The literary canon refers to “a body of books, narratives, and other texts considered to be the most important and influential works of a particular time period or place (Bates).” The term was first used in 1929. The literary canon itself has not changed much since its conception. An ongoing debate about the canon of literature in high schools has been a repercussion. The book Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, should to be added to the literary canon. Despite its deceiving title, Stumbling on Happiness, the book does not tell one how to achieve happiness. Instead, it opens the mind to all the different events or sensations that could make someone happy without realizing it. Stumbling on Happiness is a non-fiction book and is relatable to typical high school students. While easy to comprehend, the book also explains many topics regarding the human mind.
Many teachers and students view the literary canon as sacred ground and believe that it should never be touched. The canon includes works such as Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Scarlet Letter. All of these texts contain beautiful prose and timeless themes; however, they are irrelevant to our time and current lifestyle (Marshall). Another defect from a 100 year-old literary canon is the continued teaching of the same material because teachers like to teach what they have been taught. And why not? The lesson plans have already been created, which makes teachers’ lives easier. Yet, how can high school students embrace reading if they keep having the same material as their parents shoved down their throats? The answer is simple. Students will never read a book if they don’t truly enjoy it and with today’s technology, it’s much more convenient to just google the spark notes and answers. There is real evidence that “reading makes us smarter and nicer (Paul).” Studies even say that students who read are “better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and view the world form their perspective (Paul).” The canon of literature doesn’t need to be thrown out completely, but change is necessary in order to carry on the tradition of the teaching and enjoyment of reading.
Nonfiction books are in short supply in the classrooms, and most of the books being taught in high schools in the canon of literature are fiction. It’s not just how much students read that matters, but also what they read (“Research Says/ Nonfiction Reading Promotes Student Success”). Nonfiction books help students develop their background knowledge, which is crucial for students in having a solid base to understand the content of fictional books. Nonfiction books can be paired with fictional books to aid in the comprehension of a text. The replacement of some fictional novels with nonfiction would add more realistic approaches to the books being taught in high schools. Stumbling on Happiness offers scientific explanations of the limitations of human imagination. Later is a “powerful concept (Gilbert 10).” Small children don’t understand what later means because they can only think about how things are. How can we imagine what we want if we don’t know what later is? As we grow, we learn what later means and can think about how things will be (Gilbert 10).
High school students understand the everyday stress of being a full-time student. With the ability to balance school, extracurricular activities, an active social life, and a possible job, high school students should be able to find relief among all this chaos. Rather than finding the nearest screen, students should pick up a book and immerse themselves in it. Stumbling on Happiness helps students better cope with their feelings and problems. The book helps people in accepting and expressing the best version of themselves even if they aren’t the normal “happy.” Students have a bad habit of asking themselves impossible questions. “What it would feel like if” is one of the most consequential mental acts someone can perform (Gilbert 85). The pressure of making good grades, having a boyfriend or girlfriend, or getting accepted into college has especially risen for high school students today.
The human mind is capable of many tricks. Stumbling on Happiness reveals some of our mind’s deceptions. For example, the mind likes “filling-in” details that were not actually saved in the memory (Gilbert 88). The human mind tends to “fill-in” details about events before we can establish if they even happened or not (Gilbert 89). Most people are not aware that they do this, but maybe if we are cognizant of this mistake, we won’t “fill-in” as much. René Descartes once said that our experience is the only thing we can be completely sure of (Gilbert 69). The book incorporates real world issues such as war, peace, art, money, marriage, birth, death, disease, and religion. These “Really Big Topics” are powerful sources of human emotion, instigating heated debates and fostering strong opinions (Gilbert 78). The book also gives new perspectives to what most people consider ordinary occurrences. Lori and Reba Schapppel are mentioned in the book for being twin sisters. The only difference that sets them apart from other siblings is that they are conjoined twins. This is a new viewpoint of happiness. The happy they feel is different from our happy, and we will never know their happy. So, how can one explain happiness?
Stumbling on Happiness gives insight into the human mind and develops the psychology of happiness through six stages: “Prospection,” the act of the mind looking to the future, “Subjectivity,” the science of happy and why people strive for future feeling of happiness, “Realism,” the limitations of the imagination, “Presentism,” how the imagined future is much like the present, “Rationalism,” the imagination is not accurate in the feelings of the future, and “Corrigibility,” the antidotes for some of the everyday misconceptions (Gilbert 27). In the book, most people’s happiness is defined as a “vacuous state of bovine contentment (Gilbert 37).” This kind of happiness is fake, deceiving most people from the many variations of happy. Everyone has a different definition of happiness. Happiness is a “super-replicating false belief (Gilbert 239),” meaning that many people believe that materialistic things like money will make them happy. But this happiness is short-lived.
There are many books that need to be added to the literary canon. Students are willing and ready to change the canon, but why are teachers not on board? Is it their stubbornness towards trying something new? The negligence of teachers and students could very well be the downfall of the evolution of the canon of literature in high schools. The canon of literature needs to be revised. We can make a change, but only if teachers and students are willing to try.
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