An Insufficient Case for the Canon

Gabriel R.Ricci*

[From HUMANITAS, Volume X, No. 2, 1997 © National Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]

The Great Book Controversy: The Battle of the Books in Higher Education, by William Casement. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1996. 172 pp. $34.95.

I. There are numerous accounts in the controversy over the teaching of the Western canon that have titles which play on the martial imagery in the homonym "cannon." Though William Casement's overview of the debate is subtitled The Battle of the Books in Higher Education, he strikes a conciliatory posture in contrast to the shrill tones of those who stand their ground against the "School of Resentment," or bemoan the onslaught of Rock 'n' Roll, the Sixties, the Sexual Revolution, and value-conscious German historicism, all of which have spread like contagion across American campuses and eclipsed the light of reason.1

Casement covers much territory, but his agenda is admittedly modest. His book is divided into three parts: Part I offers a brief history of the teaching of the canon, Part II disputes the political and epistemological arguments of the anticanonists, and Part III proposes a brand of reform that safeguards the integrity of the traditional Western canon.

The play on the term "canon" should be taken to heart, since the master list of canonical works represents not only a plurality of views—an idea that Casement proposes to calm the furor of anticanonists—but such internecine antagonisms as to undermine any consistent or universal message from the list. Aristotle's criticism of the redundancy of Plato's bifurcated world is part of the canonical landscape, Machiavelli's rejection of Plato's misguided idealism cannot be denied, and Plato himself, in his zeal for a disembodied intellectual aristocracy in the Republic, unabashedly denounced Homer's mythological worldview. Nonetheless, "teaching the conflicts" as Gerald Graf has recommended, according to Casement, is just an insidious form of anticanonism that would make Stanford's motley philosophy track the model.2 Canonists will be heartened by Casement's equivocal brand of reform, which denies real change until some distant time in the future. The contextualists, as Casement calls them, will not be happy with the elevation of the slippery principle of universality as the standard governing admission to the canon.

The history that Casement offers in Part I is too thin to be helpful. Moreover, he assumes the Platonic antagonism to the sophists that has been perpetuated by the traditional Western canon. This position is reflected in Part II in which Casement dismisses the historicist epistemologies of canon detractors. Casement arbitrarily distinguishes the early sophists from the Orators, like Isocrates, whose ethical mission superseded personal advancement. The sophists, who were devoted to the same art of rhetoric (Isocrates was the student of perhaps the most nihilistic of the sophists, Gorgias), also advocated mastery over the three pillars of the art of persuasion: logos, pathos, and ethos. The manner in which the sophists have been filtered through Platonic philosophy has obscured their commitment to a moral excellence.

Why is an effort like Casement's to disclose the history of teaching the canon so important? In a phrase, it demonstrates that the canon is necessarily developmental. Casement's brief history of the curricular changes and intellectual controversies, from the ancient world to the modern era, demonstrates how one system can be peremptorily displaced by another. Scholasticism's emphasis on logic obscured the rhetorical and civic function of education while it served the Church's demand to produce subtle arguments for the existence of God. Renaissance humanism followed with its revival of antiquity and a more robust educational system that included rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. In turn, the Enlightenment's exaltation of progress and the mathematicization of thought relegated ancient wisdom to the dust of the archives. Casement appropriates these intellectual struggles to the current crisis in higher education, but does not adequately reveal to what extent the opposing sides were motivated by either canon preservation or canon busting. The various controversies differ enough to caution against such a sweeping assimilation.

Casement misses the opportunity to discuss the case of Galileo, which goes to the heart of the tension surrounding canon formation. The extent to which canon formation entails political warfare is illustrated in the case of Galileo. His detractors were adamant, for they could not loosen their hegemonic grip without sacrificing their authority. The solution was a chilling house arrest, a pleasant alternative to the price paid by Giordano Bruno and others. The current controversy over the canon is a recapitulation of these earlier battles, and Casement's brand of reformism evinces Galileo's skill of agreeing and disagreeing at the same time. Galileo also publicly brandished his exegetical skills. While this strategy intruded on his detractors' turf, he demonstrated a knowledge of Church history and awareness of the "canon of all canons" which, in distinguishing preaching how to get to heaven from teaching how the heavens go, established the autonomy of science alongside the value of matters of faith. Galileo and Genesis can be found on the same syllabus.

Near the end of his historical overview Casement foreshadows how extensive his reform in Part III of the book will be. Echoing the ideal of advancing the elitism that he has traced throughout the intellectual controversies, Casement regards the cultivation of "truth and proper values" as the ultimate goal of the canon. Casement finds this sentiment embodied in William Bennett's assertion that "We study Western culture because it is ours and because it is good." 3 Insofar as there might very well be deplorable aspects of Western culture, the promotion of this attitude undercuts Casement's commitment to critical thinking. Furthermore, Casement's claim that studying the foundations of Western culture prepares us for success in this culture is left unsubstantiated. This position seems indefensible, unless one takes it to mean that, for some, awareness of institutional prejudices is an aid to survival or even success. Casement's final point on the value of studying the great books is that we will discover that Western culture is preferable to other cultures because of distinguishing features like "freedom and democracy." But, the undercurrent of the elite, cultured class that has historically buoyed the canon has demanded hierarchial social structures that do not provide for a uniform distribution of these distinguishing features. Finally, Casement is certain that immersion in the great books will uncover the universal character of what it is to be human. This transhistorical essence is superior to individual cultural manifestations, and will provide what "it takes to live life successfully and happily in accord with our species-being." In light of Casement's allegiance to "conservatives" like William Bennett this conclusion is an ironic appropriation of Marx's social critique in which the concept of species-being (Gattungswesen) is employed to demonstrate that institutions praised by Casement actually quash what is truly human.

Strictly speaking, it is anachronistic to speak of the canon in the context of ancient Greece. While we might pursue an understanding of formal education at the time, and even ask who some of the early teachers may have been, and what the goals of their curricula were, the canon was not an issue in the way it is for Casement or other defenders of this tradition. When we consider that Homer's works circulated for centuries in the oral tradition, and that books (scrolls) were first used as memory aids for performers primarily interested in communicating to an audience, then Casement's history should begin before books as we know them even circulated. When texts were inscribed on liber or bark, when there was no consistent way to apply the text so that reading was meaningful without assistance from one already familiar with how the text should sound, before there were booktraders, before there were libraries—before all this, Homer prevailed in the curriculum, but not as part of the canon. There hardly could have been a canon before there were books. Casement, as do other defenders of the Western canon, assumes as part of his argument the conclusion that the canon always existed. This procedure denies the historical dialectic through which the canon emerges. If the canon was in germ form in ancient Greece, then the canonists must assume the burden of articulating the precise standards around which its future formation would occur. Casement repeatedly invokes universalist thinking and addresses specific unifying threads in Part III when he weighs what he calls the human unity thesis against the cultural unity thesis. Casement evokes medieval realism when he argues for the universals that "lie beyond individual minds and beyond containment in printed matter," but he offers little in the way of a connecting thread between "mind and print" (68). This was a problem that Plato's theory of ideas left unresolved, so the standard of proof is demanding, indeed.

Casement overstates the availability of books in the fifth century B.C. Apparently it was through the generosity of a Ptolomey (second century B.C.) that the first public library was founded in Athens. Before that time there was no reading public to speak of. The supposed owners of private libraries bore the brunt of Aristophanes's jests, though Seneca declared libraries in his day to be as useful as baths, and by the Renaissance the library embodied the literary and architectural retrieval of antiquity. Manuscripts primarily circulated to aid public performances and public speaking. If something must be credited for conceiving the canon in its present controversial form, the Greek tragic arts and the art of rhetoric cannot be overlooked. Aristotle's noted characterization of humans as zoon politikon was a reflection of the role Greek (Athenian) citizens could expect in fifth century B.C. This civic function was cultivated through the art of rhetoric, the cornerstone of education at the time. Inheriting the canon should also mean inheriting the prototypical curriculum's goals: fulfilling the rhetorical conception of civic life and participating in the public assembly. This goal has been abandoned in the aesthetic elevation of the canon. Casement's account of this historical period includes the political backdrop against which the canon was taking shape when he acknowledges the civic goal of Greek education. But his inherited distrust of the sophists minimizes this consideration. We cannot dismiss the aesthetic underpinnings of tragedy and rhetoric. However, they were designed for a public forum, not to assuage anxiety over our mortality and wisely to use our solitude, an attitude that suppresses the social world embedded in the canon.

II. In Part II of his book Casement displays some rigor and consequently shows his own colors in dismissing what he considers to be the epistemologically self-defeating premise of contextualism. Like logical positivism in the thirties, contextualism does not stand the test of its own (historicist) standard. Disputing the standard of universalism from the perspective of contextualism is self-defeating. Here Casement appears to treat the range of contextualists as generic Protagoreans, playing fast and loose with the conventional bivalent logical code. Contextualists may have implicitly challenged this code with their sense of indeterminancy, but their public agenda has been to illuminate the historical and institutional nexus which shapes texts in general. This strategy does not necessitate invoking the laws of thought, particularly the law of excluded middle. Casement tends to reduce contextualism to philosophical relativism and misses the more historical forms which are not constrained by mathematical logic.

Casement treats the opposing "postmodernist" forces generically and devotes no effort to distinguishing the many approaches that call into question the foundationalism and the transcendent ideal underlying the canon. To illustrate how unorthodox schools of thought can be that advocate multiple interpretations, Casement displays the case of Stanley Fish's offbeat interpretation of William Blake's poem "The Tyger." Fish's view that the poem can be read as a metaphor for digestion deviates so much from the conventional understanding as to place the lot of contextualists into the lunatic fringe. The variability of meaning countenanced by the contextualists has delivered a broadside to the universal knowledge needed to nourish the canon. The example of Fish is strategically put forth to demonstrate how soothing universal standards feel. To his credit Casement does not indulge himself when he demonstrates how postmodernism often parodies itself.

It is from the political point of view that the anticanonists make their gravest errors, according to Casement. Anticanonist claims of the canon's ethnocentrism and its use as a tool for political indoctrination blinds the opposition to the true diversity of the canon. The tendency, Casement adds, is to categorize all the great works as political instruments in service of preserving the status quo. Casement counters this argument with a short list of apolitical works that includes Descartes's Meditations. Yet, if there is an author with canonical status who was forever vigilant about pleasing the "ruling class," it must be Descartes. Having been impressed by the methodical prescriptions of his spiritually militant teachers, who pursued a monopoly of educating the ruling class, Descartes was always conscious of producing intellectual materials that his former teachers would disseminate. For example, his instruction that we ought to call into question all that we have thus far accepted as true obligated him to provide a manifesto of political conservatism that would suppress potential revolutionary zeal. Since his physics embraced the Copernican worldview, Galileo's predicament was not lost on him either. Descartes is not a good example to demonstrate the apolitical content of the canon. Furthermore, Casement's point that multicultural authors are now fashionable and sought after by the leading publishing houses says more about how even politically controversial material succumbs to the commodity-reducing forces of capitalism. This phenomenon does not demonstrate the openness to social critique and diversity that Casement sees at work in the literary world and academia.

In general, Casement argues that the political assault on the canon is not justifiable from the contextualist point of view. In the end the bantering that ensues leaves us with a choice between political perspectives. Contextualists offer no compelling reason why leftwing politics is superior to conservatism, and he insists that invoking transcontextual principles is the only way to overcome this problem. Again, contextualist claims, by Casement's definition, are confined to the context in which they are made. Thus debilitated they cannot annul claims of universalism. Still, there have been contextualists, like Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, who have prescribed a reverence for tradition. Casement further adds that even universalists can be politically progressive, like Mortimer Adler and Irving Howe. Casement's message to the recalcitrant anticanonists is that political persuasion does not preclude the traditional canon.

The curious case of Afrocentrism, which is not discussed in Casement's work, offers an alternative which obviates the bickering between the left and the right. It also transcends the pitfalls of relativism. While some multiculturalists may be satisfied with inculcating a sense of pride in marginalized groups through exposure to race-sensitive literature, Afrocentrism usurps the Western tradition altogether. On the shoulders of the Black Athena thesis, Molefi Asante of Temple University has fueled the belief that Western civilization derives from ancient African culture. Since this thesis overrides the altercation between conventional canonists and the heterodox postmodernists, Casement would have to enlist strategies other than the ones he marshals against relativism.

III. Casement's reformism in Part III is based on what he views as the fundamental premises of the canon: (1) the plurality of the canon promotes critical thinking; (2) the canon encompasses a cultural heritage from which students can derive stability and pride; and (3) studying the canon leads to an understanding of the nature of humanity and the most important elements of knowledge that apply specieswide. The first premise is double-edged; so I will deal with it last. Nurturing intellectual confidence and personal enrichment are naturally the outcomes of learning, but promoting pride in a "canonical" heritage does not dovetail with Casement's promotion of plurality. In addition, potential canonical works from traditions other than the West are referred to as non-Western by Casement; their meaning is relative to the significance of the Western tradition. Strict canonists are leery of what Casement calls the "differentness" of non-Western works. But, Aldous Huxley's essay on the perennial philosophy made it clear some time ago that the metaphysical world of Plato was presaged in the wisdom of the Upanishads; that the Bhagavad Gita dramatized a deontological ethics that would be rationally formulated in Kant's practical philosophy. The "differentness" that one discovers in Eastern thought includes methods which are distinguishable from the ratiocinative habits in the West and an understanding of the self that is an antidote to the materialistic individualism that is a source of the pride Casement views as integral to the curriculum. But a canon that has kept so much of the species out cannot pretend to teach specieswide knowledge.

Casement's rapprochement with the canon busters is packaged in his claim that the plurality of the canon promotes critical thinking. How exposure to a plurality of perspectives, worldviews, etc., would cultivate critical thinking is not pursued. Perhaps cosmopolitanism may result from such a cultural immersion, but might not critical thinking also be fostered by instruction in logic and grammar? Exposure to new views, especially previously marginalized perspectives on race, class, and gender, may result in an appreciation for critical theory and an awareness of the systemic ties in society, but this is not the same as or the whole of critical thinking. Casement makes the following point in this regard: "The new perspectives on race, class, and gender are in this sense mechanisms to challenge the mind and sharpen it" (102). Unwittingly Casement has aligned himself with critical theory, which has to some extent bred these perspectives. His conclusion that introduction to these perspectives will determine the "proper way to relate to other human beings" (102) is not the conclusion of critical thinking but the resolve of social theory that defines human essence as "the ensemble of social relations." 4

Casement's greatest challenge is to elucidate a satisfying standard that will encourage rapprochement. When he claims that "The standards need to be of a higher order than that of culture; otherwise we would not have escaped relativism," he is hard pressed to say what these standardsare (112)5 The expeditious way to do this is to invoke a transcendent order from which the cultural order receives its sustenance. This is of course what the historical religions have done, and these traditions provide us with the paradigmatic canonical texts upholding such a transcendent order. But this is partially where all the furor over the foundationalism of the canon originates—in authoritative institutional structures that are sanctioned by belief in an extrahistorical power. Casement ducks these structures and appeals to "a common human core" for the higher standard. But he cannot seem to get around the issue of competing points of view on this matter. Nor does he make any effort to dismiss the idea that there is no such thing as human nature per se, a challenge he should have taken up if he wished to get at the heart of revisionist objections. No matter how troublesome the articulation of this common human core may be, it is not helpful, for someone who upholds the universality of the canon, to recommend that we "assume" a "foundational unity" which the "Study of the great books helps us in our efforts to figure out. . ." (114). This is a petitio principii that revokes the authority of a foundational unity. Similarly, Casement's proposal for an improvement of the canon by including readings from outside the tradition is not straightforward. The incorporation of other cultures, according to Casement's reasoning, will stretch "the boundaries of the great ideas, or universals, as the tradition has conceived them." The tradition to which Casement refers, however, has never conceived universals as plastic categories. Casement is seemingly aware of the manner in which particulars are subsumed under universals. He makes such an argument relative to the many instantiations of justice that point to "equality for human beings per se." Such a vigorous understanding of an idea would approach an "inclusive unity," Casement argues, that would provide us with a "comprehensive vantage point" beyond cultural differences. Casement believes that such a procedure would, in turn, provide a broad foundation from which to defend those conceptions, say of the deity, that are selected to be part of the "inclusive unity." This is another instance of circular reasoning that makes no real effort to explain at what point we can get beyond culture and history.

IV. Casement backs off from any real reform in the conclusion to his book. In the end, he succumbs to pride in the "expanse of knowledge the Western tradition has long offered" (125). He argues that inculcating such pride in students is required in order to protect them from mayhem and the scourge of relativism. Whatever the adjustments to the canon, they ought not compromise the "original picture" which nourishes this "pride and stability." Caution must especially be exercised in regard to injecting non-Western materials which might promote cultural fracturing at the expense of the cultural milieu that nourishes pride in the Western tradition. This "grandiose claim," Casement avers, does not derive from "cultural hubris" but from an impartial look at the intellectual abundance of the Western tradition.

Casement's equivocation is epitomized by his appropriation of Mortimer Adler's exclusionary criterion which preserves the primacy of the Westerntradition (127)6 Adler has posited a future in which a common cultural milieu may embrace an internationalized curriculum, but until that time education in the West should be dominated by home-grown ideas. Still, this has not prevented Casement from finding in Adler's criterion a principle of limitation upon which non-Western materials, which do not efface the original tradition, could be selected. The compatibility of non-Western and Western materials, however, is pure conjecture, according to Casement, and thus his human unity thesis is pie in the sky next to the preeminence of his cultural unity thesis.

Casement has not shouldered the burden of defending the principle of universality which grounds the idea of the canon, nor has he deflated relativism. Nonetheless, he has challenged canon detractors to present "a collection of ideas that is different from and overshadows the framework of the Western tradition" (132). Casement resolves that no other tradition has satisfactorily hammered out the great ideas upholding thought and experience. Nonetheless, it is not satisfying to assume something is true merely because it has not been disproven. Casement's rapprochement is crippled by his claim that the Western tradition has covered the intellectual terrain that other cultures "taken collectively can provide, not to mention that the West may offer much that other cultures do not or are weak on" (133).

The spirit of Casement's reform is diminished by his inconsistent treatment of the central principles buttressing the traditional canon and his relegation of excluded non-Western materials to the role of amplifying the Western tradition's teaching. A passing acquaintance with the principles of non-dualism and non-attachment that derive from and flourish in the East is all that is needed to recognize the extent to which Casement's reformism is hamstrung by an ideological devotion to an atomistic individualism. That bias rears its head each time he tenders that the curricular objectives of pride and stability would suffer from overexposure to marginalized materials.

*Gabriel R. Ricci teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Elizabethtown College. [Back]

1 Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Book and the School of the Ages (New York, 1994) groups the canon busters under the heading "School of Resentment." As a staunch canonist he defends the aesthetic autonomy of the master list against ideological intrusion from multi-culturalists and the new historicists. Bloom fancies Shakespeare as the essence of the canon and relies on the standard of "linguistic exuberance" for admission to the canon. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished The Souls of Today’s Students (New York, 1987) is a much more strident attack on the (counter)cultural forces that have undermined the liberal arts. Bloom stresses that departments across the country have been infiltrated by erstwhile hippies and sixties protesters. His argument is that the vestiges of free love and the pounding rhythms of rock ’n’ roll have diluted traditional curricula. [Back]

2 Casement’s book has appendices which include sample reading lists. Stanford’s controversial curriculum is included along with St. John’s College’s program of the traditional Great Books. [Back]

3 Quoted from "Why Western Civilization?" National Forum (Summer 1989), 3-6. [Back]

4 Thesis VI on Feuerbach, Karl Marx. [Back]

5 Though Casement admits to the plurality of the canon, he insists that this diversity be balanced with a sense of unity in order to safeguard against relativism (106). An understanding of a shared unity is a prerequisite, in Casement’s view, before suggestions on improving our culture can be made. This prescription would require abandoning moral intuitions and other evaluative mechanisms which do not function on the basis of consensus. [Back]

6 Casement refers to this particular quote earlier on page 82. The quote is from Adler’s Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind (New York, 1988), xxxiii. [Back]

Copyright © 1998 National Humanities Institute.
Last modified 27 May 1998