In the 1980s, America's great books courses became a cultural battleground. Stephanie Flanders considers the views of the latest crusader against political correctnessby Stephanie Flanders / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
A society that has ceased to question what its students read has ceased to question itself. That is the positive reading of the culture wars which have gripped American academia for the past decade. Ever since Allan Bloom’s 1987 tirade against academic political correctness, The Closing of the American Mind, no American publisher’s list has been complete without another volume either berating, or defending, the state of the country’s curricula.
Britain is not immune to such disputes: witness Chris Woodhead’s broadside about the lack of decent “role models” in our most popular books and television programmes. Yet, lists of the country’s favourite books aside, the targets in British culture wars are generally too fuzzy for US-style battles. Britain’s great and good carry within them equally strong opinions about the books any well-educated person ought to have read. But they have not had the temerity to draw up a list, and a compulsory one at that. Taking on Only Fools and Horses (Woodhead’s bugbear) is one thing. But the canon-the sacred texts which determine whether an American student has been “truly” educated-now that is worth fighting over.
For the US zealots, the reading lists that comprise the core curriculum of the traditional Ivy League school is the battleground. Being in, or out, matters. And not just because it reflects ever changing judgements of literary worth (Donne versus Shelley, say, or Auden against MacNeice). Those debates are what it means to have a lively English literature department. The selection process has come to mean far more than this. For the left it is a fight for “representation”-the inclusion of authors from marginalised groups in society; for the right, it is a matter of defending core, western traditions from relativist barbarians.
Enter David Denby, a film critic for New York magazine and self-confessed layman, who decided in 1991 to do what the many critics of the “core” curriculum seemed not to have done-take the courses. Thirty years after first entering Columbia as a freshman, he went back to take its infamous great books courses again: Literature Humanities (LitHum), a whistle-stop tour through the “masterpieces of European literature,” and Contemporary Civilisation (CC), a course of classics in philosophy and social theory. The result is a vigorous defence of the canon, but also a very personal, at times moving, account of a 48-year-old rediscovering the art of reading.