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    A protest against Moms for Liberty in Philadelphia

    Canon Trouble: How to Fight Well over Reading Lists

    Fights over school reading lists are worth having, if they don’t just drive wedges but lead to greater understanding within a community.

    By Jonathan Tran

    October 23, 2023
    • Linda wilson

      I have a liberal view, but also find the word “canon” useful because it speaks beyond the content of a book to the quality of the writing. It is my understanding that critical race theory is something taught in law school. The study of race in America at the high school level is a study of history, of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. CRT is a theory. The study of race in America is history and should be treated as such. We can disagree about what the history means, but only if we know the history. Oscar Wilde was once asked if a certain book was immoral. He responded, “It’s worse than immoral it is badly written.” There are liberals and conservatives that write well. Both Johnson and Hazlitt were great writers of their day, they disagreed about much, one was conservative and one liberal, but they both wrote very well and are read to this day. It is only in debating our differences that we come to fully understand what we each believe. I need to know not only what and why I believe, but what and why others on the other side of issues believe what they believe and why I disagree. Also, if our history is the “history of the winner” we are no different than the Soviet Union or Communist China. What makes us a democracy is that we teach our whole history, the good and the bad, the heroes and the villains. But mostly it is the complete story, we learn why Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were great, but also how they were flawed. The Civil War was the Civil War whether we call it the Civil War or the War of Union Aggression. Three Laugh Men by the Tiger Stream Song Dynasty, the painting can be found in Wikipedia There is a Chinese painting from the Song Dynasty that depicts three men who have just walked through a bit of land infested by tigers. The bridge they have just crossed has taken them safely out of this tiger infested territory. While passing through this territory they were engaged in a fierce debate. One of the men is a Confucian, one is a Taoist, and one is Buddhist. They each hold firmly to their faith and worldview, and being scholars in their respective faiths, each argues earnestly and well and with conviction. Each tries to convince the others of the superiority of the faith he holds, none are convinced by the arguments the others make. When they cross the bridge they realize where they have been and the danger they escaped and they begin to laugh. In their case the argument was not just an exchange of views, it offered a kind of protection from danger; a distraction that enabled them to “pleasantly” survive what could have been a terrifying ordeal. Our arguments are often what preserve our relationships and the fabric of our community. If we cannot argue we cannot truly love and if we cannot love we are not likely to dwell together in peace.

    Eanes Independent School District is one of Texas’s most elite, with a track record of academic and athletic success. Lately, however, the wealthy suburban school district has been embroiled in a controversy over its curriculum. A group of parents contends that Eanes’s progressive leadership has turned its curriculum into “an updated version of Marxism focusing on differences between people.” Personal attacks, political maneuvering, and lawsuits have ensued. How did Eanes, despite all its success, get here?

    Not long ago, after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Eanes, like many places, made a decision to ensure that its students’ education should encourage social awareness. The district brought in DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) experts to help identify and implement curricular elements that, they believed, could encourage racial justice. But soon, some argue, things went too far, the school district overcompensating by making kids feel bad about being white. Pushing back in the name of “Eanes Kids First,” a countermovement  appeared, intent on “getting Critical Race Theory out of our schools and holding our district accountable.” Proponents of the curriculum held that the reactionary nature of the pushback confirmed the need for change; as one progressive journalist put it, “the criticism is in fact an expression of the underlying problem of White privilege, a backlash to an unprecedented wave of demographic and social change in America.”

    The trouble starts with basic questions: Why these texts versus those texts? What books must people read? What traditions should public schools tap in teaching children? When fights break out over the answers, trouble brews. Let’s call this “canon trouble.” Canon trouble fights are good fights, worth our time and energy. They are also risky fights with high stakes. How do we fight them constructively?

    On the face of it, the idea of a canon need not be particularly controversial, whether specifically in terms of a literary canon or more generally, as in must-see films or which children’s books belong in elementary school libraries. One can think of a canon as a stock of texts passed from one generation to the next, a way of shaping and defining a community in a particular time and place. These texts can take any number of forms, from funny stories families share during reunions to books required for accreditation, such as those on a reading list used to assess graduate students during comprehensive exams. The meanings derived from these texts also vary greatly, from the punchline of a joke to a narrative identity that shapes a people. In simplest terms, a canon exists as an artifact of community and is as crucial as language and as simple as a name. Canons serve to remind a community where it has been and predict where it is going. If one derives one’s identity from placing oneself in a narrative, canons supply the narratives.

    Much of the trouble around canons stems from the fact that all parties involved recognize the normative force a canon exerts. In listing texts, canons tell a community what it should read and what stories it should tell, thereby initiating a form of life, a collective mode of saying, seeing, and doing, out of which a determinate “we” presents itself. Describing a canon (this is what we read) prescribes a canon (this is what we read) and accordingly a way of being in the world (this is how we live). Confucians, for example, read these texts (The Analects, Mencius, the Visuddhimagga, etc.); this is part of what being Confucian means. Reading these texts is not sufficient for being Confucian, much less a good Confucian, but it identifies what is necessary. Using another example, any follower of the Black radical tradition has to some extent been formed by the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, and others like them. Christianity in its turn comes with not only literary canons determined by specific regions and histories but also an established biblical canon of sacred texts that sets the criteria of canonization itself.

    A protest against Moms for Liberty in Philadelphia

    Hannah Beier / Reuters Pictures

    While the idea of a canon may not be controversial, what comprises a canon almost always is. So much so that the contents of a canon should be thought of as consisting of two parts: what that canon includes and excludes, and the fights over what it includes and excludes. The fights are important to have, as necessary as they are complicated.

    The fights are familiar enough, the trouble often as close as your local school district. A school board gets tasked with creating and implementing a curriculum. It cannot have students read everything, so it includes some things and excludes others. Trouble arises over what to include or exclude, some pushing the curriculum toward, say, a “fight for racial justice” and others pushing back against what they deem a “left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” The rhetoric gets amped up: The youth are our future; corrupting them corrupts the future; if we don’t inculcate them into the right traditions society will collapse. Despite the fact that kids are more often influenced by the likes of Tiktok, Netflix, and corporate advertising – not to mention their parents’ example – than by school assignments, suddenly the reading list becomes all-important.

    If, for instance, that list exclusively contains texts by white authors, it becomes more likely that kids will assume all authors are, or should be, white. As the author of the popular “mirror and windows” curriculum puts it, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” So much so that those whom the list leaves out begin to suspect that their exclusion is not accidental, but rather the entire point. Canon now becomes ideology, community and belonging mere ruses of power; suspicion takes over.

    The Eanes controversy over what critics call critical race theory has all of the markings of canon trouble, where the back-and-forth begins with concrete disputes over textbooks and reading assignments but soon broadens into fundamental questions about children, parenting, and the future. Conversations ostensibly about student well-being devolve into arguments and accusations, each side digging in: “We care about the kids; they care only about their agenda.” 

    In simplest terms, a canon exists as an artifact of community and is as crucial as language and as simple as a name. Canons serve to remind a community where it has been and predict where it is going.

    On the surface, it might look like canon trouble divides neatly between conservatives and liberals, with the conservatives caring more about canon because they’re the ones using the word, often alongside “formation” and “tradition.” But looks can be deceiving. Others care about canon too; the fact that they avoid the word shouldn’t be taken to mean that they don’t intend something like it. They just define differently what formation entails and what tradition requires, employing new terms to do the work of convening a community – some other version of “You’ve got to read this.” Such a “liberal” canon can become so sacrosanct over time that liberals turn into conservatives as they defend their choices to future generations.

    Including, interestingly and ironically, the canon of critical race theory. Whatever the politicized label “CRT” is perceived to mean these days, critical race theory in the strict sense began as a canon – a set of concepts, texts, interlocutors, and arguments that gathered, grounded, and galvanized a conversation about truth and justice, one not unlike the conversation between Socrates and the haters of his day. In certain quarters the canon of critical race theory is no less contested than is “the classical canon” in others – and neither is especially more controversial than was the question of what texts belong in the Bible in earlier days.

    Those involved in canon trouble recognize at a gut level the stakes of the fight: namely, who gets to define the “we” in “we read these texts” and “this canon tells us who we should be.” Those claiming the current canon claim the “we” the canon describes and prescribes. Those rejecting it claim some other “we” and demand further consideration as to what counts as canon. Those refusing further consideration do so because they can, because they sit comfortably ensconced within the narrative identity the current canon describes and prescribes. They can all too easily forget how the canon came to be, that the canon came to be, as an arrival of communal agreement, nothing more but also nothing less.

    Communities at their best keep alive the memory of how their canons became canon, how their canon troubles, as troublesome as they were, made them, and continue to make them. History, especially the history taught in our schools, is indeed written by the winners. But wise winners keep the big picture in mind, committing themselves to capacious, even democratic, conceptions of peoplehood, a “we the people” larger than any one regime’s version of things. For instance, in telling America’s canonical origin story public schools teach children the history of both the US Constitution and the Articles of Confederation, keeping afloat the possibility that things could have turned out differently, and might still. Similarly, each time the Supreme Court adds to the canon of American law, it reports both the prevailing majority opinion as well as dissents to the contrary. The New Testament may, as suggested earlier, set the criteria of Christian canonization, but it does so, interestingly, by recounting a terribly heated controversy over the meaning of the Christian gospel (a fight over Christianity’s Jewish canonical identity, only initially resolved in Acts 15). While the presence of these troublesome minority reports might look like a weakness, as if the winners couldn’t completely wipe out the losers, their enduring presence often indicates the opposite, the achievement of agreeing enough, sharing enough in common, to genuinely disagree.

    As soon as a community forgets that canons are made, maintained, remade, and sometimes unmade it begins to die. If it believes its canon dropped fully formed from the sky, then it has forgotten itself, forgetting that canons, like communities themselves, arrive as achievements of communal agreement, which comes through disagreement. Canon and community assume diversity and difference. A vibrant community brims with disagreement; the absence of canon trouble betokens often enough not flourishing but its opposite, decadence and the death knell of irrelevance – no one argues over texts no one reads.

    Dying communities see diversity and difference as something out there, something other, them opposed to us, discontinuity to our continuity, difference over against identity, instability and chaos versus stability and order. This ploy works by projecting a mythic unity that conjures up a mythic disunity. Canon becomes a pawn in this game. We empty canon of its storied history, in turn emptying community of community, in order to project a false unity. In doing this we hide the fact that our canons get argued into existence, their histories stories of disagreement on the way to agreement. Valorizing canon – our unified canon as opposed to their disunity, instability, and chaos – has the effect of papering over all the disagreements it took to arrive at the settlement called “canon,” or for that matter, “critical race theory.” When we forget this history, invoking canon becomes a confidence game, a rhetorical pyramid scheme. Next comes the violence, first rhetorically and then physically, attempting to ensure an adherence that communal norms on their own have failed to generate.

    If one temptation of canon trouble is entrenchment, another is giving up on community altogether. The controversies that erupt over canons tempt people to bail on community rather than fight for it. The current controversy over CRT threatens a possible future where there is not one Eanes school district, but rather many, each school or each agenda coming up with its own canon. Weary and wary, we start complaining that canons are socially constructed and that their invocation is always an imposition, which paints both canon and community as oppressive. Better, then, to go it alone.

    Conversely, one can imagine a scenario, increasingly common these days, where everything is reduced to power, where a cynical politics turns fellow citizens into rival competitors given over to end-game tactics such as packing the school board like political parties pack the courts. We do well to remember that fights over canon are fights over community, and whether we any longer claim communities and allow them to claim us. Absent the claim to community and our good-faith fights for it, a baser, darker instinct takes over.

    When it comes to canon trouble, the key is to recognize canons for what they are without letting their troublesomeness make us give up on community altogether. Fights over the canons are fights worth having if they build community – if they lead to understanding and acknowledging our shared values as well as the concerns of others in our diverse communities. If those fights prove no less complex than the communities we inhabit, that only proves the point.

    Watch the author and other Plough contributors debate the future of the liberal arts at a panel discussion about The Liberating Arts, from which this article has been adapted.

    Contributed By JonathanTran Jonathan Tran

    Jonathan Tran is an associate professor of theology at Baylor University and an associate dean in its Honors College. He is the author of Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism and coeditor of the Oxford University Press book series Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion.

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