Education, Top Stories

The Return of the Canon Wars

Reed College recently announced that it would radically overhaul its core humanities course, Hum 110, in response to months of student protests. In doing so, Reed’s administration was, in effect, adopting the position of the course’s detractors; namely, that a focus on the Western classics “perpetuates white supremacy.”  This decision—which did not go far enough for the students—is in keeping with an era of campus activism marked by a strident and narrow view of ‘inclusion.’ However, the demands of Reedies Against Racism, and their college’s swift capitulation, are far from novel. We are witnessing the return of the Canon Wars, reborn without the value of a credible opposition. And, while it is easy to be disheartened by this, the re-emergence of this academic conflict offers us an opportunity to address much of what ails the modern humanities and, by extension, the wider public discourse.

Ancient bust of Homer

For a period in the 1980s and 1990s (imaginably before most of the Reedies Against Racism were born), the Canon Wars dominated the academy. In its most simplistic understanding, the battle pitted ‘traditionalists’ against ‘multiculturalists.’ The latter argued that the traditional humanities’ curriculum was a fossilized parade of dead white men and that it should be replaced with a more diverse body of authors. The traditionalists, to the contrary, held that the dismantling of the old syllabus would result in a crisis for the university and for the culture at large. In the words of Allan Bloom (whose influential polemic The Closing of the American Mind is usually credited with firing some of the first shots of this war), the revision of the canon along multiculturalist lines had “extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life.”

As it turns out, both sides were right. Not that the combatants could see that. Unfortunately, the real trouble with the Canon Wars, and the source of their myopic dogmatism, was not an earnest debate over which authors were worthy of a permanent place on the syllabus, but rather the ways in which each position became a proxy in the far more sinister and absurdly doctrinaire struggle for control of American culture. Nearly 30 years later, both camps have largely devolved into cartoonish parodies of themselves. The multiculturalists have given birth to the current crisis of free speech on campus, while the traditionalists have devolved into advocating reductionist, government-sponsored ‘Western Civilization’ curricula. Both positions seem like betrayals of the core values that once motivated their adherents. The multiculturalists have not made space for more voices, but fewer. Likewise, the traditionalists have seemingly surrendered the notion of rigorous pedagogy and fearless self-examination for the comfort of  a legislatively-dictated education hardly worthy of the name. Neither position is sustainable and both present a grave risk to education and learning, particularly in the current climate.

That is why we should welcome the reignition of the Canon Wars. A good faith debate among scholars and others about the shape of the curriculum should never have been allowed to become subsumed in the easy soundbites of tribalistic politics. The current state of both our universities and our wider public discourse bear the mark of the Canon Wars’ failures, and the only way to repair what has been broken is to return to the fray. By refighting the Canon Wars, there is hope that we can chart a more productive course than the one we have inherited. A path that need not—and should not—end up returning us to either an uncritical acceptance of the traditional Western canon or a hodgepodge syllabus of mediocre talents collected only because we wish to appear open-minded.

To begin with, the goal of being ‘non-judgemental’ is, in fact, a strange one for those engaged in the teaching and study of the liberal arts to be pursuing. For most of civilization, the very purpose of a liberal education was to foster discernment and judgement—to encourage in the student an ability to distinguish the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, and the wicked from the noble. The rise of moral and cultural relativism declared this goal to be an exercise in absurdity. If all things can ultimately be measured only against themselves, what good is the training of the mind to measure, weigh, and sort? Such absolutist relativism has been a failure. It has created a public discourse incapable of dialogue.

The influence of this relativism on the Left is quite clear. It has nurtured the disastrous notion that a person’s identity and tribal membership cards determine the ability of a reader to understand and respond to a text, undermining our shared humanity and our shared stake in the uniquely human property of reason. But the Right has not been immune, either. There too, logic and reason have been the chief victims, as the intellectual conservatism of yore has given way to an emotive traditionalist populism—identity politics marketed to a new chauvinistic audience.

The multiculturalist syllabus was shaped by a belief in relativism and its daughters. The multiculturalists hold that it is impossible to determine the very best works of literature humanity has produced, because there can be no objective standard of quality or merit. Thus, students should be guided to read texts from as diverse a field of authors as possible and to view texts as political artefacts and nothing else; they are to be understood as evidence of ‘identities,’ the prima facie reality of human life. This argument contains within it a hidden bigotry: the latent idea that authors from outside of the traditional Western Canon can only join the curriculum when we dispense with the standard of ‘good literature.’ That is the multiculturalists’ error—an error concealed from its proponents by an ideology that holds that one’s innate characteristics (race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc) are more important and telling than what is said and done by the individual. This is not just artist over art, it is tribe over individuality.

Conversely, the traditional canon, at its best, placed the individual at its center. The value of the traditional canon was, in large part, found in the philosophy that underpinned it: if one reads and studies the very best of what humanity has produced over the course of millennia, the mind will be better suited to the difficult but necessary task of fearless lifelong inquiry. The student of the ‘great books’ becomes the engaged citizen and the self-critical soul. This fundamental goal is the greatest asset of the traditionalist position. No doubt, there is much to love aesthetically in the traditional Western canon. The question, you may recall, of how to shape of the ideal soul (not the ideal city) is what ignites the debate at the center of Plato’s Republic.

The timeless storytelling of Homer, the complex characters of Shakespeare, the unparalleled wit of Voltaire are all of enduring value. But in many ways these texts are also, in this context, tools for the sculpting of the human spirit. The multiculturalists were wrong to abandon this fundamental goal 30 years ago, and they are wrong to abandon it now. Education must be more than a mere scavenger hunt for instances of oppression, cruelty, and hatred. It must ask how each of us can live better. The multicultural canon offers the voices of more individuals, but fewer opportunities for the student to look beyond the polis and into his own being.

With this objective in mind, it is possible to create a new canon that draws on the best of both arguments and offers students a more useful and comprehensive education. To this end, I would like to suggest the following parameters:

  1. The goal of a liberal arts education is to arm students with the tools necessary to lead a ‘good life.’ This good life includes acting as a responsible and engaged member of society.
  2. ‘Great books’ do, in fact, exist. That is to say, some works of literature are aesthetically superior to others. We can debate what these standards are and which texts meet those standards, but we must reject a relativist view of literary aesthetics that assigns to literature the mere status of sociological mirror.
  3. Great literature may come from any time and any place, but its value and ‘greatness’ must be divorced from the identity and characteristics of its creator. The qualities of a great book or magnificent poem are the same, irrespective of whether the author is male or female, black or white, gay or straight, writing in English or Yoruba. Every truly great text has something to offer every sincere student, regardless of the origin of either.
  4. Some texts, as a result of their influence, must be read as part of a comprehensive education. These texts might disproportionately come from cultures now regarded as ‘Western’ and this over-representation is, in many instances, a consequence of conquest and colonialism. However, it is dangerous to avoid an influential work merely because we cringe at the ways in which some of that influence was obtained. Into this category falls much of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome as well as the plays of William Shakespeare. Such texts not only benefit from cultural capital, but endure because of their unique beauty, timelessness, and universal resonance and appeal.

It is my conviction that, by using these standards, it is likely that we will arrive at a syllabus in which Homer co-exists with Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie co-exists with Milton. We must strive to create a curriculum that aims to educate above all else, that is not a hostage to the names and demographics of its canonical authors, and that does not become a pawn in a destructive political game.

The Canon Wars were not much fun the first time around, I am told. And it is certain that the fight will be even more unpleasant and bloody today. But this is a battle we cannot afford to leave unfought. At stake is what it means to have an educated soul and, for this reason, it is a battle we owe, not only to the academy, but to the polis at large.

 

Katherine Kelaidis is a writer and historian whose work focuses on early Medieval Christianity and contemporary Orthodox identity in non-traditionally Orthodox countries. You can follow her on Twitter handle is @katiekelaidis

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37 Comments

  1. Daniel says

    Keliades writes, “while the traditionalists have devolved into advocating reductionist, government-sponsored ‘Western Civilization’ curricula…” and shortly later, “the traditionalists have seemingly surrendered the notion of rigorous pedagogy and fearless self-examination for the comfort of a legislatively-dictated education hardly worthy of the name.”
    I confess that I have absolutely no experience with anything resembling what she is describing, though I remember objecting to the multiculturalists’ dismissal of Western literature if it was written by anyone dead, anyone male, and anyone white. That, in addition to being a fan of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky etc etc. had led me to believe I would fit in with the Traditionalist camp. I don’t see a surrender of rigorous pedagogy, or a reductionist curriculum, and I sure as heck haven’t even heard of anyone floating the idea that such a curriculum should be sponsored by the government.

    Have I completely missed the bulk of a huge movement, or is Keliades selecting a ridiculous example, one with an extreme position and minimal adherents in order to claim the moral and intellectual high ground of being arbiter between two camps?

    I say this because her list at the end, of the features of a proper curriculum, is something I would have thought all traditionalists would wholeheartedly endorse. I’m not even sure most of the traditionalists I know would even offer an amendment.

    I like the list, by the way. She is spot-on in terms of the importance of recognizing the existence of value, and the existence of differences in excellence between works.

    • David C. says

      Childish protests and month-long sit-ins arose. Reed capitulated to protestors demands and is overhauling its curriculum without so much as a reasonable argument being forwarded. (Obviously, the premise that Humanities 110 centered around whiteness or western culture is ridiculous: the course starts out with Epic of Gilgamesh [ancient Mesopotamia] and ends with the Bible… and, of course, twenty-first century notions of race and western culture didn’t exist when these texts were produced. To top it off, the proposed changes make the course not meaningfully less “western” or “white” by involving the texts of Mexico City in the 15th through 20th centuries, and Harlem from 1919 to 1952…) And so the precedent is set.

  2. Charles says

    Does anyone know of a good list of Great Books?

  3. “a syllabus in which Homer co-exists with Toni Morrison”

    “great books”

    “Toni Morrison”

    Get off my internet.

  4. Before anyone involved in any potential ‘canon war’ sets out to develop a strategy for victory it might be wise to consider the battleground on which the war will be fought: 19-21-year-olds with part-time jobs, a background in Cliff Notes and Game of Thrones, and a future-crushing debt incurred to study either a lot of Shakespeare and some Aeschylus or a lot of Toni Morrison and some Edna St. Vincent Millay.

    Kids come into their first-year university classes unprepared to read even the novel versions of the movies and television they have grown up on, never mind Walt Whitman or Henry James. To make a humanities-based liberal education meaningful in a democratic context would require a retooling of education from kindergarten up and that is not about to happen.

  5. ga gamba says

    while the traditionalists have devolved into advocating reductionist, government-sponsored ‘Western Civilization’ curricula.

    That caught my eye too. I followed the link and learnt it’s one department in one school. This is not to say it’s not happening elsewhere, but in an era when some schools are requiring “social justice” be taught in each and every class irrespective of subject, Ms Kelaidis’s concern is over-egged. For the opponent to moan “the school politicizes otherwise non-political subjects” ignores that it’s the left who frequently state the personal is political and everything is political. Further, the creation of all these studies and critical theory departments is overtly political. I’m sure students will have plenty of opportunities to study Hegel, Marx, the Frankfurt School, the French pomo thinkers, and Mao – mostly white, male, and dead, btw, so one had better include Frantz Fanon – in most any other department and subject including Sports Studies. (PDF)

    Mr Marano writes: In an era where college campuses are seemingly more divided politically than any time in recent memory, keeping classrooms as open to other views as possible is as important as ever.

    And I fell out of my chair. I appreciate the sentiment; hell, I even endorse it, yet I can’t fail to see what he fails to see. We are now at least in the fourth decade of dominance of the academe by leftists, a gulf that’s only widened over the years. To those who argue the academe attracts the left, I agree in part. Only leftists would accept adjunct positions. But on the campus there’s been the amazing growth of the studies departments, growing beyond the walled gardens of gender and ethnic studies to even spread into science studies.

    Critical pedagogy is the education movement aimed developing students into socially and politically aware individuals, helping them recognize authoritarian tendencies, empowering them to act against injustice, and employing democratic and inclusive classroom practices. The term “critical pedagogy” has been used by educators to refer to a broad range of pedagogies that employ critical theory, feminist theory, queer theory, anti-racist theory, multicultural education, and inclusive pedagogies. In this post, I will discuss some of the critical pedagogy practices employed by Dr. Donna Riley (currently a professor at Virginia Tech) while teaching a class called “Engineering Thermodynamics” as Smith College, an all women college, during Spring and Fall semesters of 2002. It should be noted that Riley uses liberative pedagogy as an inclusive term for critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, and radical pedagogy.

    Yes, that’s one’s Engineering Thermodynamics class. And neither Smith nor Virginia Tech are Mickey Mouse schools, at least not yet. That review was written by a student. Notice what’s missing? Correct. What s/he learnt about thermodynamics. FFS, one couldn’t make this up.

    In 2017 Riley was hired to be head of Purdue’s School of Engineering Education, which falls under its College of Engineering, one of the nation’s top engineering schools. All first-year engineering students enroll in courses in this school before moving into their disciplines. This is a studies programme, and university activists are using these to barge into STEM. And if a student doesn’t play the game and drink the thin, tepid broth of social justice, s/he is screwed since grades here determine placement in the specialties.

    Here’s what Dr Riley had to say for herself:

    One of the biggest sources of sexism and homophobia is lodged in the epistemology of science. How we think, and what we think, matter in determining what we know and don’t know, and affects our workplace interactions in very negative ways. We think that we eliminate bias by keeping our “personal lives” – some aspects of ourselves – out of the lab, classroom, or office. But actually this is how we allow implicit bias to seep in and saturate everything we do, because that which is male, straight, white, able-bodied, monied, is not left behind in the practice of science and engineering – it is just so normative that lots of us don’t notice.

    I have learned that talking about these issues and building solidarity with like-minded others is the only way we can ever address them. Ultimately scientists and engineers have to be able to think outside the epistemological boxes we’ve been trained into to understand diversity and social justice. Cultural change takes a lot of hard work, it takes talking to people and organizing — skills typically not in our wheelhouses as scientists and engineers.

    Yes, engineers historically didn’t have the skills of talking to people and organising. It’s a flipping miracle anything was created and built, wasn’t it? Once they’ve embraced diversity and social justice we just might get that man on the moon. Sigh.

    Now, I don’t want to be dismissive of the numerous near-death experiences those of us in the LGBTQ community face everyday in current year, but Dr Riley, who’s bisexual, faced unfathomable hardships in the 90s. Brace yourselves.

    … we asked people who supported LGB people to wear jeans. We advertised this in every mailbox, every signpost, everywhere so no one was clueless about what day it was. And people who normally wore jeans would wear suits, or khakis, a nice dress, anything to show they weren’t gay and didn’t approve.

    The don’t don denim criminals of hate perpetrated a bloody holocaust. How did Riley make it out alive?! But with social justice mandated in the curriculum now, when the LGB people tell you to comply with a directive to wear jeans, you’ll do so. Ah, equality.

    One can only imagine how much more horrible it must be in the English Department.

    • It would appear that this lament about the feminization and queering of Engineering (of all things) is just about the kind of non sequitor that Quillette attracts when it publishes a piece regarding the humanities.

      “Humanities? Hold my beer and slide rule!”

      • ga gamba says

        For a reason. A caution to choose one’s battles wisely.

        Warring for the humanities is like the Dieppe Raid. It’s conquered territory and to root out the rot is a major undertaking. The crucial fight is in science, where the pomos have a foothold, but it’s also where resistance to ideological possession still exists because many still want to see the data. Allow the pomos to entrench and expand by adding more allies to the faculty and it’s game over for the West. Science and what comes from it is the last remaining comparative advantage the West has.

        • It is good to know the apocalyptic imaginary still has the power to possess the otherwise rational minds of men in the “postmodern condition:. So much great art has flowed forth from our capacity to dream, even when the dreams are more like nightmares, that it would be a shame to think this particular bent of mind has been lost.

          You have to ask yourself, though, what has happened to our capacity for reason and our grasp of reality when Pestilence, War, Famine and Death have to make way for Foucault Derrida Gramsci and Butler as the likely harbingers of the End Times? You’d almost think that it was an insistence on the relevance of différance that is causing the mass movements of people from Myanmar to the American border with Mexico; perhaps if we just replace Critical Race Theory with Northrop Frye and Max Weber, China will no longer look like the rising threat to Western hegemony that it does today.

          Rather than worrying about the influence of ‘pomos’ on the practice of science (as inconsequential as it may be), people worried about the decline of the West (again) might want to consider the influence of money and corporate profitability on the integrity of scientists and the reliability of what they produce. Maybe a gander at government funding and defunding of particular research areas as political parties reach out to their various fundamentalist bases (Christian and ultra-liberal) would be more beneficial?

          I occasionally think of Bacon and his Idols of the Theatre when I see these oft-repeated calls to put an end to thinking and its manifestations in social and political life right at the point where the man making the call graduated from university. As opposed to the “vulgar Marxism” that I and many other leftist opponents of postmodern reactionaries hold dear, I think this is more or less a version of “vulgar classical liberalism” expressing itself as the wish to make Leave It to Beaver a template for real existing liberalism.

    • brian jackson says

      Impressive cutting and pasting skills on display as ever. Thanks for establishing your own LGBTQ credentials and pointing to the daily ‘near death experiences’ that entails. It makes your stance against the prevailing victim mentality in ‘academe’ so much more salient.

  6. dirk says

    The classical ideal of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s -Bildung- (education is more than to only form a good professional) is at stake, and will succumb, in the general drive towards a greater specialisation in the material and the cultural, it’s just evolution (which is not always heading towards the pleasant , harmonious and noxious).

  7. Yarara says

    For a moment there I read “french porno thinkers”… sounds about right.

    Aren’t these Reedies Against Racism the ones who disrupted the humanities course last year and were confronted by the students themselves? The lack of backbone shown by the administrators is appaling.

  8. Charles White says

    It seems that both sides of the Canon Wars, both past and definitely present, ignore the fact that a university is supposed to encourage a free market of ideas. There should be as little mandated curriculum as possible in a liberal arts and science degree, permitting the student to experiment. If a course is unsubscribed in the free market of ideas, then it needs to improve. If a course is mandated, thus guaranteed of enrolment, then there is no need for it to improve.

    The baccalaureat programs of my university 50 years ago tended to the free market. The science degrees, for example, only mandated the basic courses in science and math, with strongly suggested STEM courses as one chose a major. The other requirement was any two full courses from the humanities and any two full courses from the social sciences for a rounded degree, but there were no mandated courses from these disciplines. So, for example, from the humanities one could choose from classics, philosophy, literature, etc. If one chose a literature course then there was a choice of English, Modern, American, Canadian, European. This forced students to explore interests, abilities, critical thinking, and their intellect as they learned and challenged ideas.

    My premise certainly has no empirical substantiation, but it seems university these days is increasingly a mandated program of studies much like public school is. This is increasingly leading to academic and intellectual incompetence for both students and professors. No wonder they feel threatened by professors like Harris, Saad, Peterson, and the like who trade in the free market of ideas.

  9. dirk says

    A free market of ideas was exactly what the -Bildungs- prophet W. von Humboldt was after Charles, but freedom in his time (19th century Germany) was quite different as what it is now. Then, it was freedom of dogmatic, political and military government, to protect free minds (there were not many of them at the time), now universities have become the dogmatic and so called politically correct institutions.

  10. Nate D. says

    Building on Keliades’ 4th reason, I believe we all (myself included, and especially Reedies) need to read widely from The Great Books because we live in Western Civilization and these books teach us how we got here and help us understand the water we live in.

    Chesterton’s concept of never removing a fence until you understand why it was erected in the first place comes to mind. Before we dismantle and eradicate the (white, misogynistic, patriarchal) ideas that got us here, perhaps we should understand how and why those ideas came into being and have stuck around for millennia… and have flourished to provide the environment of education, free speech, inclusiveness, and free-thinking that Reedies are now taking for granted.

    Traditional Western ideas aren’t without weakness. We can build on them and improve. But I don’t see this maneuvering as an attempt to *improve*. I sense an attempt to *remove*, and I fear the vacuum created by the removal of traditional Western ideas will be filled with something far less emancipating.

    As a side note, I’m so tired of reading stories in which children are now calling the shots on college campuses. Allan Bloom saw early on how leftist ideologies could be used by students to make teachers and administrators hop around like “dancing bears”. The Closing of the American Mind was written around 50 years ago. You’d think they would’ve gotten a clue by now, especially after we all witnessed the “Mizzou Effect.”

    • Michael W. Rowland says

      I agree with what you are saying. Being of a bit simpler mind, I often recall something I heard somewhere:

      If you try to “fix” something as vast as Western Civilization without knowing the history of how it has been designed and constructed, you are much more likely to “break” it, rather than “fix” it. Simplistic, uninformed solutions generally lead to chaos.

    • In other words – don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! I wouldn’t survive ten minutes in academia among this nonsense. As mentioned Western Civilization is not without it’s warts, but it’s virtues include the ability to self correct. My fear is these angry, bitter, entitled brats will burn down the house before those corrections can materialize.

      I’m glad I’m old and will probably be dead soon enough – but I have children and grand children that I fear for in this madness.

  11. ccscientist says

    You are missing a key point: The great texts of western civilization are more important than great Chinese texts because the western texts are what gave rise to our culture. Western culture would not be what it is without Shakespeare, Plato, St. Augustine, Kant, et al. If you want to understand Chinese culture read their great books, but we are not Chinese and their culture is not ours.
    It is also true that some cultures are more advanced than others, not merely “better”. There are no philosophers of great standing from Africa unless you lower the standard of “great” and “philosopher” to include gibberish. It isn’t their fault, history was not kind to Africa. The achievements of western civilization are many: democracy, logic, philosophy, poetry, great architecture and art, science, mathematics, the industrial revolution, and symphonies. It is not correct to say that calculus is just a white supremacist blah blah–it is a great discovery that enabled much engineering to arise. The urge of multiculturalists to destroy what they cannot aspire to is overwhelming and childish.

  12. Evan says

    As someone who started Quillette looking for a moderating voice on topics of public interest *outside* academia, I’m cynical about the importance of the bridge between academia and civil society articles published on this website like this one. If the multiculturalists in literary humanism have failed academia and society, I don’t see the traditionalists as doing any better by society even if they feel they’re defending the academy. I’m not talking about the fact a liberal arts education doesn’t equip people with practical skills, although it’s often taken for granted on Quillette the liberal arts are the bastion of American intellect, which I’ve never seen anyone here qualify. What I’m talking about is ivory towers have become so insulated public intellectuals are no longer public. If some college student’s parents are paying $20k per year for their private education, and professors who see what’s happening in our society as rooted in not enough people reading a thousand year-old book, I don’t particularly care what their take on identity politics is. I’m more interested in critically exploring what’s become of North American society that intellectuals trying to pontificate louder than one another will solve the problems we’re facing. People on both sides are suffering all the time, and none of this relieves that. More academics spending more time reaching out to the public to discuss values education could. Why should I have faith the humanities can teach people how to live a good life when I fear academic institutions as a whole have forgotten what a good life is?

  13. TJR says

    If you cut out all the works that are associated with or the result of conquest and colonialism then you aren’t going to be left with much.

    No arab/moslem literature, no turkish, no hindu, no han chinese, no bantu etc etc.

  14. dirk says

    Take care, the idea and philosophy of (the negative quality of) cultural appropriation is not something arising from those cultures, it is also a typical western output, christian maybe even, counter to the normal approach towards neighbours (barbarians), conquered or not, of all other nations and empires. I wonder even whether that famous oratory of chief Seattle in which he complained about the western standards and norms were his own, isn’t it more likely they were from some oh so western anthropologist or ecologist?

  15. jason kennedy says

    As a humanities graduate and prize-winning short story writer, I take exception to all arguments that the purpose of the liberal arts is to offer moral improvement or a way to living ‘the good life’. It’s this rather self-serving idea that needs to die, not be placed at the center as this author contends.

    • dirk says

      What is moral improvement and a good life?? That depends, of course, of the norms and values of a society. In a cultured life, full of ripened humanities, it is quite possible to sing and enjoy Schubert’s Lieder as Hauptmann of an extermination/concentration camp.

  16. Abu Nudnik says

    Why is the term “Western Civilization” in quotation marks? Does the author not believe such a thing exists or has existed?

  17. James Delingpole says

    This is great as far as you dare go but you don’t dare go far enough. Why do you need all this self-exculpatory nonsense about there being fault on both sides – multiculturalists AND traditionalists? It’s clear from your list of “parameters” at the end that you understand why we need a canon and why it’s worth defending unto death. So it’s perfectly OK to say so rather than conceding territory needlessly to an implacable enemy who doesn’t give a fig for your sops or your nuance and who would happily crush all you hold dear. Spare the fence-sitting for academe. This is Quillette.

    • Because in the author’s opinion the fault does lie with both sides. This might not be your view. But, who are you to presume for her? “So it’s perfectly OK to say so” Which she does.

  18. Of course HUM 110 is full of “Whites and Males”
    That’s like taking a intro Russian literature class
    And complaining about all the Russians and vodka.
    While “humanities” refers to a broad selection today
    The “foundations” of the “study of the Humanities”
    began in Europe during the early Renaissance period.
    And comprised of mostly of greek and latin classics
    Which of course were written by “whites and males”
    But are good despite that, maybe even “peak white”
    These texts along with Jewish texts from the mideast.
    Are the philosophical foundations of Christian theology
    And form the bedrock of which Western Civilization sits
    I mean read those other books too, but does miss these.

  19. Peter says

    I love literature and I agree with the final proposition of the author. Of course there are special books like the Bible, which contains wisdom distilled and polished by many authors through centuries and an unparalleled view of the history and evolution of the Jewish society (and their neighbors): from a rather barbaric (in today’s view) to a far more civilized frame, outlined already in some of the last chapters of the Old Testament (Tobias, Syrah).
    But we can add plenty of excellent literature from India (Rabindranath Tagore…), China (Confucius…), Africa and other parts of the world.
    I particularly admired the collection Afrika Erzaehlt of short prose (Editor Jahnheinz Jahn). These are some of the authors that impressed me: Wole Soyinka, Pedro Duarte, Ahmadou Kourouma, Cameron Doudu, Ayi Kwei Armah, Gabriel Okara, Mongo Beti, Peter Abrahams, Alex La Guma, Jackson Willis Anyigwile Musokwa, and James Ngugi. The high share of excellent work in this anthology is really exceptional.

    Finally, I do not understand the hype about Voltaire. Yes, he was a master of clear, forceful expression and an unparalleled, ruthless propagandist, also a first rate character assassin. As a historian, he was sloppy and sometimes unfair. Why do so many professors force Candide on their students? For me it is a hastily written convoluted story, with characters that are little more than caricatures. The main reason for worshipping Voltaire is probably that he showed the immense power of agitprop in the long march of the leftist humanistic intelligentsia toward power: displacing the Church and taking its place. There are IMHO better options for satire than Candide: e.g. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, The Government Inspector by Nikolai V. Gogol…

  20. dirk says

    @Peter: your criticism of Voltaire’s place in the canon should have been mentioned in another Quillette piece, -Steven Pinker, counter enlightenment….- an interview of 20 april, where his Candide came up a few times in the comments(I started it) to nail the naive optimism of Pangloss (and Steven himself). Why was it such a corner stone of the humanities? Because of his completely new view on the universe , yes or no in the hands of some benevolent and steering,almighty God??, nobody had said that before so convincing as he did, it changed the perspective of science, history and society. My life (in 2018) would have been different without that insight. But, you are right, Swift and Gogol were also funny, a delight to read.

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