Were You Educated By A Loose Canon?

11 Oct
The Great Books of the Western World is an att...

The Great Books of the Western World is an attempt to present the western canon in a single package of 60 volumes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I asked “What kind of reader are you?” Now I want to know, “What books did you read when you were in school?” I’m not talking about elementary school here. More like middle or high school. What books did your teachers expose you to?

I’m curious about this because I’ve been perusing Harold Bloom’s wonderfully eye-opening book, “The Western Canon,” (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994). Most of us these days think of the Bible when we hear the word canon, but it does have a broader application. A canon is basically an authoritative list. Thus Bloom:

Originally the Canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions, and despite the recent politics of multiculturalism, the Canon’s true question remains: What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?

What Bloom is getting at here is that there are far too many books for people to read, even in several lifetimes. Choices need to be made. There are certain books that are definitive of our Western culture, the core if you will. We’re talking about such authors as Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dickens, Goethe, Milton and, Lord, I’m barely scratching the surface here. Are we, or our teachers, choosing the books we really need to truly understand our culture?

How many of these seminal writers were you exposed to during your high school years? Or even college? The odds of today’s students having the opportunity to read these great minds grows ever slimmer due to what Bloom describes as “the academic-journalistic network I have dubbed the School of Resentment, who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change.”

I’ll attempt to grapple with more of the details later, but for now please ruminate on this: Can a person understand Western civilization, or even be a part of it, without some minimum knowledge of its greatest writers and thinkers? How would one choose the Canon?


Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Authors, Education, History, Ideas, Old Books, Worries


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4 responses to “Were You Educated By A Loose Canon?

  1. taliesintaleweaver

    October 17, 2012 at 7:33 am

    I don’t think a person can fully grapple with the essence of what Western Civilization even is without being exposed to the ideas that form its foundation. It’s funny, nobody thinks he can understand cinema without looking back to the seminal works that mark its eras, nor does one seek to understand music by ignoring every influential artist from Bach to the Beatles. Yet oddly, people seem to do this when looking at history.

    • Rob

      October 18, 2012 at 12:16 am

      Boy, you knocked that one right out of the park. Taliesin. It seems our schools are spending less and less time on our history and the big ideas that have made Western Civilization. That includes the great writers mentioned above and so many others. What can we do about it? Thanks for your perspective.

  2. David

    October 20, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    I’ve been very fortunate in my education, and I believe part of that has to do with my attending private religious schools which respected the Western canon (and a string of very motivated, caring teachers). Doesn’t mean I always liked the books I had to read for school (far from it!), but on the whole I did become familiar with many of the most important works.

    In middle school (let’s see what I can remember!) I read Mark Twain, Narnia, The Hobbit, and Johnny Tremain…those are the ones I actually read for assignments and liked. There were also a number of other “children’s historical fiction” books that I distinctly remember not liking. I read some Jack London on my own, and a positively angelic 5th grade teacher read to the class from George MacDonald and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, but on my own I tended to explore Redwall and the Animorphs series.

    High school brought Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, some Charles Dickens, Nathanial Hawthorne, a teeny bit of Homer and Virgil, Eli Wiesel, Chaim Potok, Chinua Achebe, To Kill a Mockingbird, Machiavelli…those are the ones I care to remember!

    College, of course, brought a ton more, helped in that I had more control over my education and could choose certain classes. Naturally, I gravitated towards the greats, helped by being a history major and classics minor (Aristotle and Aquinas FTW!). And I’m glad I did. Knowing the history and the literature of one’s culture is vital to understanding where it is now, why it is the way it is, and where it might go (and, I would add, how God has worked throughout it).

    • Rob

      October 21, 2012 at 1:21 am

      I admire your education and greatly respect your parents for making sure you received it. Would that every young person be exposed to even a few of the writers you mentioned. I am a product of the California public school system which, back in the ’60s, wasn’t really too bad (at least what I can remember of it!) Today I look at what the public schools serve up and feel a sadness at what many of these children are missing. Without the anchoring that an education steeped in the Western canon can impart, many of today’s young are adrift in time, so to speak. They have no real understanding of who they are and what the great ideas that formed them were. With so many schools emphasizing science and math these days, the chances for exposure to the great writers and thoughts become fewer and fewer. It’s sad, and a bit frightening, to consider the kind of people we are producing.

      Thanks for your thoughtfulness. People like you give me hope!


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