The Rewritten Canon Nine Years After the Gang of Virtue
Ian Johnston

Art any more than a steward?  Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Nine years ago, the academic world at Malaspina was in the midst of a civil war.  The programming for the new BA degrees had set Liberal Studies (or, as it was then called, Multidisciplinary Studies or MDS) on the fast track and the proposed MDS Great Books Program had really put the cat among the pigeons.  What authentic academic was going to stand for a canon-based curriculum in the midst of the cultural wars?

So the gloves were off, and taking pot shots at MDS was the liveliest game in town, as Canada First types, feminists, multiculturalists, Great Books purists, post-modernists, new historicists, old historicists, conventional academic discipline specialists, proselytizers for Critical Theory, wannabe Marxists--in short, a motley crew whose members were noted for spending much of their time attacking each other--formed a temporary alliance to dump all over MDS.

In a spirit of reconciliation during those stormy days, I proposed (in February 1991) a compromise.  MDS would teach the Great Books, but would rewrite them to fit modern concerns, and I published a short sample list of titles.  These included, for example, a study of alternative lifestyles in BC (Song of Roland, The Ferry Queen), of third world agriculture (I've An Hoe, Donkey Hope Way), of industrial pollution (The Mill's Grim Progress), of prostitution above the Arctic Circle (Tart of Darkness), of gender oppression in office politics (King Leer), and so on.  There were several more titles in the sample series, but that should be enough to provide a sense of what we were after.

Unfortunately my attempts to reach out were cruelly rebuffed.  At once a group of 31 faculty (after an appropriate series of meetings) wrote a stern letter to the local press accusing me of "sexism, racism, and homophobia."  I cannot recall the names of those on the list (in their haste to deal with an important issue of public morality, the group failed to send me a copy of their protest, and the student newspaper, which did receive a copy very promptly, with the passage of time lost it).  As I recall from a quick glimpse at the copy sent to the Nanaimo Times, two prominent names were members of my very own English department, clearly leaders in the campaign to cleanse the foul body of the political world of the college.  I'd mention them here, but why should they be singled out for special praise among so many brave Savonarolas seeking to purify Christendom with their passionate zeal?  In any case, they are, alas, no longer with us.

Now, there were some at that time who felt that the response of this Gang of Virtue was excessive, the sanctimonious pontificating of a bunch of academic blowhards with no sense of humour, tritons of the minnows ambitious to carve out their own niche in the developing curriculum or else hopelessly caught up in what was called at the time (something of a misnomer) Political Correctness.  Or maybe they just didn't like those associated with MDS.  But to characterize their stance in such terms seriously misrepresents their case.  After all, if college teachers don't take serious steps to protect us all from the moral depravities of humour and the corrupting effects of tradition, how are we to progress or even survive?  Convinced at once of the laudable nature of their concerns, I abandoned my project.

Some of my colleagues did not, however, and the task of rewriting the canon to fit the post-modern consciousness has forged ahead as an underground enterprise.  To begin with, they edited a collection of objections to the original proposal, provided a comprehensive introduction and some pointed responses, and published this important work under the title Pig Male Ian (now unfortunately out of print).

Their efforts did not stop there.  In response to the growing interest in animal rights, the Institute of Practical Philosophy put out an important monograph (In Fur? No!).  The existential significance of nouvelle cuisine vegetarianism is stressed in Sauces of the Shelf, a follow up volume to the best-selling indictment of fast food outlets, Macdeath.  The most recent publication in this series brings a Dickensian indignation at social injustice to the modern problem of  internet pornography in a Sharpe-shooting expose under the title The Sale of Two Titties.

Norm Cameron has taken upon himself the important task of bringing traditional science into the mainstream of a modern liberal arts education (essential after the Sokol affair).  His twin publications, a study of the excretory systems in birds (Oriole Anus) and one focusing on the self-castrating habits of the Castor emasculens species of beaver  in the well-received St. Origen of Species, have rightly taken their place alongside the work of William Harvey as pioneering landmarks of physiology.

Attention to the performing arts has not been neglected.  The series inaugurated by the study of modern groupies (The Lay of the Last Minstrel) now has a second volume exploring the torrid in-fighting in the world of classical music  (Oratorio Hornblower).  

Other titles are in the pipeline, including another stirring endorsement of alternative sexual lifestyles, a newly edited version of the long-suppressed narrative about initiation into the homoerotic cliques under Arthur's Round Table (Sir Gay Wayne's Green Night).

Nor have the scriptures been neglected.  In fact, the entire Pentateuch has been extensively revised to make in a useful manual for on-line trading, an essential skill if the Liberal Studies student is to survive in the information age.  The result is an impressive hands-on text, The Complete Idiot's Guide to the

So the Gang of Virtue still has its work cut out.  True, some of them have, in the intervening years, been severely bitten in the ass by the very principles they worked so hard to uphold in those heady times   And some have, to universal mourning, left the college (bringing about, as one might expect, a precipitous decline in the energy with which we maintain such vitally important moral vigilance over the language of our colleagues and students).

But one lives in hope that among the newer faculty adequate replacements have arrived and that the remaining old crusaders have an arrow or two left amid their quivers.  We even proffer a gentle invitation that these worthy souls might use this very journal, modest as it may be, for their earnest and necessary moral exhortations and all-important public proclamations..

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