Jay Parini, Middlebury College professor and jack-of-all-literary trades, makes the case in our second hour today for America’s thirteen “representative” books in his new tome “The Promised Land.” Of course, the idea of a great list or “canon” of hallowed must-reads
is a controversial one, having its roots in now age-old academic wars. It’s fraught with huge questions about culture, race, gender, and power. And every year seems to bring a new variation on the old theme. There’s almost a canon on the canon — which Parini has now added to.
Near the head of the meta-canon list would be Alan Bloom’s 1987 “The Closing of the American Mind,” the seminal shot-across-the-bow, with its assertion that the “dead white males” were being prematurely buried. Last year was the 20th anniversary of the publication of Bloom’s book, and The New York Times’ Rachel Donadio wrote a good look-back at the “canon wars." She writes:
Today it’s generally agreed that the multiculturalists won the canon wars. Reading lists were broadened to include more works by women and minority writers, and most scholars consider that a positive development. Yet 20 years later, there’s a more complicated sense of the costs and benefits of those transformations. Here, the lines aren’t drawn between right and left in the traditional political sense, but between those who defend the idea of a distinct body of knowledge and texts that students should master and those who focus more on modes of inquiry and interpretation. However polarizing Bloom may have been, many of the issues he raised still resonate — especially when it comes to the place of the humanities on campus and in the culture.
So, the lists go on. Everyone has an opinion. By your lights, where do the canon wars now stand?
This program aired on December 22, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.