Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays. To read this newsletter as soon as it sends, sign up to receive it in your email inbox.
From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Canon Wars Redux; Student Sensitivities
Once more unto the breach: The canon wars of the ’80s and early ’90s are back. As the sociologist of literature John Guillory wrote in Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, back in 1993, “The canon debate will not go away, and it is likely to intensify as the positions of the right and of the multiculturalists are further polarized.”
We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
Once more unto the breach: The canon wars of the ’80s and early ’90s are back. As the sociologist of literature John Guillory wrote in Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, back in 1993, “The canon debate will not go away, and it is likely to intensify as the positions of the right and of the multiculturalists are further polarized.” Cultural Capital argued, convincingly to many, that the reformers’ equation of symbolic representation with political representation obscured more than it revealed. One might have been forgiven for thinking, during the first decade of the 21st century, that the canon wars had, if not gone away, at least cooled to a manageable simmer. But the last several years have seen a return to combat.
Into these renewed hostilities came Roosevelt Montás’s Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (Princeton, 2021). A former director of Columbia’s Core Curriculum, Montás has long argued that, as he put it in our pages, “We must teach the canon not instead of a diverse set of voices but as the precursor to that diversity and the values that sustain it.” Montás’s gambit is that the apparent tension between diversity and “the canon” can be made, on analysis, to dissolve.
In a sympathetic but critical review, the Washington University in St. Louis literary scholar Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado finds Montás’s civic justifications for the canon unpersuasive: “Montás advances a program for freedom and citizenship that imagines itself to be self-evident and universal. Actually, it is an ideological position that is very much aligned with some of the culture wars of today.” Debates about the canon require a more sophisticated analysis than can be accommodated by the frame of the culture-wars, to which Sánchez Prado criticizes Montás for succumbing.
But it is very hard to say anything about these debates that does not seem infected by culture-war thinking. Sánchez Prado’s own language, like Montás’s (and like mine), cannot escape it. “Seeing our culture and community represented in the curriculum is empowering,” he writes. What does it mean to be “empowered” by the appearance of one’s “own” culture, as represented by literary or artistic works, in the classroom? In what way are such works part of one’s culture in the first place? As Guillory writes, “If the formal study of” (for example) “Latin American novels in the university does not really transmit or reproduce Latino culture, it follows that the relation of even Latino students to these artifacts will not be entirely unlike the relation of ‘American’ students to the works of ‘Western’ (American or European) culture. The question is what this relation is, or what it should be.”
In any event, Sánchez Prado is surely right that the culture war is an explanatorily inadequate frame. But it’s a necessary ingredient in any account of the current situation, in which student activists on the left invoke the language of trauma in curricular debates while the right derides ideological opponents as “snowflakes.” Guillory’s critique of the elision whereby works taught in the classroom somehow stand in for groups of people vying for political representation remains as powerful as ever, but it needs to be supplemented by an account of the new centrality of emotional vulnerability to arguments over the canon.
Indeed, both the right and the left have converged on an emphasis on student sensitivity, which was far less prominent in the debate’s earlier phase. When, in 2015, incoming freshman at Duke were assigned Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, a group of Christian students refused to read it on the grounds that, in the words of one student, “it was insensitive to people with more conservative beliefs.” Note the form of the argument: not, “Fun Home is immoral and in my view it is wrong for Duke to require it; I will therefore refuse, as an act of protest, to read it,” but rather, “Fun Home is offensive to me on the basis of my identity as a conservative and a Christian.”
This is not the only incident involving Fun Home. In 2016, when the book was assigned to first-year cadets at West Point, four of them received a religious exemption. (I have this story from a friend who used to teach there.) They still had to read it, but the inspector general’s office pasted pink pieces of paper over the offending panels. These Christians have seamlessly adopted the logic of identity-based harm from the curricular hypochondria of the activist-student left. In the same year, for instance, an op-ed in Columbia University’s student paper called “Our Identities Matter in Core Classrooms” warned about the “impacts that the Western canon has had and continues to have on marginalized groups”: “Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.”
The language of much anti-CRT legislation develops these themes of harm and vulnerability. Consider one such bill, passed in South Dakota in March 2022, prohibiting the teaching of “divisive concepts,” including any concept suggesting that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race, color, religion, ethnicity, or national origin.” The rhetorical escalation from “discomfort” to “anguish” mirrors the language of the activist academic left, in which psychic unease gets figured in relentlessly catastrophic terms — an irony not unremarked by critics of such bills. As one columnist mocked, “Something unexpected is happening to Republicans: They’re getting in touch with their own emotional vulnerability, and making policy demands based on ensuring that people’s feelings don’t get hurt.”
Read an excerpt from Montás’s book here. For Louis Menand’s extremely critical take on Montás in The New Yorker, see here; for a defense of Montás by Brian Rosenberg in our own pages, see here. And check out Sánchez Prado’s essay in LARB.
- “Cultural and religious evolution, due to the prophets of a different future who spring up, affects the hearts and minds of millions or billions. Politics and law always turn out to be parasitic on those kinds of upheavals.” That’s Samuel Moyn in conversation with Phil Klay at Plough, discussing the war in Ukraine and the future of the international legal order.
- “Government officials — whoever resides in the White House — are professional liars. They lie haughtily in the interest of ‘national security,’ sheepishly in the interest of saving face, and passionately when their jobs are on the line.” At New York, Sam Adler-Bell on what’s wrong with a “Disinformation Governance Board.”
- “His film prompted me to ask, not for the first time, how I, as a Black intellectual, could think about the terms ‘civilisation’, ‘colonisation’ and ‘extermination’ and use them to confront the many layers of silence in the place from which I write.” At the LRB, Hazel V. Carby with a series of historical reflections inspired by Raoul Peck’s Exterminate All the Brutes.
Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.