Cope and Kalantzis on the Struggle for the Western Canon

This paper provides a critical overview of the debate about political correctness and the status of the Western Canon in education. The paper analyses a number of critical themes in the debate: Who is it under attack? What is the Canon which is to be defended? Why does it need to be defended? And what notions of knowing and learning underlie the arguments of the proponents of the Canon? After outlining the ways in which the arguments of those attacking political correctness and defending the Canon are profoundly flawed, the paper suggests that the case for multiculturalism and diversified curriculum needs to be substantially strengthened if it is to present a viable alternative. …

The PC debate has certainly struck a chord. This chord is a sense of impending cultural crisis, a crisis that the anti-PC people claim might already be well and truly with us. They believe education is one of the root causes of the crisis. Their critique starts with the cultural contents of curriculum, ravaged as it seems to be by relativism, fragmentation, specialisation, and a fixation with contemporary social issues. In response they demand that the Canon of Western Culture and national Cultural Literacy be restored to their proper, ennobling places. With their powerful yearning for cultural renewal also comes a good dose of nationalism. Reinstating a Canon of ‘What Every American Needs to Know’ is supposed to be some sort of antidote to the rot that has evidently set in with the ascent of multiculturalism, feminism, deconstruction, and a shopping list of other intellectual and social bogeys. There is more to this than restating the worthy cultural contents of curriculum. It also comes with claims about the nature of knowledge, the status of Truth, and, as a consequence, the most appropriate sort of pedagogy. Given that it is singular and received Truth which defines the cultural commodity most worthy of transaction in the educational marketplace, then the means of educational exchange has to be transmission on the part of teachers and reception on the part of students.

But if the advocates of the Western Canon don’t like some strains in late 20th century intellectual life and educational thought, if they are nostalgic for the thought and schools of thought of times past, this does not give them an automatic right to impose their own exclusionary version of political correctness. And, if they feel there is a cultural crisis, they should not simplistically attribute this to educational innovation. When the educational innovations leave something to be desired, it is probably a function of cultural crisis – the consequence of a broader social failure to come to grips with diversity – than the other way around. The advocates of the Canon should refocus their energies instead on the society that not only creates the Canon but which, in other contradictory moments, challenges it as well.

So why the noise? If the ‘PC police’ are not a threat of Robespierrian proportions, and if Western Civilisation is not crumbling as a result, why all the fuss? Why have we become so divided in this ferocious ideological battle? The answers to these questions have to be found in the anxieties generated from the very core of contemporary Western society: globalization and decline of national sovereignty; a growing underclass whose claims are being articulated in new ways, such as identity politics and racially defined subcultures of criminality; global labour flows; the fires of subcultural fragmentation fanned by new information and communications technologies. These are all things with which the people branded by PC and relativistic multiculturalism are all trying to grapple. And, for their part, the proponents of the Canon are reacting to an accusatory politics. People like Rush Limbaugh do not want to wear responsibility for history. They live by their faith that the liberal capitalism of equality of the marketplace will fix it all, just if you give it time. But clearly it doesn’t, it hasn’t, and it won’t.

Meanwhile, in other places within the cultural establishment, political correctness has simply become common sense, and for the most pragmatic of reasons. Microsoft apologised for “grave errors” when the latest Spanish version of its Word thesaurus suggested ‘maneater’ or ‘savage’ as alternatives to ‘Indian,’ ‘pervert’ for Lesbian; and ‘Aryan’ or ‘civilised’ for ‘Western.’ These would have been perfectly reasonable synonyms in an earlier age (Reuters, 1996). Now they are plain bad for business. And, as the Atlanta Olympics opened, newspaper headlines around the world proclaimed “Let the Politically Correct Olympics Begin.” There were to be minimal references to the Atlanta of Gone with The Wind, the Atlanta of racism and prejudice. Any such references would contradict the spirit and purpose of the modern Olympics.

Of course, there are politics to words, politics to ideas, and politics to culture. We always have to be talking about what we are saying, because meanings have effects. We always have to be thinking why we are thinking and what we are thinking for. And culture will always be politics, as we ponder massive cultural shifts and argue with the agents of cultural change as well as the defenders of various pasts. And if it’s all political, why would you not want to be, in a certain sense, correct? Correct in this sense might mean apt, relevant, pertinent, or usefully insightful – all political versions of correctness, if only ever provisionally so. In this regard, the real danger in the struggle to be correct does not arise from those trying to read change, but the ideologues of the right who have far less doubt about their correctness than any of the intellectual approaches accused of PC.

This having been said, the provocateurs in this debate are at times right about much of multiculturalism, feminism, poststructuralism, and the other contemporary ‘isms.’ Much of what counts for theory and curriculum is intellectually shoddy, disappointingly equivocal, and hypocritical as words which do not have the effect they promise on the world they describe. At worst, structural inequities are neutralised as merely relative difference, the ‘other’ is left on the margins and pedagogy remains naively moralistic. The reality is not just difference, but a struggle over resources and how they get distributed, fairly and equitably. The challenge is not to create fragmentary havens of particularism, but to create a genuinely pluralistic mainstream.

Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis. 1997. “White Noise: The Attack on Political Correctness and the Struggle for the Western Canon.” Interchange 28:283-329. | download

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