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.
In fact, the book might have been better titled “Great Reads”; so keen is he to convey the sheer pleasure of struggling with a text. He states early on that he has learned, as a journalist and critic, “to trust na?ve responses,” to “trust the initial feeling” inspired by a given book or film. Much of the book purports to describe just that-the initial feelings inspired by each text and how these develop in the course of each class.
There are witty descriptions of his early obstacles, logistical and intellectual. Snatching moments with Hobbes on the subway, or trying to read Locke above the din of his sons’ video games. He relives the student dread of getting behind in the reading, and the headaches one paragraph of Kant can produce. And there is the roller-coaster of the course itself; he begins the year “shocked” by the cruelty of the Iliad, “baffled” by Genesis and admiring of Machiavelli’s comic timing, and ends it “bruised” by Nietzsche and in love with Virginia Woolf.
Denby’s emotive responses are easy to mock, and they do lose some of their charm as the year goes on. But his enthusiasm and fluent, engaging style generally carry the reader along with him. He has, after all, warned us from the start that he had wanted to write “an adventure book … a na?ve book, an amateur’s book” rather than a work of criticism. This makes some of the reviews of the book in the US, usually from academics, seem a little unfair. In a scathing piece for The New Republic Helen Vendler, a professor of poetry at Harvard, called it “mindless,” the work of a “tired man wanting a break from the movies.” There is more than a hint of snobbery in such attacks. But Denby’s self-proclaimed layman status cannot entirely get him off the hook. His book is a memoir. But it is also a polemic, firmly on the side of the crusaders against PC. He is driven throughout by a desire to uphold the greatness of great books courses against all critics. And here his amateurism comes to seem less a virtue than a cover for befuddled traditionalism.
He refers repeatedly to the “canon bashers” and “PC critics” of the two courses, without mentioning many names, or indeed, showing a clear understanding of their arguments. As he moves through the reading list he is amazed, for example, that “left-academic” critics should consider the course a seamless advertisement for western values. “The Iliad and the Odyssey were both bitterly and unresolvably split in their meanings; Aristotle severely corrected Plato…” How, he wonders, could this be considered a brainwashing exercise in support of a single, hegemonic culture when it exposes the students to such fundamental disagreements? “If this is hegemony, it is also self-contradictory and a lot shakier on its pins than most cultural formations.”
Quite so. But to point out that Nietzsche and Mill “hardly agree on anything” is to defeat a straw man. Those academics who have lobbied to reduce the quotient of dead white European males in LitHum and CC have not been labouring under the illusion that all these authors agreed with one another. Of course they did not. Usually the authors have come to be considered great precisely by being genuinely distinct, from what has gone before and often what has come after. But that does not make the list any less “hegemonic” in the critics’ sense of the term. The assaults on the canon have been aimed, not at the authors themselves but on the way they are chosen. Why, the critics ask, should a young black man, say, or a woman, be required to start their college career grappling with the sacred products of a tradition which excluded them?
For some, the problem can be solved by expanding the canon to include authors previously ignored. The presence of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf on Denby’s 1991 reading lists (neither of whom were there when he first took the course) is the product of such expansion. So far so long overdue. But the appearance on the reading list of the likes of Malcolm X and Catherine Mac-Kinnon, the radical feminist, was too much for the guardians of the canon to bear. Scholars such as Harold Bloom railed against the “school of resentment” that had taken over the nation’s universities, perverting the canon and all it stood for. To which many on the left responded: “You bet.” Better a school of resentment than a school that is 100 years behind the times.
It is hard to see an end to the battle, for the simple reason that both sides are attributing to the courses so many conflicting objectives. Harold Bloom and others often speak in terms of a literary gold standard, which is being devalued by the search for diversity. For them, to mix the true greats with the merely “representative” is to defeat the purpose of such courses -that students are given a taste of the sublime. It is a sad fact of history that blacks and women were rarely in a position to contribute to this legacy. But it is just that: a fact, not a statement about their relative worth today.
Virginia Woolf took a similar line in A Room of One’s Own, arguing that women had to get into the universities and get a firm grounding in great works of the past before they were likely to produce great literature of their own. Yet just as one senses a possible compromise, another wave of argument comes in. For the defenders of the canon are not, as Bloom would have it, merely defenders of the “autonomy of the aesthetic.” They are also warriors on behalf of western values-indeed, it is their belief that an entire culture is at stake that gives their attacks such intensity. The first versions of LitHum were developed to help “assimilate” the offspring of a mass of new immigrants into American society-to establish a common heritage for the melting pot. It is this that the conservatives wish to preserve. The steady erosion of the canon is of a piece with the erosion of American life.
Both sides, then, implicitly accept that the courses are not innocent, that they aim, as Denby puts it, to start every student “at a specific place.” But in justifying them to all-comers he perhaps protests too much. At times, for example, he implies that the choice of books can be defended on purely aesthetic grounds (which leads him to a Woolf-style argument on behalf of retaining the courses). Yet throughout there is a sense of mission, that such courses are a last stand against “media-trained irony” and cultural decay.
Many British academics would see an easy way out of the morass-to stop teaching these absurd survey courses altogether. How much can a student possibly gain in the way of enhanced understanding from a course covering 24 major authors-Homer to Woolf-in as many weeks? As someone who has helped to teach a similar core course in political theory at Harvard I would have to reply: not as much as the teachers like to think. My course, bizarrely entitled “Moral Reasoning,” was only slightly less ambitious than the ones Denby took. In one term of lectures and smaller weekly study groups around 700 undergraduates were treated to Aristotle or Kant one week, the rights and wrongs of abortion, or kidney sales, the next.
Those who took the course probably did not end up with a very firm grasp of the notion of the Aristotelian telos-or anything else for that matter. But did they learn more about how to reason? And did they get a glimpse of ideas that three years of chemistry or geography would never have given them? I think they did. In that sense Denby is right; the great books courses that define the traditional American liberal education are worth fighting for, and their content equally worth fighting about. Whether they can be expected to cure the US’s deeper social and cultural ills is another matter.
Great books: my adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and other indestructible writers of the western world
Simon & Schuster, $30, 1996