Yale prof rips curricula that skip classic texts CANON FODDER

October 26, 1994|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

Time was when a student didn't graduate from college without studying Plato's "Republic," Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Milton's "Paradise Lost." The texts were read lovingly with sharp attention to detail, to beauty, to allusion.

That time is long past.

Now, argues Yale University professor Harold Bloom, few students receive a bachelor's degree without reading the novels of Alice Walker. Shakespeare, if studied at all, is examined for evidence of class warfare; Plato is reviled as fascist and "Paradise Lost" as sexist.

The appreciation of great literature has been usurped by a culture of chatterers, Dr. Bloom writes. And in "The Western Canon," a 578-page Jeremiad against modern academics published this month, he fights back. In apocalyptic tones, he argues that literature departments have become irrelevant, and he calls for the common reader to wrest control back from the professionals.

Dr. Bloom's book includes what he calls the Western Canon -- a 36-page list of great works that have shaped European and American culture. His controversial canon has reignited a long-running debate between traditionalists and multiculturalists, who argue that students should read the minority and female authors usually left off such lists.

Though some women and minorities appear on Dr. Bloom's list, he doesn't hesitate to take aim at those he considers mediocre writers.

In the book and in an interview, the 64-year-old professor calls the success of black women such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou the triumph of identity over talent and says their work should not displace enduring classics.

That position provoked a strong response, including, he says, a flood of anonymous hate mail calling him a racist and a sexist.

"You cannot legislate genius," he retorts. "There are no more [female] novelists of the 20th century to compare with Jane Austen and George Eliot in power and authority."

In Maryland, as in the rest of the nation, a survey of campuses reveals few books that all students must read. Instead, freshmen at Loyola College, Johns Hopkins, St. Mary's College and the University of Maryland Baltimore County take survey courses that offer readings from an array of eras and cultures.

At the University of Maryland College Park this year, all freshmen will read "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." But that move follows a recent student government initiative two springs ago, not any grand curricular wranglings.

"Years ago, it seemed that the first common educational experience all students had was graduation," says senior Paul Mandell, who stepped down this week as president of the student government at College Park. "We thought about ways to improve tradition on campus, and we wanted to create an educational focus."

St. John's College in Annapolis, where students banter about Euclid and Ptolemy with the familiarity of old friends, may come as close as any U.S. campus to drawing required readings from Dr. Bloom's list. Its compulsory works stretch through all four years, giving undergraduates a common basis for discussion. Sitting around the small quad in front of McDowell Hall, St. John's students are quick to defend the notion of great books.

"To go through life in our society without having read the Bible -- or Plato -- is going out in life without really knowing the whole picture," says freshman Ian Robertson.

"You read the original works, and you find out what they're really saying," says Lynette Dowty, a sophomore from Sacramento, Calif. "It's intensely personal."

Literary Odyssey

The curriculum clash is not new. It has raged since the day more than a century ago when a University of Michigan professor embarked on one of the first known courses studying American literature, a counterpart to classes focusing on Latin, Greek and English authors.

The battle was joined throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when student protest forced administrators to pry open course lists to writers and peoples other than the dreaded dead white males. And it was revived by "The Closing of the American Mind," a 1987 book by University of Chicago classics professor Allan Bloom (no relation) that argued popular culture had overwhelmed Western civilization, stripping American society of its values.

The issue leaves some scholars cold.

"It's somewhat irrelevant to the real problems that most American students have," said Gerald Graff, a University of Chicago English professor. "Their problem is books, period, not whether the books are chosen by the trendies or the traditionalists. . . . Why bicker about which books we're teaching? Most students would not be able to read Shakespeare at the level we want."

Not all schools have abandoned a universal reading list. At Columbia University, a pioneer of the "Great Books" curricula in the early decades of this century, students still must read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, several Greek tragedies and comedies, the Bible, Dante's Inferno and Cervantes' "Don Quixote."

'The enemy'

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