Vanderbilt fires the Western canon

Monday, January 15, 2001 at 1:00am

Pssst! You in the Armani suit! Wanna read some smut? No you don�t have to skulk around the Midtown porn parlors. Just drop by Vanderbilt University�s bookstore, in Rand Hall, and pick up copies of required readings for many arts and science students this semester.

There�s Going All The Way: Teenage Girls Talk of Sex, Romance, and Pregnancy, an assigned text in American Studies 104. The blurb on the back calls it �a work of social history,� which should make you feel better about the $24,000 in tuition you�re shelling out to send your kid to Vanderbilt this year.

Remember as a teenager reading Fannie Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure with a flashlight under the covers?. It�s required in History 186 now. The jacket promises a combination of �sensual entertainment and a philosophical concept of sexuality.� That�ll sure float your boat.

If for some reason you need an update on prostitutes� responses to AIDS, pick up one of the books required in History 107, Sex Work: Writings By Women In The Sex Industry, edited by Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander. Then, for considerably less than plane fare to Bangkok, there�s Jeremy Brooks� Travels In The Skin Trade, �an objective, unmoralizing, and sensitive view� of the tourist sex in Thailand. It�s a Women�s Studies 187 requirement.

But scholarly life at Vanderbilt this year isn�t just about sex. No, there�s the next best thing: football! Students in Sociology 233 are reading Bernard Lefkowitz�s Our Guys, �a hauntingly nuanced portrait of America�s jock culture,� featuring some small-town gridiron stars who rape a retarded girl. For future teachers of English, there�s H. G. Bissinger�s Friday Night Lights, billed as �an engrossing story of a high school football season.�

Speaking of English, a course in Shakespeare, the language�s greatest writer, is no longer required for a major in that subject at Vanderbilt. (Presumably the anatomy class will soon be dropped at the medical school.) The Bard is still on the shelves at Rand - the Norton edition of his canon is required in two courses. Meanwhile, Tony Kushner�s Angels In America, �a gay fantasia on national themes,� is used in five courses this term.

In English 268, the professor has dispensed with literature altogether. Here students are reading From Mae to Madonna, about women stars of the century just ended and Graham McCann�s Rebel Males: Clift, Brando, and Dean. �All felt themselves to be bisexual,� the inside flap whispers, � � thus, well-suited to roles where gender boundaries were fluid.�

Ah, yes, �the love that dare not speak its name.� At Vanderbilt, it can�t shut up. Would that Adrienne Rich�s book, required in History 101, lived up to its title: Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Instead, it promises to �affirm the potentiality of a lesbian/feminism which extends the meaning of women�s love for women to a potential vision that touches every level of society.�

Even so, it seems that no one, as the old song had it, �enjoys being a girl.� Humanities 156 students will learn from Naomi Wolf, in her book The Beauty Myth, about the enslavement of women to the notion of looking pretty. Communications Studies students will read Aphrodite Jones� The Girl Who Became A Boy And Paid the Ultimate Price. No fewer than six professors are requiring The Body Project; An Intimate History of American Girls, exploring young women�s �attitudes toward � breast size, menstruation, hair, clothing, and cosmetics.�

Finally, what was once every woman�s dream day is exposed for the vicious business it is, in Sociology 104. Students there are privileged to read Chrys Ingraham�s White Weddings, ceremonies that �maintain the romance of heterosexuality, the myth of white supremacy, and the insatiable appetite of consumer capitalism.�

So far, there seems to be no text available on gender bias in thermodynamics, but someone, somewhere is writing one.

These are by no means all the frivolous, phony and just plain goofy books taught at Vanderbilt currently. And the fair-minded essayist must note that the great books of the Western canon (and, increasingly, other cultures) are still required and read there. You�ll find Turgenev and Tolstoy and Tennyson interspersed with Russell Banks and Robert Pirsig and J.K. Rowling. (Yes, Harry Potter And The Sorcerer�s Stone is required in English 115W.)

Still, one must ask: Having expired at so many other universities, are the humanities running a fever at Vanderbilt?

James Summerville is a local historian and writer. His most recent book is Nashville Medicine: A History. He may be contacted at

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