Many great black intellectuals—men such as CLR James, WEB Du Bois and Stuart Hall—were all devotees of the canon. They understood that you have to be fully conversant in it to be able to meaningfully criticise it.
In a typical American university, undergraduate students in the humanities are supposed to read certain canonical texts and authors, selected because they are both historically important and of first-rate intellectual caliber. Everyone is supposed to encounter giants of the Western intellectual tradition, Goethe, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Virgil, Plato, Descartes, Locke, Freud, and others. Critics note that the canon’s authors are a select set of privileged white men, and argue that the hegemonistic canon ought to be expanded to include marginalized voices. The publication of Allen Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind heated up and popularized this struggle over the content of the canon.
In a recent piece for Prospect magazine, "In praise of dead white men" Lindsay Johns returns to the question what a humanities education ought to look like. She worries about the academic current that sees the traditional canon produced chiefly by privileged white wen as not relevant to people of color: "We have been led to see it as whitey's birthright, not ours. Meanwhile, anti-racist educationalists and black community leaders rail against a racist curriculum which does not meet the cultural needs of their students." Johns instead argues that the "literary canon should not be the preserve of any one race." The dead, white thinkers venerated in the traditional canon had universal concerns and insights that everyone can share in: "These works can, if given the chance, speak as much to Leroy in Peckham or Shaniqua in the South Bronx as they can to Quentin in the home counties."
It is certainly true that the traditional canon embodies racism, misogyny, class war, and still yet other kinds of oppression. Lindsay writes that “the way the canon has been refracted through racist lenses does need to be incisively and intelligently critiqued.” But these elements co-exist in tension with a true concern with the values of freedom, dignity, and decency. Aristotle had a vision of true friendship as the most valuable thing attainable in our lives, but also asserted that some people are by their nature meant to the slaves to others; St. Thomas Aquinas hailed the pious love of God, but also held that women are imperfect men only born because of the corrupting influence of the moist south winds on pregnancy; Immanuel Kant championed an ethics of rational autonomy and human dignity, but held that white people had achieved a level of perfection greater than people of color; John Stuart Mill articulated a classical liberal defense of free speech and thought, but also attempted to justify the British policies of imperialism in India. These salutatory and degenerate elements co-exist in tension with each other: forward-looking insights occur within the limitations of the individual and the society in which they lived.
Some of the most effective tools in overcoming the moral failings of the traditional canon are therefore the moral achievements of the canon itself. Profound insights into human nature and our existential condition are what make the great literary and philosophical works great, and can be appropriated for the project of transcending the very real limitations of those works as well as our present society. It is worth remembering that when Karl Marx was developing his critical account of capitalism, he was studying in the British Museum, where the prizes of the empire were collected. Marx drew on both the resources and liberal values of the civilization whose moral inadequacies he was trying to overcome. As Johns put it in Prospect,
Only a more steadfast and consistent application of the great ideals of Western civilization will permit us to shed the historical residues of oppression and injustice in contemporary society. It would be a mistake to shirk the moral achievements we have inherited from our predecessors because we also inherit what is ugly about them – indeed, like them, we are sure to bequeath our own undefeated ugliness to those who will eventually follow us.