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Do We Need a "Canon" of Great Books?

by Cameron Wybrow

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 35

Lists of "Great Books" have been around for a long time. In 1909, Harvard President Charles Eliot put out a 51-volume anthology (now known as the Harvard Classics), which included major works of philosophy, drama, poetry, natural science, biography, etc. from ancient to modern times. In 1917, Eliot published a complementary 20-volume Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, containing representative classic novels. In 1952, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, in collaboration with philosopher Mortimer Adler, produced a 54-volume anthology—called Great Books of the Western World—with contents similar to those of the Harvard sets. The aim of these sets was to enable readers to acquire a "liberal education" at home through a systematic reading of the classics of (mostly Western) civilization.

The Harvard and Chicago anthologies display considerable overlap in the choice of authors. Both contain works by Homer, the Greek playwrights, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, Machiavelli, Bacon, Pascal, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Faraday, Fielding, Austen, Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and others. There are a few striking differences: Aristotle, Aquinas, and Marx are completely missing from the Harvard volumes, as are Homer's Iliad and Plato's Republic, and some authors found in the Harvard volumes (e.g., Luther, Benjamin Franklin) are not found in the Chicago set. Further, the Harvard volumes include fables and Eastern religious texts, none of which are found in the Chicago anthology. Still, the two collections tend toward a consensus, and the lists of other publishers (e.g., Penguin Classics) tend to confirm the consensus with respect to both authors and works.

Canon Critics

This rough consensus has led to the conception of a "canon" of Great Books at the heart of Western civilization. The term "canon" is meant to recall the canon of Holy Scripture—the list of books included in the Bible by the Church. The principal image evoked—that of a library of profound writings worthy of devoted study—is appropriate. But for some, the tacit parallel with the Bible has carried an implication of completeness ("these are all the books you will ever need") and of authority ("these are the right books because duly appointed judges have said so"). The suggestions of completeness and authority have not gone unchallenged.

Critics charge that the traditional list of Great Books reflects the cultural prejudices of the people who compiled it. The selections, they claim, over-represent the views of "dead white males"; rarely are the authors living, and almost none of them are female, black, Oriental, etc. Therefore, any program of education based on the list will tend to promote a particular Euro-centered, male-dominated culture of the past. The critics argue that the list should be "democratized"—drastically reshaped to be more inclusive of the writings of women, of ethnic and religious minorities, and of the various interest groups of the modern world.

Typically, such criticism leads to debate over which books should be added to or deleted from the "canon," with so-called conservatives wanting to hang on to as many of the older items as possible, and liberals wanting to delete many of the older works and add a large number of newer ones. The notion of a canon itself, however, is often not critically examined. Fortunately, such an examination is provided by Allan Bloom.

Bloom's Critique

Bloom, whose book The Closing of the American Mind (1987) did much to revive interest in the idea of Great Books, resents the effect that the term "canon" has had on debates over educational curriculum. In an essay in Giants and Dwarfs (1990), he writes:

"The canon" is the newly valued, demagogically intended, expression for the books taught and read by students at the core of their formal education. But as soon as one adopts the term, as both sides have . . . the nature of the debate has thereby been determined. For canon means what is established by authority, by the powers, hence not by criteria that are rationally defensible. The debate shifts from the content of books to how they become powerful, the motives for which they are used. Canons are, by definition, instruments of domination. They are there to be overthrown, deconstructed,in the name of liberation. Those who seek empowerment must overcome the prevailing canon, the main source of their enslavement. (pp. 23–24)

For Bloom, the term "canon" unnecessarily politicizes debate. Because "canon" suggests the authoritarian imposition of contents, conceiving of the Great Books as a canon suggests that Great Books education is traditionalist propaganda, and that what is needed is a political takeover of the curriculum in which the liberals oust the conservatives. But Great Books programs were never meant to be bastions of conservative thought. They were meant to free the mind by providing it with a liberal education (in the original sense of the word "liberal"). And the curriculum of a liberal education should be determined not by political considerations, but by pedagogical ones: "The issue is what food best nourishes the hungers of young souls." (p. 23)

Bloom grants to the critics that an emphasis on Great Books can be misused. For example, he believes that Aristotle was "used as an authority to bolster what might be called a structure of power during the Christian Middle Ages" (p. 27). He further asserts that Scholasticism, which claimed the authority of Aristotle, became intellectually stifling. Nevertheless, he writes, "Aristotle is something on his own. He survived the wreckage of Scholasticism quite nicely and needed no power structure prior to that time or afterward to insure the continuing interest enlightened men and women take in his works" (p. 27). In other words, Aristotle has earned his reputation, and needs no authoritarian declaration of his greatness. Teachers put him on Great Books lists not for conservative political reasons, but because his greatness is recognizable to all those who have studied him with any attention.

Not Engraved in Stone

I have taught many Great Books courses in a Liberal Studies program. The curriculum has always included not only the standard older works, but also several more recent works. Supplementing the works of "dead white males" were books by "living black females" and "living black males" such as Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe. Such books were included in the curriculum not as an "affirmative action" measure—which in my view would be condescending to the black writers—but because they were deemed by the faculty to be worthy additions to the great conversation of Western civilization.

Time will tell whether these newer books will show the staying power of Plato and Homer, but the point is that the "canon" has never been engraved in stone and is still open. All comers have the right to step into the ring with the existing champions, to prove their right to be there. That is why the term "canon," with its suggestions of finality and inalterability, is a misleading label for any past or present list of Great Books. 

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