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Canons and Consequences: Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imaginative Ideals, and: The Making of the Modern Canon: Genesis and Crisis of a Literary Idea (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 16, Number 1, April 1992
pp. 150-162 | 10.1353/phl.1992.0095

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Canons and Consequences: Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imaginative Ideals, by Charles Altieri; ? & 370 pp. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1990, $36.95 cloth, $14.95 paper. The Making of the Modern Canon: Genesis and Crisis of a Literary Idea, by Jan Gorak; ? & 309 pp. Adantic Highlands, NewJersey: Athlone Press, 1991, $60.00. Discussed by Wendell V. Harris Taking the term "canon" in the sense of "a list of that which is best," one can oudine a long history of struggles and debates including those in the early church over the constitution of the New Testament and its relation to the Old, among medieval churchmen over the degree and mode of incorporating pagan writings into school curricula , and, tojump forward, those in the late nineteenth century over the inclusion of vernacular literature in the curricula of Oxford and Cambridge, at the turn of the century over the inclusion of American literature into the English major, and a little later over the inclusion of contemporary literature in the university curriculum. Leaving aside the formation ofthe Biblical canon, in which the issue was divine inspiration, the contested question has been that of the most effective school curriculum for a given purpose. Purposes have varied: the transmission ofthe correct theological position, the preparation ofan effective clergy, the production of Christian gentlemen, the training of the mental powers , the instilling of a common cultural tradition, the provision of universally applicable examples and precepts, the widening of sympathy Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 150-162 Wendell V. Harris151 and understanding through vicarious experience, the critique of ideologies . However, in most periods there has tended to be general agreement about the purposes to be achieved as well as agreement that a properly constituted curriculum can indeed achieve those purposes. The gradual shift in the balance of instruction from classical texts toward vernacular literature led to the introduction of literature as a School at Oxford, a Tripos at Cambridge, and a major in American universities, which in turn led to a generally accepted, if slowly shifting, selection of literary texts. Although those who opposed a School of English Literature at Oxford argued that its creation would "reverse the Renaissance," rarely was it questioned that there existed a body of literary texts in English that had intrinsic merit; the question was essentially the degree to which these might be allowed to replace the study of the classics and philology. Matthew Arnold's "the best that is known and thought" was assumed both to be determinable and, increasingly, to include a large share of vernacular literature. Only in the final quarterofthis century has debate arisen over whether there is in fact an identifiable body of the best literature. This new issue has not driven out argument over the purpose of a curricular canon and the appropriate texts for given purposes. Pressures for canon revision have in fact increased as feminists, representatives of minority groups, and Marxists have urged the revision of the literary canon to combat patriarchy, prejudice, ethnocentrism, and socio-economic inequality . On the other hand, there are individuals within each of these groups who denounce the concept ofa literary canon (and indeed deny that literature is a distinguishable portion of discourse).1 Although the two issues—what should be included in a curricular canon and whether such a canon should in fact exist—are frequently muddled, it is important to recognize that they exist on essentially different levels. The newly opened question of whether there can be a selection of "the best" which is other than the expression of a particular ideology alters the meaning ofthe older debate. So long as the existence ofstable, universal values for determining the curricular canon was assumed, and in particular so long as the "best" literature was regarded as a means not simply of transmitting an ideology but of leading its readers to be "better," the visible issue through all ideological shifts remained the question of deciding what constituted that "best." On the other hand, if "the best" is always selected on the basis of ideology, then literature loses any claim to a value peculiar to itselfand becomes simply a source of ideological weaponry. The issue of the possibility of a canon...

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