Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (1996)
Almost everything written on the issue of the Western Canon manages to miss the point completely. The question is not whether the Canon is dominated by "Dead, White, Christian, Heterosexual Males"; let's concede that it is. Nor is it particularly significant whether these books present the viewpoint of the authors and the prevailing world view of their own kind; of course they do. The real question that needs to be addressed is whether we wish to continue to inculcate their viewpoint--that of the Western Tradition--in our children or whether we no longer believe in the pedagogical value of these texts. And if we are not going to use the rise of Judeo-Christianity and liberal democratic capitalism as the unifying theory to determine the Canon, what principle or principles are going to replace them?
Broadly speaking, the traditional Canon is made up of books which trace the development of the modern liberal, capitalist, protestant, democratic society and celebrate the progress of mankind towards freedom, knowledge and dominion over Nature. These books are, therefore, informed by Judeo-Christian ethics and democratic politics. Though it may seldom be stated in such bald terms, the study of these texts is intended to produce citizens who will understand and believe in the tenets of such a society. It is no coincidence that the actual Great Books courses arose in the 30's and 40's, at urban universities, following an extended period of immigration, during a period of economic and political uncertainty. Regardless of what other intents may underlie the courses, it seems obvious that one of the central goals is to teach certain universal ideals within an increasingly fractured society, in the hopes of providing some ideological cohesion.
Now, there are folks like Catherine R. Stimpson--former head of the Modern Language Association--who believe that this Canon should be replaced by "a more welcoming narrative...a new core curriculum that represented every ethnic group.'' It may indeed be the case that we as a society wish to make this transition, but, before we sweep away several millennia of tradition and replace it with current whims, there should be a national dialogue about the implications of this action. Ignore for the moment the question of whether the texts of every ethnic group are equal in quality to those of the current Canon; we must ask ourselves instead what values they will enunciate to students. Suppose that there is a great Zoroastrian novel, a great Maori novel, etc., do they reflect values that we believe are important for our kids to develop? We must also face the question of, having abandoned the authority to make judgments about what is "Great" (see Orrin's review of The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis), how do we make any rational choices about what should be included on the list. If the new Canon is to truly be egalitarian, mustn't every viewpoint and group be represented? Shouldn't it include racist tracts and pedophiliac literature, satanism and misogyny? Actually, is it fair to exclude bad books? Don't incompetent writers deserve to be heard too? By what elitist assumptions do we exclude drivel?
Obviously, the choices will be made by the university administrators and faculty of the day. But are they actually likely to share the same values that the majority of us would want to see students develop? We are all painfully aware of the declining quality of the American educational system over the past forty years. It is surely no coincidence that this is the period during which the Baby Boomers were first the students and then became the teachers in our schools. Their ethos of individualism, materialism and political correctness has come to permeate the academy, with disastrous results for our students and our culture. Do we now truly wish to hand over the defining of the Canon to them?
One of our required courses at Colgate was Philosophy and Religion, a paltry enough nod to the fact that the school was founded as a religious institution. My professor happened to be a Marxist, so he taught most of the core texts with either skepticism or downright revulsion. But at least we were exposed to the texts and, in fact, his very reactions to them were instructive in their own way. I mean, what's a Leninist going to say that will make you question The Gospel of Mark--that nailing a carpenter to a board represents alienation from the means of production?
But suppose that he and his ilk were to define what texts should be used. I took the guy's Marxist Thought class and believe me, setting aside the pain of plowing through the turgid prose, nothing will snuff out a student's desire to learn faster than Marxian dialectic. And God forbid students started taking such tripe seriously, do we as a society want our schools to teach students to loathe our political and economic systems? Do we want future generations to reject and ignore their cultural heritage, however problematic some of it may seem by current lights?
Set aside political considerations for a moment (well, sort of). Take a look at the state of the world today and ask yourself if Marxist analysis is even true. What about feminist visions of the world as phallocentric and constructed with the express intent of oppressing women? How about the claim by Afrocentrists that Western Culture is really a product of Africa? Do any of these theories have the ring of truth? If so, do they seem more true to us than the Western Canon's vision of Man? From a historical perspective is Theodore Dreiser right, or is Dickens? Has the American Dream been an illusion, or have we by and large realized it? Just looking at it from a factual basis, it certainly appears that those countries which have produced the Western Canon and embraced its ideals have done pretty well for themselves, significantly better than countries which believe in other traditions. Why then would we wish to teach our kids the philosophy of the losers?
I know, I know. We've been conditioned not to think in terms of winners and losers and Right and Wrong. The very essence of the Great Books debate is the belief that everyone has something to contribute to the discussion, that the set of beliefs which informs the Canon is too narrow and that other perspectives are needed. Nor is it a bad idea for students to be exposed to the literature of other cultures and to the critiques of our own culture from a wide variety of perspectives. Just as failed experiments help us to understand and to prove scientific principles, so can the writings of failed cultures help to elucidate the success of our own. But make no mistake, that is how these non-canonical texts should be used. They should not be approached as if they had a claim to equal status with the Great Books, but rather as the best literary representatives of failed cultures. In the same way that Little Big Horn can be used to teach a class on military strategy and tactics, by illustrating conclusively what does not work, so can the narratives of Native Americans be used to show students how little of lasting value was produced by non-Western cultures.
All of which is by way of introduction to David Denby's account of his return to Columbia University in 1991 to retake the Great Books courses he had taken thirty years earlier. As a guide to the books--which he not surprisingly reacts to completely differently as a 48 year old than he did as an 18 year old--he is enthusiastic, even evangelical, perceptive and amusing. If you are someone who thinks that the books of the Canon are not great, he will go a long way towards convincing you. But he's less steady as to what makes them Great. (Note the use of big "G" vs. the immediately preceding use of little "g". Animal House and Animal Farm are both great; only the latter is Great.) Denby gives the sense that the books are Great because of how he personally interacts with them, that King Lear is great because it helps him understand his own relationship with a parent, his Mother. But these kind of individualized responses to literature, while totally worthwhile to the reader himself, are just not the stuff of Greatness. It is Universality, rather than personal particularity, which makes certain texts Great.
Denby is also a political type whom we've encountered before--the troubled liberal (see Orrin's review: In Defense of Elitism (1994)(William A. Henry III 1950-1994)(Grade: B-)). These folk tend to come from a Liberal milieu (both Denby and Henry from journalism), to which they hope to return, but have recognized something about modern Liberalism which bothers them so much as to shake their faith. The result is that they produce these fundamentally schizophrenic works wherein they shy away from pursuing their own ideas to their natural conclusion. You therefore get these stinging critique of some aspect of Liberalism, in this case the attack on the Canon, but mixed in with it you tend to get fairly disingenuous assertions of Liberal loyalty and self contradictory potshots at easy conservative targets. In Denby's case this manifests itself in hysterical praise for Virginia Woolf's wretched novel To the Lighthouse (see Orrin's review) and in gratuitous non sequitirs like:
And to the right, I would say that however instructive
the great works might be in building the
I know of no conservative who would deny the essential truth of this statement, except to add that, in the first instance, most books are written to make the author some money, that most personal reason of all. Pretty much all of Denby's protestations against the conservative critique have this same quality of attacking a straw man, and so, ring hollow.
The book is a fairly interesting look at a particular Great Books class, but it is ultimately quite maddening. Because of his apparent desire to cover his own political tail it seems not quite honest or rigorous enough. And, in offering such a personal reading of the texts, it only helps illustrate why their universality makes them so wonderful. Denby's goal, to rescue the Classics from the critics, is quite laudable, but luckily they also have other more capable defenders. In particular, I would recommend four books that treat this topic either directly or tangentially: The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis (see Orrin's review); God and Man at Yale by William F. Buckley; The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom; and The Book of Virtues by William Bennett. The last is an especially clear illustration of how the best writings of Western Culture can be used to instruct and inform the young, and hopefully make them better citizens. As you read it, ask yourself if these are really lessons that we no longer feel are important for kids to learn.
See also:Literary Criticism
-ESSAY: The Money Vanishes: Meet David Denby, an American sucker indeed. (DAVE KANSAS, January 8, 2004 , Wall Street Journal)
Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: THE ESSENCE OF THE EDUCATED PERSON (David Denby, USIA)
-REVIEW: David Denby: The Real Thing, NY Review of Books
FILMS BY FREDERICK WISEMAN
-REVIEW: David Denby: Odd Man In, NY Review of Books
A Life by Elia Kazan
The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets
-INTERVIEW: David Denby reader of "Great Books" (1996) (Beatrice)
-CHRONICLES OF HIGHER EDUCATION: Issues in Depth: CULTURE WARS IN ACADEME
-READING LIST: Columbia Reading List Literature Humanities, 1991-92
-READING GROUP GUIDE: Great Books by David Denby
-REVIEW: of Great Books by David Denby (Joyce Carol Oates, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: Frank Kermode: The Pleasure of the Text, NY Review of Books
Great Books by David Denby
-REVIEW: of Great Books The Great Books War (Edward E. Ericson, Jr., Christianity Net)
-REVIEW: of Great Books Smarten up Why the great books of the west will always be worth reading (HEATHER MALLICK -- Toronto Sun)
-REVIEW: of Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and
Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World by David Denby (Saul Rosenberg, First Things)
-REVIEW: (George Grant, World Magazine)
-REVIEW: (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon)
-REVIEW: (Caitlin Burke)
-REVIEWS: Epinions.com - Great Books
-ESSAY: Liberalism and the Culture: A Turning of the Tide? (Norman Podhoretz, Commentary)
-Great Books Lists
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