Preserving the Western Canon

As I’ve written about a few times before, I have a love-hate relationship with Harold Bloom (the literary critic), or rather, a love-hate relationship with his views on literature. I like how he wants to preserve what he considers the “Western canon” (the great literary works of the ages), but I don’t like how he seems to think that most modern writing and literature is garbage and that very little of intrinsic beauty and literary worth is being written nowadays. (Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon are two of the modern literary greats, whereas J.K. Rowling and Stephen King are horrible writers.)

I recently read about how schools in North Carolina (in accordance with the national Common Core State Standards) are going to be changing their reading curricula to contain less fiction and more nonfiction, among other sweeping changes, in order to make the United States more able to compete against other countries in the future. Is that a good thing or not? I’m not quite sure. I think most people would argue that learning about fiction is useless, since only a few students will grow up to become authors or English teachers. These days, a lot of emphasis is being placed on the sciences and engineering, because so much of the important work deals with technology and new scientific/medical discoveries.

Back to how Harold Bloom and his Western canon relate to all this… of the fiction that is actually being studied in schools, how much of it is works from the Western canon? I know that in public school, we had to study Shakespeare, Dickinson, Chaucer, whose works are in the Western canon; but we also focused on fiction like The Giver, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Tuck Everlasting, and Where the Red Fern Grows, which are not in the canon at all. Bloom (and those who follow his school of thought; one of my college professors did) believes that less emphasis being placed on works by the former authors, and more emphasis is being placed on works like the latter ones, and that this is a tragedy.

I’m divided. In the elementary and middle grades, it’s fine to talk about modern fiction, like the above-mentioned novels. After all, how many 5th graders will be able to fully comprehend Shakespeare? But in high school and college, students should be more equipped to understand and analyze complicated works like Proust, Faulkner, Joyce, and other items in the Western Canon. Bloom and his followers mention that more college curricula are beginning to require modern works of “literature” to be taught in the classroom, and that the Western canon is fading away from academia.

So… is the Western canon becoming obsolete? Perhaps those works aren’t quite as “timeless” as they seem.

7 thoughts on “Preserving the Western Canon

  1. I think that the “timeless” works of the Western History canon are in danger of only becoming an elite cultural relic. They may always endure in that way, but they would no longer inform the larger cultural influence except indirectly, and that would be a great problem. Anything that reduces the depth and resonance of our culture at such a moment of this would be a major loss, not only for what we are missing but for what our inability to appreciate depth and work to make sense of it says about us.

      • That is certainly true. Then again, I’m one of those quirky Westerners who still reads translations of Plutarch, even if I am not purely interested in the Western canon (I appreciate the Ramayana as well as Chinese and Japanese classics).

  2. That’s an interesting question, as is the question of how much emphasis should be placed on fiction. I think it’s admirable, as we try equipping students to be more competitive on a global stage, to consider lowering some of our academic demands to compensate for increasing others, instead of just demanding more work and less free time and childhood be damned. That said, I think a lot of my understanding of the world and ability to relate to other people, a lot of my empathy, and the better parts of my character, are direct results of all the fiction that I read in school and after. Studying science (and I am a scientist saying this) and history and math taught me a nothing about what other people are experiencing and how to get along with them. But for these purposes, not all fiction is equal, and that leads us to questions of western canon. I think the canon became canon for good reason, because of merits and universal truths and timelessness, and I don’t think we should neglect it. That said, it’s easier for students, particularly middle grade and high school students who are reading these things because they’re being forced to, to see these truths and learn from what they read when they can relate to the characters in time, place, and age. I think, all else being equal, they benefit more from modern literature than older literature. By college, students can be trusted to find their own emphasis through their course selections. People who appreciate canon and people who don’t will certainly both have opportunities in a college or university environment, and I don’t think there’s any need to ask how much emphasis each should receive, because it’s a matter of personal preference.

    • I agree with everything you say here. And it is largely personal preference; some people are drawn to the works in the Western canon and others find modern fiction more easy to relate to. Thank you for commenting!

  3. “I recently read about how schools in North Carolina (in accordance with the national Common Core State Standards) are going to be changing their reading curricula to contain less fiction and more nonfiction, among other sweeping changes, in order to make the United States more able to compete against other countries in the future. Is that a good thing or not?”

    If that becomes either/or, I think it’s really too bad. It is striking, even over my lifetime, how college has shifted from being a place to learn to being a place to learn job skills. And I’m all in favor of job skills, but it’ll be a pretty paltry world if all we’re working on is building up job skills.

    As for the canon, I think it would be really educational to teach both. Assign a book by Pynchon and a book by Rowling and have the class look at them, see how they’re the same and how they’re different. Take a Stephen King ghost story and Turn of the Screw and look at both of them.

    • I think that would work: comparing and contrasting modern literature with things from the Western canon. As for college becoming a place to learn job skills, I don’t think that learning for the sake of learning is valued as much as it used to be; we are so focused on learning what will be practical or useful. Learning as the means to an end, rather than as the end in itself.

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