Mark Twain, Plato, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Voltaire, Ralph Waldo Emerson. For years, these names were thought necessary components of higher education. Without understanding these authors and their “great books,” so the story went, our students would lack in critical thinking skills and intelligence. Yet, in the wake of the 1960s and challenges to white male dominance, students and educators begin to demand a more well-rounded and inclusive canon. University curriculums constituted almost entirely by dead, white, male, European writers, were slowly accompanied by a few token “others.”
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the debate over what constituted a proper and effective “canon” reached a fevered pitch. The supposed decline of American knowledge and intelligence was blamed on the multiculturalism’s rise in the Ivory Tower. For example, University of Chicago philosophy professor Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind (1987) vigorously argued for a return to the traditional canon. In addressing this tension, sociologist Bethany Bryson wrote:
Two decades of heated battle would ensue between members of what would become known as the Cultural Left and the Cultural Right—academics and public intellectuals who engaged the debate in the national media. Despite the appearance of an epic battle between opposing forces, however, the two “sides” shared an extraordinary premise: that every time an English teacher put together a reading list, the future of a nation hung in the balance.*
Years later, most agree that the “Cultural Left” won the canon wars. It is generally assumed that today’s university curriculums and bookstores are repositories of diverse writers and viewpoints.
So, what does this cornucopia of diversity look like? We don’t have to look far to answer the question. A trip down the aisles of today’s college bookstores serve as off-hand metrics for what is “legitimate knowledge.” Moreover, these bookstores decorate their store walls with uniform and corporate–approved book covers and authors’ likenesses. By way of example, I headed over to the bookstore at Mississippi State University.
Throughout this bookstore, 3’ x 5’ posters of notable books are displayed above the shelves and sitting areas. In total, thirty-three different book covers grace the walls, however, John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold is displayed twice to bring the total to thirty-four. Nine of these thirty-four (26%) titles were produced by nonwhite, female, and/or gay/lesbian writers: Rosario Castellanos’ The Book of Lamentations, Pablo Neruda’s Fully Empowered, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
In addition to the posters, on a wrap-around,mural above the café, 23 authors sit in a restaurant, smoking, drinking, eating, and enjoying one another’s conversation and company. As shown below, the authors displayed are: Shelley, Whitman, Melville, Trollope [spelled as “Troilope” here], Kipling, [George] Eliot, James, Wilde, Twain, Shaw, Hardy, Dickenson, Orwell, Nabakov, Joyce, Parker, Faulkner, Steinbeck, [T. S.] Eliot, Singer, Kafka, Neruda, and Hughes.
Out of the twenty-three authors displayed, four (17%) are women, two (9%) are people of color ( literally marginalized to the far right of the mural as it curls behind a support beam), and two (9%) are considered to have been gay. Withstanding the overlap of Hughes in two categories (gay and nonwhite), we are left with only six out of twenty-three (26%) authors that do not conform to the white, male, straight demographic thought characteristic of traditional canon authors.
The twenty-six percent of book covers and paintings are the height of LGBT, female, and nonwhite author representation in this store. While the shelves certainly carry more than nine books and six authors of this ilk, I’d wager that the total percentage does not come close to a quarter of their total inventory. If these numbers and framing together epitomize the great victory of the Canon Wars by the Cultural Left, then it is certainly an unfinished battle.
* Bryson, Bethany. 2005. Making Multiculturalism: Boundaries and Meaning in U.S. English Departments. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, p 2.
Matthew W. Hughey is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia (2009) and is currently an assistant professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University. He is co-editor (with Dr. Gregory Parks) of The Obamas as a (Post) Racial America?, 12 Angry Men: True Stories of Being a Black Man in America Today, and Black Greek-Letter Organizations, 2.0: New Directions in the Study of African American Fraternities and Sororities. He is also author of the forthcoming White Bound: White Nationalists, White Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race. Please feel free to visit his website or contact him at MHughey@soc.msstate.edu.