Revisiting the Canon Wars
By RACHEL DONADIO NYT: September 16, 2007
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. The most-assigned living authors were Morrison, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. (Roth himself may not be so pleased with the company. His forthcoming “Exit Ghost” includes a character’s rant about a library display: “They had Gertrude Stein in the exhibit but not Ernest Hemingway. They had Edna St. Vincent Millay but not William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens or Robert Lowell,” the character says. “Just nonsense. It started in the colleges and now it’s everywhere. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, but not Faulkner.”)
But many scholars see these changes as part of a necessary evolution. To Michael Bérubé, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University and the author of “What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?” (2006), the changes have been particularly beneficial in American literature, which has seen the most canon revision in part because it never had a very stable canon to begin with. “The old guard had very little to offer in the way of serious intellectual argument against the reading and teaching of ... Olaudah Equiano or Djuna Barnes or Zora Neale Hurston, so the canon of the past two or three centuries got itself revised in fairly short order,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “Only the Department of Surly Curmudgeons still disputes that we’re dealing with a usefully expanded field.”
Reading lists, though, are a zero-sum game: for every writer added, another is dropped. One can debate the changing fortunes of writers on the literary stock market, but it’s clear that today the emphasis is on the recent past — at the expense, some argue, of historical perspective. As Alan Wolfe puts it, “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ” — Chinua Achebe’s novel about colonial Nigeria — “but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.” ...
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.”
Bloom believed education should be transformative — that it should remove students from the confines of their own backgrounds to engage with books that open up new realms of meaning. “He told students that they had come to the university to learn something, and this meant that they must rid themselves of the opinions of their parents,” Bellow wrote of Ravelstein/Bloom in his novel. “He was going to direct them to a higher life, full of variety and diversity, governed by rationality — anything but the arid kind.” In “The Closing of the American Mind,” Bloom himself wrote that a liberal education should provide a student with “four years of freedom” — “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.” Whether students today see college as a time of freedom or a compulsory phase of credentialing is an open question. From Bloom’s perspective, “the importance of these years for an American cannot be overestimated. They are civilization’s only chance to get to him.”