There Are No Universal Books

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There’s been much debate about the merits of trigger warnings on college campuses recently. Such suggestions drew the ire of both conservatives and liberals, with one college professor going so far as to offer a mock syllabus containing warnings on historical events. Phoebe Maltz Bovy, writing for The New Inquiry, suggests that the larger problem is with the idea of a universal narrative:

The “Great Books” approach — the one many colleges and observers outside academia see as essential to a liberal-arts education — asks students to read texts, with very little sense of their original context, by and about a small subset of humanity, and to treat the content of those books as universal. Initiation in this corpus is meant to teach critical thinking skills in a way that reading from contemporary media sources supposedly doesn’t. Part of the goal is teaching students to confront challenging primary documents head-on. But it’s also about reinforcing the idea of a continuous West, with which every student is expected to seamlessly identify.


Ian MacAllen is the author of RED SAUCE: HOW ITALIAN FOOD BECAME AMERICAN (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield). His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, Southern Review of Books, The Offing, 45th Parallel Magazine, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com. More from this author →