Against Canonical Complacency

Dare to know. Illustration by Richard Farrell

Peter Bowman ‘16 

Culture correspondent

“More and more, all the most worthless people had been taking advantage of the practice of grasping an image of the emperor as a means of avoiding punishment for making insulting and hateful remarks against decent people.”

— Tacitus, The Annals

On December 10, 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a letter to his patron, Francesco Vettori, in which he describes his life on the farm. At day’s end, he goes inside to read, to “step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me.”

A fragment of this was quoted in a recent piece in this newspaper mourning the passing of Davidson’s two-year Humanities program; or, rather, protesting its reincarnation into a less traditional assortment of texts. My classmates, Wells King ‘16 and Daniel Samet ‘16, invoke Machiavelli’s letter in their wish that, rather than crafting syllabi with rap lyrics and critical theory, “professors would have students leave politics and pop culture at the classroom door and, like Machiavelli, ‘step inside the venerable courts of the ancients …[and] converse with them.’”

Putting aside the notion that one could leave popular culture and politics outside a classroom like a couple of backpacks (let alone for a discussion of The Prince), the quote has been plucked from its context: Machiavelli, of course, was not conversing in a classroom but sitting alone in his room. He goes on: “And for hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death.” Machiavelli’s retreat to his study is a pleasant escape; his conversations with Ovid et al.—inspiring, I’m sure—are still all essentially with himself.

Machiavelli’s farm sounds like a great place to write, but a pretty onanistic model for a humanities classroom. Mr. King and Mr. Samet claim that “Humes taught students to reason humanely about ideas we had never considered and people we would never know beyond the page,” and offer a vision of the old curriculum as a sort of Athenaeum where everyone poses (unspecified but important-sounding) “perennial questions” to the same small shelf of books. What irony that, instead of offering an Antonian eulogy or Ciceronian rebuttal, Mr. King and Mr. Samet indulge in all the tiresome tactics of modern punditry: alarmism, laziness, condescension, the rehashing of old ideas as hot takes, lofty but vague phrases, and a series of assumptions that are narrow-minded at best and, at worst, as casually racist as the Urban category at the Grammys.

Anyone who has watched cable news (or who remembers the outrage when Davidson’s Christmas parade was “ruined” by a #BLM die-in several years ago) should recognize that requests for apolitical discourse by traditionalists are often efforts to enforce the status quo under the banner of false gentility. Suggesting that rap lyrics are “better suited for social media” is not only an élitist put-down but also oddly self-defeating—I first encountered their piece when Mr. King shared it on Facebook. In the words of Dr. King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” which is (ironically, but consistent with the retroactive muting of Dr. King’s radicalism) a “welcome addition” to the so-called Great Books, “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” The privilege, in this case, is to have the institutions you love universally recognized as great and to simply point at the scoreboard when anyone attempts to argue otherwise.

During my time at Davidson (where I studied both great books and Great Books), I was at times frustrated by the kitschification of higher education—ill-conceived blogging, the infiltration of startup jargon, awkward institutional attempts at wokeness. I understand that relativism and subjectivity can be frightening, where truths once universally acknowledged are suddenly neither true nor universal. I have experienced good pedagogical intentions that produced scattered results. The remaking of the Humanities program (which is still in its early stages) to encompass the works of a greater range of humanity, however, is far more sensible—and far less scandalous—than Mr. King and Mr. Samet would suggest.

I do not have the space to properly address the decades-long Canon Wars, but I should at least mention them. For, rather than positioning themselves in a long-running debate (aside from taking issue with “revanchist” as a title befitting Allan Bloom [spoiler: it befits]), Mr. King and Mr. Samet offer a choice between The Prince and “the postmodern partisans,” a cute, alliterative paraphrasing of Harold Bloom’s lifelong opposition to what he calls “The School of Resentment”: Foucauldians, feminists, new historicists, anyone without a hard-on for Hart Crane, etc. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Barbara Herrnstein Smith, John Guillory, and, yes, Harold Bloom, have written daringly about the ways we construct canons and assign value to art. Mr. King and Mr. Samet, however, have set up a crude opposition between revisionists (new Humes) and stewards of tradition (old Humes). Which is to say, those who protest the ways certain works have been elevated over others and those who unreasonably insist, like Mr. King and Mr. Samet, that worth is not a result of valuation but an a priori fact.

“We cannot challenge the canon without having studied it first,” while ostensibly true, also operates as a paternalistic double standard (and such a challenge will never end in successful revolution; as Audre Lorde warns, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”). The premise that one cannot get rid of Dante without studying him first, but that one can dismiss Childish Gambino as an absurd object of study without deigning to look at his work, is dishonest—even if, like me, you’d probably save The Divine Comedy over Awaken, My Love! when civilization finally collapses and you’re running out of room on your spaceship (then again, fleeing apocalypse to the tune of “Redbone” would be really hard to pass up). Mr. King and Mr. Samet also fail to note that the item on the syllabus is not “Childish Gambino lyrics” but the music video for “This Is America,” a video whose choreography, which twitchily embodies caricatures of blackness, and cinematography, which swoops through fever-dream symbolism, are ripe for analysis. Besides, dismissal of hip-hop as “pop culture” rather than real art is one of the most overused racist tropes of cable television, something Kendrick Lamar skillfully blasts at the beginning of his Pulitzer Prize–winning record DAMN.

In a piece that claims “aspirations for inclusion” inherent in the humanities and frets over a new Humes that will leave students “ill-prepared to engage in pressing debates,” Mr. King and Mr. Samet in fact offer not an argument but a condescending chuckle—They’re teaching what now?! Absent are justifications for why their Great Books are great, or which books they even are. Rather, with their coterie of co-signers at the bottom of the page, they are establishing teams, simplistically declaring a culture war that’s already been going on for ages. If “humanistic inquiry” is so fundamental to the old curriculum, why such intransigence to inquire, to ask and investigate, instead of taking cheap shots at art forms too popular (and too black) for the beloved canon? Mr. King and Mr. Samet also seem to have forgotten that the people who reorganized the curriculum are tenured professors, many of whom taught the old one. Will someone please tell Dr. Ingram he has to study John Milton before kicking him off a syllabus?

People cling to the books they love in ways that can be endearing, like Hillel Halkin’s Odyssey-inspired trip to Ithaca, or revolting, like John Hockenberry’s quoting of Lord Byron to justify groping women. The humanities, in whatever form, should never rest on the illusion that certain books inherently make us better thinkers or readers or people. They give us an opportunity to navigate complex systems and, through the expertise of our mentors and the engagement of our peers, hopefully leave us transformed, equipped to better understand each other and more nimbly interpret a splintered and sped-up world. “Insatiable curiosity” is not a prize we are “gifted” after four years but a lifelong act of seeking that demands engagement with the unfamiliar and the understudied. Otherwise we end up like so many Machiavellis, muttering comfortably to ourselves over poetry and writing treatises for the princes who pay our rent.

If Mr. King and Mr. Samet have demonstrated anything, it is that proximity to great books does not osmose enlightenment. How embarrassing that such a curriculum could produce not even clearheaded conservatism, but rather the sort of think-piece glibness that, far from “reason[ing] humanely about ideas we had never considered,” settles into ancient trenches of outrage and builds ramparts between the things we’ve been taught to love and the things we are too complacent—or too scared—to get to know.

Peter Bowman ‘16 is an English major currently living in Brooklyn, NY. He can be reached for comment at pebowman16@alumni.davidson.edu, or through yr. editor, Lucas Weals, at luweals@davidson.edu.

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