I’ve been reading Leo Strauss lately (on assignment) and thinking about points where the right and the left coincide. Left and right, you ask ? What am I talking about? As Richard Wright said: “It’s not left and right anymore. It’s black and white!” Yeah, okay, but then there’s that piece in this Sunday’s NYT in which several prominent lefties lament the recent postcolonial fuzzification of the canon and what it’s done to academic humanities. By focusing on the new we lose the past! By focusing on critical thinking we put the humanities at the service of the sciences! These are the things that happen, they say, when we give up a canon. It was right to do it, but the cost is great.
Peace. Being in Jewish Studies I haven’t had much choice but to teach DWMs, since prominent Jewish writers are mostly male (not quite all), mostly dead (just about all), and mostly white (uh, really, all, cause even the Arab Jews get classed that way, protests notwithstanding). I also teach DWMs such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Nietzsche, because they’re coming from perspectives so far from those of my students that they might as well be of another race, if not from another planet. But the point about giving up the canon is that it leaves us in a situation of turmoil and ferment, and what could be more exciting than that? This is not, for humanities in academe, one of the happy pages in history, and it certainly isn’t blank. Exciting times for all! Let us fight the good fight, on whichever side we choose!
One objection raised in the NYT article suggests that getting rid of the canon is linked to multicultural agendas that allow students to engage in me-studies: Jews can major in Jewish studies, queers in queer studies etc. This does seem like a real problem to me, and I’m proud to say that my Jewish colleagues and I, considering a Jewish Studies major at Pomona, leaped at the chance, offered us by a Muslim colleague, to make it a Jewish and Islamic Studies major, in which Islam could be de-exoticized through a comparison with Judaism, Judaism re-exoticized through a comparison with Islam, and reductivism combated on every level. This wouldn’t have happened in an earlier more canonical decade, when everyone in Religious Studies would have been studying the core texts of Christianity. To be sure, some of the Christian texts are some of the best texts going, and I’m not going to stop teaching them in other courses. But the choice isn’t between these wonderful texts and the wonderful texts of Judaism or Islam read as me-studies. There are other ways of perceiving the situation.
Back to the left, the right, and my current concern with Strauss. I agree with very little of what Bloom says in The Closing of the American Mind, but, hey, how about this for a war cry we can all follow into battle, left or black, white or right? From the NYT piece:
Bloom believed education should be transformative — that it should remove students from the confines of their own backgrounds to engage with books that open up new realms of meaning. “He told students that they had come to the university to learn something, and this meant that they must rid themselves of the opinions of their parents,” Bellow wrote of Ravelstein/Bloom in his novel…. In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom himself wrote that a liberal education should provide a student with “four years of freedom” — “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.” Whether students today see college as a time of freedom or a compulsory phase of credentialing is an open question. From Bloom’s perspective, “the importance of these years for an American cannot be overestimated. They are civilization’s only chance to get to him.”
It reminds me of what my Marxist mentor at the UofT once told me: that he could talk to the Straussians more easily than most of his colleagues because, though he agreed with them on nothing, at least they were both asking the question: what is the good life? And they both knew it wasn’t the status quo.