Yesterday, as I headed north on Broadway toward the 125th street entrance to the West Side Highway in a downpour not seen since, well, last week when gregarious Irene was paying a visit to the entire East Coast, I found myself stopped at a light in front of the main gates of Columbia University, my alma mater.  The street was teeming with rain and fresh faced freshmen looking vaguely shellshocked.  Watching them hurry to cross the street before the light changed and the homicidal cabbie in the next lane hit the gas, their overstuffed backpacks and grim expressions sent me into a reverie about my long ago school days.

One of the reasons I chose Columbia was its mandatory humanities courses—philosophy, literature, music, and art survey courses composed of the “canon” of great works.  As those of you who read this blog regularly know, most of us here at DGLM love a reading list and what better reason to go into thousands of dollars worth of debt than to emerge with a reading list full of masterpieces chosen by…old white guys, reflecting the ideology and intellectual tradition of…old white guys.  Wait!  Even with the occasional nod to a woman or person of color the canon really was rather limited and limiting in its choice of authors. All these years later, it still is.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved many if not most of those canonical choices, but I wonder what I would have changed in that syllabus for my lit hum class.  Instead of the Iliad, perhaps One Thousand and One Nights?  Borges instead of Dreiser?  Zora Neale Hurston instead of F. Scott Fitzgerald?  How about genre literature?  I know I would’ve traded a great mystery novel for the millions of pages on whaling by the esteemed Mr. Melville in a heartbeat.

Obviously, there’s no right list of classics, but if the idea is to shape young minds that will then go out and shape the world, what would your reading list include?

4 Responses to Syllabi

  1. Catherine Whitney says:

    I have just finished wet-vaccing my basement (God, will it ever stop raining?), but I have a moment to respond. My picks are Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, and Night by Elie Wiesel.

  2. DBurks says:

    Robert Heinlein. There are only so many books you can expect even the most neurotic and compulsive student to read, and Heinlein is the most accessible for those who believe they hate science fiction. He also wrote stories in several styles, and he always used standard punctuation unlike many of the supposedly great. In spite of being considered SF his stories are always about human relationships of many different kinds.
    James Fenimore Cooper. American literature began with him, and most people who speak condescendingly of his works have never read them. He wrote the very first novel about environmental stewardship, the first realistic sea novel based on experience, the first novel that correctly portrayed Native Americans and the first novel that accurately spoke of the Plains Tribes and the coming cultural clash with settlers moving west. I suppose Cooper is not thought of first when the modern teacher thinks of women’s literature, but all of his stories each have at least three strong women in leading roles, and they are all full genuine characters rather than ornaments or caricatures.
    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Song of Hiawatha was the first heroic epic in American poetry and it contains hundreds of accurate details about life in the woods instead of fake folklore. So few people read it that most do not know it is a classic tragedy every bit as grand and solemn as Shakespeare.
    Willa Cather. The first truly great feminist writer, and she wrote so much more than O Pioneers.
    With so many wonderful things to select from why do the teachers have so little originality in their choices? My four grandchildren have brought dozens of their fellow college students to my house when they needed feeding, and I don’t think students have changed much over the years. Teachers, on the other hand, seem to have become more and more narrow minded, and that worries me.

  3. D. A. Hosek says:

    In my days as an undergrad English major in the late 80s, the question of The Canon with a capital T and a capital C was preeminent in the metadiscussion. I think a lot depends on the purpose of the canon. What does it mean to be educated?

    I did an experiment a few years ago: I went through the IMDB top 250 films and made a point of watching every single one I hadn’t seen before. It took about a year and a half (partly because, being a living document, the list kept changing on me). There were some films which I thought were dreadful, some I couldn’t believe I’d never seen before, but more than anything else, I found myself realizing that there’s a great deal of intertextuality in movies (and television). The Simpsons, for example, becomes a great deal richer if you’ve seen large numbers of the IMDB top 250.

    Something similar comes into play with the canon. In an ideal world, I suppose, if I’m reading author X, I’ll have read everything that author X has read and be able to see the web of connections. In reality that’s not even close to possible, so it’s a matter of having a roadmap. I think that just by virtue of living in a different era than the students of the 50s (or 70s or 90s), our canon is by necessity different. After T.S. Eliot, poets became far more aware of the metaphysical poets of the 17th century and they became a much more important part of the canon than they had in the years prior to Eliot’s revival of their fortunes. But they’re little help in understanding Robert Frost (for whom knowing Wordsworth would be a more useful thing).

    These days, my reading tends very much towards contemporary fiction, far more than when I was younger. I want to see what’s happening in literature today. And I do occasional forays into genre fiction if only to be as broadly read as possible.

  4. Emily says:

    As a product of 1950s high school and 1960s college literary classes, I did read all the Old White Guys. My favorite is also an Old White Guy but possibly still living: Eugen Weber, “The Western Tradition” a collection of documents key to understanding the thinking of major historical events. So I would include on my canonical list: Olympe de Gouges, “Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen” (1791) — a product of the French Revolution.

    How about some American women — closer to our time — not necessarily literary, but serving to understand fundamental cultural change and give context to our times:

    Zelda Fitzgerald, “Save Me the Waltz”
    Ruth Benedict, “An Anthropologist at Work”
    Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlemen”

    I especially reread Didion occassionally — the meanings and nuances change for me as I age.

    As for a Greek ‘old white guy’ — “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes had a lifelong impact on my thinking.

    The arrow of your thoughs, outlined above, does aim at college literature — and I have taken a slight jog toward cultural and social change and comment — perhapse because I never really got into that whole metadiscussion of literature. Although, I was neck deep in Metalinguistics at one time. Now, with advancing age, the whole conceptual appratus seems truly strained to me.

    Although, given the life-long impacts that I have experienced, I do believe that direct contact with writers from our deep traditional past have lasting and beneficial value.

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