by George Allan
George Allan is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Department at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, having been educated at Yale. He is a coordinator of the Society for the Study of Process Philosophies.
The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 89-101, Vol. 20, Number 2, Summer, 1991. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The evidence showing the failure of the American educational system to teach its young people what they need to know is said by the canonicists to be the result of the fragmentation and the collapse of any distinction between essential and unessential materials. An educational canon, properly understood, marries modernists and post-modernists.
For this essay I shall select one issue from the roster of problems which comprise the nation’s education agenda: that of the intellectual canon. The dispute is over whether there is one, and what the ramifications are of this for curricular coherence and hence for pedagogical effectiveness. The dispute is loudest at the college and university levels, especially when focused on matters of general education. Unfortunately the exchange of views is carried on with little attention to underlying assumptions and in a rhetorical mode that leaves no space for compromise. It is as though we were once again with William James’s camping party in the mountains, red-faced from shouting down our friends, engaged in a new version of the wrangle regarding whether or not a man goes around the squirrel when he goes around the tree to which that ever-watchful creature clings, its face kept always toward him.
Let us think of process philosophy as a method designed for use on such occasions, evoked by such disputes as an instrument of reasonable good sense and creative imagination, one that will serve to fix what had broken down and to get things running smoothly once again. As James expected the camping party to get back to the useful business of chopping firewood and cooking supper once he had “assuaged the dispute” by his pragmatic observations, so the application of process thinking in reference to the canonical wars now ravaging American higher education should be the means by which faculty might be led back from endless idle arguments to their real and proper work of designing good courses and teaching them well.
A “canon” is the set of general rules and fundamental principles that govern a subject, that reveal systematically its structure of relationships. The fundamental principles are the essential or core features of the subject, those upon which the other features, the accidental or peripheral ones, depend. Thus an “educational canon with respect to some subject is the set of rules for determining what materials — ideas, methods, heuristics, texts, data — are essential for someone to learn if he or she is to grasp adequately that subject. By an obvious process of metonymy, the educational canon is usually taken as referring to those materials themselves rather than to the rules for their determination, and the subject at issue is taken to be human knowledge in general. Hence within the context of the present dispute in American undergraduate education, the canon at issue is the set of texts that contain those ideas which it is essential for American young people to know in order for them to become responsible citizens. As William Bennett puts it, paraphrasing Matthew Arnold, the educational canon is “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience” (TRL 3).
Advocates of canonical education view with dismay the decline over the last century in the “authority of tradition.” They see an old consensus about what it is essential to know eroded by the acid rains of professional specialization. The explosion in information, the need for increasingly specialized skills to acquire or understand that information, and the resulting emergence of a professionalized faculty more interested in their narrow research programs than the general education of students: these have led, the canonicists argue, to a dangerous “dispersal of authority,” to a “loss of integrity in the bachelor’s degree” (ICC; TM).
A curriculum without “integrity” (ICC) is one without “coherence” (TM), one in which “intellectual authority” is replaced by “intellectual relativism” (TRL). The roster of evidence showing the failure of the American educational system to teach its young people what they need to know is said by the canonicists to be the result of this fragmentation, this collapse of any distinction between essential and unessential materials. The solution they advocate, therefore, can be said to be “modernist”: it believes in essential structures, and proposes that we recover the old and proper integrity of the undergraduate curriculum by reaffirming the centrality, and hence the authority, of those essential structures of understanding that have been defined by the traditional educational canon.
“Some books are more important than others” (TRL 10), says Bennett, and these should be studied with care. They bring students into “the company of great souls” (TRL 11), confront them with “the questions that are central to human existence” (TRL 29), and so by the universality of that encounter provide them with a common heritage that serves as “the glue that binds together our pluralistic nation” (TRL 30). Bennett’s list of the great books authored by such great souls, limited to the Humanities which are his immediate concern, run from Homer to Nietzsche, and from the Federalist Papers to Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
Other canonicist reports focus on method rather than content. The AAC monograph, for instance, identifies nine “methods and processes, modes of access to understanding and judgment” (ICC 15) that it thinks are essential to know: logical analysis, verbal literacy, numerical understanding, historical awareness, scientific method, informed and responsible moral choice, art appreciation and experience, international and multicultural experiences, and study of one field in depth. These it takes as the conditions for nurturing “qualities of mind and character” (ICC 25) that have enabled and should again serve to enable “generations of men and women to grasp a vision of the good life, a life of responsible citizenship and human decency” (ICC 6).
The critics of canonic learning do not simply direct their attack at these sometimes atavistic proposals for what counts as the essential content or methodology for undergraduate education. That would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Bennett, for instance, skips over the Middle Ages, omitting everyone from Augustine to Ockham, mentions Locke and Hobbes but not Hume, Kant, or Hegel, affirms Hawthorne and Melville but not Dickinson, Faulkner but not Hemingway, and completely ignores Whitehead, Bergson, and the American pragmatists. Such a line of criticism would be superficial, however. Bennett is quick to note that his list is by no means exhaustive. He also acknowledges that it would benefit from more attention to great souls who are not Western nor culturally mainstream nor male. His point is not that education should be confined to reading what he has recommended, but that for Americans what is essential to their education can and must be learned from a traditional collection of works by North American and West European authors, along with certain of their Hebrew, Greek, and Roman predecessors. On this foundation one can then construct a fuller cultural edifice of other authors who are worth reading, a house of intellect that is wide, diverse, and generously pluralistic. But it would be a house built upon the sand, say Bennett and his colleagues, except that it first reach to bedrock by means of a canon such as the one they propose.
What upsets Bennett and the canonicists, therefore, is not that his critics object to the content of his canon nor to its scope, but that they object to its very nature. Because Western culture is essentially [sic] oppressive, these critics argue, the canon that marks that essence celebrates values which instead should be rejected. Those great Western souls, along with their great ideas, methods, and attitudes, are hegemonic, imperialistic, colonial, patriarchal, logocentric, exclusionary. They need to be repudiated in the name of other more humane, more encompassing values, values respectful of ethnic difference and cultural variety, values of liberation, equality, and free association. As black writer Henry Louis Gates puts it,
The return to “the” canon, the high canon of Western masterpieces, represents the return of an order in which my people were the subjugated, the voiceless, the invisible, the unrepresented, and the unrepresentable. Who would return us to that medieval never-never land? (Quoted in NYRB, Section l.)1
The problem is not that the traditional canon offers a roster of repugnant ideas but that the very notion of a Canon is itself one of those repugnant ideas. For a canon is hierarchical and it is hierarchy, not this hierarchy or that hierarchy but hierarchy as such, that is the enemy of the multicultural and democratic ideals which it should be the goal of American education to inculcate in the nation’s youth. Hierarchical thinking and action, says Mary Louise Pratt, is “historically as well as morally distortive” because it divides everything into privileged and unprivileged groupings, condemning some ideas, texts, and persons to the margins of a culture while exalting others to positions of primacy. Because their attack is thus directed against the keystone presuppositions of modernism, noncanonicalists have often earned for themselves the deconstructive sobriquet of “post-modernist.”
Jean Ferguson Carr proposes a noncanonical approach when she argues that literary studies should be renamed “cultural studies.” The shift, she claims,
emphasizes the changed understanding of “literature” and its relationship to society. Cultural studies moves away from “history of ideas” to a contested history of struggles for power and authority, to complicated relations between “center” and “margin,” between dominant and minority positions (Acad 25).
Texts need to be seen within their cultural settings in order to be revealed as they truly are, as one of the ways by which persons pursue their individual and collective interests. The sorts of books, ideas, authors that make it into a traditional canon do so because they are taken to have been influential expressions of such interests. But this role they play will be misunderstood, absolutized, unless they are “set against a panoply of other voices” from that same cultural milieu which exhibit the same or competing interests. A popular broadside, the private diary or letters of an ordinary person, bureaucratic memos, subliterary or nonliterary artifacts, are all “productions worthy of study” because they all in their different ways provide access to the culture and to the play of interests that define it.
Cultural studies, Carr insists, is “not a game to play or a code to keep people out, but [is] a method of refiguring how we have gotten to where we are and how we can effect some significant change” (Acad 28). Canon-making, she implies, is an exclusionary stratagem, a way to define an elite. Privileged authors imply privileged readers, those who are like them with respect to background, experience, and interests, and who as a consequence respond appreciatively to what they have to say. To stop studying those authors as exemplars and to inquire instead into how they came to be revered and how others came to be reviled or ignored is to find ourselves caught up in the moral and political question of why this should be so. Can envisions cultural studies so practiced as having an activist outcome because her students are ethnically diverse “ordinary readers,” people whom the canon brands as having an unimportant past and a naive understanding of what they read. Students who discover that the supposed great souls are different than they are but not their betters, furthering their own interests rather than expressing universal truths, gain a new respect for their own heritage, for their own ideas and recommendations, and are emboldened to act within the culture accordingly. Thus for Can cultural studies “tries to dispel the mystique surrounding authorized knowledge” and to empower marginalized people “to enter critical conversations at diverse levels and with the authority of their own experiences and knowledges” (Acad 28).
John Searle chides the “cultural left,” one of the soi-disant labels for post-modern noncanonicalists, for confusing epistemology with ontology. “All investigations are relative to investigators. But it does not follow, nor is it indeed true, that all the matters investigated are relative to investigators” (NYRB Section 3). Metaphysical realism, contends Searle, is presumed in the sciences, indeed everywhere except in English, French, and cultural studies. It is the presupposition of linguistic communication and so even to argue against it is to exemplify it. Searle dismisses noncanonicalism as philosophically muddle-headed and its views on education, therefore, as not worthy of serious consideration.
But the arguments about the canon are not really between modernist metaphysical realists and post-modernist metaphysical antirealists. The dispute is over two claims about reality, one contending that reality is ordered hierarchically into essential and accidental elements, one insisting that it isn’t. If there are essential ingredients in any aspect of the world, then the canonicalists are correct and the study of that aspect needs to give primary attention to those essential features. If there is no such distinction, however, if the ingredients of things are related interdependently rather than dependently, then the noncanonicalists have it right and the study of those things needs to take equal account of all of their various relata.
The canonicalists and noncanonicalists fire cannonades of assertion and invective at one another, each outraged at the refusal of the other to acknowledge the obvious, each muttering about the dark reasons which must constitute their opponents’ real motivation. Each side seems to ignore the fact that their differences are ontological. “Political correctness” is a donkey’s tail of vilification recently pinned on the cultural left. But it belongs on the rump of the cultural right as well, for Robert Caserio has usefully defined “political correctness” to mean “a prefabricated sense of values, a predetermined set of assumptions about what is good for people and what is bad for them” (quoted in CHE 1). Both sides in the dispute over the reality of an educational canon argue in just this way, presupposing the truth of their predetermined views concerning the nature of reality and hence of how best to learn about it.
Two human temperaments, committed to two ontologies. One rationalist in its insistence upon essential truth, one empiricist in its insistence upon the plurality of conflicting truths. One side tenderly enraptured by the notion of a few, great sacred texts to be preserved against the ravage of time as a precious resource without which we shall surely perish as a people. One side toughmindedly open to the incredibly diverse and divergent ways of belief and practice comprising the human adventure through time, that very pluralism a precious resource surely without which we shall perish as a people.
The campfire talk grows heated. Enter a recovered pragmatism.
The pragmatic critique of every “copy theory” of truth, in William James’s way of putting it, is twofold. First, there is no apparent reason for wanting to create a mental copy of an antecedent physical reality. Like the Irishman, carried to a banquet in a bottomless sedan chair, who remarks that had it not been for the honor he might just as well have walked, whether or not you copy reality would seem to make no real difference (P 105). The world remains the same either way, and so do you. Second, moreover, reality can never be simply copied anyway. “The trail of the human serpent is…over everything” (P 33), elements of human perspective, concern, and interest inextricably mixed with the elements of reality. “Does a man walk with his right leg or with his left leg more essentially? Just as impossible may it be to separate the real from the human factors in the growth of our cognitive experience” (P 113).
James readily meets the conditions for being a metaphysical realist by characterizing “reality” as composed both of what we experience, what our sensations are of, and what the abstract relations are that hold among ideas. The human factor has to do with fitting the two together, making judgments about which general relations obtain among the sensations, subsuming facts under theories. But the fitting must conform to the necessities of what is given: the obduracy of the sensations, the logical demands of coherence and consistency inherent in the patterns of relationship by which they are ordered.
Between the coercions of the sensible order and those of the ideal order, our mind is thus wedged tightly. Our ideas must agree with realities, be such realities concrete or abstract, be they facts or be they principles, under penalty of endless inconsistency and frustration (P96).
But no matter how tightly we may be wedged, there is still wiggle room. If it is misleading to say, as F.C.S. Schiller did, that reality is indeterminately “plastic” to whatever fittings of its elements we might choose to make, we nonetheless still make additions as best we can to suit our purposes, and reality “tolerates” the additions. Reality is like a client who has given his case to a lawyer and then must listen passively “to whatever account of his affairs, pleasant or unpleasant, the lawyer finds it most expedient to give” (P 111). The lawyer’s case is constrained by the need to be adequate to the facts, but the constraint is only partial; he still has his task of arguing the case cut out for him and quite a bit rides on whether he does so effectively. “We receive…the block of marble, but we carve the statue ourselves” (P 112).
James calls these fittings “perspectives” or “hypotheses,” sometimes “frameworks” or “editions of the world.” He complains that the copy theory of truth presupposes an absolutist perspective, an édition de luxe above and beyond all finite, fallible editions. It can do so only by neglecting the human factor, the presence of which necessarily relativizes all perspectives into working hypotheses, necessarily turns the claim about an absolute edition of the world into one among the many fallible claims about the world proposed by fallible human beings. Truth is always a framed work; all frameworks are temporary expedients.
Canons, taken in this Jamesian sense, are thus framing devices. In Erving Goffman’s phraseology (FA; see also SEM), they are “schemata of interpretation” (FA 21), “principles of organization which govern events…and our subjective involvement in them” (PA 10). A “primary framework” is one “seen as rendering what would otherwise be a meaningless aspect of the scene into something that is meaningful” (FA 21), and the frame for all such primary frameworks, the understandings shared by a group regarding interpretive schemata, their interrelationships, and “the sum total of forces and agents that these [schemata] acknowledge to be loose in the world,” constitute its “belief system” or “cosmology” (FA 27).
A natural canon, such as a scientific theory, frames the “unguided events” of inanimate nature, and the canon for such canons sets the boundary conditions for scientific inquiry in general, the conditions for what count as empirically verifiable facts or rationally intelligible concepts. A social canon differs from a natural one in that its framing also includes “guided doings,” events that involve human agency. A social canon provides for the “serial management of consequentiality” by intentional agents (PA 22). An educational canon, even when it is about elements comprised by the natural canon, is a framework of this latter social sort. Its function is to make sense of human interactions, to advise us regarding how properly to act with respect to any situation framed by that canon and how by such a framing to understand properly our own and others’ actions.
In saying that a knowledge of certain facts, concepts, or methods, of certain books and certain authors, is indispensable to an educated citizenry, advocates of an educational canon provide us with a guidebook for living effectively within the culture that defines what it means for us to be citizens. The canon teaches us what to feel, what to think, and what to do. It teaches us how; it teaches us why. It instructs us in what it means to be a human being dwelling, interacting, living and dying, within the horizons of time and space that encompass us. A culture’s educational canon is an orientation program for membership in its community. Without it, we would be left to founder in a sea of confusion, feeling alienated, thinking confusedly, acting strangely.
Plato is one of the great souls. At least one of his dialogues is typically high on the list of any canon for American undergraduates to ingest. The Republic, for instance, provides an aesthetic standard for us to emulate. It is a well-crafted work of art, well worth studying for the formalistic criteria it suggests regarding what should count as good dramatic structure, literary composition, conceptual coherence, and affective import. We learn from a close reading of the text about the formal conditions for aesthetic enjoyment and symbolic significance. The Republic also offers a moral standard. Its subject matter explores the question of justice as it relates to persons, communities, and the whole of the cosmos. It offers positive and negative role models for this virtue through its portraits of Socrates, Thrasymachus, and their friends, and in the action of the dialogue offers exemplary insight into how such virtue might be best acquired by an individual or a state. By attending carefully to what Plato has to say, we learn about the conditions for right understanding, action, and sensibility. This dialogue also teaches a critical standard. It invites extrapolation of its exemplary ideas, agents, and procedures. It lures readers into applying its aesthetic and moral standards to other situations, to step out by metaphor, analogy, or generalization beyond its parochial limitations in order to bring its truths to bear upon matters of current relevance, and so perhaps to find those matters are actually recurrent instances of timeless concerns.
James says that extrapolation of this sort is the way that cosmologies. cultural worldviews, arise. “Our fundamental ways of thinking about things are discoveries of exceedingly remote ancestors, which have been able to preserve themselves throughout the experience of all subsequent time” (P 79). A certain way of framing a situation provided someone with useful guidance on some occasion long, long ago. That idea, or affective mood, or procedure was subsequently brought to bear upon another situation and here also led its utilizer prosperously. Continued use eventually made its presence canonical, a rule of thumb for dealing with certain kinds of situations, or a rule for determining the kind of situation a given situation is and hence for knowing what way of dealing with it would be most appropriate. Social canons of this sort eventuate in learned habits, in accustomed practices of such long standing and unquestioned relevance that they seem natural rather than acquired. The cosmology of a people, its common sense, is thus foundational for it, the solid ground upon which its meanings, its presumptions about reality and its sense of purpose, rest.
The purpose of a canon for education is that it be able to define what must be done in order for a culture to teach its rising generation the cosmology that frames it and makes it work. If the culture is functioning properly, common sense beliefs will be taught in family and peer group interactions, imbibed in the language and attitudes of the people, in the taken-for-granted everyday assumptions of their social intercourse. Schooling serves to make common sense explicit where this is thought necessary, but also to correct common sense with respect to the technical beliefs and institutional practices that constitute the reigning science, criticism, and legal system of the culture. From cradle to grave, cultural guidance must be endlessly inculcated and reinforced if a society is to survive. For its principles of order, the foundations for its reality, are solely cultural.
But does the necessity for such a canon entail that its rules simply be copied, that the world it frames be mirrored accurately and fully in the worldview of each citizen? This is precisely the absolutistic perspective against which James warns us. It is the reactionary claim that there is no human factor in what needs to be mirrored, or rather that the presence of any such human factor distorts reality and so should as far as possible be transcended. There is a half-truth to this demand for slavish imitation, this insistence on the direct mimesis of cultural norms. Novices to a group are well-advised to begin their acculturation by attempting to emulate its veteran practitioners, to learn its ways, its affective, effective, and cognitive dimensions, from the inside, in emic mode, by empathy.
This is what apprenticeship is all about, and in modern Western nations schooling is the way by which young people are apprenticed in the skills of citizenship required of adults. We learn to think well by thinking about an issue while utilizing the concepts a great thinker once fashioned when struggling with some similar issue. This is akin to learning how to make good cabinets by utilizing the techniques and tools a master craftsman has used, by copying one of the master’s cabinets as exactly as possible.
But these are training wheels. When a cabinetmaker’s apprentice is ready to be a master, she must demonstrate this by making her own master piece. She must cease replicating her teacher and make instead a cabinet of her own design and workmanship. Whatever the value of imitation, mature accomplishment means moving beyond our mentors, developing our own voice, a personal style, a distinctive mode of operation. Without the instructors to mimic faithfully and the pre-fashioned tools to utilize properly, we would never have been able to function on our own. But when that time comes, the old slavishness is put away and a new distinctive version of the old becomes at last a viable reality.
The wisdom of the modernists lies in realizing the heuristic necessity for interpretive frameworks and the prudential value in having canonical ones. A great books or core course requirement presumes the importance of selective valuation. It frames for students the need for frames, reminds them of the silliness in reinventing wheels and the further sight that will come to them if they learn to stand on another’s shoulders. Our concern may be with axles instead of wheels and our seeing may turn in another direction than was intended by those who invited us to use their shoulders for our vantage point. But without the wheel we would never have thought of linking wheels in pairs, and without our predecessors’ invitation to use their shoulders we would not have thought a further seeing possible, perhaps not even conceived of it. We outgrow the truths of our cultural heritage only by first growing into them. But we never outgrow the need for truths and hence for frameworks by which to make them.
No item in a canon, however, was ever created to be a norm for others to emulate. The problems that particular idea was fashioned to address, the reasons that specific book was written, that experiment conducted, that policy approved, were thoroughly situational. There is therefore something too self-conscious, too mannered, too artificial in a work undertaken with one eye on its likely place in history. It has purposefully modulated its distinctive voice in order to blend in better with the voices of its heritage. Yet in doing so it has sacrificed its own mastery, settled for being a permanent apprentice of the cultural norms. Such a work has lost what it sought to gain by the very attempt to gain it.
Concretely, amid the rough and tumble of the real world, there are no canonical happenings, no higher truths or normative ideas, except those that are self-proclaimed. Genuinely canonical achievements thrive best in the murk of an ancestral past. Contemporary candidates for the canon are notoriously suspect when paraded in the bright light of peer criticism. No one can agree who the greatest thinkers or artists or leaders of the present generation are. No new idea strikes us as equal in stature to the great, world-shaking concepts of former times. The problem is not because we are too close to see; nor is It that familiarity breeds contempt. It is because up close, within the context of the immediate, the timeless truths and universal norms that compose the frame for our beliefs and practices have no root. We bring norms to the present; we do not find them there.
This is the wisdom of the post-modernists: that there is no natural hierarchy to things, that people, deeds, and ideas are all born equal. Each concrete thing is just what it is. What it is that it is, to be sure, is not something atomistic, self-enclosed. Anything is related to other things in complex, intertwining ways. But no thing is reducible to its relationships, nor defined by them: each is a distinctive integration of its relations and relata, a one-time-only this-not-those accomplishment. The equality of the things that are should be celebrated, each of them recognized for its uniqueness, its special voice adding a new melodic line to the ongoing and unending chorale of the world.
To see Plato through fourth-century Athenian eyes as just another young aristocrat, his dialogues a way to attract a following by which to further his own political agenda or feather his nest financially, is to strip away the later accretions of canonicity and to see him for what he was rather than for what the Western world has made of him. This Plato is best understood by studying other young Athenian aristocrats, by piecing together information about high-born women of that time, by investigating the character of slavery, the status of foreigners, the dynamics of commerce, war, and demographics. There is an egalitarian and pluralistic tropism to such inquiry because what makes a given voice distinctive is best shown through comparison with other voices, including those that share with it all but its most subtle aspects.
The value of this approach to pedagogy is obvious. Pull down the idols of the tribe, debunk the status of the proud and powerful, desanctify the saints and desecrate the holy places: as the blinding sunlight of their glory fades, the gathering dusk reveals a hundred thousand points of lesser light each with a glory of its own. Ideas, authors, methods, books that the canon has neglected or vilified come into their own this way. Each has its proper framing concepts to offer, its point of view, its cosmology. But these are no longer lunar frameworks, valued only as reflections, supplementary or distortive, of a greater canonical light. They shine by their own glory now, in contrast or complement to other accomplishments. Hence Shakespeare’s sister, writing in a world where gender did not debilitate, would have written plays the equal of her brother’s plays.2 The Harlequin romances are the equal of Faulkner’s fiction as expressions of American culture. The critique by a young freshman in the back row of the class can hold its own against the views of Richard Rorty, for the one no less than the other provides a fresh reading of the text. America is a congeries of ethnicity, and each deserves its equal due in any educational curriculum devoted to transmitting the nation’s heritage to a younger generation.
When the post-modernist argues that justice is a game we play; a set of rules two or more people agree upon as the frame within which to carry on their social intercourse (see, for instance, JG), the discussion shifts from a celebration of various uniqueness to the difficult question of how they interact. If there are no natural frames, if each individual accomplishment is so by virtue of the willful framing it has created in order to integrate the elements of its experience, then the shift from “I” to “us” requires that some sort of encompassing frame be fashioned. But there are none, objective and ready at hand, to rely upon. This fashioning can only be done therefore either by mutual consent or by one person imposing it through force of logic, rhetoric, or military armament. In Sartrean fashion, our self-creative acts involve canons of integration that present themselves, whether we like it or not, as principles of organization available for others to use for whatever self-creative or self-aggrandizing purposes they might choose. Education in a post-modern mode must do more than celebrate difference; it must come to terms with its necessarily hegemonic implications.
James was always willing to agree with the tough-minded among his critics that “The world we live in exists diffused and distributed, in the form of an indefinitely numerous lot of eaches“ (P 118). But he also saw the unavoidable need and the utility of bringing those eaches together, both conceptually and physically, into larger unities. His name for the ideal of increasing the number and scope of such unities was “meliorism,” an ideal neither necessary nor impossible of implementation and hence inviting our commitment and courage on its behalf:
Our acts, our turning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow…. Why may they not be the actual turning-places and growing places which they seem to be, of the world — why not the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other kind of way than this (P 129)?
The post-modernist is correct to point out the ways in which hegemonic framing marginalizes a good many people, ideas, and practices at the expense of others. It is important for us to go back constantly to the basics, to the raw truth of things, and through a close reading of the original realities to recover or gain a genuine appreciation of those things in all their uniqueness. But it is naive to imagine that we can dwell forever in a world that is no more than a random pile of eaches. Maturity comes as we learn the hegemonic skills by which communities are build up, by which one and one become a pair, pairs become families, families are gathered into a gens, the gentes become a state, the states a united nations of the Earth, the worlds a galactic federation.
This need not be an imperial effort. Language games can be fashioned through mutual give and take rather than by fiat; meta-narratives can be woven rather than imposed. Power can be an agent of empowerment, and self-interest need not be merely self-serving. An educational program aiming to nurture citizens who can function justly within the mosaic of American culture and within the world’s multicultural pluralism should teach students the dynamics of various hegemonic orders, the reasons for their emergence, the conditions of their continuence, the factors that lead to their decline and fall. There is abundant learning here, ample for helping young people see both the value and the vice of social canons, their intertwined necessity and risk.
This way of framing the aims of education would provide students with access to the process by which particular perspectives, working hypotheses, and dumb guesses sometimes are prized for more than their momentary usefulness, how they come into general use, are embedded in habits and common sense, generalized into legal conventions and scientific theories, questioned for their inadequacies and then reformed or cast aside. A justified process-rooted philosophical appreciation of social canons can be taught through a pedagogical strategy that begins with their critique, that expunges them from the natural given furnishings of the immediately real in order to rediscover them as the inherited cultural accretions by which we transform the immediately real into a world of enduring meanings and human significance.
The attack on American society by the cultural left, its diatribe against American beliefs and practices as hierarchical, hegemonic, and exclusionary, presumes that it is possible for people to live without shared frameworks or that it is somehow possible to invent frameworks that don’t order what they encompass into structures of importance, hierarchies of subordination and superordination, lattices of means and ends. This presupposition is the radical’s equivalent to the reactionary’s copy theory of cultural framing. The educational reactionary thinks there is a single natural canon for the regulation of a good and just society, and that it should be the core of any undergraduate curriculum. The educational radical thinks that since there is no natural canon the best society is an unregulated one, and that the design of an undergraduate curriculum should therefore be the responsibility of each individual student. The Kantian kingdom of ends, each member assigned by the state its proper place and fully consenting to the role defined by that place; the Marxian classless society, each member without benefit of state supervision making anew each day the place that best serves its needs and exercises its abilities. Between the rock and whirlpool of these absolutes, process philosophy offers us an uncertain but navigable passage.
When James characterized “reality” as made up of eaches and suches, of concrete particular facts and abstract relational concepts, he added a third element: “the whole body of other truths already in our possession” (P 96), the “ancient stock” of truths I have called our “social canon.”
The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of his old order standing…. New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity (P 31).
The ancient stock, if absolutized, sets rules that eventually prove inadequate to the ever-changing caches of the world. For that stock was canonized because of its relevance to worlds past, and even then its relevance was partial, its adequacy approximate, its flaws, its bugs, not fully appreciated. Things change, and old truths become uncouth because no longer able adequately to frame the world. But new truths, if designed solely by reference to their immediate relevance, have all the limitations that result from inexperience, expedience, and the absence of thoughtful criticism. Designed to solve a particular problem, their usefulness may not be generalizable. In healing one wound they may cause a hundred others. Absolutized, a frame tailored to the moment of its need is only a Band-Aide. Another frame is soon needed, and another — the disconnected orders of the days growing into a general incoherence of things. And soon our world is no longer ordered meaningfully.
Thus a community functions viably insofar as it can marry its traditional canons with the novelty of present experiences. Our work as citizens is to attempt to effect that marriage for our country. It is our duty as Americans to know and appreciate the systems of belief — the mythic cosmologies, the scientific laws, the common-sense attitudes — that in times past have served to give coherence and purpose to our life together. It is also our duty as Americans to be acquainted with and appreciate the motley of particulars — individuals whatever their kinds or styles or stations in life, ideas whatever their seeming worth, practices whatever their scope or legitimacy — that are encircled by the horizons of that coherence and purpose. And if this be so, our work as educators and as advocates of a well-functioning American educational system is to develop citizens who are at home in the canons that comprise the formal reality of their heritage, who are equally at home with the varied individual things that comprise the material reality of that heritage and of their present life, and who are able to devise constantly new frames that are adequate to both, that marry ancient canon and novel particular in a new canon which integrates as fully and complexly as possible all its participant elements.
This means that the social canons, and therefore the educational canon, ought always to be put in question. Like the ancient kings or like contemporary CEOs, they must defend themselves constantly against younger challengers. But for such struggles there must be rules, just as much as there must be rules for the placid periods of uncontested authority. We require a canon of procedure every bit as much as we require a canon of achievement.
Even that most encrusted of modernists, the deaconal canon of the canonicists, Leo Strauss, notes the need for a continuing reinterpretation of the works of great minds:
Since the greatest minds contradict one another regarding the most important matters, they compel us to judge of their monologues; we cannot take on trust what any one of them says. On the other hand, we cannot but notice that we are not competent to be judges (LAM 7).
Strauss claims that it is the collapse of “authoritative traditions in which we could trust” that has forced us into an active but unjustified role as judges reconciling the divergent views of our great-souled mentors. But we have rejected his presumption of a lost maybe someday to be recovered absolute canon of great works, a conversation of ultimate voices speaking in timeless harmony. In its place, our pragmatic reading of the canon is that the great minds of the tradition are always in need of present-day judges. We may be incompetent insofar as we cannot claim to be ourselves great-souled, but it is we alone who can judge between the canonical voices and the new-sprung experiences. And in doing so, we create canons of process by virtue of which the canons of accomplishment are continually renewed.
One obvious way to make this dynamic explicit within a curriculum is for courses to “teach the conflicts,”3 not only those among the canonical thinkers as Strauss would have us do but also those between canonical and noncanonical authors. To teach Milton’s Paradise Lost alongside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a way to ask if the latter can be read as a reply to the former. The question is not which is greater in its use of language and its power of insight, but why Milton has been the more important for our culture and what we can learn about the limits of both canonical writings and their challengers through this interesting juxtaposition. To read Shakespeare’s Tempest in tandem with a contemporary black Caribbean writer’s retelling of the play, framing both tellings in their respective contexts of self- and world-understanding, is to appreciate aspects of meaning available through Shakespeare’s version that are easily overlooked, and to hear resonances in the contemporary version otherwise drowned out by its overtly political agenda. The canonical texts are taught, but not as a set of isolated finalities. They are taught in conversation with other texts, other framings, some merely different, some once or presently contending with them for canonical relevance. The dynamics of the classroom thereby models that of the culture, teaching tomorrow’s citizens the knowledge and appreciation they need of ancient authorities and fresh sassy pretenders to authority, and also teaching them the dialectical skill of marrying old and new, a skill which they will need if our nation is to long endure.
The marriage process, as it is carried on over time, thus results in a dynamic nicely caught in James’s metaphor of grease spots. The intruding inappropriate glop of grease falls onto the cloth of tradition, spotting it. “The novelty soaks in; it stains the ancient mass; but it is also tinged by what absorbs it” (P 78). The new fact stains the ancient truths, forcing them to adjust their framings in some small but irreversible way in order to take account of it. But the new fact is changed as well by the encompassing system of beliefs into which it is now set. Always ready with yet another metaphor, James shifts in mid-sentence to the notion of a stew: “it happens relatively seldom that the new fact is added raw. More usually it is embedded cooked, as one might say, or stewed down in the sauce of the old” (P78). The flavor and substance of the stew are altered because of the new ingredient; the ingredient, however, is altered too, cooked down by the stewing until it has become an integral aspect of the whole.
Metaphysical realism, understood in a processive way, requires this triple sense of objectivity: novel human doings in need of guidance, long-enduring systems of belief that provide the schemata of interpretation by which that guiding can be done, and opportunistic skill in sculpting act and theory, fact and canon, into a coherent, fruitful basis for intelligent action. An educational canon, properly understood, marries modernists and post-modernists, shows their current dispute to leave them trapped in an ideological isolation of partial truths, and invites them instead to exchange rings in celebration of a vow to share in the adventure toward a better American culture and a better world, an adventure that requires them both.
Acad — Jean Ferguson Carr. “Cultural Studies and Curricular Change.” Academe, Nov.-Dec. 1990.
CHE — The Chronicle for Higher Education. Nov. 21, 1990.
FA — Erving Goffman. Frame Analysis. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986 (1974).
ICC — Integrity in the College Curriculum. Association of American Colleges, Project on Redefining the Meaning and Purpose of Baccalaureate Degrees, 1985.
JG — Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud. Just Gaming. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985 (1979).
LAM — Leo Strauss. “What is Liberal Education?” Liberalism Ancient and Modern. New York: Basic Books, 1968.
NYRB — John Searle. “The Storm Over the University.” New York Review of Books, December 6,1990: 34ff.
P — William James. Pragmatism. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981 (1907).
SEM — Gregory Bateson. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co., 1972.
TM — Lynne V. Chaney. Tyrannical Machines: A Report on Educational Practices Gone Wrong and Our Best Hopes for Setting Them Right. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1984.
TRL — William J. Bennett To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1984.
1Gates is one of the authors whose essays are included in a collection edited by Darryl L. Gless and Barbara Hernstein Smith, The Politics of Liberal Education (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990). Mary Louise Pratt, quoted next and again by Searle, is also represented in this collection of essays.
2This is the point Virginia Woolf makes in A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1957 ).
3The phrase is Gerald Graff’s, but I don’t know the when or why of it. The examples that follow are borrowed from the rationale for Dickinson College’s recently approved new undergraduate English curriculum, which I think is a fine example of, and in part an Inspiration for, the position I have been developing in this essay.