Different people have different ideas about what academia is, what it should strive for, and what cultural values it should represent. While a traditionalist view of the ivory tower, and especially of a liberal arts education, suggests that we ought to cling to classical texts and the Western canon as a basis, others are questioning whether notions of the West and adhering to a canon are still useful, or whether they create exclusionary spaces that limit the breadth and depth of our education. In these discussions, it’s easy to straw man liberal arts campuses and students as upholding ideas that are in line with liberal ideology and subsequently brainwashing students into that ideology. Common terms, often conflated with similar but not synonymous terms, that those in favor of a more classical education might associate with liberalized education are deconstruction, critical theory, and postmodernism. In actuality, these terms are not innately political and are also often contradict one another. Here are what the terms actually mean.
Critical theory: Describes social theories which are oriented toward critiquing and changing society, rather than simply observing and describing it. Can encompass anything from Marxism to Feminist and Gender theory.
Postmodernism: A late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has, at its heart, a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies. Postmodernism does not encompass Marxism, structuralism, or postcolonial theory, which seek to describe how all things works. Also, postmodernism isn’t a theory, it’s simply a category that theories may fall into.
Deconstruction: A method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language which emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression. Seeks to point out contradiction in language and in other theories and expose assumptions which we might otherwise take for granted. Does not equal social nihilism and is not politicized in the way that other theories are.
Full transparency, I’ve gotten these definitions from Google and Wikipedia. Now that they’re laid out, it’s easy to see that they’re not the same thing, that they can be in contradiction with one another, that they have different goals, and are not political in nature.
So, that raises the question, since deconstruction, postmodernism, and critical theory are not actually political forces with the ends of driving out classical texts, what exactly are the opponents of a less canonical classroom afraid of? The answer should be not much. Even at Wesleyan, a liberal arts college in the truest sense of the word, we still study these texts. In fact, I’ve read several of them in English, Philosophy, Feminist Gender and Sexuality Studies, and College of Letters courses. Many other students, who were lucky enough to be educated in private schools, read them in high school. We also shouldn’t forget that there is literally a Classic Civilizations major at Wesleyan dedicated to the study of these cultures and texts.
What exactly, then, is the concern here, especially if the classical texts are still being preserved? I would argue that the concern with the doing away with the Western canon is more concerned with postcolonialism and a distrust of the ideas encompassed in postcolonial theory, rather than with postmodernism, critical theory, or deconstruction. Here’s a definition for postcolonialism.
Postcolonial theory: A body of thought primarily concerned with accounting for the political, aesthetic, economic, historical, and social impact of European colonial rule around the world in the 18th through the 20th centuries.
Postcolonial theory often seeks to do away with a notion of a Western canon because of the connotations of whiteness innately embedded in ideas about the West and the fact that advocating for a purely Western canon seeks to directly exclude people of color, and others who have intentionally been barred from academia in the past.
The appeal to a Western canon is not only an appeal to an agreed-upon body of knowledge that is properly academic, but also a body of knowledge that has formed Western culture. And by Western culture we, of course, mean whiteness. If you dig deeper into the very concept of the West it becomes obvious that what we mean by the West are European countries and America. And when you appeal to a social or cultural identity of these places, you’re appeal to the concept of a white cultural identity. In addition to simply using our brains to deduce that this is what the concept of the West means given the context, I’ll appeal to Denison University Professor Rebecca Futo Kennedy, who shows how the concept of the West has been used to construct a false identity of whiteness in her blogpost “On the History of Western Civilization”:
“This idea of a shared ‘white civilization’ that was ‘western’ and linked aggressively to the classical past was popularized through world’s fairs…and the development in the US of large public museums…. This change coincides in the US with the continued expansion of the US westward and the displacement of indigenous populations to ‘reservations’…. It is also when ‘whiteness’ began to expand beyond its Anglo-Saxon Protestant core and incorporated the French…and Irish—it would not be until the 1940s that Spaniards, Greeks, Italians, eastern Europeans, and Jews (after WW2) were granted this ‘honor.’”
Here, Kennedy explains beautifully how the concept of the West has been historically used to construct false ties of whiteness between multiple cultures for the explicit purpose of excluding and oppressing people of color.
In a modern context, the term “the West” is often used by right-wing talking heads as an argument for the production and maintenance of a cohesive white culture. The blog Pharos, which I was directed to by a Classic Civilizations major, is dedicated to documenting these usages by right-wing hate groups. Here is an excerpt from that blog.
“It’s time for classical scholars to recognize that ‘Western civilization’ is a similar dog whistle. We may think it means everything good about the classical past but to many people—including some, if you’re a teacher, that may be in your class—it means a justification for racist politics and the “defense” of a white ethno-state.”
In short, we (academia) do still read the classics and the “old white men” and, in many instances, take them very seriously. However, we also starting to read them with a more critical lens. We are beginning to include more authors of color, more women and trans and nonbinary authors, and—accordingly—more progressive ideas into our classrooms. Some of my professors have gone as far, even, to say they are attempting to “decolonize the classroom” by including authors from more diverse backgrounds. This inclusion of many more voices and attempts at decolonization seem to be what proponents of upholding the purity of the Western canon are worried about. To which I would ask: What are you afraid of?
Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021. Katie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.