Sunday, December 5, 2010

Without a 'canon' what?

I have been enjoying a Facebook multilogue on the great books initiated by Dianne Allen. Dianne posted a book list from the BBC of 100 significant books; although most are squarely in the Western cannon, the BBC estimated that the average reader will have read no more than six of them. My magic number was 22, but as I looked at the list I was amazed, and somewhat chagrined, that I had not read many more.

Several of the participants in this conversation mentioned that of the few they had read, most were assigned in high school. The question I want to raise is this: Now that we have pretty well destroyed the idea of a 'canon' on the grounds of its Eurocentric, racist and sexist implications, how will we ever have any common touchstones. Phrases that once echoed in our heads from the Bible, Shakespeare and Aesop will no longer provide these.

I am preparing to travel to Italy with my wife next year -- the standard (note that term) Rome Florence Venice tour. I am already reading about these cities and their cultural institutions, and am getting familiar with the locations of the main sights on the city maps. So for Florence I already can locate the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi, etc.

But imagine a city with no canonical works of art or architecture, no "standard" sights, no reference points. A city where everything is as significant, potentially, as everything else. Would this make the experience of the city liberating and fascinating, or just confusing and ultimately boring?

Yes of course, the real pleasures of travel have little to do with "doing" the sights. They are about chance meetings in coffee houses, unexpected and unpredictable experiences, personal self-discoveries. But where do you find these? On the way to the Duomo, or Botanical Gardens, or Uffizi, that's where.

So it goes with reading. Serious writing does not stand in isolation. It is a response to what has gone before it, and a portent of what is to come. This situation in a living history is what makes writing "literature". We always tell our grad students that when they write a term paper or thesis they have to do a "review of the literature". They they are making a "contribution to the literature". That they are "joining a conversation.

Would it be fascinating, or liberating, to just say whatever you wanted in response to anything, or nothing? Of course not. That is why reading books is important, and why we need some touchstones in literature. And we need them not so that we can say that everyone "did" the Bible or Jane Austen or Dickens, but so that as people have their chance encounters and make their personal discoveries they have something to talk about, and a sharable vocabulary.

Or perhaps you do not see it this way, in which case, please join the conversaton!

PS. I stuck the picture of Emerson on this post because (1) I always like to include a picture and hear that having a picture makes a blog post more inviting, (2) I had this on my computer, and (3) I think Emerson is worth reading if you want to talk about social issues within an American context.


Barbara Stengel said...

Hey Len

I'm struck by the resonance between your argument and E.D. Hirsch's call for Cultural Literacy a while back. Of course, the big difference is that Hirsch demonized John Dewey as the reason why we were lacking the cultural literacy needed for shared experience. I'm thinking Hirsch never actually read Dewey.

The problem about "the Canon" is not that there is one, it's the assumption on the part of some people that they get to decide what the canon is without negotiating that with others whose experience may not be the same or privileged in the same way. The question, one that Dewey understood though perhaps didn't really get the power struggles involved, is how do we set up communicative structures so that the canon is being widely negotiated and communicated.

Amy Shuffelton said...

After reading this post, I found the list on your Facebook page and did my own count. 58, not bad, but what struck me is that I read most of them before my mid-20s. After which point, I read a lot more but a lot less good literature (and less bad literature, too, in all fairness). What does that mean? Not sure. That I got busy reading philosophy, that I had kids, that work got more demanding. In any case, it's unfortunate that there isn't time for more reading, since as you and Barb say, it does work magic.

ljwaks said...

Hi, Barb:

I know for a fact that Hirsch had not read Dewey when he published Cultural Literacy, because he completely mixed up Dewey with Kilpatrick's "project method". I ran into him at a meeting of the AAAS in the mid 1980s, cornered him in the hallway, and gave it to him. Hard. I told him he was an ignoramus and that anyone who knew anything about what he was talking about would feel embarrassed for him. He later changed his tune in some places from "Dewey" to "followers of Dewey".

That said, I do accept his basic argument in Cultural literacy to this extent: if you don't know who Abe Lincoln is, no one in a position to assist you won't take you seriously. I had thousands of students over the years who could not place the civil war in the 19th century. I do not find that healthy, and I do not think it is something "negotaible".

The "canon" has always been open to change. Not long before I went to college Faulkner and Hemingway didn't count.

I had a literature course in 1962 at the University of Wisconsin that included Ellison and Baldwin, Styron and Mailer. The whole bunch was regarded as inappropriate by the English department. Race was not an issue - contemporaniety was. Who would reject these canonical authors today? Meanwhile many others lie in the wings and will be "negotiated" in, if that is the right term.

That same year I took a course that included Lady Chatterly's Lover and The Tropic of Cancer. Today these would be on any list of major 20th century works, but in 1962 it took a huge risk to place them on a reading list even at the "radical" U of W. In this week's NYRB there is a review of a new critical edition of Miller's Colossus of Marousi, perhaps my favorite book ever. In that maker of the canon, the NYRB, the author simply assumes that this work, and all of Miller, is canonical or, as the author prefers, "classical".

Surely what educated people read, write about, and refer to changes over time. As more women and more ethnic minorities enteresd the universities, and then the faculties, could there be any doubt that reading preferences and judgments would change?

Still Hirsch's basic point retains validity: if you cannot recognize, or even talk about, what other educated people, those who can open opportunities for you, take as basic touchstones, they are unlikely to take you seriously.

This is hardly why you or I think reading books is important. But it is worth considering.

ljwaks said...


Instead of "if you don't know who Abe Lincoln is, no one in a position to assist you won't take you seriously" pleasure substitute ". . . will take you . . ."

C. Centaurus said...

Hello Leonard, Amy, and Barbara, I hope you all don’t me joining the discussion?
The Great Books/Core Knowledge contradiction to Dewey is only valid if the discussion’s participants are not well read themselves. As a practitioner within experiential education, the ‘canon’, the writings of Dewey, the writings of Adler, and so on, are all critical. When combined, these perspectives, among others, form a supernova in human thought.

“Were it not for this process by which the achievements of one generation form the stimuli that direct the activities of the next, the story of civilization would be writ in water, and each generation would have laboriously to make for itself, if it could, its way out of savagery.” – Dewey, How We Think