The Canon

The word I have used in my title refers not to the large gun, called a “cannon,” but to a list of sacred works that need to  be protected against the erosion of time. The latter meaning has come to be used to refer to a list of “Great Books” which should be read by all who can read. This list has of late it been called “elitist”  or irrelevant by the multicultural hordes who have taken over the universities and now dictate, in large measure, what the students read — if they read at all.

In 1994 Harold Bloom wrote a large book about the “Western Canon” that included a long list of the books he thought were not necessarily sacred but at any rate ought to be read by anyone who treasures the thoughts of those who have lived before us and who have had important things to say. His book was a best-seller, but has done nothing to quiet those in the academy determined to bring down Western Civilization itself in the name of “justice” and “fairness.”  Those who would defend a list of books written by “dead, white, European males” (as is charged) are a dying breed and students in our colleges and universities now have been turned in the direction of correcting the many wrongs that have occurred in the past, as determined by their professors, and away from the thoughts of great minds. Indeed, the argument is that there are no great minds or, indeed, any such thing as “greatness” itself. We live in a relativistic age in which there is no truth, only opinions or “alternative facts.”

I will print a full disclosure, which will come as no surprise to any who have read more than one or two of my posts: I was educated at a small college in Annapolis, Maryland where we spent four years reading the “hundred Great Books,” as they were then called. We never counted them. We just read them and discussed them in small groups in an attempt to help us think a bit about the most pressing problems exceptional minds worried about in the past and which continue to perplex us today. I am, therefore, a defender of the Canon, I guess, though we never referred to the list of books in that manner. We revered them, of course, but we did not regard them as sacred. We were asked to participate in the “great conversation” with the best minds that had ever set pen to paper.

The multiculturalists who have taken over the colleges and universities intent upon correcting past errors, and who, I strongly suspect, have never read most of the Great Books, insist that those books have brought about the many of the ills that now affect society. They dismiss the books out of hand as simply an attempt by past educators to instill in the minds of the young wrong-headedness, a sort of indoctrination which they will now correct by replacing those wrong ideas with their own. However, as was clear to those of us who read and discussed these books, no two authors in the entire list agreed about much of anything. They were anything but monolithic. Thus reading and discussing the Great Books cannot be viewed as a form of indoctrination because of the sheer variety of the ideas contained in those books. There is no single message. There are thousands of messages and the only way out of the morass is to begin to form ideas of one’s own. One need not be told that the West has a record of injustice if one reads the words of those who have again and again addressed the question: what is justice? One figures it out on one’s own — as one should.

In a word, the Canon should be defended and read in our schools because it contains the best that has been thought and written for thousands of years. It need not contain only the thoughts of those in the Western world who have written; it can be broad enough — indeed it should be broad enough — to include the best that has been thought and written in the East as well. But the selection ought to be carefully made and based on aesthetic criteria and the principle that no single “message” should come through except that what is being read is important and has influenced the minds of those who have gone before us.

Education is not about indoctrination. It is about enabling the young to take possession of their own minds. Education is about freedom, true freedom, and it should not be directed by a handful of instructors who have a not-so-hidden agenda to save the world. It should be directed by the Canon, because the best teachers are the books themselves. And they teach the young how to think — not what to think.

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15 thoughts on “The Canon

  1. Thanks for a challenging post, again. Some thoughts on it here:

    Quote: “And they teach the young how to think — not what to think.”  It is my opinion, though based only on approximately 9 years of official schooling, adding to 11 with a bit of home study and special dispensation for those on homesteads who could not attend regular school, that official education, including academia, is more suited to teach what to think than how to think. Without life experience, unless one is endowed with the “rare?” gift of past life remembrances, how can a young person learn how to think?

    The System is everywhere insisting that you be indoctrinated in what to think, from church to politics, to advertising, or you’re smart enough to know to side with the boss or the union in order to make it. College, university, from what I’ve been told, heard and read, means pleasing the professors… or else. A girl knows what that means, but mostly it’s agreeing with the professor’s views.  Later on, in the real world, it becomes possible to juxtapose different viewpoints, to shake off church and parent brainwashing and their affiliations to “this party and only this party is what this family supports and stands for” or the supreme importance of money, marriage, security. Later when you discover that is all pure BS then you begin to learn how to think… or you can choose to enter the zombie life and neither know what to think, nor how to think it should it strike you on the side of the head, like the partner saying, “I’ve had it, I want you out of my life, get out!” For me, the first time that happened (3 times lucky!?-nope, I live alone now) is when I began to learn how to think because what I thought didn’t matter any more.

    It was how I thought, not what I thought, that would put me back on my feet, time and again. So, I agree with you in some sense, but I maintain that life and the school of hard knocks, post official education, is where an individual finds herself. The Canon, I’m sure I’ve read some – some Chaucer, some Hugo, some Dickens, some Shakespeare, the Odyssey, the romantic poets, the war poets, etc, if they fit in that Canon – probably helped, but that is because I did it on my own – no one was there to expound and insist that “this is what the author meant” which happened too many times in high school and jaded my feelings about official education.  Why could I not decide for myself what the author “meant”?

    If I had been able to attend university, I sometimes wonder, where would I be today? Hmm…

    • Like you, I tend to generalize. But all generalizations allow of exceptions. The college where I received my B.A. taught us how to think, not what to think. And after 41 years of college teaching and interacting with other professors and reading a great deal about education in order to write my own book (“Recalling Education”), I can say that there are good professors who strive to teach their charges how to think, not what to think. I tried to be one. But many are as you describe them — more of late, I fear. You have done well with your “patchwork” education and whatever schooling one has experienced education ought never to stop there. I have always insisted that there is an important distinction between schooling and education. I have known many a PhD who was downright stupid. And you are an example of one whose education didn’t require much formal schooling.

  2. Dear Hugh,

    Learning how to think for oneself is no small task but it is a worthwhile endeavor.

    Oddly enough, as a youth whenever my family lived stateside, I attended Catholic parochial schools. I have not been a practicing Catholic for most of my adult life, but this was one of the gifts that I was blessed with by this education.

    There are those (outside of the faith) who are convinced that the Catholic Church is one of indoctrination. Yet I was blessed with learning how to think and question and argue.

    We were faced with answering questions like, If we knew someone was a Hitler, how would we deal with this conundrum? We are facing such an existential question in today’s times.

    Hugs, Gronda

    • The Catholic schools, in my limited experience, never bought into the self-esteem nonsense that has swept the public schools in this country and never trashed the notion of discipline — a key to careful analysi, when used appropriately. Thanks, Gronda.

  3. You hit on a lot of very good points. I haven’t read the entire Canon (heck, I don’t know which books are included). But I was fortunate to have a good liberal arts education, and read a lot of those dead white guys, and they’ve helped me to think independently and critically. I agree with you that schooling is different from education, and I agree with Sh’Tara that one can become educated in the “school of hard knocks,” but I don’t agree with her that formal education always insists on “what to think” rather than “how to think.” The best education comes from both sources. I read Melville now and think “I know just what he’s talking about” because I’ve experienced those societal “civil hypocrisies and bland deceits” that he alluded to after he shared a bed with the humane cannibal Queequeg.

    I’m curious – since you spent 41 years in higher education – are universities really THAT dictatorial about de-emphasizing books written by dead white males? I’m sure this is the case, sadly, but I’m also curious if this trend is really that rampant If so, it’s a sad indictment of higher education in America.

    • There are some excellent teacher out there, still. But the trend is clearly toward indoctrination — openly and proudly (even in print!) — because more and more faculty are critical of what they loosely call “Western Civilization” and think their role is to turn out young people who will help foster their ideals of “justice” and “fairness.” Their claim is that this is the way it has always been and now it’s their turn. A half-truth, to be sure.

  4. Dr. Curtler,

    I have been an advocate of the notion of the canon long before I understood what it was. My faith in learning from key texts was established early i my youth. It was given substance and direction while I was an undergraduate. The lessons I learned then served me well as I refined both my learning and my practice of learning in graduate school and thereafter.

    My experience as a student and and as a teacher of both undergraduate and graduate students over five decades has strongly reinforced several notions:

    (1) The core purposes of an education are to learn how to think, to learn how to communicate and to learn and determine what kind of person you want to be.

    Selecting a major and deciding what job one wants are essential, yet derivative of these core purposes. Most people focus on the latter, assuming that they will sort the former out for themselves. Big mistake.

    (2) Encountering a core set of ideas and texts is essential to the core pursuits of education, as are continual exercise of writing, speaking, and reasoning skills associated with that study.

    I believe one should commence with a set of core texts in one’s cultural tradition and then expand from that sound base to an appreciation of other traditions. Critical study of the former makes a fuller appreciation of the latter possible in the first place.

    I am not opposed to studying the core texts of another cultural tradition, though I think it impractical to wait until one becomes fluent in one or more foreign languages before encountering core texts. Suffice it to say that most students in this country encounter English as a foreign language when they enter the university, but that leads us in another direction.

    (3) When the student is ready, the teachers will appear. Many things are possible for those willing to learn; little learning is possible on the part of the obdurately ignorant.

    For those committed to learning, a range of teachers will suffice, be they of modest or maximum teaching ability. For those new to learning and as yet unaware of their interests, effective or excellent teachers can make all the difference. But for those who refuse to learn, who refuse to view their own beliefs as perspectives worthy of examination, only those who reinforce their views will be viewed as teachers — and these are not teachers at all. They are trainers.

    In short, I agree with you completely, in large part because of lessons I learned in your classes. Such lessons have served me well for over half a century and I remain ever grateful for them.

    Best regards.

    Jerry Stark
    Professor Emeritus
    University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh

  5. Hugh, I have read far fewer of the canon than you. Any well written book that gets you to think and understand our humanity and relationships is worth reading. It saddens me to see books taken off lists because the subject matter might offend. Huck Finn is a prime example. Twain’s purpose is to make you question bigotry as Huck did.

    Keep firing your literary canon. You have a good aim. Keith

  6. The curator of the upcoming shows visited my home last month; she wanted to see where I worked/how I worked. We had a lovely visit and realized that we both treasured books – not digital ones, but the joy of holding a book in our hands – inhaling the aroma, getting lost in the pages, and pausing to appreciate a well-written paragraph, flipping back and forth between treasured sections to savor the brilliance or even having four or five books spread on the table while researching a subject – things that are lost when reading via electronic methods.

    She told me of a Christmas from long ago, when her siblings received lots of gifts, yet her parents seemed to have overlooked her – and she wondered what she might have done to fall out of their graces – no gifts or mention of gifts for her. Finally her father asked her to go to his office (he was a doctor) and retrieve a box from his desk. There on the desk was a box filled with books.. and more boxes with more books – she was delighted – thrilled to receive her own personal library of books!

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