The Canon Wars

Rachel Donadio, on Allan Bloom:

Today it’s generally agreed that the multiculturalists won the canon wars. Reading lists were broadened to include more works by women and minority writers, and most scholars consider that a positive development. Yet 20 years later, there’s a more complicated sense of the costs and benefits of those transformations. Here, the lines aren’t drawn between right and left in the traditional political sense, but between those who defend the idea of a distinct body of knowledge and texts that students should master and those who focus more on modes of inquiry and interpretation.

It's this latter debate that's crucial to understanding what's wrong with the contemporary university. In a better world, the multiculturalists and the canonists should have been able to meet halfway - preserving the idea of a canon, while expanding it to include more works from outside the circle of Dead White Males. Such a compromise would have ended up cluttering syllabi with more politically-correct junk than a reactionary like myself might like, but it would have preserved the essential liberal-arts notion that there are great books, and that one of the missions of the university should be to expose its students to as many of them as possible.

This did happen to some extent: As Donadio writes, "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 ... In 1998, they were Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Milton, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison." Obviously, having Morrison and to a lesser extent Woolf in that group is somewhat depressing, but it wouldn't be all that objectionable if most students at top-flight colleges were being required to read this group of authors; a week wasted on Sula seems a small price to pay for a student body that's acquainted with Shakespeare's tragedies. The trouble is that they aren't. Instead of keeping requirements in place but compromising on their content, too many colleges - my alma mater included - rushed to embrace the "modes of inquiry" (or in Harvard-ese, "approaches to knowledge") view of education, and then breathed a sigh of relief that they'd set aside the messy debates over whether there's a Proust of the Papuans, while freeing their overspecialized young professors from the burdens of teaching survey courses. And that was how the canon wars ended - they made a desert, and called it peace.