Students at Yale University are demanding radical changes that would remove white male authors from the English department’s curriculum.
“It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors. A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity,” the students write in the petition.
The “Major English Poets” requirement for Yale English majors focuses on the work of poets Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Wordsworth, and T.S. Eliot. Despite this lineup lacking the diversity that the students desire, it’s an accurate reflection of the figures who have most influenced English poetry.
According to the students, the “Major English Poets” course “creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”
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.
Katy Waldman, of the liberal news site, Slate, criticized the students for claiming that they have nothing to learn from white male poets.
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!)
Ironically, the students demanding a Yale that is more intellectually inclusive seem to have no problem with the University’s overwhelming lack of political diversity. According to an article written in 2012 by The Yale Daily News, 97 percent of political contributions from Yale employees go to Democrats.
The student’s end the petition with an aggressive demand for administrators to hear their message.
“We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”