The UWIRE Forum

Academia leading the fall of the intellectual class
June 11, 2009, 4:48 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
Matt Cavedon

Matt Cavedon

Harvard. For most, the word conjures up an image of classicalism: British-tinged accents lecturing on about the glories of Rome, perhaps, or a group of neckties debating the relevancy of Aristophanes to the civil disobedience campaigns of the 19th century.

Sure, there is room for diversity: Harvard without discussion of campus radicalism in the ’60s or global trends in religious pluralism would seem equally empty, and Harvard sets the trends for what is both respectable and prestigious in American academia. But the decisions of Harvard’s programs in English, Classics, and Visual and Environmental Studies (VES, which is Harvard-ese for “art”) to abandon the canons of their fields in pursuit of greater “flexibility” are very troubling and indicative of an unwillingness to do the necessary work of judging the importance of various works and people.

The coming years will see considerable changes for humanities majors here at Harvard. Formerly required survey courses in British Literature for English majors are now gone, replaced by a smattering of courses from a buffet of required but loosely-defined subfields of study, like “Arrivals” and “Diffusions.” It is disappointing that Dickens, Eyre, Bronte, Blake, and Milton are now deemed merely optional. To think that an English student could avoid them and still make it out with a full degree seems like overindulgence in student liberty.

More absurd than overindulgent is VES’s decision to let its second-to-last traditional studio painting professor go in order to hire a new concept artist. Concept art is all good and well, but it is entirely unacceptable that a student at any decent liberal arts institution should be denied the opportunity to learn the most basic and ancient of all art forms.

Speaking of ancient things, one would think that Classics would at least maintain an emphasis on classical languages. Harvard, like most other post-secondary places with liberal arts programs, does indeed have a History Department with specialized tracks in ancient classical history. The faculty of the Classics Department, though, felt that they needed to become more “accessible” to history students and axed Greek and Latin language requirements this year. It is therefore now possible to get an undergraduate degree in Classics without speaking any language other than American English.

What do these changes say about society at large, and why bother writing about them on a political blog? America has lost its sense of cultural identity and discriminating judgment. Faced with a world full of beautiful human accomplishments, we have a tough time picking and choosing what is truly canonical. Says who that a student needs to study Shakespeare and Rembrandt rather than, say, William Carlos Williams and Sol LeWitt? That is a worthy question, and updating the canon of every field is a constant task. Unfortunately, in an age of relativism and subjectivity taken to the extreme, there is no will among academics to carry out that work. Academics seem a bit confused, and perhaps John Keats is to blame. After all, if beauty is truth and beauty is in the eye of the beholder alone, then how dare academics pronounce their judgment and declare works to be canonical?

The alternative of letting students graduate with music degrees for studying J-pop, though, is unacceptable. A good education is based not solely on the liberty of each student to take whatever seems most important or easiest to her; it is based on instructing people in whatever society needs her to know.

It is the job of collegiate faculties to determine just what society needs each of its educated members to know, and to enforce their judgments on sometimes unwilling students. I would count myself among the number of the unwilling when it comes to Aristotle, for example, since I find him extremely complex and particularly anal with his categorizations of everything, but I can see that there is benefit to knowing more about him than about even my beloved Albert Camus. Besides, I am a student and, by attending a university, am giving it the prerogative to know more than me and be wiser than me. It may be heresy to most of my American peers, but I am willing to defer to those who are better than me at knowing things.

Cultural anarchy and university policies that shirk the duty of defining canons and requirements instill an excessive sense of individual importance and subjectivity that society does not honor. It is all well and good for a college to prize postmodern Swedish protest performance art over El Greco, but in an age of shrinking budgets and an economy that wants flexible people rather than experts in the obscure, faculties need to get back to their roots and begin the painstaking task of defining a canon for 21st century liberal education.

To continue along the current line of thought is to communicate to students that life is all about doing whatever you please however you please, all tradition and social conventions be damned.

Taken to its extreme, that means new lawyers more interested in the psychological underpinnings of post-modernist conceptions of ambiguous gender roles, rather than in due procedure. It means new teachers more interested in multiethnic convergences in sixteenth century Russia than in great American novels. It means the descent of the intellectual class into hyper-specialization and personal whims instead its elevation into foundational knowledge and cultural understanding.

If that isn’t the end of organized civilization and discerning judgment as we know it, then it is at the very least the end of the notion that anyone needs to listen to the wisdom of the past and respect the authority of experts. This is not to suggest a blind adherence to the past or a rejection of the very individualism that makes wisdom and expertise possible, but it is a call to conserve those valued works and judgments that have made Western civilization the beautiful, culturally-rich entity that it is.


3 Comments so far
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This post is a bit of an overreaction. Departments and disciplines change in response to students. This is just a guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason that the Classics department no longer requires majors to complete Latin and Ancient Greek isn’t because those requirements meant that students were whining about it being “too hard”…it’s probably because the department wasn’t GETTING any new majors in the first place because of those requirements.

Think of it as “capitalism”…the students aren’t satisfied with the product (the major), so they don’t buy it (declare it). The company (department) is then forced to change in response to consumer (student) demands slash lack of sales, or fold. If that leads to the demise of a certain beneficial product or realm of knowledge, that’s what capitalism costs.

Hey, maybe this capitalism thing isn’t as awesome as we think. Hint hint, nudge nudge.

It’s the same with the Art department and other humanities majors. Stuck in the past, unwilling to change their curriculum, they find themselves lacking students. They are forced to change or die.

[On a side note: why in the world would you go to Harvard to study painting? Or Mythology, or any of those other “soft” majors…you can get just as good an education in these well-established disciplines at a school that doesn’t charge as much and may even be better at it!]

As a nerd who foolishly chose Latin to complete her language requirement, I can sympathize both with the students who think such courses are hard (they are) and less relevant (they also are) especially when considering more modern, useful knowledge, but I also sympathize with those who think the knowledge is useful (it is) and important (it also is). Just because it’s not relevant to modern life doesn’t mean it’s not important, and just because it’s not immediately relevant doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Latin was one of the hardest courses I ever took, and the Satyricon was one of the least relevent things I ever was obligated to read, but nonetheless the knowledge gleaned from the process of learning has proven invalueable (who here can tell me what the pluperfect subjunctive is without having taken Latin?), especially for someone who plans to make a living off of language.

But perhaps the most important point I want to make is this:

Who decides what is cannon anyway?

There are plenty of writers that wrote just as long ago, sometimes with just as much conviction and importance, as Bronte and Shakespeare that are not considered cannon. I’m not talking “modern” writers, though there are certainly those. I’m talking about writers whose work slipped through the cultural cracks because they, perhaps, were not white, or were not male, or whatever it was that helped those “cannon” writers get their status in the first place (though there are obvious exceptions to this). And there are students who could and would learn of those writers, and professors and teaching assistants who would teach them, but they are so busy going over “cannon” that is hundreds of years old because it’s a graduation requirement, and the students are so busy trying to just get their degree, that practicality has prevented these writers from being discovered and explored. Who is to say that they are not just as important?

Not requiring English majors to study Shakespeare doesn’t mean students won’t take him. It just means they’ll only take him if they WANT to. It allows student to customize their major more fully, and while you may decry the loss of “common” knowledge and cultural experiences, the sheer volume of what is available for exploration in modern times has made that happen anyway. Students who really care about English, and aren’t just in it for their degree, will learn about Shakespeare in the course of becoming knowledgeable in their subject. It’s not like students who study Shakespeare are automatically better educated than those who focus on alternatives…you can skate through college with a 2.0 GPA and still get your degree.

I think there’s this common misconception that people who long for “the good ol’ days” or “the days when everyone had the common experience of reading Shakespeare” (or whatever it is that’s supposed to be “cannon”) are living in and imagining reality. That’s never been true. There have always been people excluded from that experience, or people who think that experience doesn’t speak to them. Even amongst those who have had the same experience, that doesn’t mean it has the same meaning.

This change will lead to more choices, more freedom, and more knowledge. It will mean previously abandoned academic departments may just get an influx of interested new minds, who can discover Shakespeare on their own instead of being focred into the classroom with a metaphorical cattle-prod.

This change will be good.

Comment by Ruthie Kelly

I couldn’t agree with Ruthie more. But I want to add as well: the point is ultimately not only that students are choosing a new canon, or that the old ways are no longer relevant enough to justify their vaunted status as The Classical works of the West.

It’s this: the United States need not and must not see itself as primarily a “Western” nation insofar as Western means Greco-Roman-European. That is not our canon, and it is not our heritage. It may be that of a shrinking number of descendants of Western European settlers, but it is not the responsibility of universities in the US to vouchsafe the causes and glories of the countries they fled.

If you wanted Harvard to protect Shakespeare because he’s old and culturally important, then I insist that Confucius — both older and more culturally important, if to different people — be included, too. If you want to protect him because he was brilliant, I point you to Ruthie’s keen observation that brilliance should find its own audience — and the fact that as much as I may pick on your defense of him, I have his complete works on my bookshelf, and in multiple editions.

If you want to protect him because he was culturally important to the English, well, that’s where our fundamental disagreement lies. Because I do believe that institutions of higher education in the US have a cultural responsibility to our civilization — *our* civilization. Call me an exceptionalist, but I always thought being American had less to do with being white and more to do with believing in liberty, equality, and the great democratic experiment. Multiculturalism and progress are better candidates for values that American society “needs us to know” than anything in the Western European tradition. I shouldn’t have to point out that even Locke only wanted democracy for rich white men.

And speaking of what “society needs us to know,” you were referring to the novel ‘Jane Eyre,’ not an author named “Eyre,” I hope?

So I’m returning to my postmodern complacency, if such a thing exists or can exist, where I worry that not enough is being done to preserve our own modern American canon — Fitzgerald and Ashbery, Didion and Williams and Tao — the work of women and men, white and black and Latino and Asian. My complacent, “culturally anarchic” self delights in both my “racial” and adopted cultures; my counterparts across your godless academia enjoy Indian lassi with Mexican fajita, mix our hummus with pork and eat our sushi with red wine.

None of this troubles me, because what is ultimately most critical to the modern American education is not Camus or Aquinus or even Shakespeare — it’s Washington, and Steinbeck, and King, and Frieden, although we will disagree as to which one. Our history and our civilization is a story of equality and progress. It *is* modernism. That’s what this society needs to know.

Now, if you want to talk about overall cultural literacy, I’m right there with you — people who don’t read Shakespeare are missing out. But I feel the same way about Neruda and Tu Fu. The cultural “society” of which you speak is either our nation, or it is the world: in this day and age, it is simply archaic to suppose that the prewar Western European canon has anything to do with it.

Comment by Elise Liu

Wonderful article, Mr. Cavedon.

The important point he raises, that the previous two posters wish to ignore in order to paint their relativist pastiches is that in order to earn our cultural inheritance we must “listen to the wisdom of the past and respect the authority of experts.” The above posters wish to do away with this authority so that we may all live in a rosy-tinted lala land where everyone learns according to their own lights.

It is precisely because, as Ms. Kelly points out, “the students aren’t satisfied with the product, so they don’t buy it” that Shakespeare and the canonical writers should be taught. Because I know, you know, the American people know, that undergrads are lazy. We are surrounded by “modern,” “post-modern” literature, and the abyss beckons ¾ it is a common complaint among my artist friends that there is no meaning anymore: painters splash ochre and red on canvas and consider themselves Pollock, writers slap disjointed sentences onto a page and call it “free verse.” But neither are breaking any rules, they are not Picasso turning against the tide to create a new form outside of form; they are conforming to the formless form that has become our art. They are being lazy. The form is being lost, and with the loss of form we lose our artistic heritage. The canon is the repository of the masters of the forms that comprise Western art, which is a collabra distinct from Eastern art.

The thought behind the Shakespeare requirement is that S. is a difficult writer, and so he must be brought to the student who will not otherwise seek him out. Everyone knows him by reputation, few people can cite “Lear” act and verse. Since he is difficult, and since his language is often somewhat arcane and multilayered, it is incumbent upon the professor to show why S’s reputation is as it is, to show why centuries of the most learned of our civilization consider him our greatest writer. Neruda and Tu Fu are not Shakespeare’s equals in stature or in quality. I state baldly that Shakespeare was a more complete, more fully realized, and objectively better artist than either. I challenge one and all to dissuade me.

Ms. Liu mentions “Fitzgerald and Ashbery, Didion and Williams and Tao,” but neglects to say that all these were reared on just the classical canon at issue. They read their contemporaries for fun, if they were interested enough in them. I love John Ashbery, and one of my very favorite writers, Elizabeth McCracken, is quite alive and busy writing about an hour away from my house. But neither are part of the canon ¾ yet. Their placement is for later generations to decide.

There is an old saw in creative writing workshops, “To break the rules, you have to know the rules.” Or else, you’re just a dilettante. The canon is our safeguard against dilettantism, the measure of excellence established by previous generations. Ashbery is a very good example. He is a wildly obscure and abstract poet; but, and I’ve seen him read, he is also someone who can quote Scott and Jonson as an afterthought. It is highly probable that he was introduced to these writers by studying them as a young man.

College is not real life. You are in college to be “forced” to learn things. You have the rest of your life to read as you like: but you have to know the rules, and the rules are there for very good reason. Without authority, chaos ensues. Between a class on Shakespeare and a class on comic books, which do you think will attract more students? I have no problem with classes on comic books, but I rebel at the notion that “people should only take him if they want to.” How, I ask, is one to be challenged and tested if one is only taking what courses s/he wants to take? Maybe a problem here is that a liberal arts education operates according to a very different parameter than the sciences. But perhaps not so different. At my school, one of the most popular science classes is astronomy. But to do astronomy, you need the math requirement. I think it’s the same way with the liberal arts. Sure, study “Gender in Postmodern Literature.” But you should understand also that lesbian science fiction is dealing with many of the same issues that Shakespeare did. As Tolstoy said, only fools think that human nature changes appreciably over time. The great writers of the past are those who have observed certain truths about the human condition, and we would be quite foolish to think that the rules are very different for us than they were for Virgil.

Due authority is to be respected; undue authority is to be resisted. It seems to me that the above posters wish to conclude is that there is no authority but the self. If you believe this, Milton’s Satan would like very much to have a word with you.

(And yes, Elise, please do point out exactly where Locke said that he wanted democracy only for rich white men.)

Comment by Dan R.

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