Expanding the Canon

People who know I used to work there often ask me, how did academia get so screwed up?

The short answer is: I dunno.  By the time I got to undergrad, all the professors with real, PhD-worthy educations — the kind where fluency in Latin is required — were starting to get “emeritus” after their names.  By the time I got to grad school (after a few tours of duty in the real world), the lunatics were fully in control of the asylum.  There must’ve been big fights in faculty meetings between the Educated and the Insane — within my lifetime, History was a conservative discipline, at all but the wackiest California schools (and you could still find a few even there) — but I wasn’t around to see them.  When I started, it was simply understood that we’re all post-structuralist Marxist feminists.

The long answer has something to do with the Educated actually following through on the premises of their educations.  In History, for example, the Educated were quite willing to concede that Marxist “history from below” had real and important things to teach us.  Guys like Christopher Hill were real scholars, with rigorous educations, and so, the Educated concluded, the discipline was safe from him despite his politics — Hill was a card-carrying Communist well past Stalin’s death, but his academic work conformed to all the canons of scholarship.

So, too, with all the scholars who focused on “popular beliefs.”  Heresy, Renaissance magic, folk belief, etc. went from being dismissed as primitive ooga-booga stuff to real and important contributions to our understanding of their epochs.  These folks were all on the weird end, and — predictably — Leftists, but some of them did truly landmark work.  Eugene Genovese, for instance, was specifically searching for a group of downtrodden, oppressed Workers to wax communistically rhapsodic over.  He found them, and almost singlehandedly founded the modern study of Slavery and the Antebellum South.

Genovese is, in fact, a great example of the last generation of the Educated.  Born in 1930, he was a Communist until 1950, and was still a radical Leftist until the 1990s.  He then became “a traditionalist conservative,” Wikipedia informs us, which is Wiki-speak for “slightly to the right of Saul Alinsky.”  Genovese was intellectually honest enough to realize the Southern Agrarians had a point, and said so, which to us is just “a historian doing his job,” but to the Left is unforgivable betrayal.  I was in grad school when  he died; the most common reaction was “good riddance, apostate!”

The Educated, like Genovese, were believers in what was once quaintly called “the Western canon.”  To get their foot in the door, the Left of the 1960s pushed to “expand the canon,” which, they said, meant paying attention to women, minorities, etc. while still acknowledging and celebrating the centrality of Socrates et al.  The Educated, even the conservative ones, could hardly object.  The Left did, after all, have a point — you can only understand that “the best that has been thought and said” is the best if you’re familiar with the second-rate and also-ran.

It was a lie, of course, because lying is just what the Left does.  N’Gungo the  Ubangi shaman was first an interesting footnote on, then equal to, then better than Socrates, to the point where nobody’s ever even heard of Socrates anymore.  Because why would they?  Nobody’s better than anyone and everyone’s the best at everything… except White people, who are all uniquely awful, whoever they were.  Now, for our final HIST 401 exam, let’s all get out our crayons and color in this picture of the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior….

 

PS Harold Bloom, the self-appointed Guardian of the Canonhas made a list of what he considers canonical works.  Maybe we should read a few and discuss them — the Friday Book Club.  Whaddaya say?

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14 thoughts on “Expanding the Canon

  1. Pickle Rick

    I studied history under a prof who worked his way through his doctorate by being a structural ironworker, another who was a Korean War vet, and one who specialized in medieval monasticism. The card carrying Communist African prof was notoriously avoided by all us serious historians as being unable to teach history.

    As far as my book of the moment, I’m wading through Fenton’s political history of the Six Nations, because I’ve noticed striking parallels between the decline of Eastern native polities and culture in the long 18th century and the current decline in white culture. Where is our Neolin, our Handsome Lake, our Pontiac, our Tecumseh? And how should we avoid their fate?

    Reply
    1. Echo Foxtrot

      I would be interested in hearing the parallels between eastern Native American societies in decline and our current situation, Pickle Rick. I have seen the usual analogies with the Roman empire and even the Weimar Republic, but never thought of a correspondence such as your allusion.

      A Friday Book Club appeals to me, by the way.

      Reply
      1. neal

        That is just a nature show lacking new predators and combinations.
        That would be asking postmodern industrial byproducts to breed prophets and shamans.

        Animism to the agnostic to the curated algorithm. Back on the rez, there are warnings about that kind of behavior.

        Probably to see the commonality one would have to read and wander around with a shovel.
        And sometimes sleep with the locals.

        Reply
  2. Skedastic Racket

    That’s a lot of books. I second the second, which I believe squares it, so now it’s 4 votes for the book club. Think I could get a job in politics with that numeracy?

    Reply
      1. Skedastic Racket

        I got it. We all know someone who is a square is less cool than our own selves, in all their attributes, so squaring makes something less than some other thing, therefore squaring the new thing will of course cost less than the old thing, as my analogy shows.

        Reply
          1. Skedastic Racket

            In an earlier statement I spoke too generally about shapes. Any pain caused was unintentional. I am now aware that many shapes consider themselves, not as belonging to euclidean geometry, but rather to other geometries. Many of these other geometries are older and based more on a shape’s own experiences rather than strict abstraction…

  3. Martinian

    Former lurker here. Decided to come out of the shadows and become something of an unofficial, what now…8th(?) regular reader/commenter. I’ve been around a the block in the Academy, as well, though not as an instructor. Everything you say aligns with what I’ve seen and worse, and the outside world needs to know about it to understand. Long story short: This has become one of my new favorite blogs — Thanks for sharing!

    ok, enough colon-smoke…

    Re: How the Academy got so screwed up — These two pieces go a long way towards explaining that:

    http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=260

    http://www.claremont.org/crb/campusmadness/TheReichstagisStillBurning.pdf

    Reply
  4. RRW

    Boy, the comments on that article about the Bloom list were certainly pissy, weren’t they? Judean People’s Front . . .

    I don’t know if I could slog through anything on the Ancient Greek list; it would be like reading chemistry for the pictures. Maybe the Romans or later.

    Severian, if you form a Friday Book Club you will have one less day to formulate hypothetical tactical exercises for our thing. And you have been on a roll since you were deemed a hate site at my place of employment by Some Persons. Z-man’s site is now “unable to be reached”, by the way. Only in the office, mind you; I can access this site while I eat my Tater Tots in the evening.

    Reply
  5. Martinian

    Math point of order: Squaring a number between 0 and 1 WILL reduce its value.

    Also, I’m down for a reading group.

    Reply
  6. Frip

    There are a lot of bad professors. I’ve only had two black professors. They happened to be absurdly bad. One taught Black Studies or Sociology. Can’t remember which. Same thing. For three straight periods she talked about the number 7. She could not teach in any known sense of the term. It was like some homeless lady stumbled into the class and rambled at us for a quarter. This was a well-known state school with a fairly good rep.

    The other was at a Cal State Univ. “Communications”. One of the textbooks was on signs. Not traffic signs. It was pretty theoretical and not easy for my young mind to understand. She was no help with it. She’d gloss over it for 5 minutes and spend the rest of the period talking about her theories on blackness. Always pretending it tied into the subject somehow. One period she spent the whole time trying to convince us that Oprah Winfrey is the new Aunt Jemima. She often talked in riddles. We weren’t sure if she was messing around, or had some deep point in the guise of a dumb point. But just like the #7 professor, once they hit the 30-minute mark and were still talking about it, we understood they were serious.

    Reply
  7. Jay Carter

    Not being very highly educated, I wish I could make a more cerebral contribution to this thread.

    However, indulge me.

    I’d like to “run this up the flagpole” to see if anyone here salutes it. 

    After so many years, and after having read so many articles wherein the writer unsuccessfully attempts to explain the left, I have, (through the process of elimination) come to one conclusion.

    That is, that the brain of the liberal is incorrectly wired.
     Not a mental deformity.  It’s a physical deformity.  
    (Kinda like a scoliosis in the brain) 

    Example: If the door to the elevator that you’ve been waiting for opens, and there are four guys inside who look like they’re members of the Crypts or the Bloods, your natural and wonderful “God given” sense of fear kicks in, and you don’t board the elevator.

    Now . . .the same door to the same elevator opens for the liberal.
    And the liberal say’s to himself: “Oh . . . they’re just some ‘misunderstood youths’. There’s nothing to worry about. I’ll just get into the elevator with them”. 

    Folks . . there’s no one who can tell me that there isn’t something broken between their ears.

    Michael Savage said it best 20 years ago.
    “Liberalism is a mental disorder.”

    Reply
    1. Frip

      They’re not insane they’re just dicks. The Liberal hears the boisterous elevator arriving and runs to the stairwell instead. The next day he scolds people about white flight.

      Reply

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