Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

Will the Great Books Endure?

(Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
The fight is weird, but there is reason for optimism

A few months ago, Brooke Nelson of the Northern State University (South Dakota) class of 2017 became briefly famous among the kind of grab-’em-by-the-Twitter leftists who spend a significant portion of their time scouring the interwebs for new hate objects. Nelson’s crime, like many contemporary offenses, fell into the try-explaining-this-to-your-grandparents category, but the plot is simple enough to those whose ears are properly attuned to wokeness. During her junior year of college, Nelson volunteered to serve on a committee tasked with choosing the book that all NSU freshmen would (pretend to) read. Unaware that her aesthetic judgments must proceed eternally from her gender identity, she advocated against the YA novel Saint Anything, by Sarah Dessen. This past November, Nelson made the mistake of recounting her story to a local newspaper, going so far as to aver that Dessen’s work was “fine for teen girls” but “definitely not up to the level of [the] Common Read.” And what might otherwise have been a boring week on YA Twitter erupted into a hellfire of fury and condemnation.

The canon wars saw their opening skirmishes in this country in 1988 with the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued that “the only serious solution” to the “loss of will” afflicting the nation’s universities was “the one that is almost universally rejected: the good old Great Books approach.” Bloom’s genius was to put a name, “cultural relativism,” to what had previously been only a sneaking suspicion, and then only in obscure quarters, that American graduates weren’t learning quite what they used to. In so doing, Bloom helped launch a counteroffensive in what had theretofore been no war at all but a unilateral abandonment of territory by traditionalists. 

Yet recognizing that a fight is on is a far cry from winning it, and the march of academic multiculturalism has continued with only minor setbacks in the three decades since Bloom published. For the relativists advancing the new curriculum, the problem to be solved has never been simply the alleged racism and sexism of the traditional canon but the whiteness and maleness of the majority of its authors. Such a complaint, as conservatives have since learned, is extraordinarily difficult to answer if one is unwilling to defy the precepts of the god Diversity. Merely to retort that the Great Books really are superior and really do warrant closer study than the latest volume of indigenous goat poetry is to do nothing but mark oneself as a reactionary and bigot. According to multicultural theory, considerations of literary quality are irrelevant at best and nonsensical at worst: the critical equivalent of arguing that two plus two equals “unicorn.” Shakespeare isn’t better. Neither is Milton. Indeed, there is no “better.” That is exactly the point.

That the Nelson–Dessen hullabaloo represents the inevitable terminus of such thinking couldn’t have occurred to the early postmodernists, but for latter-day disciples the doctrine is as irresistible as an Obama Netflix special. Because Dessen is a woman writing for girls, Nelson’s opposition to her work is ipso facto an attack on those groups. Hence the inclusion, in the anti-Nelson tweetstorm that temporarily roiled the Internet, of the charges that Nelson had been “demeaning to women, period,” and had taken “a swipe at . . . teen girls.” Few if any of the tweets defending Dessen’s novel thought to mention the book’s literary virtue, and why should they have? If the merit of a work is the irreducible consequence of its author’s identity (as well as, intriguingly, that of its perceived audience), then what is called for when dissent occurs is not persuasion but public discipline. Intuiting this fact, the YA novelist Dhonielle Clayton lambasted Nelson with what has to be a contender for the (now deleted) tweet of the year: “f*** that RAGGEDY ASS f***ing b****.” It’s not that the Left has forgotten how to argue; it’s that ridiculous performative anger is so much more effective. 

How the canon wars will be fought in the new decade is impossible to know with any certainty, but prognosticators could do worse than to examine the programs of the academic gatherings where the first trenches will be dug. At the 2020 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, for instance, scheduled sessions include “Unearthing the Female Canon,” “Fat Poets Enlarge the Canon,” and “Remixing the Narrative Poem,” whose description contains the lament that “white male narratives” are “at the core of the Western canon.” At this month’s meeting of the Modern Language Association, meanwhile, sessions whose titles included the word “postcolonial” beat out those featuring “Chaucer” by a score of 26 to 4, while sessions with “Shakespeare” in their name (15) were roundly trounced by those featuring variations on the word “gender” (38). To be sure, such imbalances are due in part to the increasingly tedious victory of high theory over historical-biographical commentary or the “New” criticism (which emphasizes close readings of texts and attention to their aesthetic qualities). But so, too, do they demonstrate the extent to which the relativists have dispensed with literary hierarchies altogether. The first rule of the new canon is that there is no new canon.

Happily, a conservative victory occasionally emerges against this dark background. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported around the time the Brooke Nelson story broke, Purdue University has recently responded to “historic enrollment declines” in its College of Liberal Arts by creating a two-class sequence, “Transformative Texts,” within the general-education curriculum. Though students uninterested in classic works may fulfill their obligation with other courses, Transformative Texts has been wildly popular — not only because the sequence is taught by full-time faculty rather than graduate students but because its Great Books approach is engineered to provide a coherent introduction to the liberal arts rather than the naked political indoctrination usually found in English 101. (As The Chronicle drily puts it, the sequence is designed to “engage undergraduates in ways that a traditional composition class typically does not.”) Admittedly, Purdue’s approach is not without its flaws. For instance, Sherman Alexie and Bob Dylan sit alongside Sophocles and Plato on the list of authors from which instructors must choose half of their reading assignments. Nevertheless, the experiment is an implicit concession that some books are better, more important, more necessary than others. In this day and age, that’s a win.

It is also a reminder of something that conservatives forget at our peril. The progressive understanding of identity, culture, and education — the whole miserable project of tearing down Western civilization and putting nothing in its place — doesn’t actually work. It is no coincidence, for example, that academic humanities programs have emptied out even as leftists have seized near-total control of them. Nor is it any surprise that Great Books programs endure in some fashion at the University of Chicago, Notre Dame, Columbia, the University of Texas, and too many other schools to name. If the Great Books are truly great, they will endure regardless of passing political fashions. Conservatives should protect them to the extent that doing so lies within our power, but we needn’t act with a spirit of pessimism. Dante and Dickens will outlast all of us. 

This article appears as “Dispatch from the Canon Wars” in the January 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.

Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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