On 21 February 2020, Eric Weiskott’s “tyrannical curriculum” appeared on his website. In the piece, Weiskott opines about the integration of teaching and research and the ways in which curricular structures and research demands combine to focus scholars’ attentions. Such focus skews research and understanding of individual works and the contexts from which those works arise, limiting prevailing knowledge of how things have been. He remarks on the ways in which his own privileged position within academe, as tenured faculty at an elite institution, allows him some limited circumvention of such constraints, but Weiskott also notes that the constraints still obtain in academe, generally, hindering no few potential endeavors. He motions towards some small way to alter circumstances, but he concludes with the idea that a lack of care by those outside medieval studies all but guarantees that such alterations will not take hold.
I’ve written in response to Weiskott before (here, here, and here), and I continue to respect and appreciate the man’s work. His students are lucky to have him, and his peers are, too. And I am generally in agreement with what he puts in the present blog piece. I have been shaped by curricular standards, certainly, as have been the students I have had in my classes–though I did make efforts, when I taught classes that would admit of them, to cross at least the periodical boundaries Weiskott mentions. My own work with the Tales after Tolkien Society being what it is, I could hardly do otherwise than to make the attempt.
I find that the discussion in which Weiskott participates through the article–if perhaps not overtly–is one worth having, pointing out that curricular decisions are always political ones. Propping up the Greatest of Geoffreys as a standard-reference author, or holding up Shakespeare or Milton as the other members of a putative holy trinity of English-language literature, or including Beowulf or Malory among a somewhat broader pantheon, or any such thing serves to indicate to people that “the educated” know those things–and, because they receive institutional support, they should know those things. It is a vision of what a populace should be, and embodiment of that vision is used as a stand-in for personal value (or at least as a veneer for the “real” personal value of how much money a person has or makes). And it is a vision that is imposed on people by others, not always others whom they choose; it is a vision that reflects ideologies that are themselves shaped by similar, earlier influences on the people who hold them.
There is some value in a canon, certainly. Having a common body of reference eases understanding and comprehensibility; having access to the reference helps people get the joke, and the world can damn well use more laughter. But having a common body of reference is also necessarily exclusionary; there is only so much that can be included, because we do not, as Marvell reminds us, have world enough and time to do it all. What gets kept out matters as much as what gets kept in, and those who have been excluded are likely to continue to be so as long as the conditions towards which Weiskott gestures remain in place. And I think Weiskott is correct to be pessimistic about the prospect of things opening up.