In defense of liberal studies


THERE IS A scene in Peter Weir's 1989 film, "Dead Poets Society," in which John Keating, the English teacher played by Robin Williams, is reproached for his unorthodox teaching methods by Mr. Nolan, the Welton School headmaster played by Norman Lloyd.

"I'm just trying to teach my students how to think for themselves," is Keating's reply, or something to that effect. The headmaster is absolutely incredulous. His response goes something like this: "Think? Just give them the facts."

This scene perfectly encapsulates a debate that has been raging in the humanities departments of university campuses throughout the United States since the late 1960s. In recent years, however, the debate has become the subject of tirades from outside academia.

In essence, the debate revolves around what is called the "literary canon" -- the body of literature considered appropriate for the education of a young mind. It is intended to bestow on students a range of knowledge and the critical faculties sufficient to enable them to become productive adults and contribute in some way to the betterment of society.

Traditionally, the literary canon has consisted of the Greek and Roman classics, the vernacular poetry of the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, Shakespearean drama, the English novel and so on. Plato and Virgil, Dante and Chaucer, Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway -- these authors may represent only a small portion of the vast body of literature which constitutes the canon, but they are nevertheless emblematic: They are all dead, all white and all males. To be sure, they comprise a critical aspect of the genius of Western culture, but not the whole, for the whole is more heterogeneous, more compound.

Afro-American literature, Third World literature, feminist literature, gay and lesbian literature and the literature of the marginal and the oppressed represent an attempt to redress the balance. Slowly, and despite strong resistance, these kinds of literature are being assimilated into the canon. This past spring semester at Towson State University, for example, courses were offered on "Women Writers: India, Africa and the Caribbean" and "The History of the Native American West."

The virtue of such specialized undergraduate courses is twofold. First, they demonstrate the many levels on which meaning is ascribed to reality, the diversity of reality itself and the many perspectives from which it might be seen. In such a way, they tend to celebrate difference and revel in the complexity of society and culture, thereby combating bigotry and ethnocentrism of all sorts.

Second, and perhaps more important, these courses invite the student to consider more deeply what is at issue in a given text or historical epoch and even the world in which we live. They are an invitation to go beyond mere appearances and penetrate.

The classics will continue to be taught in American colleges and universities, as well they should; there is no danger of a new canon replacing the traditional one, but there is no doubt that the traditional canon is presently undergoing an expansion and realignment that can only strengthen it.

What emerges is likely to be more varied and thought-provoking, more acquiescent to difference and better suited to the needs of modern society.

William R. Day Jr. is a graduate student in medieval studies and bartender. He writes from Baltimore.

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