Panel of Critics in Hot Debate : Curricula From the War of Book Lists

Last year, an academic dispute about which books college freshmen should read touched off an unexpected, passionate national debate. The argument turned on the expansion of what professors called the “canon” to include not only the masterpieces of Plato, Dante and Shakespeare but also works representative of other traditions. Although larger issues were at stake--America’s identity, the interpretation of our past--the debate quickly degenerated into a war of book lists and, eventually, name-calling. Students of Stanford chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go,” and novelist Saul Bellow sneered, “When the Zulus have a Tolstoy, we will read him.”

This ferocity itself suggests that other, more serious questions have gone unasked. What is a canon, and how does a society create or revise one? What do we want students to learn from such works? And why would Americans suddenly become so concerned about college courses designed to pass on the legacy of the past? To answer these questions, Harper’s Magazine asked five critics from the fields of literature, music, and architecture to consider what lessons should be learned--both from this battle and from the great works we choose to teach.

The following forum is based on a discussion held at the Old Town Inn in Alexandria, Va. Jack Hitt served as moderator. He is a senior editor of Harper’s Magazine.

E. D. Hirsch Jr. is the Kenan Professor of English at the University of Virginia and president of the Cultural Literacy Foundation. He is the author of the book “Cultural Literacy.”

John Kaliski is the principal architect for the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles and teaches urban-design theory at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.


Jon Pareles is the chief pop-music critic at the New York Times and is co-editor of “The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll”

Roger Shattuck teaches at Boston University and received, in 1975, the National Book Award for his critical work “Marcel Proust.”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Her book “Master Discourse, Native Informant: Deconstruction in the Service of Reading” will be published next year by Harvard University Press.

Hitt: Let us assume that we have inherited a syllabus at our school. The previous teachers chose these texts: a TV commercial, a Supreme Court opinion, the No. 1 book from the mass-market best-seller list, a bus stop for architecture, and 30 minutes of random AM radio for music. Their pedagogical theory held that all texts are interchangeable, that there is as much critical understanding to be gleaned from a newspaper as from Virgil. Anyone want to alter this?

Spivak: Could we teach a Mayan text--perhaps the “Popol Vuh"--instead of, say, Sophocles?

Hirsch: Sure, absolutely.

Shattuck: As part of a sociology course, Gayatri, fine. But there is nothing in this course of song, nothing of poetry, nothing of adventure. You want to teach critical thinking, pluralism, habits of mind--all of which are parlous subjects. Just because the teaching of the classics, the masterpieces, has been done for a long time doesn’t mean that this old system is faulty. If the students are young, teach them folk tales--ours, Irish, African. If they are a little older, then one of the most wonderful books is Charles Lindberg’s “We.” An incredible adventure. Helen Keller’s “Story of My Life,” always forgotten by feminists, is a better lesson than Anne Frank’s diary.

Pareles: My problem with your syllabus, Jack, is that it’s too contemporary. Where is the history?

Shattuck: Where is the Bible? Where is Homer? Where are the Greek tragedies?

Hirsch: Roger, I don’t see any greater inherent merit to the Bible. I could argue for the Bible, in some abstract way, over the Koran. But I’m not inclined to do that. School-based culture should teach content--the values--whether a work is selected because it’s great or because it’s just habitually there. “The Wizard of Oz” is in the ken of most Americans not because it is a great work but because it is a popular movie.

Kaliski: At a certain point, “The Wizard of Oz” enters a canon--possibly not the canon. The difficulty of establishing a canon today is the speed of change. People who argue on behalf of a canon feel that change occurs at a glacial pace. My suspicion is that that has changed. Change occurs very rapidly. At one level you have to figure out what endures and teach that, but at another level you must take some risks and be willing to open up new areas of discovery. Perhaps what should characterize any American canon is our willingness constantly to open it, to admit new works into it, and simultaneously to question it. The process by which the canon is formed should be discussed alongside the canon itself.

Hitt: The purpose of this canon seems very utilitarian. It reminds me of Tocqueville’s observation that education in America is little more than vocational self-improvement. Why should the students actually read a book at all? Why read Locke? Why not read a summary, the Cliffs Notes, if only the extracted values, the disembodied ideas, matter?

Kaliski: The texts do matter. But, to get back to Jack’s original question, I think it’s possible to teach “a bus stop” as long as it’s a really good bus stop. All those elements--whatever ideas, themes, stories you want to impart--can be drawn out of a discussion of such an edifice. While a bus stop is simply a utilitarian object, in confronting the bus stop as a work of architecture you might inspire people to question why so many of the edifices around them are so lacking in beauty.

Hitt: But can we canonize certain works because they are endowed with what I will call, for lack of a better word, greatness?

Spivak: I know nothing of greatness. It seems we wish constantly to adjudicate greatness, and it constantly escapes us. Yet we must assume it exists. We cannot have a straight answer about greatness, and that is the good thing about it.

Shattuck: Greatness is a little like pornography: You know it when you see it. I mean that seriously. Don, you suggested, when you mentioned “The Wizard of Oz,” that greatness is not found in the works themselves but somehow in the ideas they present, which can be detached from those books. I can’t agree with that or with your comparison of the Bible and the Koran. I know you well enough to ask you: Have you read the Koran?

Hirsch: No.

Shattuck: Well, you would never have said what you did if you had read it. I’ve read it now three times in two different languages. Gayatri, have you read it?

Spivak: No.

Shattuck: OK. Look at what you find in the Bible and in the Koran. As classics, these books are not moral equivalents or literary equivalents or equivalents in greatness. We would like to assume they are. Finally, you have to go and read. The story of Adam and Eve is told twice in the Koran in a highly abridged version. Cain and Abel appear once, but too briefly for the story to come to life. Abraham is mentioned countless times, but few readers can assemble these references into a coherent account. It is very tough going. The Bible is superior for our purposes not only because we have a tradition going back through the Puritans and all of Europe to the Near East but also for literary reasons.

Spivak: I think it is highly dangerous, speaking of values, to teach young American minds the superiority of the Bible.

Shattuck: As a literary work? I am not talking about religion.

Spivak: I don’t believe in proving the superiority of anything.

Shattuck: Proving, no. But we are a committee trying too construct a curriculum.

Hirsch: Roger, I might have my opinions about which book is inherently better, but there is a political problem. If the Bible and the Koran came up at all, it would be Bible, yes, Koran, no. We can argue in the abstract, but if you want to reform education in order to enfranchise everybody, you’ve got to do what’s politically feasible.