Dialog:My canon

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My canon

According to one meaning, a "canon" concerns a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which we judge something. Each person life-long forms her emerging canon, uniquely her own—her judgment. In forming it, she refers to other persons, cultural works, places and institutions, challenging problems, all sorts of matters that appear imbued with a charismatic, compelling meaning towards which a person reaches out with aspiration and hope, sometimes aversion and scorn. She drops, adds, and adjusts components in this canon, her points of reference in forming her judgment, turning them like a kaleidoscope throughout the course of life.


V 1 — I've been wondering what you mean by "My canon"? I suppose you are indicating a group of works considered to be of pre-eminent quality, the books that show up in Western civilization courses. People still argue about them some. But why the possessive "my"?

R 2 — Contentions about THE canon have little interest here. The "canon wars" show the narrowness of print-based pedagogy in higher education. We don't need to squeeze everything into a workable course syllabus.

V 3 — But isn't the idea that important educational value arises when many people have read the same set of great books? It becomes a heritage they have in common.

R 4 — Lots of people think so, but I don't. For many years I taught within that framework and became convinced it is a dumb one—"It's the third week of October. Let's all together now appreciate the greatness of Augustine's City of God."

V 5 — OK. Since I took "Contemporary Civilization," I haven't much savored the readings. CC sort of trivialized them because because a book a week, sometimes two weeks, doesn't give a kid the time to really engage it. It's as if the students are all hack book reviewers churning through the latest releases, trying to spot the parts that will excite enthusiastic or scornful interest. Why bring it back as "my canon"?

R 6 — On A Place to Study we don't tell anyone what to read or when you must read it. But we do want to activate some residual value in a tired concept a canon of cultural work. According to one meaning, a "canon" concerns a general law, rule, principle, or criterion with reference to which we make judgments about things. People form criteria of judgment and taste by taking cultural achievements seriously, attending to them closely, and integrating what's at stake in them into their interior discourse. A Place to Study aims to broaden, deepen, and facilitate the opportunities that people have to do that.

V 7 — Well, I can see how a cultural canon might have formed as serious readers ruminated over a relatively finite body of work, sharing judgments about the various parts over time, coming to a rough consensus what's outstanding in it. But I am still not clear about the "my" in your phrase, "my canon."

R 8 — Look. We need to get out of a well-established mindset. You sort of get it that with a digital pedagogy, many things are radically different. This is one of them. Here consensus counts for almost nothing. Consensus implies a level of agreement, which glosses over differences. Study culminates in a power of recognition, an ability to perceive and understand differences. Whatever they may have done in prior time, the literary and artistic canons aren't serving to form taste and judgment in the general public very well these days. So let's try being protestants.

V 9 — Eh? What? I'm not following you.

R 10 — Sorry. It's frustrating, a matter of seeing familiar things through a different form, a different Gestalt when the rabbit becomes a duck. Your engagement with THE canon as presented in CC or some other syllabus, through assigned texts regulated by the academic calendar, may have been perfunctory. That doesn't mean that you have been lacking in fruitful, inward experiences with cultural resources that help you shape your own judgment, taste, and character. The principles don't come from the cultural works that each of us may study, good or bad. The works don't contain the principles. Each of us forms our own canon, our own set of principles in our spontaneous, often unreflective way. Thinking recurrently, recursively about "my canon" should help a person bring that process into her full awareness and enhance her capacity to conduct her life purposefully.

V 11 — I think I'm beginning to catch on. I imagine that the keepers of THE canon, whatever its variant, would not consider a lot of what affects my tastes and judgments as canon-worthy stuff. I'm aware of having patterned my judgment through some nutty fads as an adolescent, but I came to see their limits, and that experience, arising from simple maturation, curiosity, self-doubt, and new aspirations strengthened my discrimination about what to take seriously. Is that what you mean in suggesting that we try being protestants, that we recognize our own authority and responsibility for them?

R 12 — Each person, I believe, life-long forms her emerging canon, uniquely her own. It includes other persons, cultural works, places and institutions, challenging problems, all sorts of matters that appear imbued with a charismatic, compelling meaning towards which a person reaches out with aspiration and hope, sometimes aversion and scorn. Over time, we keep seeing the limits of these norms we've formed and taken on. As we do that, we move on to other possibilities, and if all goes well, each time we learn something from the past experience and judgment and taste improve, character strengthens.

V 13 — I'm beginning to catch on, I think. For a while the section on Persons had a long chronological list of notables on it. The page freaked me out a bit. Who, given a dozen lifetimes, could study them all? And I sensed they were just a beginning selection. We would be in deep trouble if we needed to study all those figures in order to full develop ourselves. It seemed absurd. I reacted that way because I thought, rather unconsciously, that each person's work was important because it contained significant principles which readers can and should extract from it, and the more the merrier, so to speak, and double credit by doing them all. I'm beginning to see that as the wrong way to look at such a list.

R 14 —That's right! Work by people such as those on the list can be useful, but not because they impart principles of judgment, character, taste, discrimination, or any other virtue. They are like dumbbells in the gym—you can get strong interacting with them in intelligent and strenuous ways, but the strength doesn't come from the dumbbells themselves, but from your interaction with them. And a good gym has lots of weights to work with, but only a fool would try to use them all. And many people build and maintain their strength without ever using weights at all.

V 15 — So why don't you just put a few things up, if it doesn't matter much which you work with, or none at all, if people can form their judgment in any and all settings?

R 16 —That's a good question and it really gets at what A Place to Study might accomplish. I don't think our instructional systems begin to do justice to the scope and diversity of the persons they serve. I would not quite go so far as to say that they amount to a one-size-fits-all system, but with a very few sizes serving an incredible diversity of persons across an extraordinary range of situations. This leads to powerful constraints and consequential omissions. But with the prevailing material conditions until very recent times, alternatives were not easily imaginable.

V 17 — You know my favorite question—can you be more concrete?

R 18 —I'll try. Let's take your own experience. In elementary school, what proportion of the time did the work at hand deeply excite your interest? Almost all the time, or more time than not, or roughly half and half, or clearly less of the time than you felt bored or alienated, or hardly ever?

V 19 — Honestly, I think my answer would vary some depending on what part of the curriculum we were talking about and when I started having different teachers for different subjects, which teacher I had. I think I was lucky each year if one subject and/or teacher, let's say a fifth, really excited my interest, and even then I did a lot of the work out of perseverance, not excitement. Three fifths would hover around half and half, and the last fifth would be pretty much a complete turn off.

R 20 —And as you got older?

V 21 — Middle school things began to shift and really changed in high school, interest receded as a motivator, replaced by various imperatives. I came from a social stratum in which preparing for higher education and the workplace exercised significant imperative force. So too did hormonal and social imperatives. I don't think we experienced much by way of intrinsic interest and the few who did stood a little apart.

R 22 — Overall, you sketch a bleaker picture than I expected. I've thought a significant proportion of students like yourself manage to base a tangible part of your activity on intrinsic interest, possibly without being very conscious of it. But for a lot of students, conditions—cultural, social, and material—prevent tacit interests from taking hold.

V 23 — Yeah. We'd act on tacit interests and rather dead-end enthusiasms shared among friends and in the extra curriculum. But I thought you were asking about the formal system. We were fixated in various ways on coping with the imperatives we felt. We knew that many would at some point be left behind, or from their vantage, the lucky ones would go off to the land of further opportunity. That's how many peers just drop out of sight and it takes a rare empathy to go back and reconnect.

R 24 — It's hard to go back. We just don't think about it. Discussion of education, formal and informal all seems to turn on whether it is good enough and how to make it work better. We pay insufficient attention to the hard our educational activities do to many young persons and how that harm carries over into their later lives and into shared problems of public life. The explicit system fails very many people, even very many who succeed at succeeding and go on to lead unfulfilling lives. Too many people leave formal instruction convinced that their potentials are fixed and second-rate, resigned to settle for what turns up in life. A Place to Study should help persons of all backgrounds and in all conditions develop powerful intrinsic interests, sensing that they have robust, positive opportunities to do so.

V 25 — Sounds good! But how can we advance that through A Place to Study? In particular, why were you compiling that long list of personages, which would only grow many fold? And what does this talk about "my canon," which is still very fuzzy, got to do with it?

R 26 — Well, I'll briefly stake some ground with two assertions. First, we can and should to get away from the idea that only a narrow selection of great books and a privileged sequence for learning sound ideas about the the human and natural order will impart to people the essential principles and stock of knowledge. There are many, many sequences of study through a vast array cultural resources in pursuit of which people can form a set of sound principles and acquire a stock of knowledge, both useful and meaningful. None of them impart anything. A person can and should actively form her principles and understanding by engaging whatever selection and sequence suits her interests with application and effort. The principles and understanding come from her studying, not from the materials she studies.

V 27 — Let me butt in. Given this assertion, with the long list, you were not scoping out what anyone should know, but rather beginning to indicate a useful universe of possible choice, a few of which any particular person might decide to study.

R 28 — That's right. And here's my second assertion. Engaged in a self-directed activity of study in a world of endless possibilities, a person continually faces significant contingencies concerning what possibilities to pursue and how to pursue them. In that situation, she naturally seeks some assistance, which will prove largely unhelpful if it concentrates on spelling out what a "good" student supposedly should get from studying this or that. Such assistance encourages the student to evade the contingencies she faces and to settle for parrotry instead of understanding. In contrast, useful assistance does not concern the outcome of study, but its process.

V 29 — I suspect the distinction you are making is pretty fine and I don't really grasp it from your words.

R 30 — Fair enough. A lot of instructional assistance concerns getting things right, which assumes that the instructor knows the correct or preferred result for the question at hand and helps the student arrive at that result, in effect removing the contingency. One can almost say that ensuring that people will not make mistakes constitutes the pervasive purpose of education.

V 31 — But by contingency, I understand it to mean the possibility of making mistakes or unproductive choices of what to study. What other kind of assistance might people offer than an effort to to identify and correct the errors?

A person suffers from ignorance by grounding action on presumed certainty.

R 32 — Well, of course in everything the possibility of error, mistakes, wrong choices, and blunders abound, but I don't think their existence constitutes the problem of contingency. That problem arises, not from the possibility of errors, but from uncertainty about what one can and should do. In life, choices are rarely a binary right or wrong. Many different responses will each bring a complexity of ensuing consequences, which all ramify out into the unknown, making uncertainty inherent in the choice. To give assistance, one must first premise it on an admission that one does not and cannot know what the correct course might be.

V 33 — So the teacher does not know the answer. That's why we suspend judgment relative to the outcome. But if we don't know the outcome, how can we recommend anything about the process as you implied about?

R 34 — I don't think we recommend processes—as you imply, they're as contingent as the outcomes. What we do is try to share our experience, actual and hypothetical, in trying to cope with contingency in various situations. Sharing experience in the face of contingency. . . .

V 35 — Ah! I suddenly see the big picture—what we're trying to do with A Place to Study. It raises way too many questions to work through them here. But that can wait. Here it is! With the list of personages, each name indicates some lived experience in the recurrent human process of coping with contingency, and in our discussion now that list has simply been a metaphor for all the cultural content that might be gathered eventually on places to study, it all has to do with capturing the human effort to cope with the contingencies we face. With the idea of a canon, you are suggesting each of us as humans, a cultural species, each of us forms a set of principles in interaction with our distinctive, personal selection of cultural resources, continually developing our principles for making judgments, choices, about contingencies in our lives.

R 36 — Yes, well said. That's the big idea. And as an important part of it, we can and should concentrate on my canon, not THE canon, but my canon, as they way each of us partakes of the common heritage to form our own principles of judgment in our own, distinctive way. To encourage our doing that for ourselves and to make our experience available to others, we hope contributors to the A Place to Study will present and examine their version of "My canon," to develop it explicitly. That should add to its value for the contributor and inspire other members and visitors to pay more attention to their canons in turn.