Monday, June 19, 2006

Great Books (I): Introductory

To invert a blurb by Peter Watson, on the back of David Denby's engaging book, this series of posts will be the least original response to the "culture wars". Where Denby went back to school at Columbia to take the demanding year-long primers in Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, I am reading Denby's book and lazily consulting classics I already know, while picking out a few of those that I do not.

One of the enviable features of the American academic system is the breadth of undergraduate education, and the lack of it is something I regret about studying in England. It isn't that, like many, I was unready to choose a discipline; I knew I wanted to read philosophy, and almost knew that I wouldn't want to stop. But it was never my desire to study nothing but.

Near the end of his first semester, Denby interviews a British professor who is leaving Columbia for the (allegedly) more radical halls of Sussex. (A time before Spivak?) She dismisses the "canon" as "a modern American invention […] a shopping list […] some fantasy of control." He attributes her resistance in part to the fact that "an Oxbridge undergraduate, better educated at high school than his American counterpart, would likely have read many of the books before arriving at university." I don't believe it, and it certainly wasn't true of me.

Nor does it seem right to scorn the "fantasy of control", so long as it is not a fantasy of controlling students, but a fantasy that shares their anxiety about the lack of it, fear of being out of one's depth. The open secret of academia is that almost everyone almost always feels this way: not waving but drowning, an intellectual fraud. It may be a fantasy for it to be otherwise, but the vertigo is real, and the fantasy can be productive.

There are other complaints about the "great books" course, both political and pedagogical. Denby is pretty impatient with them. He is sold on the enterprise: suspicious of capital, but not the cultural kind. In any case, the main argument of his book is surely implicit: Denby will defeat the critics of the canon by torturing them with envy. Going back to school is an academic's dream.


Blogger Clark Goble said...

Isn't part of the point of the Sabbatical to go back to school? (Whether in practice that is done of course. . .)

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a non-American, but a fellow New World citizen, I've always thought that the real, underlying reason for all the Great Books courses and associated lists in American universities was a deep and long-standing cultural cringe towards Europe. Culture was seen as something Europeans had, and which Americans must acquire, like aristocratic titles. The same deep-rooted psychological drive is behind all the books on etiquette, newspaper advice columns, and all the long-winded novels of Henry James, in my opinion. Isn't it time Americans grew out of this?

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as someone who did a great books program, my reason was definitely anxiety over how much there was to know. i knew i wanted to do philosophy, but felt (perhaps because my first classes in it were historically oriented) a need to know...everything.

6:07 PM  

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