Some thoughts on the Canon

16th August 2013

This post is in response to @debrakidd and the very interesting discussion that followed. It was originally intended as a comment, but grew too long and became a blog.

The Canon, in the sense of: “A list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality” – has always seemed to be the province of those who might be described as conservatives (with a small c) or traditionalists. Those on the left or progressives have tended to dismiss the Canon as a list of ‘dead-white-men’.

Here is a video of two academic white-men from either side of this intellectual divide discussing the subject (with thanks to @SurrealAnarchy for sharing this link)

As their conversation moves on it becomes apparent they share a lot of common ground, most importantly they both believe there is such a thing as culture and it is possible to say what has value and what doesn’t, where they disagree is on how such a thing as a Canon might be agreed and what should and shouldn’t be included. The traditionalist (Roger Scruton) believes a Canon does exist and should be the bedrock of a liberal education, the progressive (Terry Eagleton) also believes the Canon exists but it is tainted by the conservative, intellectual elite that created it and should be deconstructed for its historical, political and class bias.

While I have sympathy for this last view – I certainly don’t trust the intellectual, political and economic elite – I also have great sympathy for the traditionalist view that works of great value should be studied and appreciated both in school and in society. The problem with the progressive argument is that it basically deals itself out of the game. By refusing to engage in the discussion of what should be included, the progressive does not prevent the discussion happening and the Canon being established, but merely decides not to be included.

This seems to me a very big mistake.

By not engaging in the debate, other than to say the debate is not worth having, seems to me like intellectual sulking. And the progressives can hardly complain if the Canon is made up of ‘dead-white-men’ if they have just left it to the ‘alive-white-men’ to create it.

To enter the debate seems far more constructive. Not that I expect it will be easy.

The first question is, ‘who decides?’ I would argue everyone should have a voice and everyone should be involved in the final decision. Of course the problems with this approach are obvious and we could easily end up with sludge rather gold. But the alternatives are far worse, leaving it to intellectuals, journalists and (worst of all) politicians would be a disaster.

Does this mean Wayne Rooney gets the same vote as Prof. David Starkey? Yes, and Starkey would just have to get over it. My point is not that everyone knows as much as everyone else, but that if the final decision is democratic than everyone who cares will have to make an argument strong enough to convince those that don’t. If Starkey wants Rooney’s vote for Der Ring des Nibelungen he will have to convince him that it is better than Agadoo.

This means education.

I’m being very rude about Rooney (for all I know he might love Wagner) but most people would need convincing that 15 hours of German Opera is worth including as one of the human races’ greatest achievements. And that is absolutely right. If something is genuinely of the highest value then it should be able to stand on its own two feet, it should be possible for those who know why, to explain to those who don’t, why it is so important. I’m not saying they have to like it, but they should be able to appreciate it. If they don’t, it doesn’t belong in the Canon.

This is my current attitude to Jane Austen. I don’t like her, I find her boring and her books are full of people I don’t care about. However, I have been convinced (by people who know and care a lot more than I do) that she is a great and important literary figure. So, should she go into the Canon? Absolutely, she has my vote.

What about Dostoyevsky? Yep. Simone de Beauvoir? She has my vote. The Bhagavad Gita? Definitely. This is easy. Billy Holiday? Eh, yes, although I guess some would argue. Ok, how about The Beatles, Jack Kerouac, Hilary Mantel and Mondrian?

I said it wasn’t going to be easy. But I think we should welcome the discussion. At the moment the debate is marginalised – a sort of intellectual bun-fight between those on the right who say ‘Canon good’ and those on the left who say ‘Canon bad’. I believe we should drag this debate out of the shadows and on to BBC 1 at 7 O’clock on a Saturday night, every week for a year. It can be hosted by Bruce Forsyth and accompanied by the BBC Big Band, I don’t care, but lets have this fight out in the open. So what if the viewing figures don’t stack up against the X-Factor. I believe if Shostakovich is so blooming good, he’ll eventually win out against a singing dog.

At the end of the year we’ll have a vote and that will become the Canon for the next year. Then we will start the whole process all over again. To start with, I guess, it might be a bit hit and miss, but over time the cream will rise and it won’t be all old and white, it will include all different shades of colour and style.

Call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one (although I probably am on this one). Isn’t education about the journey rather than the destination? Isn’t it better to have strived and failed, than to have never tried at all? Isn’t it the purpose of education to travel not in faith, but in hope?

*At this point the speaker fell of his soapbox and into the road. There was a suggestion someone pushed him.*


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