Rachel Donaio has recently reviewed the state of the canon wars in light of the twentieth anniversary of Allan Bloom’s explosive Closing of the American Mind. It is, it seems, a balanced piece that raises numerous interesting questions.
I have my own thoughts, but I’d like to hear from readers. My questions follow after the quotes:
All this reflects what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum today describes as a “loss of respect for the humanities as essential ingredients of democracy.” Nussbaum, who panned Bloom’s book in The New York Review in 1987, teaches at the University of Chicago, which like Columbia has retained a Western-based core curriculum requirement for undergraduates. 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.”
Assume Nussbaum and Menand are right. What’s the best strategy for recapturing the importance of the humanities? Next up:
Not all academics object to raising market questions. For Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College and the director of its Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, “the introduction of economic criteria into the university is a good thing.” During the canon wars of the late ’80s, he said, scholars had an “imperious” idea that “if we want to argue about the curriculum we’re free to do that.” But now, most realize “we have obligations to the students and the parents and the taxpayers.”
True or false? How heavily should economic criteria be weighed when deciding aspects like reading lists, etc? Next up……
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.”
Is being a member of the “Department of Surly Curmudgeons” really that bad? If canons are (in part) determined by time and economics, why should students read anything other than Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest of the “Dead White Men” group? Is it best to read everything, or read a few important texts well?
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.”
Is balkanization the only other alternative to having a canon? If not, what are the other alternatives. And if you’re a fan of balkanization, speak up too–why should we be pleased at this situation?