird and Lord of the Flies. At many schools, the teacher librarian job has been phased out and replaced with technical staff who understand the Internet. E-books could offer a partial solution but chances are that many of the library staff haven't been exposed to books by Canadian writers.

And here's the third reason: Almost none of our teachers' training colleges make studying Canadian literature compulsory. So unless a teacher has taken a Canadian literature course at university, he or she may go through our school system without ever reading a single book by a Canadian author.

The fourth reason is the redefinition of text. According to the Ontario Curriculum published by the Ontario Ministry of Education, a literary text covers a wide variety of writing, including newspaper ads, Facebook and posters. While expanding the definition makes sense in the digital age, it often means the exclusion of books.



"It doesn't surprise me that few Canadian novels are being taught in our public system," says Ken Alexander, writer, editor and founder of Bookshelf, a now defunct program that gave away 25,000 Canadian books a year to high-school students.

Mr. Alexander says a sense of book ownership gives students a relationship to their own culture. "Study programs are not about the writing imagination now. It's all about stuff that can be measured, stuff that can be put on a spread sheet."



The fifth reason is that it's up to teachers and school boards to pick books from suggested curriculum choices. And since these choices are merely recommended, Ms. Baird says there is no clear mandate for teachers. So what is taught varies from school to school, and often depends on whether the principal is more interested in funding the football team. And there are certainly many schools and teachers who teach CanLit with great enthusiasm, but it's hit and miss for students to end up in those classrooms. Parents also object to certain books as unsuitable, making it more difficult to get a consensus about teachable texts.

As a Canadian author, the weird disconnect is frustrating. If we want to understand our culture, why not study Canadian books? But if we want to cling to an old national inferiority complex, then what better way than keeping students ignorant of our literature?

When I taught an arts course at York University, the first thing students wanted to know was how I saw the difference between us and Americans. I'd start them off with a joke about a U.S. border guard frustrated with a traveller who said he had American and Canadian passports. Exasperated, the guard asked the traveller what he would do if his country went to war. The traveller replied that it would depend on the war and why they were fighting. The guard exclaimed: Now I know! You're Canadian.

Skepticism, I would explain, is a Canadian trait, along with tolerance and cultural diversity. On that course, students read fiction by Canadian authors such as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Nino Ricci and Mordecai Richler. By exam time, they were no longer asking me what it meant to be Canadian.

Susan Swan is a Canadian author and a former chair of The Writers' Union of Canada.

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