Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On the other hand

What's interesting about these 'Canon wars' is that the warriors assume a situation that was in fact a huge exception in the history of American colleges, a five-minute period, give or take, at the University of Chicago. The debate is, when you get down to it, over what curriculum to provide for a group of students composed of many women and minorities. That the student body itself is neither all-white nor all-male is assumed, which is bizarre, since in the Golden Age of Great Books, this was not the case. 'Preserving the canon' is not necessarily the conservative choice; the status quo could just as easily mean reading lists that reflect the demographics of the student body, i.e. Toni Morrison. On the other hand...

The problem with a curriculum that's sensitive to, say, blacks, gays, women, Jews, Asians, and Latinos, is that it establishes a canon of its own, a catch-all list of identities worth defending. It attempts to define, once and for all, who gets to count as the underdog. This approach attributes an implied privileged status to all who fall outside these specific bounds. The socially awkward, the freakishly hairy, the snootily brilliant, and the shockingly tall are not especially worth sticking up for, if they happen to be straight, Christian men with Mayflower ancestry. This is not just about oppression of groups vs. of individuals; the same goes for Armenians, former-Yugoslavians, and other groups whose tragedies could not be explained within the 'race' boxes of an application form. With multiculturalism, in a reverse of the Dead White Male-ism/Orientalism that preceded it, there is a homogenization of groups that are incredibly diverse: a Swiss banker and a Romanian orphan are both 'white,' as were Spinoza and Aristotle.

What's appealing about the Great Books is not that they reveal to us our civilization, but that they are often irrelevant to contemporary Americans' experience of the world in all but their universal qualities. The advantage of a Western Canon is that at this point in America, almost no one will find his own ethnic group's concerns addressed. This, incidentally, sheds some light on why Americans tend not to be as horrified when we learn in school that 'we' are descended from the Pilgrims as our French counterparts are when they learn about 'our ancestors, the Gauls'; the French educational fiction is far more likely to be true for many given classroom.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why is it horrifying to be descended from a Gaul? I don't get it.

Nick said...

I'm not so sure that third paragraph makes sense, but an assertion in your second paragraph troubles me:

The problem with a curriculum that's sensitive to, say, blacks, gays, women, Jews, Asians, and Latinos, is that it . . . attempts to define, once and for all, who gets to count as the underdog.

I think that's blatantly false. Some of this "new canon" might do that, but a lot of this canon looks at why such hierarchies exist in the first place, and looks at why, from a philosophical perspective, society seems to necessitate such hierarchies. In other words, it doesn't want to establish anyone as the "underdog"--it wants to eliminate, or at least examine, the preconditions that produce societal underdogs to begin with.

At the end of the day, if we want to teach the snootily brilliant to subvert current hierarchies, we have to have some teachable models for doing so. As Justice Kennedy said: "As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom." I think you're missing the fact that teaching current students how this was done in the past allows them to be much more successful at it in the future.

Phoebe said...

Nick,

How can something be both blatantly false and somewhat true? I know quite well that interesting and universally-applicable information comes out of studying particular groups. I don't think that the movement against discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religion, etc., has in fact led to more tolerance towards underdogs more generally, towards individuals or groups who fall outside the 'canon'. Either someone is seen as fully insult-worthy because his fault does not fall into one of the protected categories, or there is a dispute over which party gets to be the underdog, according to which falls most into the pre-established categories.

Does this make sense?

Phoebe said...

And, as for why it's bad to be descended from a Gaul... The idea is that having students repeat that they are all descended from the one, authentic, pre-French stock is offensive to those who are clearly not of this ancestry. On a more general level, it implies that 'French' is a race, and thus gives an exclusionary definition of what it means to be French. The 'Pilgrim' definition is no less exclusionary, but it is so obviously irrelevant to all but a handful of Americans that one does not feel a part of an oppressed minority on account of not having Mayflower ancestors.

Nick said...

"How can something be both blatantly false and somewhat true?"

Assertion: White people are stupid.
How it's blatantly false: Many white people, just like many people of all races, are not stupid.
How it's somewhat true: Some white people, just like some people of all races, are stupid.

That's how.

"I don't think that the movement against discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religion, etc., has in fact led to more tolerance towards underdogs more generally, towards individuals or groups who fall outside the 'canon'."

That may be true, but (a) we were talking about literature in that vein, and not the movements, which are quite distinct (even though I did indicate that one could lead to the other) (b) you seem to be completely ignoring Marx and his emphasis about lifting up all disenfranchised classes together (c) the very fact that such movements haven't in the past led to such expansion that leads to a lot of recent critiques in this canon that do advocate for a more expansive challenge and examination of the hierarchies in the first place, though not necessarily from the afore-mentioned Marxist perspective. I know because I'm reading part of this canon now, in class. :p

"there is a dispute over which party gets to be the underdog, according to which falls most into the pre-established categories"

Not sure I understand...

Phoebe said...

"you seem to be completely ignoring Marx and his emphasis about lifting up all disenfranchised classes together"

I suppose I could have mentioned Marx, but I don't see how not doing so was "ignoring." I just think there are limits to this line of thought, whether Marx or someone else expresses it.

Maybe this will be clearer: it's considered discrimination to insult someone for being three feet tall, whether this discrimination is state-sanctioned or personal. But when either a modeling agency or an individual expresses a preference for the 5'10" over the 5'5", that's life. What's the threshold? Where, in the world of diagnosable learning disabilities, is there a place to deal with the simply not-so-bright? My question is whether it's better to have an ever-expanding list of traits to be defended, or to have a standard so impossibly absurd that practically no one meets it.

I wrote, "there is a dispute over which party gets to be the underdog, according to which falls most into the pre-established categories." By this I mean, although not exclusively, arguments that the underdog is always whichever group in an ethnic conflict is darker-skinned.

Anonymous said...

Phoebe, I haven't read a word of your blog yet, but your pic up there in the corner is ~adorable~.