Canon, Curriculum, Culture

Paul Trout
MSU [Bozeman]

Now that the battle over what "should and should not" be taught in humanities courses has simmered down a bit, it might be time to point out that the conflict has been noisy, slovenly, and indecisive because combatants on both sides rarely define, or distinguish between, the shibboleths they are fighting over--"canon" and "curriculum." More often than not, the two terms have been used interchangeably, so that arguments in support of the canon were attacked by arguments about the curriculum, and arguments for changing the curriculum were often repelled by vigorous defenses of the canon. These two terms, however, are different, and we must distinguish between them if we are to know what we are fighting about, and how to fight about it fairly and cogently.

I'll explain how these two terms differ, and then argue that some of the principal thrusts aimed at the "canon" wind up missing their target.

The word "canon" is easy to define but rather more difficult to explain. Simply, a canon is an assembly of texts (some fictional, some non-fictional) that a culture (i.e., people whose social roles allow them to influence such things) deems valuable and seeks to preserve. Every literate culture has a canon; Japan, India, New Guinea, Norway, China, Germany, Russia, etc., each has a national heritage of texts (novels, epic poems, plays, stories, biographies and autobiographies, sermons, histories) it publicly esteems and preserves.

Yet, a canon need not be made up of national texts alone. In the case of countries that are very closely connected by a shared language and, to some extent, history, such as Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and the United States, the canons of each country will have in common a certain number of texts and authors but also include a number that are esteemed only within each country. Shakespeare and Swift will show up in the canons of all five nations, but Margaret Atwood and Richard Wright won't. What makes the situation a little more complicated is that a number of texts from ancient Greece and Rome are included in the national canons of most Western nations. Since these nations mutually agree that these texts are valuable and to be officially esteemed, one might say that in addition to national canons there is also a canon for Western civilization, as well as for each country within Western civilization.

How do some texts wind up in the "canon" while others wind up outside it? This too is difficult to explain concisely. Let me begin by saying that the texts in the canon (I'll deal in a moment with the problem of knowing which texts are in and which out) are there (temporarily, as I shall explain) because they have undergone a lengthy winnowing process (canon formation) that has tested and "proven" their enduring value to a specific culture. The process that winnows canonical texts from less enduringly valuable texts is not neutral or impartial, as some defenders of the canon assert but highly contentious, involving the interplay of all kinds of forces--historical, antiquarian, economic, philosophical, demographic, aesthetic, cultural, political, etc.

It could be argued that the process of canon formation is not unlike the messy but nevertheless highly effective process that winnows valid scientific claims from invalid ones. In the realm of science, an agent makes a claim that is then subjected to extended and intensive critique by other agents who have a strong incentive to debunk the claim. If the claim stands up to this hostile scrutiny, it is admitted as "knowledge" at least until new evidence modifies or undermines it.

It seems to me that canon formation operates in a similar manner. Authors advance texts that are then subjected to all kinds of "testing." That is, the texts are published or performed, purchased, reviewed, analyzed, responded to, critiqued, misprisioned, further explained, overly praised, venomously traduced, emendated, altered, preserved or forgotten, rediscovered, republished, re- edited, re-reviewed, etc. This winnowing process is carried out by agents in diverse intellectual communities and social roles: editors, producers, writers, critics, readers and theater goers, librarians, reviewers, academicians, anthologizers, historians, collectors, biographers, dealers, promoters and advertisers (as far back as the eighteenth century!), and other socially sanctioned "taste-makers" and culture producers.

What is absolutely required for this assessment-process to work well is time. How much time is hard to say, but most of the texts now in the canon have been undergoing this process for centuries, and some for thousands of years. Time is important because the ability of a text to withstand hostile scrutiny and to interest connoisseurs and experts with different political, social, religious, cultural, and aesthetic values through the ages is an indication that the text is culturally valuable in a deep sense--and not just a passing fad or the "holy book" of one interest group. Thus, the Western canon is composed of texts with dramatically dissimilar values and viewpoints.

This winnowing process may be lengthy, messy, and inexact but it is a roughly democratic and effective method for assessing the complexity, depth, and enduring value of cultural productions. And the process of winnowing and assessing never ends, even for "canonical" texts.

Given that the process requires time, contemporary texts--whatever the time frame--cannot fairly be declared canonical. They must undergo the process. All texts, however, are eligible for eventual inclusion, and the "case" for including this or that text in the canon can begin immediately, as it did, for example, with Shakespeare.

Because the winnowing process never ends, even for texts deemed canonical, it is misleading to envision the canon as a fixed list of unquestionably canonical works with a clear boundary separating "ins" from "cuts." Canonicity is more amorphous than either critics or defenders like to admit. The canon, I suggest, should be envisioned as a series of concentric circles, like a target, in which canonical works have varying degrees of canonicity. In other words, it is not a simple case of a text being either in or out of the canon, or of canonical works being canonical to the same degree.

At the center are works whose value has been tested for so long and has been declared by so many that they are the least vulnerable to displacement by hostile re-assessment or changing cultural, political, or intellectual fashions. Then at varying degrees from this core are canonical works that are, to various degrees, still undergoing--still relatively subject to--continuing re-assessment. One might say, in these cases, that there is slightly less consensus among cultural agents about how valuable these valuable works are. Again, this is a dynamic situation. As Albert Cook has argued in Canons and Wisdoms (1993), canonical texts experience different rates of "assimilation" into the canon, with some texts moving towards the center (what Cook calls "brightening") and others towards the periphery (or "fading"), perhaps to leave the canon altogether. And at the periphery are works about to "enter" the canon--in time.

It might be objected, "why not just declare those 'core' works to be the 'canon' and have done with it?" Because to posit a rigid or clear distinction between canonical and non-canonical works falsifies the historical and indeterminate nature of canon formation. Even in the case of texts deemed canonical by large numbers of taste makers over a long period, the canonicity of a given text is "more or less" arguable and a matter of "more or less" agreement among those who produce culture. In short, some texts are more canonical than others.

If it's a matter of degree, then are any texts clearly non-canonical? Certainly. Some texts are simply not valued or treated as canonical works. Very few critics or academics, for instance, are likely to risk their professional repute making a case that Mickey Spillane's I, The Jury is as valuable (in any way) as Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, Walden, or Ben Franklin's Autobiography. And suppose a few did; have other agents of culture production also behaved as if I, The Jury were as culturally valuable as these canonical texts?

Can one determine which texts are "relatively" in the canon and which texts are "relatively" out? Probably so, in a "fuzzy-logic" sort of way, but there is no master list or single source for this information because no one group controls the canon-formation process and the process never ends. Agents of cultural production themselves develop a sense of which texts can plausibly be said to be canonical and which cannot over many years of cultural activity, but ultimately the only way to determine if a given text is valued sufficiently to be called "canonical" is by consulting hundreds of different cultural indices, from "great-book" lists and sales figures to academic curricula. This brings us to the other shibboleth--the "curriculum."

A curriculum, as we all know, is a collection of courses offered by a department or university. These courses themselves are essentially containers filled, in part, by discussions (oral or written) of readings or texts chosen by the instructor (I'm talking mainly about the humanities).

Many factors affect the instructor's choice of texts--the availability of relevant titles in inexpensive editions, the nature of the course and the preparation and ability of the students, the instructor's experience and expertise, the instructor's pedagogic goals, the instructor's political and social values, etc.

The reason that most commentators confuse "canon" with "curriculum" is that the relation between the two is a complex one. Although the canon exists independently of the totality of courses taught and texts chosen, the canonicity of texts is to some extent--and to an increasing extent--affected by the treatment these texts are accorded within school curricula, especially at the university level.

If a canonical text is rarely, if ever, taught, its canonical status will eventually suffer, simply because at some time there will be few people who know the work or care to preserve it. Yet the canonicity of a work is not necessarily enhanced by its being chosen as a text. The instructor could have chosen the work to discredit its canonical status. When a critical mass of instructors attack the cultural value of a text, its sales figures may go up but its status as a canonical text almost surely goes down (how far down, or for how long, no one can determine at the time). If these instructors are joined by a sufficient number of other taste-makers in the culture, the work may very well be pushed to the periphery of the canon, and beyond.

Explicit attack is not the only way a canonical work becomes uncanonical. Sometimes sheer neglect is enough to do it, if it occurs long enough. A text that is not taught or bought, or read, or referred to, or remembered has apparently lost its cultural value and, by functional definition, is no longer in the canon, or deserves to be.

Obviously, some courses are more likely to contain canonical texts than other courses. For example, a course in Renaissance drama is more likely to contain some canonical texts than a course in the Spy Novel. (This is not to say that some spy novels aren't better than others or that they aren't genuine works of art, but it is to say that at this time in history not even the "best" spy novel--The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Human Factor--has been widely accepted as a canonical text.) Yet even a course in Renaissance drama could be filled with texts that are not canonical (The Knight of the Burning Pestil, Tamburlaine, etc.). In other words, not all old and academically respectable texts are canonical, though why Dr. Faustus is canonical and Edward II is not is hard to explain.

As I said earlier, combatants in the campus wars too often confuse these two key terms. For example, James Atlas (see my review of Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America, in this issue of The Montana Professor) and Patrick Hogan--though they espouse contradictory views--both use the two terms interchangeably. In the case of Hogan's essay, the very title--"Mo' Better Canons: What's Wrong and What's Right About Mandatory Diversity" (College English 54.2, February 1992, 182-192)--betrays the fact that he is really arguing for a "comparatist curriculum" of "diverse" required courses, that is, for better curricula, not "better" canons. In short, one must look at the arguments to know for sure if a demand to "open up the canon" is a demand to suspend or change the process of canon formation or actually a demand for more non-canonical texts in high school and college courses.

There are two closely related charges made against the "canon" of Western culture (the same charges could be leveled against all canons): it is exclusionary, and, because exclusionary, harmful.

The argument goes something like this: the canon unfairly excludes some works that some people today find highly meritorious. It is not fair to let long dead people effectively decide what we are to esteem. Worse, the Western canon excludes works written by women and ethnic minorities from other cultures. Thus, the canon reflects only Western values approved by white males and thus inevitably perpetuates sexism and racism (which this argument presumes to be the defining characteristic of "whitemales"). Moreover, by not providing women and members of other ethnic groups and cultures with texts in which they find their identities reflected, the canon undermines their self-esteem, making it harder for them to excel in and out of school.

Most of these charges are made by Patrick Hogan in "Mo' Better Canons." For him the canon is nothing but an "authoritarian, dogmatic" institutional "discrimination" founded upon "economic and political domination." Its "dogmatic insistence upon the value of European canonical works" is not only unfair to other works and cultures but encourages "ignorance of non-Western traditions." By excluding these works, the canon reinforces an ethnocentric "European male paradigm" whose aesthetic standards must be "whitemale" or there wouldn't be so many white males in the canon.

It is quite true that for most of history (and not just in the West), women, blacks, and other minorities were denied equal access to the intellectual and scientific establishment, as they were denied equal access to other endeavors. This fact is reflected in the make-up of the canon. But this fact does not itself discredit the nature of the canon or the impartiality of the processes that form the canon.

Canon-formation is a culture-bound historical phenomenon. The process of canon formation can only work on texts that exist, and the production of these texts is determined by a host of historical, social, cultural, and demographic factors. There are no Anglo-African or Anglo-Japanese texts in the canon of English literature, for instance, not because the canon is "racist" but because such texts did not exist (the issue of a canon of Commonwealth literature is too complicated for me to go into here).

Nor did texts by women, until around the seventeenth century (I'm still speaking of England). One might deplore the social impediments that prevented, or made very difficult, the production of texts by women, but when women did produce them, the texts were not excluded from, but absorbed into, the lengthy process of assessment and reassessment that creates the canon. The result is that texts by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson appear to be safely ensconced within the canon, and the works of many other well-known and highly esteemed women may be headed there. As scholars re-discover and assess the works of neglected female authors, the list of canonical texts written by women is likely to grow--in time.

Nor have women and blacks been excluded from the Western canon, though demographics and social constraints militate against their presence. Texts by Sappho and Hildegard (delightfully different women, one must admit) are canonical, or "relatively" so, as are several plays by Terence, who was (it is thought) black. Aside from social encumbrances and demographic realities, in affairs canonical, sex and race matter very little if at all.

But this explanation does not fully address the charge that some canonical texts are sexist. Some may be, but the best way to tell that is by looking inside the book, not inside the pants of the author. Some canonical texts may have elements of racism in them too, such as texts by Karl Marx, but that doesn't undermine the canonical status of the texts but reminds us that these texts have been found to be enduringly relevant for many reasons, not necessarily because they flatter or please us, or because they are morally, or aesthetically, "pure" according to contemporary standards.

Hogan complains that the Western canon does not appreciate or "equally represent" "workers of African or Chinese or Indian literature." The only possible reply to the bizarre charge that the canon is "ethnocentric" is to say, "of course, what do you expect!" After all, a canon is specific to a culture. By arguing that the aesthetic standards of Western culture are "unfavorable to non-Western works," Hogan reveals that what really upsets him is that the Western canon excludes works from other canons! But all canons are necessarily exclusive and culture bound. Linguistically and demographically speaking, the process of canon formation can only work on texts produced within a particular culture. That's why the canon of Japan includes The Tale of Genji but not The House of Seven Gables. Should Americans be offended by this?

I'll now take up the argument that the "under representation" of women and minorities within the canon harms the psyches of women, minorities, and even "whitemales."

This argument was recently advanced by Charles Taylor in his essay "The Politics of Recognition" (in Multiculturalism and "The Politics of Recognition," 1993). According to Taylor, people need to have their identities "recognized" or "respected" by their culture. Identity is the result of social interaction with, and struggle against, "significant others." Identity, in short, is negotiated through dialogue with people who matter to us. This dialogue--partly overt, partly internal--lasts our whole lives, even after those "others" are long dead.

This dialogue, however, can go wrong. Because identity formation is "dialogic," the amount and quality of recognition others give us is crucial to our personal well being and self-esteem. If others "mirror back" a "confining or demeaning or contemptible picture" of ourselves, and we internalize that picture, our identity can suffer "real damage, real distortion," including "the pain of low self-esteem." This means that "non-recognition or misrecognition" is not merely a solecism; it is an attack that can "inflict a grievous wound" by saddling the victim with "crippling self-hatred." Thus, refusing recognition or projecting a humiliating image back to the person "can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being." Therefore, giving people "due recognition" or respect is not just a courtesy but a moral obligation.

According to Taylor, what is true for individuals is also true for groups. The identity and self-esteem of subaltern groups can be damaged when dominant groups withhold due recognition or impose on these groups negative stereotypes. "A person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves." To the extent that members of the subaltern groups internalize these negative messages, they engage in their own oppression.

Like many other multiculturalists, Taylor argues that the canon (meaning here the English/American canon), because it does not contain a sufficient number of texts written by women and ethnic/racial minorities, fails to give these under-represented groups "due recognition," thus injuring their self-esteem and academic performance. In a similar vein, the report of the New York Task Force on Minorities and Education (1989) claimed that the "monocultural perspective of traditional American education" contains a "hidden" assumption of "'white supremacy' and 'white nationalism.'" The report went on to say that "African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Puerto Ricans/Latinos, and Native Americans have all been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression that has characterized the culture and institutions of the United States and the European-American world for centuries." The canon is harmful, in other words, because it is white; as a professor at Rutgers put it, "a lot of black people have been devastated by the assumption that black people never did anything, and when we did do anything there were other races involved in it."

Now that even "evidence" has been branded as a patriarchal device used to enforce the hegemony of white males, I realize I invite the charge of "racism" when I point out that there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that the mere existence of a canon, or the mere reading of works by whites (or by women, or by gays, or by bald dwarfs) poses a threat to the mental health of minorities. If there were such evidence, we would have to then ask ourselves, "Should we change the canon to include works written by authors from various ethnic and racial groups? Should protecting the self-esteem of this or that group now be made a crucial consideration in the process that governs canon formation?"

With nothing really supporting the notion that the canon somehow injures the self-esteem of some students, each person is free to surmise just how likely it is that significant numbers of college-aged minority students or women will be intellectually disabled by learning that most of the writers whose works make up the canon were European white males. Perhaps this slight risk could be lessened even more if students better understood the complex historical processes that go into forming a canon. If they did, they would be less likely to conclude, erroneously, that all creativity and worth inheres in males of European origin. As D'Souza has pointed out, the multicultural argument that ethnic or racial identity confers special knowledge or intellectual ability is harmful because it disastrously reinforces the incapacitating notion that whiteness and maleness are indeed the cause of great civilization. But whiteness and maleness are historical accidents, and minorities and women, he advises, might do a lot better to challenge the proprietorship of canonical books, which are not white male property but the common heritage of all.

Hogan argues that women and minorities would likely not exert proprietorship because they--like men--have a "spontaneous tendency" to prefer works with protagonists like themselves. In other words, the canon provides few opportunities for ethnic solidarity. Notice that Hogan has shifted from authors to characters, a shift that actually weakens his case for "mo' better canons" because the canon does contain a number of powerful and sympathetic female and even minority characters that women and others can identify with, though the authors who created them were whitemales.

But there's another problem here. Hogan believes that women can only identify with women (or blacks with blacks, etc.)--that gender (or race) is the necessary and sufficient condition for identification. But this is absurd. The reading experience of every human being testifies to the fact that men and women, whites and blacks, can and do identify with an amazing variety of characters of either gender and of any race or nationality. I may understand the fears of Shakespeare's Benedict, but I much prefer, and identify with, the anger and humor of his Beatrice.

The possibility and benefits of gender-crossing identification have been discussed by Joshua Meyrowitz in his brilliant book, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (1985). Empirical studies, he reports, show that both males and females identify with models who are perceived powerful or successful--"regardless of the sex of the model."

Hogan is also concerned that because whitemale readers have so many whitemale characters to identify with, they will not have the "opportunity" to free themselves from the narcissistic constraints of their (privileged?) identity. This assumes, of course, that all while males--both real and fictional--are the same in every significant way. This notion, of course, is too absurd to take seriously. The texts of the canon are wildly different and often mutually antagonistic; and the characters in these texts evince even more astonishing variety. Even if a whitemale were to read only canonical texts, his view of himself and others, and of the nature of social reality, would surely be broadened and problematized in various and unpredictable ways.

There is more to be said about the demographic lopsidedness of the canon. It is an unavoidable fact that races, genders, and ethnic minorities are not equally represented in every facet of society and culture--for a number of historical, demographic, and social reasons. As Michael J. Pastore puts it, "equality is not retroactive" and all people have not "contributed in equal proportions to all things at all times." But how much harm does this truth cause? Indeed, does it cause any harm?

Almost all people and groups learn to live with the fact that they are not equally represented throughout culture. They either focus on representative examples available to them that might bolster their self-esteem or, in the absence of such examples, turn to other social venues to find the "due recognition" they need.

Asian students seem unfazed by the fact that Western history offers few examples of brilliant Asian mathematicians. White men, as well as women, Hispanics, Native Americans, etc., have to live with the fact that eighty per cent of NBA players are black. This fact does not prevent the members of these "under-represented" groups from occasionally making the NBA, or from just playing basketball, excelling in other sports and endeavors, or feeling good about themselves. People and groups devise ways of protecting their self-esteem from these "demographic" and "historical" microaffronts.

I do not mean to suggest by my NBA analogy that blacks should find recognition only in sports, an area of culture where they undeniably excel. Far from it. As everyone knows, there are many famous and successful black musicians, artists, sculptors, scientists, physicians, technicians, dancers, singers, and creative writers. The very fact that there are so many valued black authors in our literary heritage, if not yet in our literary canon (except for Ellison and Wright, maybe Baldwin), should considerably offset the alleged potential psychological harm wrought by an almost entirely white national literary canon. Indeed, a number of highly successful black scholars are devoted to creating, justifying, and popularizing their own African-American canon, without, apparently, threatening the self-esteem of Jews, Asians, Hispanics, or whites, although this canon is the only one to explicitly exclude writers on the basis of race.

Why should students, of whatever color, come to the conclusion that the white European males of the canon embody "all creativity and worth" when there are so many examples of accomplished and valued ethnic authors to refute this? Moreover, whites, blacks, and others should keep in mind that canonical authors are not the only authors. There are many great, significant, and rewarding authors outside the canon (at this time), and there is no law either requiring us to venerate canonical authors more than others or preventing us from reading whom we damn well please.

After all, Christian Scientists have managed to keep their self-esteem and do their own thing despite the "canonical" findings of the AMA.

The reason that these arguments against the canon seem so weak is that they are less about the canon than about "opening up the curriculum," another matter altogether. Although it is foolish to attempt to devise either a canon or a curriculum so egalitarian that, as Hogan puts it, "it excludes no one," it is possible, and advisable, to devise a curriculum that includes non-canonical and non-Western works, as even Dinesh D'Souza has argued.

Knowledge of other cultures, even superficial knowledge, is a good thing, though knowledge of our own is better, and even more necessary. As someone who teaches World Literature, I favor well-considered efforts to devise for our students mo' better curricula and courses, including ones that encourage them to read canonical and even non-canonical works from non-Western cultures. But this can be achieved without discrediting or "radical[ly] restructuring" (Hogan) the canon of our culture.

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