The Western canon is a canon of books and art, and specifically a set with very loose boundaries of books and other art, that has allegedly been highly influential in shaping Western culture. The selection of a canon is important to the theory of educational perennialism.
The process of listmaking—defining the boundaries of the canon—is endless. One of the notable attempts in the English-speaking world was the Great Books of the Western World program. This program, developed in the middle third of the 20th century, grew out of the curriculum at the University of Chicago. University president Robert Hutchins and his collaborator Mortimer Adler developed a program that offered reading lists, books, and organizational strategies for reading clubs to the general public.
An earlier attempt, the Harvard Classics (1909) was promulgated by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot, whose thesis was the same as Carlyle's:
- The true university is a collection of books. --Thomas Carlyle
There has been an ongoing, intensely political debate over the nature and status of the canon since at least the 1960s. In the USA, in particular, it has been attacked as a compendium of books written mainly by "dead white European males", that thus do not represent the viewpoints of many others in contemporary societies around the world. Others, notably Allan Bloom in his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, have fought back vigorously. Authors such as Yale Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom have also spoken strongly in favor of the canon, and in general the canon remains as a represented idea in most institutions, though its implications continue to be debated heavily.
Even while ignoring the political issues, the selection of the canon betrays either a bias against or ignorance of non-Western traditions, in addition to ignorance of less publicized areas, intellectual and geographic, of Western literature.
One of the main objections to a canon of literature is the question of authority—who should enjoy the power to determine what works are worth reading and teaching?
Works which are commonly included in the canon include works of fiction such as epic poems, poetry, music, drama, novels, and other assorted forms of literature from the many, diverse Western (and more recently non-Western) cultures. Many non-fiction works are also listed, primarily from the areas of religion, science, philosophy, economics, politics, and history.
Works which directly address the canon (both for and against):
- The History of Western Literature by Otto Maria Carpeaux
- Shakespeare by Harold Bloom
- The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
- The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme
- Harold Bloom's canon (http://www.literarycritic.com/bloom.htm)
- Harold Bloom revisited, or the yet ungovern'd isle of canon by Jordi Sala - a critique of Bloom's canon (http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~uclucero/harold_bloom.html)
- All That You Know Not to Be Is Utterly Real, Part I by Curtis White (http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no7/white.html)
- "Great Ideas" Website (http://www.thegreatideas.org/)
- A "Great Books" Website (http://books.mirror.org/gb.home.html)