Three academics debate: What is great? US scholars are arguing about `the canon' - those books considered most important to study. David Lloyd says: Abolish the canon. Wayne Booth says: Let's wait. Gerald Graff finds a compromise. Teach the debate about what books are in or out
Evanston, Ill. — TO teach or not to teach the Great Books? There is a solution to the recent heated debate over this question that is so obvious, hardly anybody has offered it: Teach the debate itself. When I say ``teach the debate itself,'' I don't mean that teaching the controversies over books should replace teaching the books themselves. I mean that these controversies can be used to make books more interesting and intelligible to students.
Our mistake has been to assume that we have to resolve the dispute between David Lloyd and Wayne Booth in order to teach the humanities effectively, that without a consensus on what to teach and why, the curriculum must be chaotic and confused. Social and demographic changes since World War II have knocked the stuffing out of the past consensus on these questions and expanded the range of cultures, subcultures, and traditions asking to be represented.
At the same time, the so-called knowledge explosion has so diversified the ways of thinking about intellectual inquiry that once agreed-on definitions of the academic fields have been called into question. So, instead of a single shared tradition there are competing traditions, and where knowledge is under constant redefinition, the belief that educators have to get a consensus on what to teach is a prescription for paralysis.
The most familiar symptom of this paralysis is the chaotic ``cafeteria counter'' curriculum, which responds to the difficulty of choosing among conflicting interests by including essentially everything. Conservatives are right in complaining that this kind of curriculum lacks coherence. But their only remedy is for everyone to line up behind the conservatives' brand of coherence. When you point out that their brand differs from that of other groups, they have no answer except to cry ``relativism,'' which doesn't usefully address the problem.
A more practical and democratic alternative to the cafeteria-counter curriculum would be to see that you don't necessarily have to get consensus to get coherence. That is, disagreements and conflicts, if they can be clarified, can themselves be a source of coherence. We could use the disputes over texts, canons, and traditions (and their interesting history) to make the curriculum less disconnected and help students make sense of their reading.
The point of recent attempts to broaden the canon of texts being taught is not to substitute ``Westerns as Lit'' for ``Western Lit,'' as an ill-informed writer recently complained in the Wall Street Journal. The point is not to scrap the classics (which are still very widely taught, contrary to belief), but to teach the classics in relation to the challenges that have been posed to them. This means teaching various kinds of texts from Plato to popular culture, from Western to third-world cultures. The best way to kill the classics has always been to set them on a pedestal, protected from hostile criticism and competing traditions.
Nor is it necessarily just ``relativism'' to recognize that standards that were formerly taken for granted are now controversial and have to be defended by argument. Here, I'm afraid, is what really enrages many critics about the changes now taking place in the teaching of literature: Whereas these critics could once assume that their view of what counts as good literature was the official one, they now have to fight for their view.
This is what the Right refuses to understand and what the media coverage of the controversy over the humanities has failed to bring out. It is in the interests of all ideological factions to recognize that there are legitimate reasons for disagreement about what should be taught in universities, and that rival positions cannot always be reduced to a distinction between trendy relativist nonsense and sound wisdom.
Objectors will say that you can't hope to engage students in a cultural debate when they don't possess elementary ``cultural literacy,'' the knowledge of who Napoleon was or the century of the Civil War. Seductive though it seems, this line of argument ignores the motivations and incentives - or the lack of them - that make students want to acquire information. Students will start acquiring cultural literacy when they see the point of doing so, when it comes as a byproduct of doing something else that seems worthwhile and coherent. Feeding them lists of meaningless factoids, like those E.D. Hirsch would evidently foist on schoolchildren, is no substitute.
Which is why, to come back to my point, ``teaching the debate'' over culture and education should be the response to the current Great Books controversy. Students will take an interest in the Great Books when those books are presented in clear and interesting contexts. But this will be hard to do when books are set apart from the rest of culture and from the debates that give life to culture. The only way to save the Great Books is to put them into relation to the forces that are challenging them.
Dr. Graff is a professor of English at Northwestern University.