A few days ago, the economist Thomas Sowell found himself obligated to write an op-ed column in which he pointed out that “trickle-down economics”—the economic policy of the political right, according to the political left—is non-existent. It is attacked widely on the left, Sowell observed, but “none of those who denounce a ‘trickle-down’ theory can quote anybody who actually advocated it.”
I thought of Sowell’s column yesterday when I studied the readers’ comments to my essay “Academe Quit Me,” reprinted at Inside Higher Ed. No fewer than
eight nine ten commentators were quick to denounce me for “rehash[ing] the canon wars of a previous generation,” in the words of one, or “likening [my] experience of being let go with the Grand Fall of the English Canon,” as another said.
I’ve reread my essay closely several times now and for the life of me I can’t find the word canon anywhere in it. Is it possible I wrote the word in my sleep? One or two commentators acknowledged (if they couldn’t bring themselves to say so outright) that I never actually wrote what I was being denounced for writing. But the denunciations were valid anyhow, because my essay, in the words of one commentator, “sounds like someone who feels that English departments should only teach courses that discuss White men and eurocentric studies,” and “Myers implied that voices and opinions should be excluded,” as another said.
By the magic of sounds like and implies, a text can be made to say anything the critic wants it to say! I can’t think of a stronger case for improving the teaching of English than the example of such wild-eyed readers, who project their bogies and night sweats into texts that spook them.
Even if it is their habit to express themselves in talking points and received ideas, though, it doesn’t follow that everyone else lives by the same habit. I have been writing publicly for more a quarter century now, and nowhere in anything I have written do I call for a return to the canon. I mean nowhere. If there has been one consistency in my writing it has been this. For more than two-and-a-half decades I have dissented from both sides in the canon wars.
One of my first published essays—published in the Sewanee Review in 1989 as I was just beginning my academic career—was called “The Bogey of the Canon.” The title summarizes my argument. To spell it out further:
What I actually wrote in “Academe Quits Me” is that academic literary study is no longer a “common pursuit.” It does not represent a “common body of knowledge.” It lacks “common disciplinary conceptions.” Does it say more about me or about my commentators that the only common pursuit they can imagine, the only common disciplinary conception, is a “canon” of “dead white males”?
Most English professors secretly know that I am right, however, even if they would never permit themselves to say so publicly. In my teaching, I have learned that I cannot assume any common background knowledge, not even in English majors.
Last spring I taught one of those boutique courses that could have been offered at the University of Minnesota this semester: an honors seminar on Evil in the Postwar American Novel. Among the books I taught was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I began the discussion by raising the question of Faulkner’s influence upon McCarthy. My students looked at me blankly. “How many of you have read Faulkner?” I asked. No one raised a hand. “How many of you have heard of Faulkner?” Three hands went up. In an upper-division seminar on Philip Roth, pretty much the same thing. Not one student had read Saul Bellow.
In “Academe Quits Me,” I warn that the loss of a common tradition in English study leaves every English professor exposed. No one is indispensable to a university, because no curricular subject, no great author, is indispensable. When he was in college not long ago, a younger friend wrote to me privately yesterday, “you could take Shakespeare’s Treatment of Women, but not Shakespeare.”
I’m not opposed to the inclusion of underrepresented voices—in principle I’m not even opposed to film studies as a part of English—but my critics have failed to grasp my warning. Where nothing is considered essential knowledge, then nothing (not even film or underrepresented voices) is guaranteed a niche in the world of institutionalized scholarship. What my tenured colleagues fail to realize is that their sense of having a secure and permanent place in English is an illusion created by tenure. Nothing else protects them, because nothing else they contribute to scholarship or the academic community is considered necessary, not even by them. They themselves, by acquiescing in the loss of the common pursuit, have made themselves superfluous.
And if they think that a university cannot take away their salaries and their offices while continuing to recognize their tenure—if they think that entire English departments cannot be eliminated—they had better think again. Because such things have already happened at more than one university in this country.