Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Allan Bloom in the NYT

This essay in the NYT (hat tip: Stanley Kurtz) suggests both that the multiculturalists won the "canon wars" and that it was a Pyrrhic victory (although one of the results is that apparently few students would have a clue about who Pyrrhus was). Focusing on the study of literature (and not really on either core curricula or other "humanistic" disciplines), the essayist suggests that the smaller proportion of students who major in English are exposed, above all, to the idiosyncratically specialized tastes of their professors, at the expense of a larger and deeper cultural awareness. Having been educated in a similar system themselves, the professors are apparently incapable of fleshing out the horizon in which students could situate their contemporary reading.

Time out, as one of my illustrious grad school professors used to say, for an anecdote. Speaking with a group of freshmen earlier this semester, I quoted the line, "Whatever doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger." "Oh yeah, someone responded, that’s so-and-so [I can’t remember the name of the evanescent contemporary cultural icon he cited]." "Actually no," I responded, "that’s Nietzsche."

One conclusion one might draw from the NYT’s line of argument is that an effort to inculcate students in something resembling the traditional canon (not worshipfully, but thoughtfully and critically) might actually "sell" better than the alternative, the result of which is to let increasing numbers of students slip away from the humanities to more lucrative and less apparently frivolous fields of study. There is, I think, a cultural and civilizational price to be paid for this flight. I wonder if we can recover some of what we’ve lost by trying to remember how to teach what we’ve forgotten. My experience at Oglethorpe, which has had a "Great Books"-oriented Core Curriculum for quite some time, is that many students come to be quite fond of it an quite proud of what they have come, through great difficulty, to know.

Discussions - 8 Comments

What would the following people have to say: Machiavelli, AJ Ayer, Ortega, John Stuart Mill?

Machiavelli: It is the result of a battle between competing lawgivers and the princes who wish to manipulate and control that which is to be praised or blamed.

AJ Ayer: It is the result the impossibility of Metaphysics, which results in various groups disagreeing on the rules of the game...some play chess, others checkers. But each ascribes all evil on the other who from either perspective appears to somehow be cheating.

Ortega: It is a result of "the curse of specialization".

John Stuart Mill: hard to say since either side could use him...he is anti-cannon in On Liberty...but it is in no way clear that multiculturalism doesn't simply establish a new cannon...with its own glaring and tyranical defects...he acknowledges what Rawls does in Political Liberalism...the intractable burden of judgement. In fact it is interesting that John Stuart Mill is reduced to being Utilitarian...and Rawls is just the advocate of some silly OP...when in fact one understands nothing essential about these figures without understanding On Liberty or Political Liberalism respectively. It isn't clear to me that Mill would disagree with Rawls...so it isn't just about "Cannons" but about which books by which authors belong or should take precedence. Analytical philosophy has the tendency to derive rigid categories and positions that may not belong to any of the thinkers to whom they are attributed. So there is a sort of divorce inherent in synthesizing the idea from the author. Should you teach the "great books", "the cannon", the authors of the ideas...or the ideas synthesized. Do you teach John Stuart Mill or "Utilitarianism" Do you teach Aristotle and the Nichomachean ethics or do you teach "virtue ethics" Do you read Kant or "de-ontological ethics" Do you teach Ayn Rand or "Objectivism". Do you read "The invisible man" or do you study "racism". Why not break down all the knowledge and thinking of western civilization into logical proposition "isms" and dispense with reading material that suposedly originated the "ism". And if you think about the question this way, and you read the Revolt of the Masses by Ortega...and thinking about the curse of specialization you come to realize that the first thing to be dispensed with is the origin of the idea. No one really has the time to care about the origin of the idea...we just want to know if it is true or usefull(pragmatism? or should I say John Dewey? or should I just quote a bit about truth as a tool?).

If it is true that: "that which does not kill you only makes you stronger." then what difference does it make if you know that Nietzche said it? Why bother reading Plutarch when you can just wikepedia him?

George Bush hates black people.

Thanks, Kanye, for reminding me of which evanescent celebrity the students attributed the Nietzsche line to.

Allan Bloom was a left-wing nut job who hated traditional Western Civilization with a passion. His translation of the Republic was juvenile at best (I was told that he couldn't understand the nuances because he couldn't understand Smyth's.) Like Strauss, he was engaged in the business of wallpapering over the real West with liberal, modernist abstractions. And Allan Bloom wasn't a champion of the real Western Canon. These "Great Books Programs" are a result of 1930s attempts to instill a proletarian education upon the masses. Real conservatives in the 1930s, like Paul Shorey, opposed this fluff, and supported the aristocratic models of the 19th century, where the students actually read Greek and Latin.

Posts like this remind me of why I majored in physics and read great works as recreation, not the other way around.

Am amusing feature of the canon-wars is how often people debate about things that they don't know, things that they aren't cultured in. Myself, for example, am an uncertain judge of literary excellence, and (with respect to an issue the essay mentions) have heard yeas and neas from well-read persons about the excellence of Toni Morrison stacking up to that of Faulkner, Hemmingway, etc., but because my Faulkner studies have been weak and I simply have never read a page of Morrison, I simply have to say I don't really know. Having read the delightful Hurston, I can fairly confidently say that she doesn't stack up against Faulkner or Ellison, although I can still think of particular-case reasons why a teacher might be well-advised to teach a book by her instead of those guys.

And I'd be willing to bow to expert opinion that I trusted on this matter if in a pinch.

But you see the problem we're in. Bede unfairly rips into Bloom, but beyond the general critique, one of his charges is that "I was told" that Bloom didn't know Smyth's magisterial book on Greek Grammar. Well, Mr. Bede, do you know Smyth? Are you that cultured? And if not, aren't you really like a certain sort of black student, the sort who rails against the "supposed superiority" of Western music but who in fact cannot read music nor at all explain to you why Armstrong's and Parker's innovations were innovations. Who can't even play a horn or sing in a choir himself, but depends on his damn CD to play back his primitivist hip-hop, which truth be told, he listens to far more than he does to Dizzy or Bird. The point is, cheerleaders for Western culture who aren't in fact cultured in it are quite problematic. You accuse Bloom of being such. But from what standpoint of expertise?

Again, here's the problem on these canon wars. We (that is, we non-or-half-baked aristocrats) need expertise. That we can trust. And well-founded trust involves some measure of being cultured oneself.

None of this is to say that the fight to defend and define the canon isn't a good and necessary one. And of course, if you can't admit Bloom's huge contribution to that fight, you're nothing but a nit-picking naysayer.

Very illuminating, Bede. Please go back to Daily Kos with your fake, over-the-top, "right-wing" rants. Or, better yet, actually take the time to study Greek or Latin!

Dear Andrew,

Actually, my prole friend, I am a paleoconservative (i.e. a real conservative). Et Tu, pathice? Potes latine loqui? Si tu vis, latine loquamur. Credo te autem barbarum esse. Sum, tamquam dixi, paleoconservator. traditionem occidentalem, Christianos, et virum album faveo.

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