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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Publication gatekeeping

Freedom of ideas doesn’t mean what it should mean. At Carleton and other peer institutions, most of them liberal, liberal arts colleges (and I mean “liberal” in the literal sense, valuing liberty), people all the way from administrators to students center the importance of sharing ideas.

This is noble in principle. We go to college because we want to explore new ideas we haven’t been exposed to before, or at least I hope that’s part of why we’re here.

But the downsides to this approach fast become obvious. Administrators everywhere from Berkeley to New York love foisting unjustifiable, irrational, prejudiced ideas on students for the sake of some supposed spirit of inquiry.

We can’t value free ideas and bad ideas in the same breath because bad ideas are antithetical to freedoms. When someone’s ideology endangers someone else’s existence, that ideology has no place in a so-called liberal institution.

That’s all I’ll say on that subject directly. The flip side is more interesting to me, in part because we have neglected it in our liberal educations.

I’m a humanities major, and consequently I spend large chunks of time poring through obscure articles, books, essays, and the like that focus on some subject of interest. There’s a lot out there, but the more you study a specific topic, the more you realize there’s not that much.

The same scholars cite each other in a kind of incestuous intellectual dialogue. You see one name here, then the same name somewhere else. We can never escape our specters, whether they’re Plato or Hegel or Weber or Shakespeare.

It is important to acknowledge what’s come before us. The past matters at least in part because all its events and figures inform our present. But the degree to which academic study relies on canonical texts, ideas, and thinkers disturbs me.

We study certain topics because they matter, but some of them only matter because they’re studied, because they’ve influenced others, because you have to understand something to critique it. You have to read Heart of Darkness, the line goes, to “get” Things Fall Apart. You have to know Plato to know why Nietzsche matters. You have to read Derrida and Butler because contemporary philosophy wouldn’t exist without them. Or so we’re told.

Is there not any world outside this? We value these long conversations because they’re easy narratives. As a eurocentric society, it’s easier to accept the premises with which we’ve been indoctrinated than to reject the canon altogether.

That means that any scholar that doesn’t converse with the canon has no academic ground on which to stand. We all need sources for our papers. If there are a hundred sources from or referring to canonical, aristocratic dead white dudes and a handful that aren’t, those papers will naturally end up engaging more with the canon.

The very nature of publishing, both academic and creative, succeeds in keeping many of these heterodox narratives out. We say we’re getting a liberal education, but how liberated is it, really? Good luck trying to cite an unpublished paper. Good luck getting a book published if its subject won’t sell.

In many of my English classes, we’ve read good, insightful books that have gone out of print because they don’t fit the conventional respectability of the canon. Often this means they were written by someone other than a rich, straight, cisgender white man. Publishing, the canon, restricts our thoughts before we even see a page.

Anything we study has been deemed worthy of study. That doesn’t mean it is, necessarily, but rather that the gatekeepers of the canon have decided it fits within the narratives they (and we) have been indoctrinated to accept.

As with the bad ideas discussed above, this matters on some level. Texts can be dangerous, and dishonest texts even more so. But to require all texts to meet a certain level of institutional merit before anyone else can study them is antithetical to liberal arts education. It prevents us from studying ideas on their own terms.

This restriction, common to education, the arts, and publishing, smacks of condescension. We are more than capable of deciding for ourselves; that’s why we’re students, after all.

Of course, none of this applies for hateful and violent texts. Those texts tend to belong to the canon more often than not, because the canon exists to protect them. The gatekeeping of publications and academia serves white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy more effectively than any censorship after the fact could.

If our educational institutions prevent us from ever experiencing the radical ideas that challenge their authority, we will keep faith in them and the systems of oppression they uphold. If, on the other hand, we experience truly radical ideas—ideas of the kind that not only talk back to the canon, but reject it outright—we can start to dismantle the thought patterns that lead us here. The world doesn’t have to be like this. We don’t have to take oppression for granted.

I don’t know what that world would look like. I see no sign of escaping the dead white academics and artists and politicians of the past entirely. And even working against the canon is still working within it, because in acknowledging it we strengthen the hold it continues to have on our present. Texts (and people) we disagree with become even more powerful. Texts we ignore don’t.

I don’t think we can ignore the canon, and I don’t think we should, at least not entirely. But I do know we have to be more conscious and deliberate about how we interact with it, in the classroom and outside it. Many canonical works have radical elements; many were rejected in their time.

That being said, we have to always remember the ways in which our society has controlled thought to oppress people. Whenever we open Catalyst, or go to the bookstore, or check our reading list for class, we’re participating in that. At the very, very least, we should pay attention to how that affects our thinking and our worldview.

More, we should begin to look outside the canon for answers. Outside academia, outside the established list we’re “supposed” to read, outside the list of respectable ideas. The revolution isn’t coming from campuses. Not so long as they teach us what to think.

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