Saturday, September 15, 2007

Canon Wars Redux

There are many good points made in Rachel Donadio's NYTSBR essay, "Revisiting the Canon Wars." Her argument, which is really more a skeleton that allows her to get quotes from fifteen different academics, is that the issues raised by Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), the book that started the first strong reactionary thrust in the Culture Wars, are still relevant to humanities academics even now that the dust has apparently settled somewhat. (Or perhaps we've all just become more dusty, I don't know.)

First, there's a great quote from John Searle:

Searle also noted a “certain irony” that the Western canon, from Socrates to Marx, which had once been seen as “liberating,” was now seen as “oppressive.” “Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude,” Searle wrote, “the ‘canon’ served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. ... The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.”

I'm not sure that's true -- the purpose of a Canon, one could just as easily argue, is to create a bourgeois consciousness. Only the earlier generation of "leftyprofs," I think, felt the point was to unmask that consciousness rather than nurture it.

In one sense the debate has been superseded by what's happened in American universities since the 1980s, which is a growing sense that the humanities constitute only a minor component, rather than the core. Other segments of the university -- the sciences, business, engineering -- get the lion's share of funding (they also generate their own funds), and also the lion's share of the university administration's attention. Humanities academics are now in some sense all on the same side -- we have to prove we're still relevant:

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.”

It's rare that I see a Louis Menand or Martha Nussbaum quote I don't like, and this is no exception.

The second section of the essay gets into some more specific Canon questions, and brings quotes from Stanley Fish, Philip Roth, Michael Berube, Gerald Graff, Tony Judt, and John Guillory. There is some of the usual to-and-fro over Toni Morrison and identity politics. I think Gerald Graff's point is worth considering:

To some, another question is how to get students to read critically in the first place. “What does it profit progressives to get minority writers like Walker and Black Elk into the syllabus if many students need the Cliffs Notes to gain an articulate grasp of either?” asked Gerald Graff, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has written on the canon wars.

Arguably, the way to make sure students have the tools to interpret great works of literature by Shakespeare and James Joyce and Salman Rushdie is to put more emphasis on interpretive method, not to go back to only teaching Shakespeare. This might be something that conservatives and progressives in the English department could all agree on, if, first, conservatives could be convinced that everything wouldn't be better if the English Department restored its old, Canon-backed "prestige" (most of our students aren't aware that it's gone). As for what "progressives" need to be convinced of, it gets a little more complicated. It's more than just identity politics -- "disciplinary balkanization" might be a more accurate way to describe what ails us.

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Ruchira Paul said...

At the risk of sounding childish and platitudinous, let me weigh in with my two cents worth.

As a student and teacher of science, I am glad that I went the route of "exact" sciences rather than the humanities in my own educational trajectory. But the compartmentalized educational system in India that I endured (only physics, chemistry, math starting from the age fourteen - with English thrown in as an afterthought) left me frustrated and longing for variety. Had it not been for a literature loving mother and a history and politics loving father and my own enduring interest in art, I would have emerged as a capable (but stunted) "one trick pony." The Indian universities are far worse in their approach to what constitutes "useful" knowledge. A billionaire techie magnate recently urged Indian universities to do away with all humanities and focus only on science and technology. Philosophy departments in Indian universities now scrape the bottom of the academic barrel along with Sanskrit. Most Indian philosophy students enroll in the course for an "easy" college degree only as a prepartion for getting a Call Center job!

What indeed do the "inexact" studies of humanities have to offer? It is unquestionable that "knowledge" per se (understanding the physical world) indeed progresses due to the advances in science and technology. But the "wisdom" to figure out how that knowledge ought to be put to use for the advancement of society is very much the contribution of humanities. In other words, humanities act like vitamin supplements to the basic and bulk nourishment of scientific knowledge - they help to process and digest it more effectively and nutritiously. This may sound crass and simplistic but that is how I have learnt to look at a "balanced" education. And it appears that others too have the same idea.

The reason why the debate in humanities sometimes comes across as banal to those outside the inner sanctum is the tendencies of some to project their post-modern, identity driven, "balkanized" notions to areas where these fuzzy ideas of "fairness and balance" don't apply. I recently sent you a link to an interview with V.S. Naipaul in which he coolly opines on what to do with the departments of literature at universities. Of course Naipaul has his own ego-driven axe to grind. But a red flag goes up in the minds of even those of us who don't suffer the same bias as Sir Vidia, when we come across statements such as these from the humanists.

Patricia Waugh, head of Durham University's department of English studies, said: "His notion of science is completely out of date - there is no simple idea of truth even in the science department. Scientific data can be interpreted in different ways." She added: "He seems to be making an argument for a Platonic republic with a philosopher king who lays down the law on what can be talked about. English departments have been the places where cultural ideas and values have been debated for the past hundred years, and in a liberal culture you need that forum."

Painful even though it may be for inclusive "fair and balanced" minds to accept, as long as a scientific theory holds up repeatedly in explaining a given problem on the ground, there IS just one good answer. But that answer is not dogma - just true, until proven otherwise. Not quite like religion though, where revision and upgrades are verboten.

4:03 PM  
Rohan Maitzen said...

I agree that our students are not really aware that what they are assigned might not any longer represent the traditional "canon," and one odd effect of this mainstreaming of works once considered marginal is that it is now difficult to involve students in discussions about center vs. margin or canon vs. not: when teaching something that was once far removed from the canon, such as (in my field) "Lady Audley's Secret," the students have no sense that anything subversive (for want of a better shorthand) is going on--to them, it's just one more 19thC novel to read, if a somewhat didfferent flavour. Of course, in some ways this dissolution of the boundaries is a good thing and what many scholars and teachers advocated for and have now accomplished, but it's ironic, in a way, that it has taken something of the thrill out of the exercise.

Just as a general comment, I really admire and have learned from your blog postings, here at at the Valve.

6:52 AM  
Michele Verona said...

Really entertaining blog entry. I'm a Italian and I definitely want to visit sometime soon! Nice to hear from you and what an interesting blog.

See you Later. Bye.

9:29 AM  
fathima said...

hm. for me, the issue has been for a while now not that the humanities have to prove their worth in comparison to the sciences, but that the humanities need to justify being a part of the university system at all. as long as this science/humanities binary remains entrenched in post-secondary institutions, the humanities merely contribute to the commercialisation of "wisdom." (while the sciences i view as being more like apprenticeships and therefore not as problematic, in terms of students paying for the privilege of learning.) and this commercialisation/institutionalisation bugs me, because it reinforces:
1) laziness & apathy - texts, whether Shakespeare or Morrison, lose their impact when they're merely required readings inflating student loans;
2) privilege - only some people can afford to learn these wonderful truth(inesse)s that the humanities are so intent on disseminating. (even if that that truth it merely that there is no Truth.)

so the issue of there being a Canon Wars is a valid one, yes, but i think it's presumed that everyone's fine with the institutionalisation of knowledge/wisdom.
and i'm not the only one who isn't.

also, my own sense is that one way to lessen the competition between the sciences and the humanities is to encourage a more integrative approach to the two disciplines. pre-meds should not be allowed to emerge from undergrad thinking all patients have equal access to healthcare. english students should take geography classes that identify Africa as a continent of vast proportions and not a monolothic entity represented by one dying child.
i say this having been both the pre-med and the english undergrad and the specific ignorances that run rampant in each department are pitiful. and important.

12:17 PM  

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