Some Yale University students are demanding changes to the English Department curriculum: specifically, they don’t think it should feature so many English poets who were straight, white, wealthy, and male.
“It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices,” the students wrote in a petition to the faculty. “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”
The “Major English Poets” sequence, a mandatory two-course commitment for English majors, is particularly problematic, according to the students. These classes cover Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and T.S. Eliot. It’s not the most diverse line up, to be sure, but it’s the one that best reflects history the way it actually happened. Inarguably, these are the most influential poets in the English language.
Reason quotes a student petition expressing discontent with the course’s focus on these poets:
When students are made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, or get up and leave the major, something is wrong. The English department loses out when talented students engaged in literary and cultural analysis are driven away from the major. Students who continue on after taking the introductory sequence are ill-prepared to take higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship. We ask that Major English Poets be abolished, and that the pre-1800/1900 requirements be refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.
It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings. A 21st century education is a diverse education: we write to you today inspired by student activism across the university, and to make sure that you know that the English department is not immune from the collective call to action.
Everyone who signed this petition is what’s wrong with this country.
I would have thought studying the works of the great poets and writers would be more important to an English major than studying “gender, race, sexuality, ableism,* and ethnicity.” Shows you what I know about an English major. (I was an English major, but that was 1990.)
I took a literature class in college in which works of black writers were heavily emphasized. (This was not advertised in the title of the course, which was a survey of American literature from a particular time period — but that was the (black female) professor’s desire.) I liked it. We read folks like Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin (whom I liked) and folks like Toni Morrison (whom I did not care for). I considered reading these works, many of which discussed the black experience in this nation, to be a mind-opening experience — and indeed, I have described James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” as one of a handful of books that have changed the way I look at the world.
I didn’t get up and walk out of the class or start a petition because I was reading authors with a different skin color and a different life experience from mine. I read and I learned.
The major English poets from before 1800 were predominantly white males. Shut up and deal with it. Read and learn.
*I had to look up “ableism.” Taking the logic of this concept to its logical extreme, a doctor’s proposal to cure a disability would be considered unacceptable bigotry — because it implies that the person’s disability is a problem to be cured.