Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Jingle Bells Effect And The Canon

So, if you need a little something to jumpkick you into the season, here's a playlist challenge for you.

Yes, that's roughly 76 minutes of various versions of "Jingle Bells," carefully selected, curated and ordered for your listening pleasure. 

"Jingle Bells" is a curious song to become a Christmas standard, mostly because it has nothing to do with Christmas but is instead the mid-19th century ancestor of songs like "Little Deuce Coup." It was written by the guy who would be J.P. Morgan's uncle, and who skipped out on boarding school to join the crew of a whaling vessel before later joining the losing side of the Civil War. 

Nobody has any great explanation for why, exactly, this song has persisted, but I have a theory. I think "Jingle Bells" is one of that special sub-group of songs that survives because it's fun to play. 

Most musicians have had that experience. I can remember always thinking that "Moondance" was a kind of "meh" song, until I was out on a gig and called on to play it, at which point I discovered that I would be happy to play that thing all night. The structure is just fun to work around, to play and play with. "Jingle Bells" is like that--it's deceptively simple, but for many musicians, playing it just leads to more ideas about what you can do with it. It can spark you to do really good stuff. There's something in it that persists even as you translate it into a dozen different idioms.

I thought about that effect this week as I watched the canon wars flare up again in tweeterland. As usual, people both for and against swapping out pieces of revered literature got ugly and defensive and angry, and the argument seems, in many ways, beside the point because it leaves the teacher out of the equation, treating her as if she's a neutral conduit. But that's not the case.

Some of the debate about the canon is really a debate about why we're teaching literature at all, which is one of the great unsolvable debates of the teaching profession. Do we teach it to foster cultural literacy, or as content by which to develop reading and writing skills, or as a window on different cultures and times and places, or as an entryway into fundamental philosophical questions, or to acquaint students with certain universal content that everyone is supposed to have in their bag of tricks? Yes, maybe. (This was where David Coleman's Common Core lost the thread-- Coleman believed we read in order to develop a narrow slice of reading and writing skills, and I'm not going back there again right now except to point out that Coleman was circumventing a broad, deep body of debate within the teaching world which is one more reason you shouldn't get your national standards thrown together by an amateur). 

All literature exists at the intersection of the author, the words on the page, and the reader. In a classroom, multiple readers are involved. The teachers job is to show the student why the reading is interesting, worthwhile, even exciting. If, as a teacher, you don't have a good, solid, believable answer to the question. "Why are we reading this?" then you should not be teaching that work. All the "ought to" reasons in the world, from "this is an important part of the classic canon" to "this is on all the anti-racism reading lists" won't save you if you, the teacher, don't see a bright shining something in that work that makes you want to teach it to this particular roomful of students, something that speaks to you and that you believe will speak to them (even if you have to interpret a bit). That is part of your job as a teacher (one of those "they don't tell you about this in teacher school" jobs)-- to find your own way into works so that you can find the core of your own passion to teach it, and then find a pathway for your students past the language and the ideas and the detritus of another time and place and culture to that Thing.

For precisely this reason, there is no single work that should always be taught by every teacher to every student. For this same set of reasons, every school should have staff members who are right out of that school's community, and also staff members who are from other communities. For that same set of reasons, teachers should sit down every year and ask themselves if they still want to play another chorus of Great Expectations, or is it time to play something else. 

And "because we've always taught this to those students" or "this is what's always been on the curriculum" are never good arguments either for or against a single work. If you can't think of a reason to be interested in the work, your students certainly aren't going to do that work for you. "Is there something in the work that you feel passionately will be a benefit to those students." That's the question. And yes, asking that question involves stepping back and examining your own biases and making sure that you're not indulging in some wishful thinking ("Well, of course everyone should love Moby Dick") or circular reasoning ("It's a classic because it's, you know, classic") or centering your own culture in ways that are unhelpful or damaging to students.

I've mentioned before my colleague who taught the seniors in our department for years. She taught Paradise Lost every year, to seniors, in May. You'd have to pay me a lot to slog through that musty old beast, and you couldn't print enough money to get me to teach it, but she did, every year. To seniors. In May. With a culminating project that required them to come back in on days after they were technically done with school and didn't have to attend. And when the project was being presented, half the students in the high school voluntarily begged to go watch. Paradise Lost. 

I don't know anybody else who could pull that off, but she loved that work so much and had such a handle on what she felt was in it for the students that she sold it. It was her "Moondance," her "Jingle Bells," and so though Paradise Lost shouldn't appear on anybody's high school reading list, it was hugely successful for her and for her students. 

Everyone has their own greatest hits list. I could teach a pretty mean Hamlet and did decades of Toni Morrison without ever getting an angry parent phone call, but for years I was required to teach Julius Caesar, and I stunk--it was like a song in a bad key with ugly key changes and I just couldn't find my way into it. And when I wasn't careful, I could end up pulling out something that I enjoyed playing just because I enjoyed it, without paying any attention to what I had to say to the audience. 

"Jingle Bells" persists, I guess, not just because it's fun to play, but because that shining something that draws musicians to play it shines through when they do, allowing that something to be made visible, and enjoyable, to (much of) the audience. So that's what you look for--that thing that speaks to you and speaks to the audience, and that's going to depend on the where and when of you and your audience as well. All of that strikes me as more important than allegiance or opposition to the canon.


  1. A similar question exists as well in math and the sciences: why do we teach this topic? Should we continue doing so?

  2. Music teachers also struggle with the concept of what deserves to be in the canon, and the purpose of choosing literature that both teaches skills and concepts, but activates students' imagination and emotion.

    Using Jingle Bells was interesting--but there are hundreds of simple tunes that have made their way into classical, canonic greatness. Simple Gifts, for example, can be arranged for elementary method book as well as playing a starring role in Appalachian Spring.

    Hanging out with 30-year veteran band directors when I was just starting out taught me that one man's concert band masterwork that every high schooler in America should play was another woman's trite and static, trumpets-featured cliche'.