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This article is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.

'Burning the Books' Brian Morton

The notion of a 'core curriculum' in any subject is one that always raises violent passions; the suggestion is both attractive and endlessly contentious. Probably nowhere has it been more violently debated and the subject of more ideological line-drawing than in the teaching of literature.

'Great' or 'classic' texts are now conventionally considered to be the product of a specific historical ideology; such texts are not great in fact, but great only as representations of a particular - usually bourgeois, male, western, heterosexual, repressive - viewpoint. Structuralist, post-structuralist, and deconstructionist theory has largely been directed at undermining the status of recognized hierarchies of literary worth in favour of a more horizontal or 'democratic' study of signs, texts, writing itself.

The details of semiotic and deconstructionist thinking are too various and complicated to discuss here. What remains - ideologically compromised or not - is the status of literary works of art. At the simplest and most practical level, universities and colleges are now routinely teaching modern and contemporary literature to students who have only a notional awareness of earlier literatures and who have, most seriously, very little apparent feeling for literature of any sort.

It would seem to be impossible (though again we presumably have to accept the role of semi-conscious ideologies lying behind even these more 'objective' disciplines) to teach quantum mechanics or particle physics to students who have no knowledge of Newton or Euclid or to avoid the canonization of great figures ...


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