#2) Does the Western Canon Matter?

Eric:

Historically our approach to teaching literature has been guided by a “canon” that enshrines the greatest or otherwise most important works of western civilization, as selected by our most elite cultural gatekeepers. For a very long time, canonization has proven both controversial and productive of controversial works.

In his 1987 The Closing of the American Mind, for instance, Allan Bloom bemoaned the failure of American universities to teach the great books. In 1995, Harold Bloom published his The Western Canon, which went so far as to enumerate the great books that deserve to be taught.

Though singled out here for their importance – at least in the small canon of canon wars literature – these titles are accompanied by more than a dozen other notables, running the scholarly spectrum from diligent to D’Souza. Most are written with the sort of literary gravitas one would expect from civilization’s defenders.

Though the two Blooms were not related, they did share a sort of sneering disdain for the middle-browing of high culture, exhibiting a brand of snootiness that I have always enjoyed in my self-consciously elite authors. And yet, for all of their erudition and contempt, the Bloomian arguments seem not to have succeeded over time.

In the two-or-so decades since these books were published, certain university students – especially those at certain elite universities – have continually challenged the notion of an “official” canon on grounds that it excludes the work of non-white and/or non-male writers.

Oddly, because this activism is almost always marked by an indignant, confrontational posture, these students appear to take the canonical approach to literature far more seriously than most anyone else.

A few weeks ago you and I talked about literary canons for about five inebriated hours. Remind me – what do you think? Does the canon – or the canons – matter?

Matt:  

You raise an interesting point: is anyone defending a canon anymore? There are plenty of people who decry the disappearance of ‘the classics,’ but outside of Harold Bloom, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a specific proposal for a list of books that kids should be reading.

I certainly didn’t encounter anything like that in college. I don’t think my university had such a list. At least in the humanities, each department offered intro classes that covered important texts within their discipline, but there weren’t any overarching Western-Civ-style requirements.

Our friend Josh, on the other hand, attended St. John’s College, and that’s exactly what he got: a thorough immersion in the history and development of Western thought.

Whenever Josh and I compared notes during college, I always felt like he was getting the more coherent and profound education. I liked the freedom I had to explore, but I also felt that my education was scattered, unorganized – that I could have learned more if things had been structured more thoughtfully.

For me, that might be the primary value of a canon: helping students understand the genealogy of their culture – how it came to be the way it is, how it shaped and formed the minds of its inhabitants (including their own), etc. And I think it’s clear that some books, ideas, and conversations have played a bigger role than others.

Eric:

I felt exactly the same way. I remember assuming that my English major would proceed chronologically from distant past to present, but found instead that it just sort of bounced around. Each semester came with different, randomized offerings, and you took whatever looked interesting and/or had open seats. The St. John’s curriculum looks more like what I imagined college would be: learning about western civilization in proper, temporal sequence.

Matt:

Exactly.

My wife and I are expecting a baby in two weeks. There are some things that I hope my daughter learns – about herself, about others, about the world – but if I’m honest, I can’t think of a single book that I see as really indispensable to her growth.

I’ve had a million awesome reading experiences, and if she shows any curiosity in those directions, I’ll be happy to share them with her. But they all feel optional. Really, really nice, but optional, like seeing Starry Night in person. I can easily imagine her living a great life if she never reads The Iliad or Middlemarch. And I can easily imagine her learning exactly what she might have learned from Middlemarch in a hundred other ways.

Eric:

The other day someone suggested to me that the term western civilization – and with it, presumably, western canon – is invariably racist, in that it is generally used to suggest the superiority of European peoples to the rest of the world. I’m curious what you think about that, since you are currently a westerner living in the east, and since your child will be born and grow upon the line between.

Matt:

I suppose I’d ask this person, Is it “racist” to talk of Egyptian civilization? Aztec? Chinese? If not, then I’m not sure why it’d be any more problematic to talk about western civilization. Identifying a cultural tradition and asserting its superiority aren’t the same thing.

But my sense is that this comes up for you a lot in your role as a professor. Can you talk about that?

Eric:

These sorts of questions arise in academia, though not so much in my particular corner of it. That’s one misconception that I think a lot of people have about US universities. There’s this idea that they are hotbeds of political correctness and radical activism, epitomized by calls for safe spaces and trigger warnings and organized challenges to the established order of things. But that stuff mostly goes on in the Ivy League and at other elite institutions.

The only newsworthy example I can think of at a typical Pennsylvania school occurred last fall at Lebanon Valley College, when some students rallied to rename “Lynch Hall,” which had been named after a guy called Lynch, not the practice of lynching. It was kind of an unusual case, and a bunch of people got mad about it.

My university is public, and regional, and it caters to a largely working class student body. Many are first generation college students, and we have a significant number of military veterans. I suspect that most are more conservative than (most of) their professors.

So while we sometimes have occasion to discuss this sort of question, we aren’t necessarily marching through the streets over the English curriculum.

For our students, concerns about race and racism are far more practical than theoretical. We’re out in the countryside, where pickup trucks bearing confederate flags are a fact of daily life.

But ultimately I think those who oppose the western canon on racial grounds are struggling against the same mentality that prompts someone to fly the stars-and-bars. They are opposing the idea that civilization is by definition western – that the best things in life trace their ancestry back to Europe.

Whether or not talk of western civ is inherently racist, the claim that to be educated means to study a specifically western canon comprised solely of white, male authors might actually be. This marks a collision point between the idea that cultural traditions perform necessary, unifying work, and the idea that the western tradition, in particular, serves the interests of white supremacy.

I have always been a little wary (and a little weary) of campus activism, dating back to my days on campus as a student. Further, I have always been a little inclined toward traditions and histories and the idea that you can use cultural genealogies to better understand the present.

But I will never dismiss this sort of concern out of hand. Ideas do have consequences, and often it is appropriate to confront social problems directly at the root. You just have to make sure you’re prepared for what may happen if you fell the tree.

Matt:

“Whether or not talk of western civ is inherently racist, the claim that to be educated means to study a specifically western canon comprised solely of white, male authors might actually be.”

Is anyone actually making this claim? Women appear on Harold Bloom’s list, for example, as do representatives from at least three continents.

Eric:

It’s kind of a perennial claim that pops up in different places each year. Most recently, it appeared in a petition circulated at Yale. Students there were responding to the reading list in a two-semester course on English poets. The authors wrote:

“It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors. A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.”

This is the sort of thing I find tiresome – indignant claims, in jargony language, culminating in an amorphous conception of “harm.” The students who write this stuff envision themselves as revolutionaries, but they sound more like babies, as their critics are only too happy to observe.

And again, since I am sympathetic to their larger critique, I think these rhetorical tendencies are needlessly self-destructive. If the point is good, then I’m not sure it needs a manifesto.

There are practical, systemic reasons why white men dominate the ranks of great authors coming out of Europe in the past five centuries. For much of that time, only white men had access to the appropriate channels, so only white men produced great work.

Circumstances like this predate and make anachronistic all of the concerns that contemporary students tend to raise. You can make those acknowledgements and still appreciate the greatness of the great authors. Then you can broaden your own reading as widely as you want. You can start reading groups. You can guide these beyond what the syllabus requires.

It’s okay to concede that history is conversational. Things were said before we arrived, and others will be said after we are gone. Canonization – loosely conceived – can help us trace the high points of that conversation, and find our place within it.

Matt:

This last bit sounds about right to me. I’m all for doing away with stupid forms of exclusion, of course, but that doesn’t mean kicking Shakespeare or Milton in the shins.

I also don’t like the way that “old white male” has become a kind of epithet – as if anyone chooses to be white, male, or old, or as if any of that is bad. Can you imagine talking about someone you love that way? “My grandfather was a great guy, loved his family, worked hard. Then again, he was white.”

Eric:

I don’t think the purpose of this activism is to stigmatize white in equal and opposite measure to the long-standing stigmatization of black. Instead, I think it argues that great authors from various backgrounds and ethnicities already exist, but have been excluded from the syllabus. That charge lends itself to an empirical case, and it isn’t at all hard to imagine.

In fact, I prefer it to the suggestion that students should read authors who “look like them” or with whom they can “relate.” That may well be true as a practical matter, but it does not have much to say about judgements of “greatness.”

I am a believer in African-American Studies and Women’s Studies and Chicano Studies, not because I am a devotee of identity politics, but because the content of those courses is real and has been ignored in earlier curricula. These academic movements aspire to function as correctives, and so they should.

So I guess my position is that it is important to support these goals, but also to demonstrate enough restraint not to throw the baby out with the bathwater – if that expression is still intelligible. I am not a champion of the canon as Harold Bloom envisioned it, but neither am I dead-set against. I consider it to be a flawed and incomplete but otherwise important idea.

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About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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One Response to #2) Does the Western Canon Matter?

  1. Matt Bieber says:

    One more thought: I don’t think that stigmatizing whiteness (or maleness, or oldness) is the only thing that these Yale students are doing. I don’t even think it’s the main thing. And I agree with some of their goals. By all means, expand the curriculum! By all means, read greatness wherever it appears!

    But based on some of the comments, I also wonder if there’s a kind of overcompensation at work here. I encountered this a fair bit in grad school (and I indulged in it, too): there was this sense that because white people have done lots of terrible things, it’s okay to treat whiteness as a mark of shame or disgrace (and to sneer at artists who happen to be white). This doesn’t strike me as healthy or productive for anyone.

    Like

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