Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America

James Atlas
New York: W.W. Norton, Inc., 1992
157 pp., $17.95 hc

Paul Trout
MSU [Bozeman]

In Battle of the Books, James Atlas, an editor and literary commentator at the New York Times Magazine, approaches the academic controversy about the canon and curriculum as if he were covering a story. He goes "into the field," interviews the Hot Shots on both sides, weighs the evidence, and then comes to his own conclusion.

The result is a readable, fairly even-handed, occasionally insightful, but ultimately superficial treatment of a very complex issue. The book might have made a louder "pop" in the campus wars if Atlas had precisely defined key terms, rigorously confronted the basic arguments for curriculum revision, and developed his intuitions about some underlying professional considerations driving revisionism.

But because he didn't, the book will appeal to traditionalists suspicious of canon and curriculum revision, but do nothing to dissuade those bent on "opening up the canon" in the name of demographics, "truth," and self-esteem.

Atlas falls into the same conceptual mire that has trapped the campus Achilles he interviews: confusion of terms. If this debate is to make more sense than mud wrestling, then writers should make meaningful distinctions among such terms as cultural heritage, canon, curriculum, reading lists (or syllabi), and interpretive strategies (for a discussion of these terms and of the controversy, see my article "Canon, Curriculum, Culture" in this issue of The Montana Professor).

As too few combatants and commentators realize, many revisionists are not, actually, trying to "open up the canon" but to open up the curriculum. They want to be able to teach more "non-canonical" texts, something easily done without tampering with the processes that govern, and have governed for many centuries, canon formation.

If this book doesn't really bite into the tender flesh of the debate, it's because Atlas tries hard to be, or appear, so even-handed that he shies away from "Mike-Wallacing" the muddled or blabbing academics he interviews. Goodness knows they provide him with all kinds of opportunities for counter-thrusts, but Atlas seems content to let them gambol off unbloodied.

To his credit, though, Atlas senses that there is something going on here besides a professional argument about the value of books. He realizes, for instance, that the call for the inclusion (in the canon? in courses?) of texts from other cultures is not always a sign that revisionists want to study foreign cultures for the their broadening and enduring wisdom. Often it is a call for students to look into a mirror and see themselves, certainly not the most broadening of experiences.

Indeed, when Dinesh D'Souza provocatively suggested that a true multicultural education would study the two most important developments on the world scene--Japanese capitalism and Islamic Fundamentalism--the student he was talking to laughed and said he wouldn't be interested in that form of multiculturalism: "I want to study myself" (qtd. in Illiberal Education 75). Maybe professors do too.

Atlas also perceives that the concern about the canon injuring the "self-esteem" of students can be interpreted in quite a different way than multiculturalists do. They argue that the predominantly white and male canon harms the self-esteem of women and ethnic minorities by making them feel culturally inferior. But what if the demanding texts in the canon simply make students feel stupid?

What Atlas suggests is that the drive to "open up the canon" is, in part, an effort to make contemporary students with impoverished intellectual skills feel less dumb. Since this motive is often couched in code, I'll draw on a revealing exchange that D'Souza had with a Stanford history professor in favor of opening up the curriculum. According to this academic, classic authors are an "albatross" around the necks of young professors, and a "roadblock and arbitrary hazard" for "men and women under 40" who feel "alienated from this canon of texts." Since today's students find it hard to read these texts, this academic explains, it is no wonder that professors want to teach more contemporary works and not "a fixed list of old books" (Illiberal Education 64). Let's face it, how many students and professors are demanding to study The Tale of Genji or the Ramayana or the Gitanjali? No, they want The Color Purple.

This subterfuge was uncoded by the African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. when he said that a "more variegated subject matter could make for more compelling lesson plans" for "inner city" kids. Translated, this means ease up and offer to students whatever they can understand. So we now have even university professors who proclaim to their pop-culture-literate young charges that "Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to understanding the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt" (61). And we have composition teachers who advocate "linguistic diversity," a coded injunction to pay no heed to whether or not students write "proper English."

Of course almost nobody in Battle of the Books wants to talk about curriculum revision as a way of accommodating dumbed-down students and teachers. But it's becoming increasing difficult to cover up the pronounced educational deficiencies of contemporary students, more and more of whom are struggling with calculating, reading, writing, and critical thinking. No wonder they find it hard to get through those damn thick fat books in the canon. No wonder these books are hard to teach. Since it is easier to change books than millions of students, a way must be found to discredit the source of embarrassment and outrage.

Atlas recognizes that the shame arising from this situation drives the deep animosity directed at the Dead White European Males of the Western tradition. He quotes Katha Pollitt's observation that when her students engage great works, their fragile "self-esteem" gets bruised (98). Pollitt reports that her poetry students at Barnard hate to read great poetry because they find it too intimidating, a reproach to their own deficiencies as readers and writers. This might be called the "Salieri complex."

One way to deal with this Salieri complex is, of course, to symbolically kill the "master" whose "works" shame your own. Thus, the great writers of the Western tradition have been vengefully impaled on the spikes of racism, sexism, and Eurocentrism. For some people, then, canon revision is a way of "shaming back" an incredibly rich, and therefore intimidating and oppressing, cultural heritage, while at the same time protecting the feelings of students and allowing professors to appear compassionate and politically progressive.

Atlas also senses that behind the call for "opening up the canon" lurks the hulking shadow of professional opportunism. The more texts included in the canon and the curriculum, the more texts professors have to write about and the greater their opportunities to earn tenure, merit pay, and professional recognition. This is no small problem in humanities departments. In the mid-'70s, the discipline of English underwent an extraordinary crisis of confidence because the (finite) stock of canonical texts on which its scholarly legitimacy depended appeared to be exhausted from decades of feverish research and publication (even in 1987, academic journals published 215 articles on Milton, 137 on Henry James, and 554 on Shakespeare--in one year).

At the time, many in the profession called for new approaches to old texts (Structuralism, Marxism, Feminism, Deconstruction) and for "opening up the canon" to a wider assortment of uncanonical texts (I review this crisis in my article "Criticism and Self-Esteem," Texas Review, Fall 1993). Most professors, needless to say, did not want to admit to themselves that they needed raw material to convert into tenure, merit pay, and country-club memberships so they disguised their entrepreneurial motives as left-wing politics, the best disguise. As Atlas reports, one professor who earns well over a hundred thousand dollars insists on the purity of his motives by sporting "Go Left" vanity license plates on his car.

"Opening up the canon and curriculum" provided what the profession needed--new raw material. Now in the '90s all topics are grist for the ever-grinding academic mill: Peter Pan as a cross-dresser; Petrarchan eroticism in video arcade games; power, gender, and madness in heavy metal music; Clint Eastwood as a cultural production; the detective as pervert (don't expect the Energizer Bunny--these are actual examples). Relieved of having to read Paradise Lost or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ("another damn big fat book, eh Mr. Gibbon"--George III), professors can now write their meal-tickets by watching MTV, going to the movies, and playing video games.

As Kernan, Fromm, and Crews, among others, have suggested, curriculum revision did in fact give literary studies a new lease on life, reinvigoring a discipline on the brink of professional collapse. To the victors go the spoils. The struggle over the curriculum is not just, as Tompkins says, "a struggle among contending factions for the right to be represented in the picture America draws of itself" (114), but a struggle for the right to do the representing. It's a battle among academics about who will run things, about who will determine what's hot and what's not, what's "cutting-edge" and what's "cutting-back," what's meritorious and what's a waste of time. Since the mid-'80s, the revisionists have been in the ascendant--witness the burgeoning of Madonna Studies--but the battle isn't over yet.

Atlas concludes his tour of the academic battle field by arguing that although knowledge of other cultures is always good, American students must learn about their own culture to develop a sense of self and respect for the community in which they live. Sounds nice, but this sentiment is not apt to convince revisionists to replace Alice Walker with Mark Twain. Multicultural revisionists would place scornful quotation marks around every word of Atlas's pronouncement. Atlas speaks for and to those who already agree with him, not to those who disagree. To do that, he would have to engage their essential arguments far more cogently that he is inclined to.

Atlas despairingly concludes that "hope for a consensus on the curriculum is futile." Unfortunately, his book has not made it less so.

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