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Opening Up The Canon

by Mark Prudowsky
Asheville, North Carolina

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Back of the Bus

This paper is an exploration of pluralism, both its presence and absence in the Humanities 324 (‘324) survey of Western civilization from the European Enlightenment to World War II, at the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNCA). It’s written in the spirit of Richard Rorty’s utilitarian philosophy, when he asks: “for what purposes would it be useful to hold belief[s]” (xxiv). By extension, I would ask, for what purpose would we ignore other beliefs, other values, other ways of looking at the world, values which are not easily understood by our socialization. By arguing for a more thorough exploration of the time period covered by the ‘324 survey, my motivations are not student validation, or political correctness. Rather, I believe a curriculum which ignores or downplays contributions made outside the realm of modern Western Rationalist ideals, disarms students, making them ill-equipped to function as problem solvers within our own country and in a diverse global community.

Towards the very beginning of the survey, when we began the discussion of Enlightenment philosophes, a tension began playing itself out. On the one hand, I was glad to be revisiting these concepts, more than thirty years after I’d first learned of them. They are interesting ideas, and there is a part of me that enjoys probing them. As a Jew, I recognized, despite Voltaire’s anti-Jewish bias, that this period, and Napoleon’s actions which followed, led to an emancipation of European Jews and diminished their otherness in the eyes of Christian Europe. And quite frankly, on the heels of the ‘214 survey, I found the outlook a refreshing break from the dogma and restrictions of medieval Europe.

At the same time I knew important aspects of that period were absent. While Africans and African Americans, American Indians, and Asian Pacific Islanders appear sporadically, we hear their views in voices and contexts easily understood by those of us raised in the Western Rationalist tradition. Expressions of the other have backseat status if they are permitted on the bus at all, while we course through four hundred years of Europe’s encounter with the rest of the globe. A consensus is presumed -- capitalist modes of production and attendant attitudes towards the earth and nature are the only way of being in the modern world.

My first thought, was to do the term paper on how the Iroquois Confederacy served as the model for our form of government. Or I considered doing a paper on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and its subsequent abrogations -- make a statement, testify along with a growing number of students at the university and those not privileged to be here, serve as witness to what has been ignored, scoffed at, forgotten. Then I came across a passage by Eric Wolf, and found the following crystallization:

The appeal to reason, however, entailed consequences. One must not forget to ask who is using reason, rationality, logic, and emotional neutrality to do what to whom. Those charged with dispensing reason can readily tag others as opponents of progress. Down to the present, the protagonists of reason have seen themselves as apostles of modernity. They have advocated industrialization, specialization, secularization, and rational bureaucratic allocation as reasoned options superior to unreasoned reliance on tradition (25).

It occurred to me, at the very least, that this sentiment should accompany the Fiero text preface which appears in each of the editions used in the curriculum, the one which explains the rationale for focusing on Western civilization. Has the university ignored contributions made by those outside of Western Rationalist thought? If so, why? What have been some examples of opening up the canon and to what effect? What are some remaining deficiencies? What aspects of the cultural wars, which received so much attention a decade ago, are relevant to the discussion of pluralism at UNCA? What are some examples of opening up the canon and connected pedagogies which might be worth exploring? How might a different approach attract a more diverse student body and faculty? An undercurrent infusing all these questions, which I will return to throughout the paper, is why should we examine these issues, why I feel it is important for students and faculty here and throughout our country to be nudged away from comfortable assumptions and towards a more open exploration of our country and the global village we reside in.

Wordplay versus Pushing Society

One of the strength’s of UNCA is its humanities requirement. The Mission Statement for UNCA’s Humanities department, written in the spring of 1998, notes in part: “The Humanities Program draws together faculty and subject matter from all of the liberal arts--especially history, literature, and philosophy, but also religion, natural science, social science, and fine arts” (Teaching notes). Gerald Graff, a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, has spent a lot of time examining university structures, exploring what works in conveying the concepts of the humanities to students. His conclusion is that an interdisciplinary approach, like the one employed here, is the most conducive to exploring the humanities in a broader context. Graff explores pushing things further, especially in his concluding chapter, when he examines “learning communities” as they are successfully employed at two community colleges in the state of Washington, and looks back on similar approaches that failed at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin (180).

The Mission Statement also addresses the social functions of teaching the humanities: “[The humanities] seek further to aid us to make educated and ethical decisions.” This is sufficiently broad so as to allow for differing views of what are educated and ethical decisions. The important feature is that the statement is made. Vigorous debate hopefully preceded the declaration, and certainly, vigorous debate has ensued. In Richard Rorty’s essay, “The Humanistic Individual,” he offers that in the humanities, “we should look for what cuts across the departments and disciplines and social function they should perform” (127). For Rorty, since there are no sharp breaks between the social sciences and the natural sciences; between both of these disciplines and politics; between politics, philosophy and literature, these departments should coordinate their inquiries. To what end? He suggests that “inquiry which does not achieve coordination of behavior is not inquiry, simply wordplay” (xxv). Expanding, he argues that a humanities program should serve a utilitarian function, equipping students to be critical thinkers, skeptics, problem-solvers, able to push society towards more and more openness (116). If the department orientation facilitates both coordination of teaching and inquiry, what problems ought be addressed?

The university is still a privileged place in society. In the case of UNCA -- a public institution, valuable public resources are expended to educate the students. Especially in our current fiscal crisis, where funding for education is limited, our humanities program ought to equip students to address the fundamental problems of our communities, our state, the country at large, and the larger global community. We are a society beset with racial and ethnic tensions, struggling K-12 educational institutions. A glance out the windows to the smog-cloaked mountains is a reminder of the many environmental predicaments ranging from declining air and water quality to shrinking open spaces. The isolation of our country in the world community is something any student who has traveled abroad in the past couple of years can attest to. Isn’t this a bit ambitious as a mission for the humanities program? I am not arguing that the department solve these problems. What I am arguing for, is that the department present the humanities in such a way as to connect the world of our students, with the world at large, in a way which challenges assumptions -- asks students and faculty to look at ideas and world views they didn’t grow up with as well as those they did – all for the purpose of recognizing that in a diverse society, such an approach is necessary in order to engage in discourse towards creating a more open, tolerant and healthy culture, here at home and in the world civilization of which we are one part.

Surveying the terrain

What are the best ways of presenting the concepts of the humanities? What are the strengths and weaknesses of a survey format as opposed to a focused, thematic treatment of the humanities?

The strengths of a thematic exploration is that it permits us to compare and contrast stances, ideas and mindsets of one age with another, placing ideas in a context, giving them a perspective – where they stemmed from, and what they led to. Such an approach might makes Aristotle’s views on slavery seem less like a timeless truth, if we asked, as does Amy Gutmann, if Aristotle’s understanding of slavery is “more enlightening than that of Frederick Douglass” (58). Jeanne McGlinn, a UNCA Professor of Education, and a ‘324 professor as well, noted the appeal of exploring themes more in depth, but noted that this has been an ongoing tension in the program: “One of the quandaries we constantly face is the task of trying to pull in all the readings. This of course, is at the expense of focusing on any individual reading.” McGlinn pointed out that her son, enrolled at UNC Chapel Hill, where a Great Books approach to the humanities is employed, recently read Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.” According to Jeanne, he enjoyed the focus on the one work, but she noted the more intensive foci on individual books in their entirety, comes at the expense of the breadth of UNCA’s approach (McGlinn). An important benefit might follow from adopting a thematic approach, depending on how it was structured -- an exposure to views we are not accustomed to. Graff, in an exploration of “clustered courses,” and concerned with challenging the notions of William Bennet, Lynn Cheney, Alan Bloom and others who charge that multi-culturalists are injecting politics into the classroom, notes that a thematic approach, seeking non-Western perspectives as well as Western ones, might challenge the “narrowly provincial concept of the political that passes for common sense in the West” (164).

If students came to the university already familiar with a common body of works, there wouldn’t be much point to this debate. It is open to question if ever there existed a time when students coming to this country’s universities were well versed in a common canon. Perhaps in the 19th century, when universities were very privileged enclaves, still teaching the canon in Greek and Latin, the student body was familiar with a common canon. Certainly today, that is not the case. While some students come to the university versed in much of the rudiments of a common Western canon, many do not. I believe the advantages of a common canon can be compared to the reasons one agrees to a common reading list when joining a book club – it makes for a more meaningful exchange of views. In a larger context, Rorty advocates the use of a common canon so that: “grandparents and grandchildren, people who went to the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater and people who went to Stanford, will have read a lot of the same books” (127).

The dynamics of the interdisciplinary approach, and the breadth of the surveys have strong advocates at UNCA. Ed Katz, a professor in Literature and Language and chair of the General Education Review Task Force, told me that the breadth of the UNCA approach has helped him grow intellectually, much more than he imagines would have been possible at a school where specialization predominates (Katz). One of the chief strengths of the broad survey approach is that it exposes all the students to the concepts explored. A menu approach, like that employed at other schools, would not expose all students to the debates and contestations of ideas. As the university alters the ‘414 (post World War II to the present) requirement, I would hope this is kept in mind, for many of the contemporary themes explored in that survey, as currently constructed, can serve to tie together the ideas of the first three surveys (ancient history to World War II) so as to give students a perspective -- how the Western cultural inheritance we focus on in the first three surveys, informs both positively and negatively, many of the problems facing us today.

Why All the Fuss?

With an understanding of the strengths of an interdisciplinary approach, coupled with the need for a survey, I want to explore aspects of pluralism missing from the current canon and what might inform decisions of omission. One might well ask, “why all the fuss?” When I spoke with Ed Katz, he pulled down a Norton Anthology from the 1970’s from the top shelf of his bookcase. He did so easily, hefting it in one hand. It might have been two inches thick. Then, with two hands and a bit more effort, he extracted a very recent edition of the same literature anthology. Jeanne McGlinn made a similar point, without the props. The canon has changed considerably during the past thirty years – these changes have been a benefit to the academy. I have little doubt that the ‘324 canon is quite different from what it once was, just as I have no doubt there will be further changes. The question is – what will be the nature of the changes? At the height of the culture wars, Henry Louis Gates, addressing the issue of pluralism, concluded that it is only through education that all the diverse populations and traditions in this country and throughout the world can come to understand one another. Gates, under no illusions as to the difficulty of this task, paraphrases John Dewey’s sentiment that pluralism was at one and the same time, the greatest philosophical ideal of his generation and its greatest problem (19). Ronald Takaki, an Ethnic Studies professor at the University of California at Berkeley, cites a Time magazine article from 1990. The article stated that by 2056, most citizens of this country will trace their descent to “Africa, Asia, the Hispanic world, the Pacific Islands, Arabia – almost anywhere but white Europe.” The article conveyed a sense of urgency, noting these demographics are altering the sense of “what it is to be American” (2).

Takaki notes that E. D. Hirsch’s, book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, is filled with a long list of terms “that excludes much of the history of minority groups.” In contrast, he cites other educators who are responding to the diversity of our population as an “opportunity to open American minds”(3). Why? By seeing events from the different viewpoints of our diverse culture, we can reach a more thorough understanding of American history.

He writes of how the sense of American history has changed in the past forty years -- that when historians like Oscar Handlin and Arthur Schlesinger began writing history from the viewpoint of others than princes and presidents, it was an important break with the past. Their work, however, failed to mention the significant contributions made by people of color who figured in our history (5).

Gates notes that pluralism is important because there are differing perspectives, but also, reflecting those perspectives, there are different interests (16). No doubt, among the faculty at UNCA, as at many other campuses, there are contending perspectives. No doubt, some teaching here, believe Plato’s Cave exists for all time and for all people; others perhaps believe the Cave was a proper metaphor for a particular period of time and for a particular people; still others might not feel the Cave to be an apt metaphor at all, ever. I think, in the interest of a stimulating university education, all these views ought to be aired, in a respectful discourse, not only among the faculty, but in the classroom as well. And these airings ought to be conducted taking note of the society from which this university springs, one as Gates points out, with an ever widening gap between the educated middle class and large numbers of functionally illiterate youth (17). Why? Because the widening rift is not an abstraction. While Takaki was preparing his book, “A Different Mirror,” in the early 1990’s, scenes of Los Angeles neighborhoods smoldering in the aftermath of an all-white jury acquittal of the police who beat an unarmed Rodney King to within an inch of his life, were being broadcast on television. Takaki saw the occasion as an opportunity for Americans to “connect themselves to a larger narrative, [accepting that America] does not belong to one race or one group” (17). More broadly (this is a discussion of the humanities after all), the airing of differing perspectives is best undertaken with a recognition that the global village is diverse – that while many features of the Enlightenment and of scientific ways of knowing the world are valuable contributions to the global community, some features are not, and aspects of non-Western civilizations merit examination. I see this as the chief shortcoming of the curriculum as it is currently structured at UNCA, aware at the same time that many professors alter or supplement the curriculum to reflect many of the concerns listed above.

What are the Costs – What are the Benefits?

How are the choices to be made? Ed Katz points out that when he has to choose what to include and what to eliminate, he begins by asking: “What are the costs and what are the benefits?” Those are broad questions. One can presume whatever one wants in asking or answering them. None the less, I believe it is a good place to begin.

As a case in point, we discussed the Equiano excerpt in the ‘324 text, The Asheville Reader. I indicated to Ed that it was a difficult reading to wade through – its diction and grammar as remote as that of Edmund Burke’s commentary on the French Revolution. He smiled and remarked that Equiano’s skill as an essayist, exceeded that of most of the other 18th century essayists. My quarrel isn’t with Equiano’s appeal to England to end the slave trade and begin trading with Africa like it traded with Europe or Asia. Rather, it’s with the style and wording, the appeal to Christian precepts sandwiching his thesis. Afterward, I reread the prompts preceding the excerpt, asking why Equiano might have chosen to phrase his appeal as he did. I can see a certain strength in the approach. My point is that there might exist other accounts from West Africans or their descendants, perhaps Ibos, like Equiano, kidnapped and enslaved in the New World, though unable to voice their views in the King’s English, like Equiano. Gullah culture is filled with oral tales conveying similar sentiments not couched in the vernacular of the Western Enlightenment. What might be gained by contrasting Gullah folk tales with Equiano’s essay? Wouldn’t this just add more text to an already crowded reading list? What’s the big deal anyway? The legacies of the slave trade, both internally in the United States, and externally, for what it reflected about Europe’s encounter with Africa, are still very much unresolved. Part of that legacy, indeed it’s underpinnings are the European mindset towards Africa and its inhabitants. It is the subject of numerous writings by African intellectuals seeking to define Africa in the post-colonial period. One such writing notes that for Hegel, “Africa was outside History, a wasteland filled with ‘lawlessness’, ‘fetishism’, and ‘cannibalism’ – waiting for European soldiers and missionaries to conquer it and impose ‘order’ and ‘morality’” (Owusu-Ampomah). Writing of a later period, Anthonia Kalu, compared the reception in the West of Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1953), with that of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1959), noting that Achebe's mastery of both the new language and its narrative tradition validate, for the non-Africanist-oriented critic, the successful colonizing of the African mind. Although both works explore the African world, Tutuola presents a layer of African thought that is unfamiliar to this type of critic (5th paragraph).

Part of the responsibility of the West, in particular it’s universities, in seeking to reflect European-African encounters, is to recognize that sophisticated cultures with their own voices and outlooks existed before they were ripped apart -- cultures with a much longer tradition of order and morality than that of Europe. African-American women writers like Octavia Butler, Sandra Jackson-Opoku and Paule Marshall incorporate these sensibilities in their stories written on this side of the pond, while Africans are creating a new body of literature that incorporates oral tales. And the text might not necessarily be written. It might be an oral tale, or it might be a wall painting, done by a West African woman reflecting the cultural encounter with men who kidnapped her son. It might even be a reading from out of the time period. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of Afro-American Studies and philosophy at Harvard, is also the eldest son of a distinguished Asante family. The epilogue to his book, In My Father’s House, is a fascinating description of what ensued in modern day Ghana when he and his mother and sisters attempted to be faithful to his father’s deathbed wishes to arrange his funeral in a way which ran against very old traditions. The questions he raises about the relationships between traditional and modern values and outlooks might prove valuable for enhancing our understanding of African traditional values, not only in a ‘414 survey, but in the ‘324 survey, when the European views of Africans and those who would become African Americans and Caribbean-Americans, were so devoid of respect, devoid of a willingness to see the rich cultural traditions and strong family ties of African societies. What are the costs? What are the benefits? In the process of unfolding the narration or artwork, not only might we learn something about Ibo or Yoruba culture, we might learn something about ourselves as well.

Stimpson, addresses some of the benefits of expanding the canon to include more of women’s history, benefits which have accrued to society from the increased exposure to Women’s studies: stricter prohibitions against sexual harassment, explorations of human sexuality, reexaminations of the family and a reexamination of women’s contributions to the arts and sciences (27). Certainly when the changes began more than thirty years ago, others voiced Ed Katz’s question: “What are the costs and what are the benefits?” Clearly, to expand the canon, other works were studied less, or were studied differently. For the most part, the universities have been a place where the new explorations in Women’s studies, Ethnic Studies and Environmental Studies have flourished, much to the dismay of people like Alan Bloom. Today’s cultural relativism, he argues, ignores timeless moral virtues. Bloom feels that students today, the product of the cultural relativism of the past thirty years, lack a motive for education, the search for the good life, since they have no moral compass with which to navigate their lives. He makes the claim that “Only in the Western nations, i.e., those influenced by Greek philosophy, is there some willingness to doubt the identification of the good with one’s own way” (15). He continues: “Nature should be the standard by which we judge our own lives and lives of peoples,” and claims that cultural relativism denies “reason’s power” (17). Bloom’s viewpoint, as Graff points out is disingenuous if not hypocritical. Graff takes note of the controversies which accompanied the replacement of classical Greek and Roman works in the nineteenth century, when they were supplanted with English literature. Likewise, he writes of the indignation of the Anglophiles a few decades later, when American Literature began to replace English works in the canon. In both instances, predictions of the collapse of civilization echoed (95), much like the laments of E. D. Hirsch, Bloom and William Bennet do today. None the less, they are certainly entitled to their opinion. What is dangerous in their approach is the presumption that there is not a debate – their strategy for dealing with the contentions is to deny the legitimacy of the debate itself (43). What might be gained from engaging in such a debate here at UNCA? What are the consequences of conducting ourselves with an attitude that our educational mission cannot tolerate dissent? Graff writes: “What Bennet, Schlesinger, [and others] lack is any faith that our disagreements about such questions might be energizing rather than paralyzing.” What are the costs, what are the benefits? Graff cites the systematic recruitment of faculties that represent the pluralism of our society, our culture. This intellectual and cultural richness is responsible for making our higher educational schools the “envy of the world” (43).

Idol Worship: nothing essentially new

Noting that the discussions of pluralism are not necessarily new in American cultural life, Amy Gutmann, critiques the essentialists view that the works of Plato and Aristotle are critical to understanding “timeless moral and political truths, the truths of human nature,” dismissing this view as “intellectual idol worship.” She points out that writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson viewed books as works written in a particular historical context. We should read them as reflections about that period, not as timeless perfections of some Truth. “ Each age, must write its own books,” she quotes Emerson, and then echoes one of Gate’s arguments, noting universities should recognize the diversity of the students attending the schools and teach a more diverse curriculum, not because students can only identify with works written by authors of the same gender, race or nationality, but because these works “speak to neglected parts of our heritage and human condition, and speak more wisely than do some of the canonical works” (60).

Perhaps another way of addressing the expansion of the canon is to ask what is at stake. For those like Keith Windschuttle, the presumptions of the West are at risk. Windschuttle, in his critique of the cultural relativism of anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, writes:

While there are both hard and soft variants, most versions of multiculturalism hold that all cultures are authentic in their own terms and that neither the West at large nor the United States in particular has the right to impose its beliefs and values onto others. Under these principles, the traditional universalizing project of the West cannot be sustained. Enlightenment universalism becomes an arrogant presumption and Christianity no more than one among many equally valid religious perspectives (no pagination – fourth paragraph of article).

How does Windschuttle’s vision of the “traditional universalizing project of the West,” resonate in the ears of conquered and subjected people not of the West? Should one of UNCA’s graduates travel abroad, to places other than Europe, I think a less hegemonic stance might prove more useful for the purposes of engaging in respectful discourse – with the understanding that knowledge flows both ways.

How Did They Know That? – They Never Went to College

We should be about the business of looking for syntheses of knowledge – again with a sense of what might be gained. In his article in Africa Today, H.S. Bhola describes indigenous knowledge, contrasting it to Western knowledge in the form inherited from Bacon and Locke. Indigenous knowledge is attained in an additive and idiosyncratic fashion, “holistic at its best and inert at its worst.” Its worth is proved by how useful it might be in the real world, in solving problems in a people oriented fashion (10). Jack Weatherford lyrically illustrates some such examples upon observing the last days of a Yuqui woman, dying in an Amazon hut – wondering what secrets would die with her, what sense of forecasting the weather from her nights watching the stars, what pharmacological treasures which might cure forms of cancer or multiple sclerosis (254). He laments our poor understanding of complex Mayan math systems and the “sophisticated geometry of the Aztecs.” Five hundred years after “Columbus arrived in the New World,” Weatherford concludes, “America has yet to be discovered” (255).

Recently, I participated in a Lakota sweat lodge. The ceremony consists of four ‘rounds’. In each round, rocks, heated by a fire are brought into the lodge center-pit. The person ‘pouring’, pours fresh creek water onto the superheated rocks, recites prayers and tells stories. The rocks are referred to as ‘grandfathers’. Their sacrifice -- being heated and transformed by the fire, suffering so that the lodge participants might purge poisons of the body and spirit, might heal, reconnect and regain a sense of balance and perspective in their lives – is honored and revered. Not only are the rocks understood to be living beings -- all life comes from them. Paul Ghost Horse, the pourer for this ceremony spoke of the times when the elders would pour water – how he would repeat what had been passed down through the generations -- the stones are our earliest ancestors. And Paul spoke of his skepticism -- how can a rock be a living being? When he attended a lecture at Cornell University, Carl Sagan described how life began: “Billions of years ago, a bolt of lightning struck a rock, releasing amino acids which interacted with the chemical soup of the oceans and produced the first life.” Paul, mocking himself, asked all of us in the lodge -- “How did the elders know that? They never attended college.”

Witch Hunts

Explorations of non-Rationalist views needn’t be confined to non-Western societies. While reading Carolyn Merchant’s book about women and the scientific revolution, I came across numerous references to Henry Cornelius Agrippa. I was surprised, having assumed when I read Shelley’s Frankenstein, he was simply a trope, not a living historical figure from the Renaissance. Given the opportunity of examining Agrippa in his historical context, I gained additional insights about Shelley’s Frankenstein – especially concerning the Romantics rejection of Enlightenment, rationalist ideals. More broadly, however, I gained insights into a critical period of Western history, when Agrippa’s neo-platonic view of the cosmos was giving way to Bacon’s mechanistic view of the universe. Merchant examines Agrippa’s writings which championed the cause of women in society, suggesting his sentiments might have stemmed from his view of the cosmos – that the divine mind beyond the visible cosmos was the seat of the platonic forms, the pure Ideas, of which sensible objects were merely imperfect copies. The female soul of the world was everywhere present and, was the source of motion and activity in the macro-cosmos. It contained the celestial images of the divine Ideas (106).

She discusses the “magical tradition” of which Agrippa was a part, as were female witches. Merchant writes that Bacon was influenced by the 1612 witch trials in England and used the imagery of courtroom interrogation of female witches in his writings on nature, “because it treats nature as a female to be tortured through mechanical inventions.”(168). Bacon would later write that the emerging scientist should not be intimidated by dated prohibitions against the “inquisition of nature,” insisting that instead, nature be “bound into service,” enslaved, constrained and “molded” by man-made mechanisms (169 – quoting from Bacon’s “The Great Instauration,” written in 1620, from Works, vol.4, p.20; “The Masculine Birth of Time,” ed. and trans. Benjamin Farrington, in the Philosophy of Francis Bacon. Liverpool England, Liverpool University Press, 1964).

Isn’t this merely a quaint historical footnote? For Merchant, it was a turning point in a European mindset towards nature, presaging the industrial revolution and a view of nature as an exploitable resource, one to be conquered and mastered. Whether or not one agrees with Merchant isn’t the point so much as that she and others like her self have raised important concepts about a critical transition of European history. How might this lesson, unfolded in a ‘324 class setting, help inform a business major, an aspiring mechanical engineer, a budding physicist on the cusps of their careers? Perhaps Merchant’s insights might alter how they go about the business of viewing nature. Perhaps not. But whether it is discussed in the beginning of the course, when we read excerpts from Bacon’s Novum Organum, or later, when Frankenstein is discussed, I believe it merits some consideration as we ask: what are the costs, what are the benefits?

Opening the Canon Can Open Your Mind

One of the aspects of the investigation into pluralism I found most helpful were the illustrations used by various professors who experimented with the canon. I’m presenting two examples, both for the subjects they introduce and the lessons drawn for pedagogy.

I also take note of several pedagogies here at UNCA which I believe have been effective in training students to be critical thinkers, and not incidentally, have produced some of the liveliest classroom dynamics.

Scott Pollard is a comparative literature professor. Trained in the traditional canon, he notes that most of the non-Western literature he had studied was heavily influenced by Western literary styles, often written for a European or United States audience. Upon reading the Book of Songs, a collection of ancient Chinese lyrical poetry, he came to see literature quite differently. For one, he notes that unlike canonical literature of Western epics such as the Iliad or Gilgamesh, which celebrate heroes and explicate in violent detail, battle scenes and physical confrontations, the Chinese lyrical poems don’t lend themselves to “a singular, allegorical vision of civilization, especially if one's primary assumption is that such a vision ought to reside in an epic.” The poems don’t focus on warriors, kings and princes – rather, they focus on a “lyrical multitude of voices and experiences.” Pollard cites an article written on East-West comparative literature, which notes the tendency to treat such cross-culture inquires as affinity studies where Western readers impose a familiar Western model on Eastern literature, or look for expressions in Eastern literature that superficially resemble Western expressions (no pagination in article).

To illustrate, Pollard uses the poem, “Fishhawk” and notes that without the commentary, it might be taken as a pastoral poem, like Marlowe’s “A Passionate Shepherd to his Mistress.” Complicating the analysis, is the fact that the Confucian commentary, quite patriarchal, itself might have distorted the poet’s initial intents to one which would more conform to a Confucian view of society. Pollard emerges with a “deeper understanding of the nature of canonicity, not only concerning Chinese literature but western literature as well,” and quotes from the Norton Anthology editor that "we grow chiefly by encounters with what is Other than ourselves, the unfamiliar experience, event, or thought that unsettles our securities and clichés; but also -- and it is a `but also' of large significance -- . . . we best assimilate the unfamiliar by way of the familiar" (Mack xxx – [Pollard’s citation] -- Mack, Maynard, ed. 1996. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Expanded edition. New York: Norton.).

Graff unravels a reconsideration of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one of many reexaminations he has undertaken in his teaching career. Formerly, he was inclined to view it as a “universal parable of reason and unreason,” maintaining that such a reading still has some merits. But, he notes, “this reading also depended on my not seeing certain things or not treating them as worth thinking about” (26). Like Pollard, he was trained to believe that literature to be impartial, addressing universal truths separate from politics. If there were students of color in his classroom when he led discussions of Conrad’s work, that was irrelevant, since the “point of studying literature was to rise above those traces of your upbringing and history,” and not indulge in “narcissistic special interests” (26). Graff changed his view when he came across Chinua Achebe’s 1974 address to a University of Massachusetts at Amherst audience, entitled “An Image of Africa: Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’”

Accepting Achebe’s objections to Conrad’s portrayal of Africans as an “undifferentiated mass of eye-rolling, tomtom-beating savages”(Graff 27), Graff acknowledges that those passages which “have sent chills down the spine of Western readers sound worse than comic when read from Achebe’s point of view.” Achebe’s contention is that ultimately, Conrad reduces Africa to a mere non-human backdrop, focusing instead on the “tragedy of the white imperialist Kurtz” (27). “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?” (Achebe 1416).

The real issue for Achebe was the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. Achebe concluded his address with an appeal for a repudiation of Conrad’s xenophobia. Graff, convinced that Conrad’s assumptions about race were not “extraneous” elements of the novel, rather, key elements upon which the “literary aesthetic effect depends upon,” doesn’t conclude we should no longer teach Conrad’s book (28). Indeed, Graff continues to teach the novel, but with an acknowledgement that Achebe foresaw much recent literary and cultural theory -- “that literary representations are not simply neutral aesthetic descriptions but interventions that act upon the world they describe” (29). I would simply ask: “Are there truly folks out there who believe that a writer is not influenced by his or her upbringing, class and culture?”

How does he teach it now? He assigns Achebe’s essay and other interpretations, including those who take issue with Achebe. After reading Conrad’s work, his class reads Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, presenting a view of one “trying to wrest the power to represent Africa” away from Conrad. There is further discussion of the “place or non place of politics in art.” Graff points out that this debate isn’t all that new, that Plato expelled the poets from his republic “for corrupting the morals of the state.” Finally, Graff also invites conservative colleagues into the class to present their view, and makes sure the students become active participants in the discussion (30). As a result, Graff notes,

Far from debasing the academic standards of my courses, this newer approach is considerably more challenging than its predecessor. Further, I think Achebe’s critique pushes my students to a closer reading of the verbal and stylistic particularity of Heart of Darkness. Introducing a challenge to traditional values, helps students understand what is at stake in embracing or rejecting them (32).

When Professor Jeff Rackham began his class last spring, on the “American Literary Tradition,” he passed a sheet around the room, requiring each student to take responsibility for an oral presentation of one of the writers listed. Beginning the next week, a fifteen to twenty minute block of each class was allocated to the oral presentation, an annotated bibliography and class discussion, with questions directed at the presenter. While Jeff contributed when and where he felt the need to illuminate a point, each student developed a view of that writer, taking responsibility for documenting the research and suggesting further avenues for research. In addition to providing a break from the professor-lecture format, the approach was a lively way of promoting the academic goals of the department, as well as promoting most of the skills listed on the department’s web site (Goals).

From my own current experience in the ‘324 survey, I would list the following as pedagogies which encouraged the liveliest interest and exchange of ideas: the small discussion groups where the similarities of Bacon, Locke, and Descartes were examined and then presented to the class at large; the mock trial of Frankenstein and his creation which probably animated more students than any other exercise during the semester and resulted in several creative renderings of Shelley’s work; and the presentations of Cry the Beloved Country and Playboy of the Western World , which forced students to look at the material more deeply than they might have, given the necessity of presenting it to the class at large.

Creating a Community of Learning: Different Insights

The irony of addressing pluralism with regards to the curriculum on a campus so underrepresented by students and faculty of color doesn’t escape me. I can only imagine what must run through the mind of a prospective non-white student or professor, on seeing all the white faces and scrutinizing the narrowly circumscribed requirements for a literature major or the humanities surveys. Perhaps, adopting a hopeful attitude, they might conclude that just as birds flying south in the fall do not bring about cooler weather, there is no correlation between the school’s curricular orientation and the lack of diversity among students and faculty. Perhaps. It seems to me however, that an opening up of the curriculum accompanied by a broadening of perspectives would do more to bring about a diverse student and faculty population. How better to encourage a learning of alternative knowledge and world views than by engaging in study and discourse in a community more reflective of that mix? Why is this important? I’m less concerned with arguments of fairness or arguments of equal representation in the abstract, as I am in the concrete creation of a community of learning which reflects the breadth of our society. All the urgency that spurred Takaki’s writing ten years ago still applies. Will there be tensions? Undoubtedly. Will the insights into culture and history be more profound than the insights afforded today in a climate of predominately Western ideas and population? Undoubtedly, in some cases. Given an atmosphere of mutual respect, what we will certainly find, is simply that there are different insights. Gates noted in his address to the Council of Learned Societies, addressing the crux of why he advocated a more open canon, “There is no tolerance without respect, and there is no respect without knowledge” (18). The same understanding applies to a community of learning. They are tied together.

I began this investigation convinced that one of the chief weaknesses of the ‘324 survey was the format. Reading Rorty and other writers, speaking with various faculty, convinced me I was misguided. While I still believe there can be benefits to a more focused thematic approach, I believe that the principles of pluralism can be conveyed in any form, provided there is the openness to the debate Graff speaks about. Several times in discussions with professors I was reminded that, because of my age, I’m not like most students on campus. I’ve had different experiences, different exposures. While that is certainly true, my brief encounters here at UNCA, as well as my interactions with my twenty-one year old son and his crew, leave me with the impression that students today are much wiser than students of my generation were. They are much better read, exposed to more ideas, and perhaps because of this, I find they are open to more ideas. There is a sophistication in weighing the pros and cons of an argument which I don’t recall from my youth. One ought not to confuse openness with lacking values, or with embracing all ideas. I think it is a mistake to confuse the desire for a more open canon with a view that students are simply about self-gratification or self-validation, or simply about learning what they already know, or already believe. The goal of expanding the canon is to help students and faculty connect themselves to the past in a way that might elucidate their comings and goings today, and when they leave the university, to engage the larger society of our country, of our world.

About the author: "I'm a fifty year old undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Currently a licensed electrical contractor, I'm pursuing a B.A. and plan on teaching high school when I graduate in May of 2004." - Mark Prudowsky

Published in In Motion Magazine May 19, 2003

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