September 17, 2007

The Canon

Perhaps this belongs at the other blog, but it's reasonably serious and there's nothing here so....

via Henry Farrell, this article on The Closing of the American Mind and the canon wars multiculturalism blah blah contains this bit:

The invasion of politics has been particularly notable in the literature curriculum. On campus today, the emphasis is very much on studying literature through the lens of “identity” — ethnic, gender, class. There has also been a decided shift toward works of the present and the recent past. In 1965, the authors most frequently assigned in English classes were Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope and T. S. Eliot, according to a survey by the National Association of Scholars, an organization committed to preserving “the Western intellectual heritage.” In 1998, they were Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Milton, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison.

But is this an example of politicizing the curriculum, or of the absolute minimum argument for multiculturalism: that a reading list of only white males is missing out on things that should be in the canon? That is to say, the most anodyne argument for multiculturalism in lit studies is that, because our society is dominated by men and white people, we've tended to overvalue the contributions of men and white people; but if we make an effort to look at what's been written by other people we'll find things that are equally great, by whatever measure of greatness you choose. Multiculturalism can serve Quality rather than being opposed to it.

Compare the two lists again: Dryden, Pope, and Eliot have been swapped out for Austen, Woolf, and Morrison. From the standpoint of Quality is that so obviously a bad trade? I confess that I haven't read much Dryden or Pope, but what I have read of them and Eliot didn't seem obviously more worthy than the women that replaced them. And it's just ridiculous to say that studying Austen and Woolf is studying literature through the lens of gender. (I'm convinced of Morrison's greatness too, but she's very recent. I'd also like to know which of these is supposed to illustrate the move toward class studies.) And yet I remember, back in the 80s, reading an article in which someone used Woolf as an example of an inferior writer who got on the curriculum because she was a woman; when I read Woolf (because she was on the curriculum) I realized how silly this was.

Not to mention that the obvious shift here isn't that English departments read women, or more recent figures, but that they read novelists. All six figures on the 1965 list are poets.

I also wondered about this, later on:

Some say this kind of identity-based thinking is at odds with the true purpose of education — something canon traditionalists can misunderstand as badly as their multiculturalist opponents. “What Americans yearn for in literature is self-recognition,” said Mark Lilla, a professor of political philosophy and religion who just left the University of Chicago for Columbia. “That’s where the conservatives went wrong. The case for the canon itself isn’t a case for book camp and becoming a citizen in the West.” Wrestling with difficult, often inaccessible works is “the most alienating experience possible,” he continued. “When you read Toni Morrison, there’s no alienation. It affirms your Americanism.”

I'm guessing that Lilla's quote was mangled in being taken out of context, because I'm not able to make sense of it. I've read the "book camp" sentence several times. But at the end it sounds like he's saying that Toni Morrison's books are not difficult, and this is, you know, not true.

More interesting comments from Amy at Incertus; I particularly liked what she had to say about the vacuity of the zero-sum comment about inclusive syllabi.

Posted by Matt Weiner at September 17, 2007 06:16 PM

Matt, Thanks for linking to us! I'm not sure about that "book camp" comment either, but I took it to be a comparison to a "fat camp": as though the canon were an expensive 6-week program with a rigid food and exercise plan. Not sure if that's right, but that's how I took it. :-)

You make a good point about the introduction of novelists into reading lists. Yes, if you go back far enough, more or less all literature is poetry (or written as poetry) -- and that may be all the more reason right there to make sure to represent more recent writers, and a more recent genre... and in the genre of novel, I would put my money on Toni Morrison's Sula against Tristram Shandy or Ivanhoe or Moby Dick. Quality is quality.

Posted by: Amy at September 17, 2007 06:40 PM

I would put my money on Toni Morrison's Sula against... Moby Dick

Ooh, that I would not do. (Actually I haven't read Sula, only Beloved [for the same class that introduced me to Woolf] and Jazz.) I really like Moby Dick. What I've read of Tristram Shandy is also pretty impressive though this may just mean that I'm particularly fond of novelists goofing around.

I saw "book camp" in sort of the same way, a pun on "boot camp" -- intensive English lit training -- but then what does the second half of the sentence mean? Still, this makes it sound more like Lilla is saying that reading Morrison is good because it's not so alienating, since you can recognize Americanness in it. Though it's hard to tell through the garbled quote.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at September 17, 2007 08:27 PM

On the subject of the Crooked Timber post, I've read Yeats's "Second Coming" poem (in high school [Pittsburgh public, class of '88], I'm pretty sure, but I can't remember whether it was assigned or was just sitting there in Perrine's Sound and Sense) and have never read Achebe's Things Fall Apart, though I'd like to, and some other English classes in my high school did. And I never particularly made the connection between the title and the poem.

And Berube says it quicker chez Amy.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at September 18, 2007 06:42 AM

People like the NAS who are upset because kids these days are reading Woolf and Morrison instead of Dryden and Pope may be anti-feminist, but their real agenda is that they are anti-modern. This is also the real reason they are engaged in an argument they cannot win.

By the way, is anyone surprised that Woolf and Austen are often-read these days?!! I thought Woolf was already "canonical" twenty years ago when I minored in English.

Posted by: Ben at September 18, 2007 09:55 PM

To understand Lilla's comment, read his article at Lilla is arguing, I think, for teaching the "old canon" on the grounds that it will shake up the kiddies and cause them to engage in Socratic self-examination. As opposed to the usual argument, which is that we send the kiddies off to book camp for a semester where they learn Western Culture. I think his point is that Toni Morrison doesn't suit his purpose, although it's not clear to me where he got the idea that Morrison is transparently affirming.

Anyway, his ideas for curriculum reform sound like great ideas if we had a zillion bucks, so we could run classes in sections of six students and the vast majority of teachers were highly motivated. (I take exception to the idea that "even a dull teacher will have trouble ruining Moby Dick." Don't kid yourself, Mark.) The thing is, if those conditions existed, the kids would get great educations no matter what was on the syllabus.

Posted by: Ben at September 18, 2007 10:05 PM

it's not clear to me where he got the idea that Morrison is transparently affirming.

I'm going to guess that he's working from the assumption that, since Morrison is on curricula partly because she's black (I'm not going to deny this) she must be blandly affirming of black identity. I suspect he hasn't read her, at least not seriously. Google doesn't detect anything else he's said about her.

Anyway, the upshot of his article seems to be that in order to shake up these kids today, with their iPods and their egalitarianism, we need to unsettle them with great books. In order to get to "we should be teaching the Western Canon only" he needs "Only the Western Canon contains great books that are unsettling," which is just false, or what he actually says, "The great books in the Western Canon are idiot-proof, while books from foreign cultures can be taught in a blandly multicultural way," which is transparently absurd.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at September 19, 2007 06:10 AM

I do think "book camp" is a simple typo for "boot camp," not even a pun. * Not so long ago teaching mainly ENGLISH works (vs. Greek and Latin) would have been seen as debasing the curriculum.* Eliot IS modernism. That's one reason he was canonical when I went to school. Which leads me to this point: the canon used to be constituted partly to support a historical narrative--works were on it to illustrate important periods or developments, not just as good in themselves. Which is why I skipped American Literature in college.* There's a confusion, maybe, about what's taught in h.s., or should be, vs in college. * Just to opine, Beloved is a great, great book, QUITE difficult, and thoroughly saturated with previous American literature.

Posted by: Matt's mom at September 19, 2007 01:58 PM