Maintaining a Canon in Woke Times

May 11, 2023

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

This essay was originally published by The American Conservative on May 9, 2023.

Jessica Hooten Wilson proposes a revolution in classical Christian education under the guise of restoration.

The classical Christian education movement believes that there are permanent questions regarding the human condition that should be approached through reading the greatest works in the Christian tradition. What are the origins of the world? What makes human beings happy? What is the nature of happiness? What is the best way to think about politics? What is the nature of love, and where does it rank among the human goods?

Classical Christian educators try to stay on a path between two ditches. Just emphasizing questions is a recipe for nihilism or aporia. Just providing Christian answers in response to those questions is a recipe for a deadened dogmatism. A classical Christian education seeks to ask what the good is, and then to build a civilization on the answer that reflects these great questions of human destiny.

A skirmish about which works contain greatest questions—or about the canon—is breaking out within the classical Christian education movement. Canon wars are nothing new, of course. There has often been pressure from political authorities to make a canon fit to the times. But it is incumbent upon organizations committed to classical education to push back precisely where the culture insists on conformity.

Classical Christian schools focus on a canon that the woke ascendency generally associates with racism, sexism, and Western colonialism. The woke have made progress in this, even among those involved in classical Christian education. Educators and leaders in the movement must defend the canon from further incursions.

Classicists advocating for a woke canon recognize that there are enduring questions about human destiny, and that students can access them with inspiring, inspired teaching. This attachment to questions that endure prevents them from sliding into total deconstruction or destructive ideologies. These teachers, however, assert that “lack of representation” in the canon is an obstacle to accessing these enduring questions. In this they make a category error. They also sense that making arguments from “representation” alienates them from the excellence that the classical Christian movement promises, so, when pressed, they claim their shabby project is one of “restoration” rather than mere “representation.”

This skirmish and these issues were recently on display in a debate between Josh Herring and Jessica Hooten Wilson published by Law & Liberty, in part prompted by Matthew Freeman’s essay in The American Conservative. Herring defends the canon, more or less, as it exists, while Hooten Wilson advocates for including voices that, she claims, have been traditionally excluded from the canon.

Herring thinks Hooten Wilson advocates “a conservative version of identity politics,” while she rejects this label, arguing that she would never propose “that we employ representation as a rubric for choosing our great books canon.” Hooten Wilson presents herself as apolitical and non-divisive, while all previous canon-makers have represented the white, male point of view.

The old leaders of the classical Christian education movement did use “representation in a way that [they] have selected certain books to our canon—you had to be a ‘white’ man to have written a great book.” Hooten Wilson simply wants to restore the great books tradition to its pre-1990 (or pre 1970s or pre 1950s) tradition, which, she suggests, was more inclusive.

But elsewhere she uses the language of representation promiscuously.

In a January essay, for instance, Hooten Wilson uses the standard of representation to judge academic presses and tests. Test banks, she argues, should “ensure that there is not only equal inclusion of writers across time periods but also representation from women and writers of color.” On curriculum, again using the guiding light of representation, “The editors and introductory writers [should] ensure an assortment of voices from various nations and cultures, as well as an equality of both sexes.” (Both emphases mine.) Another word for equal representation of the sexes in curriculum is equity, as in, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

“We are seeking out,” as Hooten Wilson writes, “the women and persons of color” that the old canon omitted. Hooten Wilson never finds forgotten white male authors to include in her new canon; additions always end up being those she might call underrepresented minorities.

Hooten Wilson uses the woke lens of critical theory to explain why women and persons of color have been omitted in the past. Hooten Wilson divides the world into oppressors and the oppressed. The oppressors “unpersoned” the underrepresented minorities. The powerful (i.e., white men) elevated works in the canon and silenced others: “We cannot assume these texts are not ‘great’ simply because they were not exalted by the powers of their time and place.” Underrepresented minorities were omitted because of “biases” or because “men have been the gatekeepers.” As she has written on Twitter, “it was the assumption for centuries that men should be educated…thus the writing of men got passed down w/i the academic system. There was no attempt in the 1950s etc to overcome this bias.”

Either you are an anti-racist or a racist, it seems, for Hooten Wilson. “If educators do not hold to misogynist or racist views,” as she concludes one op-ed, “then they should uplift the marginalized and overlooked writers from generations past in their great books list.” Opposition to reforming the canon through the lens of representation is one of the “current manifestations of racism and misogyny,” she writes. Her concern is clearly “representation.”

In sum, Hooten Wilson thinks the old canonical order has shut out and continues to shut out certain minority voices in the name of power, whiteness, and misogyny. Her solution appears to be an equal representation of forgotten voices in proportion to their shares of the population (“equality of the sexes”) and the move to greater diversity regardless of the quality of works or the contribution of authors. All the world before a certain date was mad.

Hooten Wilson wonders “if charitable disagreement is possible.” But this call for civility is just another example of using civil norms to police debate. We must “bow,” she writes, when we create a list or a canon. “Humility must replace pride,” she says. She can call anyone who disagrees a racist and misogynist, and they must humbly bow before her proposals. Hooten Wilson pretends she wields a nuanced scalpel, but all she has is a cudgel.

Truly charitable, humble reformers and restorers would seek to prove that omitted writers raise important questions about human nature that canonical writers do not raise. Or they would seek to show that omitted authors raise true questions better than already accepted authors. Reformers and restorers would ask: What questions does this book raise? What other books raise the same questions? Would replacement do the work as well? Were other works as influential on subsequent thinkers?

Hooten Wilson polishes her revolution with a patina of restoration and reform. But as with Greeks bearing gifts, classical Christian educators should scrutinize her intent before opening the gates to her canon.