Yale students want to remake the English Major requirements, but there's no escaping white male poets in the canon.

The Canon Is Sexist, Racist, Colonialist, and Totally Gross. Yes, You Have to Read It Anyway.

The Canon Is Sexist, Racist, Colonialist, and Totally Gross. Yes, You Have to Read It Anyway.

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
May 24 2016 12:35 PM

The Canon Is Sexist, Racist, Colonialist, and Totally Gross. Yes, You Have to Read It Anyway.

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Ew, Rudyard Kipling

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

Hello, Yale students. It’s me, a random internet writer. I have some unfortunate news for you, but first, let me step back and catch everybody up.

Recently, the requirements for the Yale English major have come under fire. To fulfill the major as it currently stands, a student must take either the two-part “major English poets” sequence—which spans Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, and Eliot—or four equivalent courses on the same dead white men. Inspired in part by articles in the Yale Daily News and Down magazine, Elis have crafted a petition exhorting the college to “decolonize” its English curriculum. Their demands: abolish the major English poets cycle and revise the remaining requirements “to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.” “It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices,” the letter concludes. “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”

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This is great, and I applaud your commitment to inclusivity and diversity (as well as your command of rhythm and anaphora.) Rethinking the major’s prerequisites to reflect a wider array of perspectives, gifts, and experiences is an awesome idea. Also, you’ve pointed elsewhere to some deplorable statistics: Of 98 English faculty members, only seven identify as nonwhite, and none identify as Hispanic or indigenous. Yale urgently needs to address the homogeny of its professorship, both for students’ sake and its own.  

Here’s the thing, though. If you want to become well-versed in English literature, you’re going to have to hold your nose and read a lot of white male poets. Like, a lot. More than eight.

The canon is what it is, and anyone who wishes to understand how it continues to flow forward needs to learn to swim around in it. There is a clear line to Terrance Hayes (and Frank and Claire Underwood, and Lyon Dynasty) from Shakespeare. There is a direct path to Adrienne Rich (and Katniss Everdeen, and Lyra Belacqua) from Milton. (Rich basically says as much in “Diving into the Wreck.”) These guys are the heavies, the chord progressions upon which the rest of us continue to improvise, and we’d be somewhere else entirely without them.

You’ve written that “it is possible to graduate with a degree in English language & literature by exclusively reading the works of (mostly wealthy) white men.” It is possible to graduate a lot of ways, and every English major is responsible for taking advantage of the bounty of courses the department offers to attain a full and deep education. What is not possible is to reckon with the racist, sexist, colonist poets who comprise the canon—and to transcend their failures—via a “see no evil, hear no evil” policy.

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I want to gently push back, too, against the idea that the major English poets have nothing to say to students who aren’t straight, male, and white. For all the ways in which their particular identities shaped their work, these writers tried to represent the entire human condition, not just their clan. A great artist possesses both empathy and imagination: Many of Shakespeare’s female characters are as complexly nuanced as any in circulation today, Othello takes on racial prejudice directly, and Twelfth Night contains enough gender-bending identity shenanigans to fuel multiple drag shows and occupy legions of queer scholars. The “stay in your lane” mentality that seems to undergird so much progressive discourse—only polyamorous green people really “get” the “polyamorous green experience,” and therefore only polyamorous greens should read and write about polyamorous greens, say—ignores our common humanity.    

But even if you disagree, there’s no getting around the facts. Although you’ve written that the English department “actively contributes to the erasure of history,” what it really does is accurately reflect the tainted history we have—one in which straight white cis-men dominated art-making for centuries—rather than the woke history we want and fantasize about. There are few (arguably no) female poets writing in Chaucer’s time who rival Chaucer in wit, transgressiveness, texture, or psychological insight. The lack of equal opportunity was a tremendous injustice stemming from oppressive social norms, but we can’t reverse it by willing brilliant female wordsmiths into the past. Same goes for people of color in Wordsworth’s day, or openly queer people in Pope’s, or …  

Here is what I am not saying. I am not saying that Yale shouldn’t offer a rich panoply of courses on female writers, queer writers, writers with disabilities, and writers of color. And it does! In addition to featuring names like Elizabeth Bishop and Ralph Ellison in its survey classes, the course catalog presents such titles as “Women Writers from the Restoration to Romanticism,” “Race and Gender in American Literature,” “American Artists and the African American Book,” “The Spectacle of Disability,” “Asian American Literature,” “Chaucer and Discourses of Dissent,” “Postcolonial World Literature: 1945-present,” “Black Literature and U.S. Liberalism” … and I’m not even counting the cross listings with the comparative literature; American studies; and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies departments.

Moreover, I am not arguing that it is acceptable for an English major to graduate from college having only read white male authors or even 70 percent white male authors. But you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male: In addition to the majors listed above, Jonson, Shelley, Keats, Pound, Auden, and Frost. This is frustrating, unfair, and 100 percent nonnegotiable. (But hey, try to have some fun reading Frost? You could do so much worse!)

The canon of English literature is sexist. It is racist. It is colonialist, ableist, transphobic, and totally gross. You must read it anyway.