Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America by James Atlas was written in 1990 on the heels of the publication of two significant books, E.D. Hirsh’s Cultural Literacy, and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. All three question: What Should Americans Know?
I came across Atlas’ book where all gems get a second chance, a used bookstore, and read it with deep interest. The debate he waged three decades ago continues today, with disagreement at schools over what everyone should be reading.
He writes: “Indeed, at first glance, there appear to be several crises, beginning with the curriculum debate that has flared up in the universities. Put simply: Should there be books that are required reading, and what books should they be? This apparently innocent question provokes others that are more charged: How are these books chosen? Is there such thing as a “canon,” a core curriculum of works that represents, in the words of Matthew Arnold, “the best that is known and thought in the world”? If so, how is this canon determined? Do political and social interests figure in its composition? Are some books more universal than others? Does “opening the canon” – including works of other peoples and cultures that have been largely ignored, or marginalized – promote tolerance and widen our horizons, or does it produce an educational free-for-all, a “Balkanization of culture,” in which no one learns anything? What does it mean to be educated in America today?”
He further questions: “Is the notion of a “collective culture” obsolete, or is it necessary to our survival as a nation? Does the widening of the curriculum to recognize the cultural achievements of such disenfranchised constituencies as women, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans confirm our democratic charter, or does it threaten to promote – in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s resonant phrase – “the disuniting of America”? Is multiculturalism a harbinger of anarchy?”
There are books that tell us what to read, like 1,000 Books to read Before You Die or The Norton Anthology of English Literature or Columbia Literary History of the United States. There are suggested reading lists in magazines, libraries, schools, and online. But is there a consensus on exactly what should be read?
“Our nation is “an amalgam of diverse interests and identities,” says Atlas. But there needs to be a common bond in our books. So I’ll leave you with this from Atlas: “To hope for a consensus on the curriculum is futile; diversity is the essence of a democratic society. But diversity has its limits. “Even a randomly picked group of intelligent and educated people will agree on a handful of books that everyone should read at some point, in some form,” Roger Shattuck asserts. What books? It wouldn’t be hard to come up with a provisional list: the standard works of Aristotle and Plato, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Rousseau, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante; the English political philosophers who inspired those documents that make up the written heritage of our own government; selections from the literature of one European language, read in that language; the King James Bible; and a sample of American literature – as it was before the New Americanists got to it. The Library of America, a series of volumes devoted to reprinting the classics of American literature, runs to some sixty volumes so far, in handsome editions unburdened by scholarly apparatus, from the works of Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson to Eugene O’Neill, Willa Cather to Henry James. Plans are now afoot to reprint paperback editions of this series: why not adopt them in our schools?
“Think of the books we read in high school (my informal poll has turned up a virtually uniform list): Hamlet; J.B., a play by Archibald MacLeish; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; James Joyce’s Dubliners; George Eliot’s Silas Marner; John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. What do these books have in common? Why are they assigned by high school teachers years after year? They’re easy to read, for one thing; they’re written with a simplicity and economy that makes them (or made them) readily comprehensible to the average sixteen-year-old; they’re pitched at the right level. More important, they seem familiar. MacLeish’s play is loosely based on the Book of Job; Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare’s most accessible play, the great speeches so often quoted they’ve become part of our everyday language; Hemingway is a showcase of the American vernacular; Dubliners has the classic simplicity of a hymn. Is it any wonder that students identify with these books? They’re the lore of our culture.
“This isn’t to say that we should ignore minority literature, Third World literature, the literature of peoples around the globe. But without a common culture, a culture that possess certain shared assumptions, there will soon be no America to imagine, no common myth around with to organize our aspirations. The study of American literature invests us in our own society by enabling us to recognize ourselves in it – to find there a general representation of our experience.”
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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at email@example.com. He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent. This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by WinningWriters.com as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America and participated in a PR panel at the Sarah Lawrence College Writers Institute Conference.
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