The canon wars are over, and the canon lost. Since the 1980s, scholars, teachers, and activists who believe in the great books of the Western tradition have fought to maintain requirements that students read Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and other major western writers. Advocates of this traditional canon, such as Allan Bloom—author of the 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind—argued that canonical works introduced students to wider worlds of thought and imagination than they had previously known. Many also argued that the canon prepares citizens to participate in democratic self-government.
On the other side, a much larger group of professors and activists sought to replace traditional works with texts written by members of underrepresented groups. Critics of the canon often argued, as John Guillory does in Cultural Capital, that it was a cultural gatekeeper and repository of authority. To join the nation’s cultural elite, one needed to master Plato and Shakespeare. But, these critics asked, why should Plato and Shakespeare be the sources of cultural capital? Replacing their work with books by female, minority, and LGBT writers would create a new authority that is more representative and encourages equal participation.
These critics largely succeeded; most universities do not require students to read more than a handful of the novels, poems, or philosophical treatises that made up a humanities major in 1970. But they achieved both more and less than they aimed for, and they introduced new possibilities for teachers who still believe in the old books.
When universities stopped requiring the canon, the books did not disappear, but their cultural power and prestige declined precipitously. As a result, we relate to them in new ways. Even students who want to read these books approach them as objects that they have chosen freely, not as the gateways to participation in high culture. Readers and teachers who care about the great books need to make fresh arguments that will suit this terrain of voluntary reading. And, our arguments will be more fruitful than past arguments if we emphasize the particular merits of each text. We can see now that we are in the position of fans, sharing books that we love with our friends. And we can see that the case for the humanities is actually many different cases: each canonical text deserves to be unpacked with care, because each one has something to offer us that no other text can.
The Shifting Terrain of the Humanities
Our relationship with the canon has changed in at least three ways. First, the official institutions of the humanities—especially university departments and general education requirements—no longer require students to study once-canonical authors. Second, as a result of the loosening of graduation requirements, knowledge of these authors no longer marks elite status or serves as a gatekeeper to elite institutions. At law firms, marketing agencies, and other upper-middle-class workplaces, employees forge social bonds by talking about prestige TV or new music much more than about Milton or Plato. People still read the great books—in fact, their study is flourishing at small liberal arts colleges, at optional great books programs, in independent book groups and among individual readers. But readers who read the great books in any of these contexts have chosen to study great books for their own sakes. Readers peruse Dante or Milton as freely as they might choose to watch The Expanse or read The Hunger Games. They do not derive any social or instrumental benefit from reading such books.
Third, students are less deferential to canonical works. A while back, I taught classical literature in translation to English and English-Education majors. They were wonderful students: smart, hard-working, and excited about books. But they did not approach these books as repositories of wisdom. Most of my students concentrated on more recent literature, and ancient books were so alien—and in their sexism and celebration of violence, so off-putting—that they could not see how the books might have anything to teach them. Instead, they wanted to use these books as an opportunity to exercise the skills they had learned in other English classes: critical reading, critical thinking, and subversive interpretation.
If I wanted this class to succeed, I would need to convince my students to read ancient books on those books’ own terms. I thought about how I would recommend a new TV series to a friend. I would show my enthusiasm, saying, “You’ve got to watch this!” Then I would say what makes the show distinctive, what it can offer her, and why I am so excited about it. I would talk about the freshness and emotional depth of its scenes. If I were recommending The Wire, for example, I might describe the famous chess scene from the first episode, in which senior drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale teaches teenage dealers how to play chess, and then uses the game as a metaphor for surviving within the violent Barksdale organization. I would describe the scene’s emotional ambiguity: D’Angelo shows real, almost fatherly affection for the kids who push drugs for him, but he also draws them into a world that will get them killed.
The Empty “Critical Thinking” Defense
I would not say that watching The Wire will improve your critical thinking skills. But we do say that reading the Iliad will improve them. In fact, as the books of the old canon have been displaced, critical thinking has become a primary justification of humanities study. It was natural that this should be so. Unable to represent themselves as keepers of tradition, the humanities required a fresh self-understanding. Universities increasingly justified humanities departments by appealing to general cognitive benefits that those departments supposedly inculcate.
An American Academy of Arts & Sciences report claimed that the humanities train “an adaptable and creative workforce” and “foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds.” The AAA&S report abstracts from widely varied texts toward general skills that students are supposed to learn from studying them. Similarly, a survey of classicists asked faculty to rank five objectives of a liberal education that classics aimed to inculcate: the objectives included “thinking critically,” “synthesizing information,” “developing a propensity for lifelong learning,” and others. All of these are good as far as they go, but not one has anything to do with the rage of Achilles.
Skills-based arguments such as these contribute to the humanities’ decline because they offer students no reason to choose the humanities over other fields. I’m sure that English and classics teach students to synthesize information—but are they better at this than other fields? Does a mechanical engineer really lack critical thinking skills? And, is this really why anyone chooses to major in English or classics? The problem with these arguments is that they cannot offer a positive case for the liberal arts. Universities can describe an education in mechanical engineering in terms of knowledge and skills that are taught in no other field. Similarly, a good case for philosophy, Italian, or music would state the unique value of those subjects.
A New Defense for the Humanities
What I discovered from trying to help my students encounter ancient texts was that I had to find analogies to students’ own lives and show how those texts speak to their concerns. I had to help students see the Iliad as an irreplaceable resource and a guide. I had to sketch out the unique strengths of the Iliad—strengths it shares with no other text. In the case of the Iliad, I tried to translate Achilles and Agamemnon’s dispute over honor and spoils by looking at the honors that our own society bestows: salaries, promotions, exciting and prestigious work. Titles and raises, like the spoils in Homer, are ways to demonstrate that a person matters to us and that we value his or her contributions.
The dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles is about recognition—about our desire to matter, and fear that we do not matter, to the people around us. Agamemnon is jealous of the Greeks’ admiration for Achilles because he’s afraid that Achilles, his subordinate, is actually the better man. He humiliates Achilles to convince everyone, including himself, of his own superiority. He is a terrible, insecure, self-seeking boss—a kind of boss that many students have had.
I wasn’t trying to make the Iliad seem “relevant.” I was trying to show that, viewed on its own terms, the Iliad already is relevant. Furthermore, the Iliad can give students something that they cannot easily get elsewhere. When students miss the Iliad, they miss Achilles’s breathtaking rejection of a whole system of honor and respect that governs my students’ world in much the same way that it governs his. Such students miss sympathizing with his decision to set sail and live a prosperous, private, unheralded, and self-directed life. They miss seeing how the tension between their own desires for public accomplishment and for private happiness are mirrored in Achilles’s choice. And they miss discovering that Achilles’s rejection of honor ends up isolating him, leads to his friend’s death, and finally leads him to perform the most honorable act in the poem: an act of mercy to the father of a man he killed. They miss seeing how Homer questions an entire social order and then rehabilitates it by showing how it enables human beings to matter to one another.
What students miss when they don’t read the Iliad, then, is a set of experiences and insights that are inextricable from the Iliad itself. A genuine case for the Iliad will show how it offers something that no other text can in quite the same way. It will connect that something to the lives of contemporary readers. Cases for Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, and Aeschylus will be just as distinct and irreducible as the case for Homer. The real case for the humanities is not a case for “the humanities” at all, but hundreds or thousands of cases for individual books. The real power of the canon appears when we state why each writer matters in a way that no other writer can replace.
Repository of Difference
The canon is a repository of difference, and any vision of it as a bulwark of sameness is out of touch with the idiosyncratic energies of its books. Dante, Milton, George Eliot, and James Joyce are far too varied and eccentric to be explained by a shared essence. When a text gives us something really new, we share it, admire it, and ultimately (usually after a lot of wrangling) canonize it. A text remains in the canon only as long as it continues to give us something we cannot get, or cannot get so fully, from other works.
There is no argument for “the canon,” or for “the humanities,” because there is no genus of “great books” of which Homer, Dante, and Flaubert are species. We cannot reduce reading those writers—and other great writers—to general principles or universal laws. And because the canon is a collection of unique texts, you cannot convince someone to read a great book by making an abstract argument about its value. You can only try to show them what you love about the book, the way that you would introduce someone to Latin Jazz, or Dungeons & Dragons, or the St. Louis Cardinals. That is why the canon is more like fandom than its advocates have recognized.
Maybe we got lazy. Maybe the canon’s cultural and political power disguised the joy, enthusiasm, and discovery in the encounter between a reader and a book. But now that it has so little power, we can see more clearly how our relation to the great books is one of love. When we can no longer require readers to read the great books, we need to win them over. The only way to do that is to exhibit, as concretely and with as much personal risk as possible, why the books mean what they mean to us.
Reprinted from Public Discourse