Thursday, April 11, 2013


Remember the Canon Wars?

For a brief spell in the 80’s and 90’s, higher education was consumed by the canon wars.  For those too young to remember, the canon wars were some earnest and intense battles among people who couldn’t agree on which authors needed to be taught for students to be considered properly educated.  Allan Bloom usually gets credit (or blame) for picking the fight, but the battle was joined quickly on many sides.  Some favored the “dead white men” who had been taught in Columbia’s Western Civ sequence; some wanted to toss the less interesting and influential dead white guys in favor of some of the more interesting writers from other groups; and some wanted to “teach the conflict.”  

At the time, many of us -- and I include myself here, in my earnest grad student days -- considered this battle a high-stakes proxy fight for larger political positions.  We believed that one’s position on who should be included in the English lit survey course offered great insight into your larger worldview, and that therefore the reverse must also be true.  By introducing new demographics, we believed, we could bring about a more just and tolerant world.

Good times, good times.

I thought of that today as I read about Florida’s move to license unaccredited providers -- whether colleges or anything else -- to offer courses that Florida colleges and universities would have to grant transfer credit.  

The contrast between the “conservative” position of the late 1980’s and the “conservative” position of 2013 is glaring.  

In the canon wars, the “conservative” position involved upholding the idea of humanistic education.  In fact, it held that humanistic education was so important that the prospect of universities doing it wrong was an existential threat to Western society.  (Not that they’d use the word “existential,” of course...)  Conservatives saw themselves as conserving a tradition, which is their role.  It’s what they do, and it serves an important purpose.

I can only imagine Allan Bloom’s response to the Florida bill.  Any conservative culture warrior worthy of the name should be apoplectic at the idea of letting legislators dictate curriculum.  At this point, conservatives have given up on the idea of maintaining an intellectual tradition, and have settled on cost reduction as a good in itself.  They’ve decided that rather than defending Edmund Burke, it’s easier just to run Intro to Business online and call it a day.  

As someone who went through grad school at the height of the canon wars, I’m still a little befuddled by the shift in the debate.  Although they didn’t realize it at the time, the “traditionalists” and the “multiculturalists” shared a premise: specifically, that the content of humanistic education is important.  Now that premise has gone from “obvious” to “quaint,” replaced by increasingly blunt and thoughtless cost cutting.  One side sees the cost cutting as desirable, whether as a way to starve a perceived redoubt of lefties or just because austerity feels good.  The other side prefers not to talk about cost at all, except as a function of budget cuts.  And talk of skills has supplanted talk of content, so discussing which authors should be read has gone from urgent to missing the point.

That’s an alarming amount of change in a relatively short time.  

The change isn’t entirely bad.  It makes sense to look at skills (or outcomes, or competencies).  We want students to be more capable after college than before it.  Given several decades of faster-than-inflation cost increases, the idea of ignoring cost just doesn’t fly anymore.  And it’s well past time to acknowledge that most students aren’t humanities majors.

But it’s still a bit jarring to see the folks who once styled themselves the guardians of civilization become, proudly, the barbarians at the gates.  Their predecessors would have been appalled.  They would have accused the current crop of mindless instrumentalism, of selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.  And they would have had a point.

Allan Bloom's side lost decisively. I'm not surprised that his "heirs" decline to refight that battle.
It's not actually the same people. The certificate barbarians are neo-cons, i.e. libertarians. Their class base is the petite bourgeoisie; their sensibilities, Babbitt. In contrast the canon warriors were Straussians, platonists of the old intellectual noblesse who are kept as legitimating pets by whoever the elite are from time to time.

The canon wars were the very last serious gasp (gasping continues, but what was once tragedy is now farce) of the idea that you could/should make a 'real' elite education available to the masses. In a weird way, Bloom was as democratic as those guys get. But he was also speaking for an anxiously mouthy aspirational fringe of the group; at the center, they don't go public with Truths the proles can't possibly understand and can only corrupt.

Those guys won the canon wars by not fighting them. They're perfectly content now to do it 'right' at Chicago and Hopkins and so on, leaving the rubes to wallow in our own pop-cultural filth and reap the harvest of postmodern standardlessness. From their perspective, we're just getting what we've always deserved here.

Sorry for all the shorthand, this is a blog comment.
@CarlD, thanks, I had not thought of it from that perspective. Loved your phrase "reap the harvest of postmodern standardlessness," I'm going to have to remember that.
Carl's comment is awesome.

However, Florida has a common course numbering system that puts a constraint on the content of any particular course at every college that teaches it. It could, in principle, list the canon to be taught or specify "western" for the scope of the topics to be taught. In practice, it doesn't.

The real problem I see is the one of how a specific college goes about satisfying its accreditor that the relevant learning outcomes have been satisfied by its graduates if the company that taught the class on the transcript has flown by night. And what sort of mess would you find on a transcript?
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