Thursday, March 7, 2013

Edward Said on the Importance of Canon

As someone who, on the one hand, has and highly enjoys teaching broad core curricular courses (e.g., Columbia University's Literature of the Humanities) that stretch you as both instructor and student, allowing a broader view of things than is typical in teaching and especially research, and, on the other hand, always attempts to familiarize students with texts outside of "canon" (whether strictly understood in terms of the biblical canon or more loosely in terms of a "literary canon"), I find the following statement by Edward Said quite striking:
We must therefore read the great canonical texts, and perhaps also the entire archive of modern and pre-modern European and American culture, with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically such works.  Culture and Imperialism, 66.
He is understanding "canonical" in the broader sense--the "great books" point of view.  On the one hand, the emphasis lies with the latter part of the sentence:  one reads against the grain, fills in the gaps, takes highly ideological representations of colonial situations (in this case, in the Caribbean and India) and, thereby, reads these works by those who have been (mis)represented.  (There is a parallel in, for example, feminist biblical criticism to read the Bible--an andro-centric text--from the position of those (mis)represented; that is, women.)  But this reading, in fact, must be balanced with the first, anchoring clause:  "We must therefore read the great canonical texts."  One must, indeed, know the texts--and know them well and thoroughly--to critique them.  In some ways, Said can be read as a great champion of the Euro-American "Great Books" curriculum.  The Post-Colonial critique of the Euro-American "canon" reasserts or solidifies that canon; the feminist and other critiques of the biblical canon reinforces that canon.  The next step, however, is to bring this reinforced canon into dialogue with the extra-canonical (think bringing Conrad into dialogue with Chinua Achebe).


Rebecca said...

I taught Contemporary Civilization when I was a post-doc at Columbia, and very much enjoyed teaching the class, but I also thought it was very necessary not just to critique the canon but to bring other works into conversation with it - and perhaps gradually change the canon.

I was lamenting to another professor the other day that at Ithaca College, although we are finally instituting a core curriculum next year (!), there has been no thought given to creating a joint canon that all the students would then be familiar with. (if such a proposal had been made, it would have been shot down for many different reasons). One reason I like the idea is so that professors teaching other courses can then assume that all the students would have read, for example, Plato's Republic, or Chinua Achebe, or Imre Kertesz, or Toni Morrison, and would then be able to refer to them in class and bring the students' knowledge of that work to bear on the subject of the particular course. But instead we (they?) have created a very complicated, unwieldy system that certainly does not deserve the name of "core curriculum."

Jared Calaway said...

The assumption of a foundation of common knowledge is definitely a plus. And it is something I miss. I constantly refer to issues raised in Dante's Divine Comedy, but it doesn't have the impact when students have never read it. I also refer to Crime & Punishment, Don Quixote. Oh, and it is amazing how many students haven't read Homer! I agree that we need to bring other works into conversation, but, when it comes down to it, I don't think you can fully understand, say, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway without Homer and Greek Tragedy respectively.