The "Literary Canon," Education, and F&SF

Roughly twenty years ago, Allan Bloom published an incendiary book entitled The Closing of the American Mind. In it, Bloom charged that abandoning the traditional literary canon in favor of multiculturism and gender- and ethnic-based literary selections effectively had gutted the American liberal arts education. I’m oversimplifying his charges, but they run along those lines.

During the 1960s and 1970s, and thereafter, but particularly in those turbulent years, there were numerous and loud cries for “relevance” in higher education. Those cries reverberate today in such legislation as the No Child Left Behind Act and the growing emphasis on institutions of higher education as a version of white collar and professional trade schools. Less than ten percent of U.S. collegiate undergraduates major in what might be called “liberal arts,” as compared to twenty percent in business, sixteen percent in health, nine percent in education and six to ten percent in computer science [depending on whose figures one uses]. Less than three percent major in English and history combined.

As a writer who effectively minored in English, I’ve thought about the writers and poets I had to study in the late 1950s and early 1960s and those studied by students today. Back then, for example, there was a fairly strong emphasis on poets such as T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, and Wallace Stevens, none of whom are now listed as among the topmost poets assigned in college English classes. Now… times do change, but I realized that poets such as Eliot bring certain requirements that poets and writers such as Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, and Toni Morrison do not. For much of Eliot or Yeats to make sense, the student has to have a far wider grasp of literature and history. Much of the difference between those writers once assigned and those now assigned, from what I can tell, is that a far greater percentage of those now assigned are what one might call self-affirming writers. They affirm a set of values that are either explicitly contained in the work at hand, or they affirm current values. By contrast, poets such as Eliot and Yeats often question and use a wide range of references and allusions unfamiliar to most students, some of which are current and some of which are historical and few of which are “common” knowledge.

In that sense, the best of F&SF, in my opinion, is that which stretches the reader into considering old values in a new light and “new” values through the light of experience, accepting neither at face value. Many F&SF writers present the “new” in a way that proclaims its value uncritically, while others present and trash the “new,” as does Michael Crichton all so well. Then there are those who appear to believe that shocking readers is equivalent to making them think and stretching their horizons. Most of the time, it’s not.

According to Mark Lilla, a professor of political philosophy at Columbia, recently quoted in The New York Times, “What Americans yearn for in literature is self-recognition.” But struggling with unfamiliar themes and values, searching out allusions and references require work and can be an alienating to students, and certainly doesn’t boost self-recognition.

Particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed to me, there was a concerted effort in the SF field to raise issues while adhering to some degree to the tradition of the “literary canon,” and this effort continues with at least some authors today. This melding represents, again in my opinion, one of the great strengths of the field, but paradoxically, it’s also another reason why F&SF readership tends to be limited, at least for these types of F&SF, because a reader either has to be knowledgeable or willing to expand his or her comfort zone.

This gets down to an issue at the basis of education, primarily but not exclusively higher undergraduate education: Is the purpose of higher education to train people for jobs or to teach them to think so that they can continue to learn? Most people would ask why both are not possible. Theoretically, they are, but it doesn’t work that way in practice. Job training emphasizes how to learn and apply skills effectively and efficiently. Thinking training makes one very uncomfortable; it should, because it should force the student out of his or her comfort zone. At one time, that was one of the avowed goals of higher education, and part of the so-called literary canon was chosen so as to provide not only that challenge but also a cultural history of values as illustrated by literature, rather than a mere affirmation of current values.

In addition, today, with the smorgasbord approach to education, a student can effectively limit himself or herself to the courses that merely reinforce his or her existing beliefs and biases. It’s comfortable… but is it education?