Like an overlong proxy war, the “canon” skirmishes of the 1980s and ’90s no longer feature in the media, though the conflict persists. As in a battle over this or that town, the ongoing war might manifest as a fight over particular books, but the real disagreement exists between competing visions for humanity and society.
Critics of the literary canon usually point to its preponderance of white males, but this antipathy toward tradition traces down to a more fundamental, even revolutionary, first principle. The radicals behind the anti-canon movement want more than the expansion of the existing canon; they want to eradicate any commitment to aesthetic ideals, objective truth, or moral imposition. Undergirding their resentment of Shakespeare or Tolstoy is a resentment of Western values as such, and so saving the canon is about more than saving Romeo and Juliet.
In an essay that astutely chronicles the original canon war, philosopher John Searle rightly observes that “opening up the canon” would not satisfy most professorial radicals; rather, “the whole idea of ‘the canon’” had to be abolished. Professor of education Henry Giroux expresses the more radical belief of the anti-canon proponents when he criticizes the mere liberals of the 1960s (as opposed to the postmodernists), who “remained partially constrained by modernist assumptions.” Postmodernism, meanwhile, “asserts no privileged place, aside from power considerations, for the art works, scientific achievements, and philosophical traditions by which Western Culture legitimates itself.”