The Forum | Western Civilization

The Canon Fires Back

February 4, 2015

A pair of students at University of California Berkeley recently published an opinion piece in the Daily Californian expressing outrage that a course on classical social theory would dare focus on…classical social theory. The central thrust of the piece—that the Western canon is “obsolete,” with insufficient value for minority students—ironically reveals a deep ignorance of the minority thinkers these students would prefer to study, many of whom were deeply influenced by the Western canon and by classical theorists. Here is W.E.B. DuBois:

I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

Not only does DuBois speak to the value he saw in these works, but also to the way the common experience of a canon creates a foundation for dialogue between different groups of people. By using the words of Shakespeare and Aurelius, he can throw the high values these white men espoused in the faces of those white men who “long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia” the world of justice and beauty those thinkers longed for. Rather than further marginalizing minorities, familiarity with the Western canon gives people a basis from which to engage with a dialogue that spans centuries, investigate it, debate it, and create a sense of shared intellectual community. Try to imagine Martin Luther King’s magisterial “Letter from Birmingham Jail” without its engagement with the works of Plato, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, Reinhold Niebuhr, and T.S. Eliot. It loses the power that Dr. King’s erudition and wisdom gave it. 

But there is yet a deeper problem with the students’ claim. If they are correct that Western thinkers have nothing to offer minorities, they are arguing that people cannot learn things of value from those outside their own group identity. That belief can only lead ultimately to a shattered and fragmented world.  

These students would do better to recognize that we all can gain much by studying those different from ourselves. A counterfactual is instructive here. If rather than seeking to “dismantle the tyranny of the white male syllabus,” these students had engaged—critically and fully—with the materials presented, they would have had the opportunity to share with other students the things they felt were left out. The school newspaper compares poorly to the classroom as a place where students can engage in dialogue and debate. The classroom offered the students an opportunity to introduce the views of minority writers and compare them to classical theorists—and they missed it.

This student angst stems from one fallacious assumption: that the presentation of one kind of thought necessarily limits or “silences” other views. This is the same idea that leads to the disinvitation of visiting speakers: rather than adding their own views, students feel they must remove the speech they don’t agree with. But the world of ideas is not a zero-sum game. It’s quite the opposite, growing greater than the sum of its parts with each new idea considered. How very sad for students to so limit their vision that they never leave the familiarity of their own group identity, that they cannot test their beliefs against the centuries of discourse and debate and emerge more articulate, more thoughtful, and in short, better educated.  


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