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Jón Yngvi Jóhannsson, University of Iceland

Canon, Classics, Curriculum

An Inter-Nordic Comparison

  • Name: Jón Yngvi Jóhannsson
  • Academic credentials: Lecturer in Icelandic literature, School of Education, University of Iceland

Abstract: National literary canons have been the subject of intense discussion in the Nordic region for the last two decades or so, both within academia, in the education sector and among the general public. On an international level canon has been an important topic within literary history and the study of literature in general ever since the 1970’s.
Even though many scholars of the literary canon are aware of the important role schools and educators play in canon formation and the way national literary canons are reproduced and maintained, the role of modern school policy and curricula is seldom studied independently in research on canon formation.

The lecture will focus on the literary canon and the role of schools and educational policy in its formation on the one hand in an Inter-Nordic perspective, and on the other hand on the specific case of Iceland. In the case of Iceland, data gathered as part of an on-going research project, “Icelandic as school subject and teaching language” will be presented. The data consists of interviews, lesson plans and fieldnotes from ten compulsory schools and five upper secondary schools in Iceland.

The first half of the lecture will focus on comparing curricula from all the Nordic regions, in particular sections dealing with the teaching of the pupils’ mother tongue. Even though these curricula are in many ways similar, as are the school systems of the Nordic countries, there are significant differences to them when it comes to ideas about literary classics and national canons.

On one ends we have the Danish curricula with lists of individual authors that belong to the canon and who’s texts are mandatory reading for pupils. At the other we have the the latest Icelandic national curricula, both for compulsory schools and upper secondary schools, which are almost entirely without any trace of ideas about canon or literary classics. Indeed the concept of literary history is almost absent from these key documents in Icelandic cultural and educational policy. Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish curricula form a spectrum of different ideas ranging from the (apparent) absolute freedom of the Icelandic curricula to the state sanctioned canon of the Danish. The curricula, being texts that profoundly shape the ideas of literature literary history, and its part in national heritage, will be analyzed in order to discover the way they are influenced by notions of national identity and tradition on the one hand, and recent educational politics on the other.

The second half of the paper will be devoted to material gathered in Icelandic primary and secondary schools. The focus will be on the way teachers interact with official policy as it is presented in the curricula and other official documents, and how tradition and their interaction with their students informs their teaching practice and their choice of literature for teaching.

Theme: Scandinavian Identity Throughout History