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A Ladies' Room of One's Own

- Abstract

I am sometimes puzzled by all the talk in universities these days about the “loss of the canon.” My own liberal-arts college, at any rate, most certainly has not lost its. To be sure, our canon is not comprised of those much-maligned Great Books. Instead there is our required course on “Peoples and Cultures”; there is the astonishing array of sensitivity and “safe sex” sessions which freshmen are forced to attend; and there are the harassment codes to which we must strictly adhere. These immediately introduce us, if not to the best that has been thought and said, then at least to the worst canonical biases of our time.

The prerequisite for appreciating the Old Canon was simply a willingness, in the eloquent formulation of W.E.B. Du Bois, to engage ideas “above the Veil.” (“Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac. . . . So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.”) The prerequisites for entry into the New Canon are more daunting, involving, among other things, a talent for overlooking contradictions: one must not be racist, sexist, or ethnocentric unless one happens to be black or a woman; one must be positively sympathetic to diversity of gender, race, and sexual orientation but not to diversity of ideas; one must never admit a devotion to truth except to the truth embodied in the harassment code; one must deride the “notion” of historical fact but never question the facts of those who tell their own “survivor stories”; one must cleanse oneself of fidelity to the fixed meaning of texts, except to the texts of the postmodernists. Equipped with such understanding, the would-be adept of the New Canon may dive right in.

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