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Some Thoughts about Class, Caste, and the Canon

by Joseph S. Murphy - 1991

Examines the social organization of the university, faculty organization, class and education, and race and ethnicity in the context of an expanded canon. (Source: ERIC)

As a young man I worked on the production line in automobile factories in Detroit, Michigan. It was a time in the early 1950s of full production with plants operating on three eight-hour shifts—the full capacity of the Cadillac automobile production line. On the line, men and some women, mostly white workers largely recruited from border states—Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia—stamped out the parts, which, when assembled, brought forth an eighteen-foot long, five-and-a-half-foot wide, gleaming, finned, garishly colored Cadillac automobile. The proper number of parts to be stamped, formed, and shaped on two-hundred ton presses by a single worker or small groups working as teams was established through union-management negotiations and coordinated with each and every other activity in the factory. Thus, if one line produced too few of one part, the entire assembly line would be required to slow down until the recalcitrant producers of the absent part caught up to the required level of production. The role of the foreman who exercised control over a group of workers was defined exclusively by his ability to guarantee that his unit was not responsible for holding up the entire line of production. Control, therefore, was exercised in a negative way. The foreman cared, as did the floor manager under whom groups of foremen were organized, little about other considerations. Often, farm boys from Appalachian hills in mute rebellion against the tyranny of the line cursed and insulted the foreman sotto voce, deliberately sabotaged machines in ways difficult to discover, purposely injured themselves to gain an hour’s visit to the first-aid facility, appeared from time to time under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and routinely filed frivolous grievances with the shop steward. But so long as workers responded to machine pacing and so long as the foremen ended the shift with the right number of parts produced and accounted for, he cared little about the idiosyncracies of the individual worker. In fact, workers could be and were interchanged from one set of tasks to another, from one part of the factory to another, since the skills required were, for the most part, so simplified that nothing more than a normal person’s strength was required or exceeded; his capacities were simply those necessary to tolerate heat in summer, cold in winter, and the excruciating effects of mind- and soul-numbing boredom.

In the thirty years elapsing since the conditions described, much has changed on the factory floor. Many tasks have been taken over by machines with minds, if not souls, of their own. Robots have replaced workers where tasks are repetitive, predictable, and constant if not more onerous. But one important innovation concerns the position of the worker and his relationship to the factory itself. It is no longer possible to tolerate patterns of worker behavior that reflect their underlying perception of themselves as replaceable cogs in a larger machine. This sort of work and the workers’ response to it allowed interchange between workers and nourished a sense of community among them. It is no accident that the factory and its production line contributed to shaping the kind of environment from which grew one of the most militant and determined union movements.

The current demise of union militancy is related to changes in factory structure and the ways in which increased bureaucratic control of the work force has redefined worker relationship—away from worker-to-worker to a new form of corporate loyalty that ties the worker to the company, thereby transferring a traditional sense of fraternity into individual relations of fealty. The strategy now is to create an idiom of liberal individualism and democratic process and an aura emphasizing the prospects of personal freedom and power, while at the same time impeding the possibility of those developing. As Paul Baran has noted, “Having attained the summit of the social pyramid, big business could not possibly find an ideological formula better suited to its requirements than the principle of the individual’s unfettered freedom to make the utmost of such opportunities as might be available to him.”1 This strategy has other benefits as well: As workers became more closely tied to the corporation, they began to see that their identity as well as their sustenance derived from it. The price is the disappearance of a common culture relating them to other workers with similar interests, goals, and conditions of everyday life. Even the words of “relation” become otiose.


This brief discussion of changes in the work plan illuminates the social organization of the university in at least three ways.

First, consider the mechanisms at work in defining, ordering, and controlling the most potentially volatile and dangerous variable in the entire domain of the managerial bureaucracy in higher education: the minds, imaginations, and analytic insights of the faculty. The administrative bureaucracy is keenly attuned to the reality and illusion that attaches to the role of faculty. On the one hand, faculty are people who “think otherwise.” They are those among us who are supported by economic and social forces that produce the requisite surpluses allowing faculty to think of the world in new, different, clearer, and more insightful ways than the rest of us. In short, the productive forces of society generate the intellectual conditions necessary for their own demise and transformation: Faculty worth their salt look at a world in which they are assigned the responsibility, by the nature of their activity, to find fault. Scientists are forever dissatisfied with inherited explanations of the behavior of the physical and biological world; philosophers read their own intellectual past with an ear cocked to capture a false or inconsistent note; historians cannot write history except insofar as earlier historical narratives are seen to be defective or incomplete; artists and writers tear the world they see to pieces and recreate from these fragments new and different objects and shapes, people, and events. No one in academic life is content to live with the world they have at hand. Thus, at best, faculty are dangerous people. They seek to change our understanding of the world as we find it and to challenge the ways in which we are to understand it. They are breeders of dissatisfaction and, at their most threatening, they convey their discontents to new generations. From Socrates on academics have sought, consciously or otherwise, with their unbridled and unmoored enthusiasm combined with incisive intelligence, to seek truth “even unto its innermost parts”; to thereby undermine the world familiar if not dear to most of us and especially to those and their servants with powerful interests in maintaining themselves in power and authority-political, social, and economic.

Yet the insatiable curiosity of academics is the driving force behind production itself, and so, suspicious as the managerial bureaucracy may rightfully be of the subversive nature of the academic enterprise, the fruits of their inquiries are in demand. The challenge is to separate the productively useful from the ideologically embarrassing, or even socially debilitating. Thus their work as academics must be made subject to a form of social organization that serves to maximize their utility and to remove those elements that threaten the social status quo.

The strategy appropriate to realizing this objective would ideally encourage practices derived from elements already present and ingrained in academic life, to wit: hierarchy and processes encouraging and enabling control through rewards and punishments—the meat and potatoes of hierarchy. Just as the managerial bureaucracy of the factory seeks to inculcate an ethos that enfeebles the prospects and possibility of collective worker action, so in this other institutional garb does it strive to establish forms in the university itself that academics will exercise against themselves—self-control, self-imposed. Academics collectively and willingly, even enthusiastically, don the chains that bind them; so will each, in accepting and introjecting the rules governing the social organization of faculty life, buy into a compromise that leaves the sharp intellectual edges of their critical acumen rounded off by the accommodations that success and survival demand.2


The faculties of the vast majority of colleges and universities in America are far more tightly organized and more forcefully restrained and self-controlled precisely because their ethic defines success in prudential and orthodox ways. Eccentricity is not admired, often not tolerated, rarely rewarded. That eccentricity sometimes goes hand in hand with creativity results in the sacrifice of the latter and the result is often a kind of academic conformity, especially in those disciplines in which creativity is at the heart of the enterprise. When deviation from orthodoxy occurs in the arena of the social and political disciplines it is seen as most threatening to managerial bureaucracies faced with the job of explaining these away.

The bureaucrat is more often than not simply annoyed by the troublesome behavior of dissenters and seeks to have them silenced or muted not directly but by the institution of the faculty itself. Thus, standards for reward, promotion, tenure, and so on, are conceived and shaped to exclude the troublesome, not because they unsettle the secure existence of the wealthy and powerful (though that too) but because they violate the canons of acceptable academic work—they go too far; they test the outermost parameters of the discipline’s tightly controlled definitions of its own identity. Here the bureaucracy is not required to act in heavy-handed ways. It avoids direct confrontation with academia’s work rules—with principles of academic freedom. It seeks merely to uphold and support the faculties’ traditional Standards of achievement within the discipline and points out apostasy. Thus the procedures, processes, and value systems of academic disciplines are the instruments with which control of faculty and repression of deviation are accomplished—always avoiding revealing the ideological and normative implications of the bureaucratic role.

Such instructive measures by administrators are, however, rarely required. The faculty does its own self-censorship. The self-definition of a discipline is not seen as arbitrary. It rests on the illusion of objectivity and it justifies itself through its claim that there exist objective standards mainly quantitative and that all reflection, thought, speculation, and so on are merely opinion or prejudice when offered as proper objects of knowledge without having satisfied objective, quantitative standards of acceptability.


Some areas of human inquiry—literature, history, philosophy, among them—are not easily subject to quantification or similar machinations, which, in post-Galilean fashion, give an imprimatur to the claim of being a proper object of knowledge. This theoretical difficulty can be taken care of by establishing parameters essentially appropriate to these inquiries and intellectual production. Hence, a canon comes into being, a body of literature to be defended against the barbarian who would redefine the accepted intellectual and cultural tradition at the core of the established empire. Those who would begin to nibble away at the edges of this canon are Philistines to be defeated at all costs. Any suggestion that literature or ways of writing history or philosophy might include the creations and production of others not properly initiated is perceived as heresy, apostasy, and worse. That such exclusion runs against another dominant current that supports the widely held view that one must always accept the prospect of being wrong, indeed that without such possibility knowledge is replaced by dogma, can also be taken care of. The counter argument asserts that “falsifiability” is appropriate to those intellectual enterprises in which the fundamental rules of inquiry are not abrogated. One such fundamental rule is that the value of a piece of intellectual or academic work must be judged altogether independent of the facts surrounding the lives, character, personalities, and cultural milieu of the producers. Still, those who would question this rule, this basic postulate, go too far, for without some standard of value we are adrift in a sea of subjectivity—never to reach safe harbor. Of course, one can ask why anyone would ever think that safe harbors are possible; why imagine that any exist? Who has seen the completed chart for these mysterious, interminable voyages? Can political life, in short, be dominated by the pursuit of absolutes or should it? Perhaps, as Michael Oakeshott says, continuing the nautical metaphor, “men sail a boundless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter or ground for anchorage, neither starting place nor destination. Perhaps, the enterprise is to keep afloat.”3

Finally, the problem revolves around the question of whose rules of navigation are to be followed. The adoption of a canon requires rules for justifying this canon as opposed to some other, this dogma or theology rather than another. Academics suffer greater discomfort in the face of subjectivism than they do when confronted by skepticism. Theories, it is thought, must be subjected to a logic of explanation that is itself logical. To tread beyond this logic or these logics is to pass beyond the credibility that defines the right to be taken seriously by the only audience that matters—the collective of similar-sounding voices who share not only a common language but weighty investments in those languages and logics. The Greeks have a word for it, varvari—the barbarians who half-live outside the gates of the Greek-speaking world. The wall is the dividing line and crossing it puts one outside the safety, security, and legitimacy of civil and cultural life. It is, as Socrates understood, an exile, which is worse than death. For the academic, transgressions lead to professional death, an existence in which all the nourishments provided by recognition and reward are withheld. It is no surprise that dramatic theoretical revolutions are often brought about by those who found no safe harbors in academic life—Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein shared a common academic marginality, the price they paid for rejecting the tepid comforts of the canon.

The canon does not exist, however, merely to offer comfort and security but also to defend and protect all parties from deviation from orthodoxy. Bureaucracies, by supporting the orthodoxy of rules and established canons of humanistic achievement and learning, make common cause with conventional academics who generate the standards and define the parameters of acceptable inquiry. The radical intellectual armed with the weapons of alternative cultures and ways of life encounters insurmountable obstacles within the confines of the university. Among the burdens borne by those who fail to conform by embracing ways of thinking about the world that would grant admission into institutional structures is the certainty that living in a demimonde assures obscurity for their insights, perceptions, and alternative ways of looking at the world. It is both the mark of radical intellectuals and their cross not to be able to take for granted all those things that are taken for granted. After all, what is taken for granted includes those logics and languages that they seek to transcend, including definitions about the fundamental nature of humankind and its works, ways of living, and ways of organizing social, material, and intellectual life.

Current debates in higher education and elsewhere about the canon are about something other than what they appear to be. Much that has been written on this subject seems to imply that the debate revolves around questions of space and taste. How much and what sorts of things can fit into the “five-foot shelf’ of the mind and what sort of tests must new candidates pass in order to gain entry? The debate is not unimportant, though it may not be waged on the right battlefield. Clearly, peoples whose literature, philosophy, culture, and history have been relegated to a status deemed inferior or negligible or even contemptible are likely-to conclude that they themselves and those like them are equally demeaned or overlooked. They may believe, with some justification, that the exclusion of their culture’s intellectual production from the body of learning worthy of being transmitted to future generations and thereby made part of the substance of civilization has unpromising consequences for their own aspirations and status within the dominant culture. It would be natural for them to conclude that changing the rules in order to expand the boundaries of cultural orthodoxy and to admit their contribution is a worthy tactical and political objective and that their prospects for a more democratic society will be enhanced if their cultural productions were to be included in an enlarged and more generously conceived universe. Yet this argument might be in some measure beside the point.

The social organization of the content and processes of knowledge and education introduces variables rarely considered and, generally, given insubstantial recognition. Much of what is included in the canon has a conventional taint about it. That is to say, the great texts do not arrive with their elevated status printed on the frontispiece. They come to us as legacies from the past with the imprimatur of authority. Whose authority and by what right? Perhaps it is the fact of the existence of a canon that is the crux of this issue and not the canon and its contents themselves. Knowing the texts, authors, and principal ideas and concepts of what is authorized, and if not knowing in the precise sense, but at least recognizing those, may be nothing more than the secret handshake and esoteric signals that permit Freemasons to recognize each other as a class with common interests, aspirations, and enemies.

Classical learning, the heart of the liberal arts education available exclusively to the children of the wealthy and aristocratic in England from the beginning even well into this century, often contained texts no longer attended to even in the most determined of those exclusive institutions dedicated to liberal learning. Texts have come and texts have gone but the canon, as a concept, remains for those who understand that its possession is what matters even if its contents change with time and experience. It is, therefore, not so much a matter of what it is as who claims it and who is excluded from its possession. In short, the canon has some of the properties of capital. It is possessed and transferred, some have more of it than others, and those who possess more use it to control and manipulate those who have less.


Allan Bloom and his friends are disingenuous. They claim that education in America has failed because the central task of the university is to transmit the higher culture and the public universities of the masses have failed to do so; and they claim that the capacity to participate in the intellectual life of a culture is limited exclusively to those who do so. Not surprisingly, those outside the walls behind which culture flourishes deserve to be there and the evidence for this condition is that they are there.

Few who believe or pretend to believe in the desirability of a democratic society wish to deprive the children of the working class of the benefits of a liberal arts education. Leaving alone the fact that it is not easy to be clear about what is meant by this, surely one commonly held notion requires that all participate in acquiring acquaintanceship with the principal texts of Western inheritance. Here again the process of bringing about familiarity with the canon often works against the possibilities of achieving equal results. The mass lecture hall of the public university recreates and reveals in the physical structure of the institution itself the intended outcome; the dissemination of names, dates, key concepts, and dramatic events of common tribal experience delivered authoritatively and paternalistically with little opportunity to wrestle with the slippery edges of theories, concepts, ideas, and words. The process carries the message: The aspiring children of the poor and working class will be “given” an education that carries intimations of weight and authority but the development of a critical sensibility that would challenge that authority languishes and atrophies in the anonymity of the huge auditoriums of the large public university. Thus passively and obediently the children of the working class absorb and repeat received knowledge uncritically and scramble against the diabolical bell-curve of disappointment and exclusion. There is no escaping for many of them the sad conclusion that something watered down is being offered, that the cut-rate product is as unfresh and unappetizing as the offerings of a poor inner-city market.

In contrast, the seminar rooms of the private and would-be elitist liberal arts colleges reverberate with the voices of the children of the well-to-do where questions and arguments are taken with the seriousness they rarely deserve but which convey to these fortunates the sense that they, as human beings, are to be taken seriously and that what they say matters. Moreover, the process implies that the body of knowledge transmitted is “theirs”; it is their property, as it were, and may be absorbed and transformed into an internalized set of values, opinions, propositions, and perceptions that, taken together, form the structure of a critical apparatus that gives confidence and security. In this atmosphere the student is not the subject of higher authority, either of the past or of his teachers, but becomes the authority. From learning that one can have a position with reference to a text and a teacher, sometimes one that stands in a critical relationship with these, one learns also to be authoritative and to exercise authority. One now has a right, even an obligation, reinforced and rewarded in the classroom, to have an authoritative opinion and to express it. Thus, the children of the wealthy are taught to be competent wielders of the power they are being trained to inherit.

In this context the meaning of the word knowledge and how it is to be measured is ambiguous. In the large public university an exaggerated emphasis on the student’s acquisition of facts and data substitutes for, and often obscures the existence and importance of, concepts and interpretation. As a practical matter, the mass processing of large numbers of students through an immense and complex institution encourages a pedagogy that is methodically fragmented into bits and pieces such that their acquisition can be measured through objective and quantifiable means. Judgments, thought processes, evaluations, and applications of concepts that require lengthy and expensive investments go by the board. Mass production in education yields the same benefits and costs as it does in the production of goods—shabby but ubiquitous and available. Unlike mass-produced consumer goods, the products are human beings and the costs are greater and different since their lives are not renewable and obsolescence in education leaves permanent scars on those who imagined and expected that the sacrifices required to be educated would yield richer and more enduring results.

More than ever in our time, knowledge is the source of power. But the kind of knowledge and the relationship between its acquisition, the processes involved in acquiring it, and the psychological and emotional condition brought about by the former are as important as the content. Genuine education has as one of its results the legitimate recognition that one can manipulate the world and its contents according to one’s will and that life is not a series of lamentable or felicitous accidents. If education leads to different emotional and psychological outcomes, if there are, that is to say, different kinds of education for different classes of people, it should come as no surprise that one sort leads to a sense of power to control events and another to passivity and resignation.

The current debate in England between teachers and the Tory government makes this distinction explicit (the relationship between class and education is somewhat more explicit there than in the United States). Margaret Thatcher believed that the curriculum in history, for example, should concentrate on the names of kings and queens, battles and other landmarks in history, on the facts of history, while British teachers argued that history ought to be taught in a way that promotes wider understanding of the social, political, and economic forces at work in British society. This debate is obviously more about power and class than it is about pedagogy.

Thatcher’s successor, perhaps unwittingly, goes one stop further. Prime Minister John Major wishes to create, he claims, a classless society. One assumes that Tories, if they are not to be confused with Marxists, must mean that their objective is to do away with the word class rather than its referent. If there are no linguistic occasions in which the word class can be meaningfully used, then it follows that other locutions containing this word are muddled or meaningless, for example, class consciousness, class struggle, working class. Major seeks an end to the use of the word. If working people are persuaded—as they seem to be in America—that there are no classes, or, what comes to the same thing, that there exists only a middle class, then the terms necessary to describe and understand one’s place and condition disappear by linguisitc fiat and struggle to change one’s condition becomes impossible. Of course, doing away with the word cancer cannot be represented as a cure for cancer, though it can result in retarding the prospects for such a cure.

Such class-motivated deceptions, the art of painting or representing one’s own class interests as the interests of all, is common in the history of societies generally. The effort to effect such deceptions succeeds when all are deceived. How do these strategies play on the aspirations of the second major constituency under the umbrella of bureaucratic structures in higher education and the ultimate recipients of its benefits and bearers of its costs, the students?

Working-class students are notoriously attached to objective and quantifiable standards of academic achievement. Grade-point averages, course credits, requirements for various degrees, and so on, are the meat and potatoes of undergraduate concerns in urban public universities. The miasmic clouds of bureaucratic paraphernalia, the dozens of forms, the endless waiting lines, the sensitivity and human concerns of overworked clerks driven to surly incivility, the technicalities for profession certification, the prerequisites for courses, the documents testifying to health, birth, citizenship, race, draft status, and financial condition, taken together create mountainous obstacles to entry and exit from the large public university. Surely persistence, determination, and forbearance are as central to success as intellectual talent or academic acumen—all this in an environment in which students have, fortunately, a lengthy history of dealing with social-welfare bureaucracies whose impact on their lives has left them with a deep and abiding suspicion that the objective of these state entities is to prevent them from receiving benefits of any sort. Thus those students who demand explicit statements about how this process of higher education is to proceed do so not out of love of bureaucratic structure but rather from a well-honed appreciation of the deceptions and irrationalities of their experience with them. Catch 22 is an everyday experience and madness is avoided, when it is avoided, only by recognizing, though perhaps unconsciously, that the value and benefit of an education is of so high an order of magnitude that those forces arrayed against them are there for good reasons of their own.

The current generation of working-class students has historical counterparts, and their accommodation to bureaucratic forces repeats the experiences of earlier generations with higher-educational authorities. Both Irving Howe and William Barrett, from opposite ideological corners of the universe, report similar sorts of experiences as students at City College in the 1930s. Barrett writes about the crowding, noise, filth, chaos, confusion, and indignities of the place. Both describe in unvarnished fashion the bitter experiences of students of the thirties in their efforts to overcome these conditions and their determination to extract from these marginally tolerable circumstances the intellectual and academic credentials necessary to build better lives. Neither succumbs to the now fashionable tendency among the successful survivors of those generations to romanticize. Consider Barrett’s words: “And yet through all its clamor and dinginess there was a redeeming gleam of mind-a certain intellectual dedication that shone here and there among the students and some of the faculty. The life of the mind, if only dimly glimpsed from time to time, did have a meaning in that otherwise shabby institution. And at that particular time the students, though in their own grubby and ill-mannered way, were probably the most dedicated body of undergraduates in the country.“4 Though the physical indignities remain, reinforced by decades of neglect and underfunding, the dedication of students and faculty continues to exist as well, intense as ever before.

Some things, perhaps the least important, have changed. Spanish and Chinese have replaced Yiddish; Fanon has replaced Trotsky; black and Hispanic immigrants have replaced Jewish, Irish, and Italian; yet tens of thousands of the children of American, African, and Caribbean blacks and Hispanics from Caribbean islands as well as Central and Latin America; Asians from India, Vietnam, China, Korea, and so on; a blooming buzzing confusion of voices, colors, accents all taken together seek what others have sought and sometimes found before them. Their task, however, is not the easier for the times in which their struggles occur. The great imperial expansion following World War II that propelled earlier millions into the middle class and better is over. The rivers of capital that enriched America have shifted their banks, sending tributaries to more promising and more fertile regions. Less wealth remains for all but especially for those whose dependence on the largess provided grudgingly by progressively reactionary and conservative governments was greatest. Not surprisingly, the impoverished children of earlier immigrant generations whose fortunes were the results of economic and social forces that propelled them to middle-class respectability promptly confused history with autobiography, taking prideful credit and citing personal and ethnic superiority as explanations for achievements that largely came about more on account of “being there” and good luck than anything else. From the Blooms to the Bennetts we hear the same refrain: “We made it, why can’t they?” The answer is implied, “We were simply superior, by virtue of our own talent and the special richness of our cultural and intellectual traditions.”

It is especially ironic that so many intellectuals whose main claim to having a voice is their inherent capacity to offer complex and subtle but plausible distinctions among objects, events, and concepts feel no apparent unease at equating their own elevation as a class with their own virtue, whose origins were among the poor and immigrant, similar to those whom they now encounter in the classrooms of public universities across the country. This equation diminishes and obscures any sense of special responsibility toward those who have come after them; indeed, it permits and even encourages a degree of contempt and cruelty that can be matched in the attitudes and teachings to which the children of immigrants at City College at the turn of the century were subjected. Consider, for example, Walter E. Clark’s observation, put forward as part of his curriculum in economics, on the subject of the disadvantages of immigration: “Immigrants and their children yield a disporportion of illiterates, diseased, insane, paupers and criminals. They tend to congest in large cities and to complicate our already difficult urban problems.“5

Thus the victims of one generation learn to practice incivilities on the next—how else explain the disingenuous use of ostensibly factual propositions with anti-Semitic intent and the subsequent reappearance of similar statements, such as those made in recent years at City College by Michael Levin for racist purposes? Nevertheless such statements are no more coarse or painful in their effects than Bellow’s observation that “when the Zulus have a Tolstoi, we will read him.” All come to the same result, which diminishes the status and legitimacy of the cultures of the people we are to educate.

Yet students come to us in ever increasing numbers with vast hopes, perhaps excessive in their zeal and unreasonable in their expectations, clad with the armor of suspicion deeply bred in their experiences with the dominant culture. This protective armor is also suggestive of the past. One is reminded of the skepticism behind the experiences of distinguished intellectual historian Frank Manuel, at Harvard. Told when he was elected a member of the Society of Fellows that a Ph.D. was not necessary since no honor in academic life could be greater than his election to so august a body, he proceeded to acquire one anyway. Some, more secure with the promises of the dominant culture—for example, Arthur Schlesinger and McGeorge Bundy—were content with the establishment’s assurances. Perhaps less impressed were those masses of students in the 1920s and 1930s who confronted what they perceived to be an alien and often unsympathetic faculty whose values and opinions were seen as rules in a game, mastery of which would enable them to win but the content of which was always taken with a grain of salt. “Tell us what you think we need to know,” they effectively said, “and we will beat the field,” keeping in secret reserve the culture and politics as well as the dreams and aspirations of their intellectual and cultural heritage. Thus did City College students of that period, for the most part Jewish, ape the values of the culture they encountered in the new land, and at the same time sustain a skepticism, transplanted from the Eastern European “shtetle,” about the intentions and values of the new culture. “Dress British, think Yiddish,” stamped by countless grandfathers on the passport of their minds, enabled them to endure and overcome the distance between themselves and where they intended to go. An expression in Yiddish revealed both the strategy and the outcome of this obliquely self-mocking perception: “Azoi ve es kristlet-zich azoi yiddelt sich” (We will keep what we have in secret reserve).

As Jews incorporated the uniquely American version of the Western intellectual tradition, laden and deeply absorbed as it is with the English and the Germans, and made it their own, blacks, Latinos, and other immigrant people, while swiftly incorporating the present edition of the canon into their own processes of cultural accommodation and assimilation to life in America, maintain in similar fashion a tie to the language, culture, and normative values of their own. “Tell us what we need to know to make it,” they say, but in making it on our own we will in our own way and time transform it so that coherence and constancy with our own past experience and traditions will not leave us truncated and fragmented from a world culture in which our ancestors played a significant and productive role. Thus, Hispanic students, for example, encounter the dominant culture profoundly skeptical of its insistence on Anglo Saxon modalities, with the modest and reasonable expectation that Spanish literature and culture be acknowledged if not incorporated into the canon.

The canon has some of the essential qualities of religious belief: It must insist that its authority and legitimacy is of a higher order than the canon of competing cultures. It is not enough to claim that it possesses enduring and intrinsic value; it must also claim exclusivity and universality. Its defenders, who were once its victims and then its willing co-religionists, have become its arbiters—as when Bellow says “We will read it.” The “we” means those who have become the owners of this property and the ultimate arbiters and surveyors of its boundaries, the judges and juries of its value.

By the same measure, minority students are prepared to take their “canonical medicine,” listen passively and quietly judge what is offered, often suspicious of the curative effects claimed yet nevertheless knowing that cautious restraint is often the price of eventual emancipation.


People of color encounter problems more difficult to overcome than those of other immigrant groups before them. Though it is a truism to say that they alone are the children and grandchildren of generations forced by the lash, the whip, and the gun to immigrate to America, the stark choices confronting other immigrant groups were also tantamount to forced migration. The history of slavery left marks on current generations that are no more eradicable than the color of their skin. Torn from their homelands, they were separated from their language, culture, and history in ways no other immigrant group can claim. To be sure the history of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants contained brutalities and humiliations of extraordinary magnitude, but the difference in this regard was in degree rather than in the character of their experience of separation and alienation. The Irish arrived with a useful language, Jewish people with religion and literacy and a respect for learning and scholarship that meshed with the requirements and values of the dominant culture, and the Italians with a family structure that embodied a network of social coherence making life even for the poorest among them safer and more tolerable than it might otherwise have been. All, however, were white, and for those who chose to melt into the larger sea of American faces, the transition to a nonsectarian anonymity in a generation or two was at least possible. Many made this voyage—a name change, marriage, change of address, education, and relocation were all that was required to become an “American.” Not so for black people. Thus did blacks in America find themselves culturally stranded. Either they bought, lock, stock, and barrel, into the dominant culture, or the way out of poverty was closed to them. Even when they did and do, through extraordinary struggle and sacrifice, the color of their skin left them in a special category, unassimilable, high and dry: separated from African roots, denied a past, and systematically persuaded by the most powerful forces in the social and economic arsenal of the dominant culture that they were denied nothing, for their past contained no culture at all.

When Bellow and his colleagues embrace the canon of the dominant culture, they do so from a position of strength—they build and participate in this culture from a foundation of security that itself rests on five thousand years of coherent and continuous history. That tradition itself gives a standard against which the new culture can be measured as well as the intellectual and analytic tools for dealing with the dominant culture’s not so rare pretentions and affectations. Bellow did not invent scathing skepticism, he inherited it.

‘We did it, we made it, why can’t they?” The cruel rhetorical question of those who did make it obscures two vital points: Many did not “make it,” and, more importantly, the “we” and the “they” are not the same people; they did not carry the same burdens, and comparisons are faulty for all the reasons anyone who bothers to look at the matter must see and understand.6


The point of this discussion is to make an appeal, more than a case, for an expanded canon. We must do a better job of looking for and finding the literature, philosophy, music, and poetry, as well as the science and cosmology, of those people who are now here and part of us who have been separated, through no fault of their own, from their history and their past. It needs to be included for all our sakes, for moral and human reasons but also for practical and philosophical ones.

First, radical arguments that everything goes as an explanation, a theory that leads to skepticism, is as much a political attack on the canon as it is an intellectual stance. It is the product of the despair of those who cannot find a foothold on the ramparts that exclude them. Thus, they gain entry by making all things roughly equal to all other things since distinctions among cultural products are invidious, they claim, reflecting not an objective universality but rather the oppressive unilaterally enforced doctrine of the dominant class. It would appear that the idea of a canon, if it is to be preserved in some sense or other, must bring the disaffected into the tent—along with their baggage. The baggage, it must be considered, may yet, on examination, contain treasures even by the lights of the most orthodox. Surely it is better to enlarge the party than preserve only through increasingly defensive measures a smaller and smaller venue.

Those who argue that the canon exists as an expression of the highest achievements of mankind have a view about how this is to be communicated to the children of the next generation. Those who are less persuaded of the legitimacy of the claim also believe that the world would be a better place and people would lead less miserable lives if the canon were not to exist or if it were enlarged to include the words of those hitherto excluded, and they share the same view with regard to education and dissemination: That is to say, the canon produces persons who in their lives live according to the, or a, canon. Those educated in some other way, presumably, will live lives governed by some other values and standards. Yet our experience flies in the face of this presumption. One cannot predict how a text will be judged, analyzed, and introjected into the consciousness and lives of students. Consider the example of the speech Tacitus puts in the mouth of Calgacus in Agricola in Brittania. Working-class students side with Calgacus, identify with him and cheer him on, the way the disaffected cheer on notorious enemies of society. The effect achieved is, sometimes, the obverse of what was intended-if anything was intended.

Professors who support and those who oppose the canon face the same problem—to wit: It does not much matter what is on the required reading list so long as the analytic and critical capacity of students is developed and so long as their psychological, social, and emotional disposition is such that they believe they are entitled to take a critical stance vis-a-vis their teachers and the theories their teachers peddle. It is hoped that the critical stance they adopt will reflect the capacity to argue logically and competently, in a persuasive and coherent way, and that they have confidence in their right to have a view that differs from conventional views or majority attitudes. Even so, no student adopts and develops a critical capacity independent of the social meaning of the consequences of the analysis. By that I mean that it is unlikely, except among the perverse, for one to seek to establish the validity of a proposition that, if held by others, would be detrimental to one’s own interests. The views of women, blacks, Hispanics, and so forth, are much more likely to get short shrift in the arguments and seminar rooms from which they are excluded. The point of bringing them in is wholly consistent with Mill’s notion that a minority view strengthens majority opinion either by showing itself to be inferior, in which case the majority opinion is more persuasively and confidently adopted, or, superior, in which case the majority view can be modified or discarded. In any event, the conceptual content of majority views is invariably enriched, enlarged, and enhanced by the perceptions and experience of those whose lives are materially, socially, and culturally various. This must be the pragmatic, as opposed to moral or Kantian, argument put forward on behalf of those who advance what is now called “cultural pluralism.”

There are firm philosophical grounds for this view. One such view has its roots in Locke, whose revolutionary epistemology implicitly implies the view that truths are more confidently arrived at the more they are enriched and informed by experience. The moral and political consequence of this view is the notion that no individual life, so far as it differs from every other by virtue of the uniqueness of the experiences of each, can be said to have less value than any other.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 2, 1991, p. 265-280
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 252, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 11:50:00 PM

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