Canon fodder

A few days back, Fillyjonk was talking about the Harvard Classics:

Last night I was talking on Twitter about the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf. This was an “Everyman’s Library” like project — the editor of it actually said in his introduction that he planned the collection so that a person not able to go to college (for a Humanities degree; I think when this was developed in the early 1900s, that was what one mainly went to college for) could get the “best part” by reading the Five Foot Shelf.

Half a century later, there was a similarly-sized collection called Great Books of the Western World, first issued in 1952. Unlike the Harvard collection, it remains in print, albeit somewhat changed from the original.

Way back when, these were aspirational acquisitions for the American home, writes Susan Jacoby:

The Great Books — along with all those Time-Life series — were often “purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing,” Jacoby writes. They represented an old American belief — now endangered — that “anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself.”

What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed. If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party. The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment — as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm.

Certainly I’m not about to name-check Montesquieu at work. But the rejection of canon is also, I suggest, partly due to some people’s revulsion at the idea that after however many centuries the works of dead white European males still comprise most of it.

This, however, sounds more like me:

I do find that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, and I admit a certain distress that I probably don’t have as much time to rectify What I Don’t Know than I would like to have.

It’s not an attitude you have to be a Science Genius Girl to appreciate, either.

(With thanks to Joanne Jacobs.)



  1. fillyjonk »

    11 October 2009 · 2:52 pm

    The “in defense of middlebrows” idea is a nice one. I definitely grew up in a “middlebrow” household, even though it was (perhaps) a bit after the time that that would be considered fashionable. My love of classical music, my need to have books around me, what knowledge of art that I do have – that all comes courtesy of my parents.

    I admit a certain fatigue with people who talk about such things as belonging only to the “upper class” or the elite. My mom was the first in her family to go to college (her dad worked in lumber camps, for gosh sakes); my dad’s father worked a variety of probably-not-very-high-paying jobs in his life. But there was always the idea that one could “better” oneself, and that “betterment” didn’t necessarily involve money.

    I would love to get back to a general culture where learning and intelligence were viewed as a good in and of themselves, and not something either suspect, nerdy (not that there’s anything wrong with being a nerd), or “useless.”

  2. fillyjonk »

    11 October 2009 · 2:54 pm

    Oh, and if the “science genius girl” comment was aimed at me, thank you.

  3. CGHill »

    11 October 2009 · 3:15 pm

    “Suspect” is the scary one. I know one black woman who is becoming deeply fond of classical music, but she says she has to listen to it on the sly because her family simply will not understand.

    I worry that we may not have “culture” anymore: we have, in its place, several thousand micro-cultures, each aimed at a specific segment of the market (never the “audience”), each utterly unaware of — or forcibly separated from — all the others. A hundred years ago you could quote, say, William Dean Howells, and just about everyone would know what you’re talking about. Today you can quote any of a hundred contemporary pundits and get blank looks for your trouble.

  4. View From The Porch »

    12 October 2009 · 7:04 am

    Too punny!…

    Charles Hill goes on about Books Worth Reading, but gets the gold star for the day for his post title: “Canon Fodder”. Wish I’d said that……

  5. fillyjonk »

    12 October 2009 · 1:05 pm

    “I worry that we may not have “culture” anymore: we have, in its place, several thousand micro-cultures, each aimed at a specific segment of the market (never the “audience”), each utterly unaware of — or forcibly separated from — all the others.”

    Yes. That. And I worry that that will contribute to more of what I see as a fractionation of the US “mindset” to a point where, I could imagine, some time in the not to distant future, our country becoming a loose patchwork of city-states or something more on the order of the EU.

    Philosophically, I don’t like it. Practically speaking, I don’t like it either: I don’t want to think about applying for a passport to shop at the damn Target (over the border in Texas).

  6. CGHill »

    12 October 2009 · 7:57 pm

    Then again, it might not be an unalloyed disaster:

    Roberta X: “So you see an upside to five hundred channels and nothing on?”

    Tamara K: “Sure. Instead of ninety percent of America listening to three guys telling them what to think every night, now we’ve got seventy percent of America listening to five hundred guys telling them what to think, twenty percent playing video games or watching DVDs, and ten percent chatting about what they think on internet forums. You can’t get a good pre-genocide Nürnberg pep rally going if half your audience is listening to shortwave rants about fluoride in the water, cheering for the opposition, or playing World of Warcraft.

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