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?

Final question:

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?

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. The courses taught today under the label “Humanities” are very different from the courses taught 25 years ago under that label. Where the courses are the same, the content is different than it was 25 years ago. Where the content is the same, the critical perspective used in presenting the material is very different that it was 25 years ago.
    Much of the “Humanities” today would have been found in the “Social Sciences” 25 years ago.
    Talk of a “canon” stopped long ago in most “Humanities”


  2. Matthew, my friend, this is an excellent post.

    A few nights ago I had the opportunity to hear the venerable Hugh Hewitt speak about the state of education as it relates to the law profession in the United States. One of his key points was that lawyers and legislators no longer have a common language to argue from. Since they don’t draw upon the same sources (i.e. the traditional western canon) they are not able to communicate and debate and even disagree on the same level.

    If the university really is becoming a supermarket, as claimed in your last quotation, our ability to have meaningful political (or other) discourse will be severely impaired when our generation begins to run the ship called America.

    So maybe this wouldn’t count as a “serious intellectual argument” according to Berube, but it sure has pragmatic force.


  3. I guess the leaders think society can run off of market forces now. I know there is a line of thought in the business world that corporations should be the social entity, instead of nations, and everything be ultimately guided by economics. My hunch is that the conclusive defeat of this idea would give the humanities a platform.


  4. North American degrees are still the most respected, constituting half of the Top 50 in the last edition of the Times Higher Edu. Supp.’s World Univ. Rankings.

    Part of the reason I think is more rigorous requirements, not the least of which is still two years of Gen. Ed. at the undergrad level, an aspect totally absent from (e.g.) UK institutions where BAs take three years. Though the ideal of liberal education for students of all subjects is admittedly in crisis, at least scientists are still forced to read some literature while humanists are forced to appreciate the labor of the hard sciences, even if they resent it.

    In the UK therefore the entire university is balkanization into chosen specialties and there is no subject common to the entire student body apart from the tour of library resources. I don’t think this will ever change, however, since the introduction of £3,000-tuition at all universities this year is giving incoming students a customer mentality characteristic of the US, so I fear the profitability of a degree will become all the more entrenched as its primary value.

    While this seems to confirm what a bad idea economics-based education is, I don’t think all was ideal under the old regime when, just ten years ago, all university tuition was still subsidised by the British government. While this encouraged students to study what they were most interested in, it nonetheless offered little institutional choice. Even as it currently stands, since all undergrad applications are processed centrally, you are allowed to apply to only five universities, and Oxbridge candidates cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge.

    But even though students must now fund their own education this scheme is still in place. Though a lot is perhaps broken in US education, I’m inclinded to think the open-market system is still preferable. The challange is up to academics in the arts to re-sell the benefits of a liberal education to the public. While that sounds like a capitulation to the methods of corporate business, it is the humanities, not the executive pitch-room, that is the traditional home of rhetoric. But if academics are incapable of argument and persuasion, then perhaps they don’t deserve to have students.

    In order to redefine the modern goal of degree seeking they need to reclaim the classical purpose of education. But as long as academics aren’t comfortable with such claims, their courses will continue to wither. I think Stanley Fish is right in bemoaning the infusion of the humanities with political activism, but not only because it polarized the departments politically. I think the politicization provided for the humanities its own pragmatic justification for their continuance, from which they will not be able to extricate themselves without either collapsing or replacing it with an alternative motive for education.


  5. I think it would be disastrous for the humanities to sell themselves only in terms of usefulness, though they are very useful. The best thing the humanities have going for them is that they are the end for which business works. They represent the refined taste that all should desire to spend their leisure appreciating.

    That being said, you are exactly right concerning humanities and political activism. This again makes humanities a tool of expedience.

    Another route the humanities can take is to appeal to the common man, instead of ever building the ivory tower higher. Since this is the basis from which the business men of the future will come, they will already have the humanities embedded as part of their social makeup.


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