I taught high school English for two years in the mid-1960s when I lived in New York City, took a break from graduate school and decided to found Salmagundi. I was five or six years older than the seniors in my classes, and I was moved by how well some of them could handle the demanding works we studied. Though I was a Vietnam War-resister and activist at the time, and invited students to read with me a few books outside the prescribed Board of Education curriculum, I devoted most of my classroom time to the canonical works I was assigned to teach by my department Chair. These included novels the students and I loathed (George Eliot’s Silas Marner) and others we loved (Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations). Though I knew my students would be turned off by the American schoolroom poets (Whittier, Bryant, Longfellow) they were forced to read, they were, with rare exception, turned on by Dickinson and Whitman, and grateful when I smuggled into the curriculum poets like Langston Hughes and Sylvia Plath and essays by James Baldwin.
The most challenging of the works I taught were Shakespeare plays, which were on the curriculum for students in each of their high school years. Among them were Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice. No doubt I thought that the students would warm to these just as I had done, after some initial resistance, and in fact the students in the one Honors Class I taught each semester were clearly thrilled with the plays and even amused by my efforts to make them recite mouth-filling passages, delivered much of the time with intermittent giggles and apologies. Had Flushing High School offered the special year-long course in Shakespeare that I elected in my own senior year at Stuyvesant High School, I’m sure that most of my Honor students and several others would have enrolled in such a course. I’m equally certain that nothing I might have done would have changed the minds of other students who resented their introduction to Shakespeare, much as others resent their introduction to algebra or to classroom discussions focused on the aftermath of the American Civil War in the period of Reconstruction.
Important to remember that the culture wars have been with us for a long time now, and that struggles over the canon now seem especially futile and foolish to those of us who participated in those struggles. In a 2002 issue of the magazine Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I argued that efforts to promote a so-called “common culture” are clearly hopeless if the words are taken to refer to a standard curriculum and a single, universally accredited set of canonical texts. And I have no reason to revise that impression.
For one thing, the canon was never a fixed entity—there were always moving parts and debates about new entries and erroneous judgments. For another, the texts once associated with a common curriculum in American secondary schools were frequently not among the best works available within the tradition. More important, it is clearly impossible to suppose that a common curriculum drafted by me, or by Francine Prose, or Jamaica Kincaid, would find favor with most of those who teach English in secondary schools—not to mention academics at major universities who often weigh in on such issues without having any experience of teaching adolescent learners in public or private high schools. As I wrote in 2002, “a great many teachers would regard much of the literature in my draft proposal as eminently resistible and would have perfectly respectable reasons for preferring other works and for wishing to teach an alternative curriculum. It is not modesty but experience that makes us loath to suppose that others are benighted if they do not accept the pedagogical advantages of the curriculum we happen to favor.”
And yet it was troubling, twenty and thirty years ago, and it is troubling still, that many teachers want to cleanse the curriculum of anything remotely challenging or controversial, supposing that by definition great literature is required to comfort us and make us feel better about ourselves. When I began my teaching career in the mid-1960s there seemed little reason to worry that in American secondary schools or colleges students would be asked to read works principally because they were adjudged to be safe, or to comfort students by allowing them to identify with ideal or likable characters holding indisputably correct views and, moreover, looking and sounding very much like themselves. Even in 2002 I could note that, if canonical works by Dickens or Eliot or Henry James were routinely dropped from most standard curriculums—principally because they were felt to be difficult, or hard for many students to “connect” with—, they were being replaced by contemporary works which were hardly mediocre, and which didn’t at all pander to students or teachers satisfied only by comforting books and inoffensive characters. Who could object to a secondary school syllabus that contained a novel by Toni Morrison, or Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, or Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone—all of them on the syllabus of a great many secondary schools across the country? If teachers thought that such books would help them to engage students and teach them to become discriminating readers, I saw no reason to complain that canonicity had ceased to be the sole criterion for selecting the literature students would encounter—especially at the secondary school level.
But there is no question that the situation in American education has changed. The fears expressed a generation ago by educationists like Diane Ravitch and others were entirely justifiable. It may be legitimate to argue that for some high school students Macbeth is never going to seem appealing. Maybe only an exceptionally gifted teacher is equipped to teach Shakespeare to fifteen or sixteen year olds. And maybe a high school student doesn’t need to struggle with Dickens, or James, or Shakespeare to learn how to read or think. Maybe. Once I felt this was something worth fighting about, and fought, and usually found myself on the losing end of those battles. But the canon wars ought now to be declared over and done with. The issue now is not—cannot be—whether canonicity is to determine what makes its way into the curriculum. The issue is whether or not people who have little or no feeling for genuine literary or artistic values, and even less feeling for the liberal value of conflict and difference in the life of the mind, can be permitted to call the shots in our schools and colleges.
This is, of course, a very large subject, but the terms of the debate now in progress are such as to suggest that we can grasp what is at stake. Many teachers and educational associations are intolerant of ideas, books and sensibilities that do not match up with their own tastes and ideologies. They believe that children and also adults should be protected from contact with books and artworks that stir distress or discomfort. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York they mobilize to have paintings by Balthus removed from the galleries because they are erotically suggestive. In Houston they move to have Nabokov’s Lolita removed from the curriculum of selected colleges and universities. In the publishing industry they bring pressure to bear on editors to sanitize the fictional narratives considered for publication, to ensure that they contain no language or conflict apt to disturb the ostensibly benign view of ordinary interpersonal relations promulgated by surveillance committees. In the high schools, as we learn from the recent opinion piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon, they promote ideas about the harm done to children when they encounter classic works that don’t conform to their own contemporary standards, and go even further by casting such works as “instruments of oppression.”
Some of us regard these developments as unfortunate, to put it very mildly. We don’t want the education of children to be left to the tender mercies of teachers or school board members for whom a “bad word” in Huckleberry Finn or a racially charged encounter in The Merchant of Venice is enough to have those works effectively cancelled and proscribed. We don’t want someone who has heard that Virginia Woolf frequently uttered anti-semitic sentiments to mandate that henceforth we may not ask students to read To The Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway, for fear that they will be contaminated by contact with such a writer. It is one thing to alert students to the fact that Faulkner could be what one writer calls “a vexing novelist,” and that he often resorted to racial epithets, of the kind frequently spoken by characters in stories like “A Rose For Emily” or “Barn Burning,” which I have taught for decades. But it is another thing entirely to conclude that Faulkner is too dangerous and complicated to be assigned to students who may take from him the “wrong” lessons. The critic Michael Gorra, in a recent book on the writer, rightly challenges such a conclusion, and explains that Faulkner had extraordinary courage. “The pen made him honest,” Gorra writes, “and from the beginning he skinned his eyes at the racial hierarchy in which a part of him never stopped believing.” Working through his own prejudices and not always generous assumptions “made him better than he was,” Gorra says; “it made the books better than the man.”
Many of the high school students enrolled in my classes fifty-five years ago were from working-class Jewish families like my own. Like me, these students were stunned by the current of anti-semitism running through The Merchant of Venice. Stunned because it was embodied in characters who were not depicted as simply evil, or depraved, or stupid. Because, as we unpacked Shakespeare’s language, and struggled to get to the bottom of the ideas he set in motion, we discovered that the anti-semitism was by no means the sole or even primary concern we might legitimately be invited to dwell upon in such a play. Stunned, finally, because it was not possible to feel that there was a simple, compact message to be taken from The Merchant of Venice, or that our ambition as readers, engaging with such a play, was to have certain cherished ideas confirmed. We read the play and the other works we were assigned to study together not as Jewish kids, or black kids, or Italian kids, not as members of identity groups suspicious of anything that seemed to us potentially or actually offensive, but as persons who wanted to discover what we didn’t already know, or think, or feel.
These observations—about why we read, and what we read, and how we read—were once commonplace, and I don’t at all mind suggesting that they seem to me no less compelling now than they did many years ago. The issue, so far as I am concerned, is not whether or not we must all agree that children should be required to read Shakespeare in high school, or to confront mainly canonical works in college. Neither is it that the canon should be expanded to accommodate works that were once excluded. No one now doubts that canonicity itself is a highly disputable idea, or that many impressive works were excluded for reasons that had nothing to do with their merits. The issue really has to do with something very different, which is that we ought to value art and literature for the challenge they represent to the commonplace assumptions and complacent attitudes we hold onto as if we would be lost without them. These attitudes and assumptions include not only reactionary, racialist or authoritarian sentiments. They also include the enlightened and progressive views promoted by people like myself, people who spend most of their time safely enwombed in environments where those views are upheld as if there were no alternative but to cling to them and to repudiate anything that smells like a challenge to the dominant enlightened orthodoxies.
The educationist Deborah Meier writes that “we ought to introduce all kids to a culture that is currently quite uncommon.” Another writer notes that for the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci education was best regarded as the “development of one’s personality and as a liberation from the constraints and limitations of one’s immediate environment and social situation.” Is this sense of what we do, and ought to do, compatible with the goals of people who want to introduce students only to works that safely accord with officially sanctioned views, people whose instincts extend to cleansing the culture so that nothing of which they might conceivably disapprove will disturb us? I suspect that I am not alone in not wanting—for myself or my students—the “protection” offered by such people.