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Harold Bloom, Dead Stuff, and the End of American Education

There are a lot of cool posts on BIG THINK today. Austin Allen’s on stuff the great literary critic Harold Bloom declared dead is a kind of an ironic appreciation.  The “subtext” is that one of the critic’s charms is that news of something’s death from Bloom is typically greatly exaggerated.

I’m going to avoid that critical tendency by not following my instinct in posting on the death of Mitt Romney’s campaign.  Or by explaining why Newt Gingrich’s campaign against our president would be DOA.

As an unapologetic digression, I will say what, in truth, Newt Gingrich should have said in his famous anti-CNN South Carolina moment of fake indignation:  The mainstream elite media have made it impossible for decent men and women to run for president.  That’s why you’re stuck with ME.

Getting back to Harold, it’s easy to observe that saying rock and roll died with the band The Band is an exaggeration.  The Band may well have been the best band ever, but that’s just to say that the rock genre, like every other, has rare peaks of genuine excellence.  Philosophy didn’t die with Socrates, the purest thinker of the West. Nothing in even Springsteen’s storytelling approaches “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”  But how many Canadian displays of the authentically Confederate point of view can we really expect? Given the close connection between The Band and Dylan, we might want to say that really classy and deep popular music died with Dylan.  But Dylan is still alive and singing.  His voice is shot but the spirit is still more than willing.

Harold also says, of course, that the Western canon and American education are dead.  Again, both exaggerations, but ones I kind of like.

I can hardly wait until the idea of the Western canon dies.  The whole idea, it seems to me, is that a bunch of sort-of sacred texts were imposed on Western civilization quite arbitrarily.  Those books, it follows, are to be understand as tools of logocentric, patriarchal, phallocentric tyranny.

The idea of the Western canon disappears once we remember that the West is distinguished by making universal claims for truth through reason or philosophy and monotheistic revelation.  The books weren’t written just for the West, but for the cosmopolis that includes us all, or the City of God that includes us all.

Readers were passionate, attentive, and meticulous in the ways Bloom described when people read books because they thought they were the best way of knowing the truth that would set you free.

The key thing about Plato’s Republic or the Bible or Shakespeare or Maimonides or Thomas Aquinas is whether or not what they say is really true.  Answering that question requires, in each case, long and loving study.  Thinking of such books and authors as merely part of some Western canon already discourages the reader from approaching the text on the terms set forth by the author.

The anti-canonical criticism of those books is usually in terms of their racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, and so forth.  But those standards of criticismon behalf of the free and dignified equality of all individualsare quite Western.

And, of course, we should read non-Western books in the same spirit we should read the so-called Western ones.  Do they contain the truth that can set us free?

So killing the Western Canon as Western canon is one ingredient among many of the revitalization of American education.

One reason, of course, that American education is not dead as a whole is that the unique diversity of American colleges and universities (meaning, to begin with, the huge number of private and religious institutions) makes it easy to find places here and there where the best books are read in the right spirit.

And we might add, to placate the many atheists on BIG THINK, that Nietzsche thought that the most noteworthy achievement of the West so far is found in the statement “God is dead.”  Getting over that alleged insight,  he thought, depended on getting over some of our most cherished Western prejudices.


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