The Sunday Times Book Review Updates us on the Canon Wars

To tell us that they're over. No, not over.

Today it’s generally agreed that the multiculturalists won the canon wars.
I'm not sure whether to sing a te deum, hold a triumph, slap a high-five, or say "sweet."
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.
I would suggest, Ms. Donadio, that there is something a bit right-left when you cast it as a debate between memorization and inquiry -- but then, that's not entirely accurate, is it? All literature invites inquiry and interpretation, no matter how old or how canonized. Now if one refuses the invitation, whose problem is that?

But on some campuses, “the main area of conflict is trying to make sure that the humanities get adequate funding from the central administration,” Nussbaum wrote in an e-mail message, adding, “Our nation, like most nations of the world, is devaluing the humanities vis-à-vis science and technology, so constant vigilance is required lest these disciplines be cut.” Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor and New Yorker staff writer who serves on Harvard’s curriculum reform committee, concurs: “The big question for humanists is, How do we explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t humanists? That’s been tough, really tough.”But when college costs run as high as $50,000 a year, it’s harder to ignore questions like “What will this major do for my career prospects?”
If your premise is $50,000, the answers are easy: How? You can't. What? Nothing. Now, new premise: ask yourself what is the point of human existence, what of our small lives is left when we are gone, how can we mean to understand ourselves and the world we live in given such a short blip of consciousness to work with (we live our lives between two great darks, one with an ending and one with a start, to paraphrase Mark Strand), and questions of this nature, and you might realize that $50,000 has no business in this discussion. Making money requires very little education beyond the ability to add: always get the most and spend the least; there, you have more stuff now. But what does that have to do with anything important? So the real question is: how do people who have become humanists make more people become humanists?

Of course Stanley Fish gets into this argument, and vexes me as he is wont to do:

But Fish thinks humanities professors bear some blame for their diminished standing. He’s at work on a new book, “Save the World on Your Own Time,” which argues that academics should teach, not proselytize. In his view, “the invasion of political agendas” into the classroom in the ’60s and ’70s was “extremely dangerous,” since it meant classrooms could become battlegrounds for political demagoguery.

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.
What's dangerous is when you start suggesting that you can "keep politics out" of something, anything, because politics is immanent, and pretending that is not is a way of letting it become unspoken, undebated, and therefore undemocratic. Right now I'm teaching Candide, and that's a political decision having to do with who my students are, what their world is like, and what they should do about it (the positive thrust of the novel being, more or less, to stop worshiping the status quo, get your hands dirty, and make your life and your world a better place by the sweat of your brow); sexism, racism, class snobbery, and colonialism are satirized and condemned, anti-Antisemitism is espoused (always a teaching moment), and there are even screeds against the so-called "heroism" of career soldiers who rape and pillage. Oh my goodness how liberal are we! It's also unassailably canonical 18th Century DWEMism at its height.
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 postcolonial Nigeria — “but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”
Zero-sum, definitely. An undergrad can only read so much. (But then, a human in his lifetime can only read so much!) I had to drop Willa Cather to add Voltaire. I had to drop Tim O'Brien to add Italo Calvino. I had to drop Truman Capote to add Margaret Atwood. But you know what? All those authors still exist and are no doubt being taught by other people. Can you imagine if every sophomore at every university in the Western world were taught the same 6 books every year? (Make it 66 and you have Bible College!) Talking about stunting culture. Culture is about exchange: my sophomore goes to Emily's sophomore and says, "in my lit class we're reading blah blah..." and Emily's sophomore says to my sophomore, "oh, I've heard of that! It gets mentioned in blee blee -- which we just read in my lit class..." Yes, within 10 minutes they'll be back to talking about cute boys, but that's cool, baby, that's just being human. The point is, you want to have a wide field to choose from to keep things alive. If you want science to back this up, I've seen the studies: memory works better when there are multiple associations. The more complicated it is, the more places in your mind it touches on, the more likely you are to remember it forever.
The historian Tony Judt, a self-described “old leftist” and the director of the Remarque Institute at N.Y.U., which examines Europe and European-American relations, said undergraduates often arrive unprepared from high school and seeking courses “in what we might have thought of as the old-fashioned approach” — broad surveys. But many young professors aren’t interested in teaching outside their narrow specialties, nor are they generally prepared to do so. And colleges are loath to reinstate the core curriculums they abandoned in the ’60s. “Because we lack cultural self-confidence, we’ve lacked the ability to say, ‘This is a good book and should be taught, this isn’t and shouldn’t,’ ” said Judt, who was dean of the humanities at N.Y.U. in the early ’90s.
Oh, I don't know. I think we have a lot of confidence when it comes to (say) teaching a new novel by Ana Menendez, or poems by Mark Scroggins. And teaching literature is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. There are some students who I end up being happy if they just "get it." There are others I'll push to multiple layers of interpretation. So it isn't about being broad or narrow -- it's about deepening the individual's understanding of who and where he is in the human story. And there's a lot of ways to do that, but hopefully no one's stopping at "survey."

Judt also denounces the balkanization created by interdisciplinary ethnic studies programs. Multiculturalism “created lots and lots of microconstituencies, which universities didn’t have the courage to oppose,” he said. “It’s much more like a supermarket — kids can take pretty much any courses they like: Jewish kids take Jewish studies, gay students gay studies, black students African-American studies. You no longer have a university, but a series of identity constituencies all studying themselves.”

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.”

But isn't "Americanism" just another "constituency"? How about "English-speaking?" How about "Western"? This is, as I said above, a political question: are you a citizen of the planet Earth? of the Western World? of America? of your community? of your gender? Yes, yes, yes, to all of these things. Latino/a Lit isn't doing its job if it isn't mentioning that "Latino/a people" is a set and a subset that overlaps with hundreds of other sets and subsets. And neither is the study of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Gay exists and did exist in 1600. Women exist and did exist in the 1300s. Class exists and did exist in the 1800s. And gay women with class issues have existed always. But they're still part of the human race, which means ancient Japanese poetry is relevant to them, and so is Don Quixote.

It all comes down to being human. Which means, the Battle of the Books (Swift) will never be over, any more than any political question will ever find itself "decided once and for all." Life doesn't work that way: there's endless push and pull. That's one of the things you learn from reading literature, about humankind's endless push and pull....

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