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

Jun 11, 2016

By Katy Waldman

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.”

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.


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

  • The canon of English literature is sexist. It is racist. It is colonialist, ableist, transphobic, and totally gross.

    Sounds like a good reason not to read it. Why not make a new canon that isn’t those things?
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  • One might then describe these authors as:

    “…the most unpleasant character(s) in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; …. petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak(s); a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bull(ies).”

    And argue for banning them from study?

    Actually they are better than that, more entertaining, more insightful and in the case of George Eliot altogether better at the “morality” thing. Not all white wealthy males are what they seem
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  • The Controversial Poster Philoctetes #2
    Jun 12, 2016 at 6:22 am

    more entertaining, more insightful and in the case of George Eliot altogether better at the “morality” thing. Not all white wealthy males are what they seem

    You seem to have a point the OP letter has entirely missed!

    http://www.gradesaver.com/author/george-eliot
    Mary Anne Evans, who wrote under the pseudonym George Eliot, was born on November 22, 1819, at South Farm, Arbury Hall in Warwickshire. She was the youngest of five children.

    @OP – to fulfil 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.
    . . ..
    “It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices,” the letter concludes. “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”

    “four equivalent courses on the same dead white men, does suggest a lack of depth of study on the subject, prior to demanding to have opinions on the historical English literature curriculum content listened to!
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  • phil rimmer #4
    Jun 12, 2016 at 12:47 pm
    .
    Sadly, the Eliot, being in a list of poets, was clearly T.S. Eliot and not novelist George.

    Oooops!

    Still I suppose next they will be complaining that there are no examples of Chinese writings in the study of Ancient Greek literature!
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  • InYourFaceNewYorker #7
    Jun 12, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    I suppose they could go for Coleridge.

    Coleridge coined many familiar words and phrases, including suspension of disbelief. He was a major influence on Emerson and American transcendentalism.

    Throughout his adult life Coleridge had crippling bouts of anxiety and depression; it has been speculated that he had bipolar disorder, which had not been defined during his lifetime.[1] He was physically unhealthy, which may have stemmed from a bout of rheumatic fever and other childhood illnesses. He was treated for these conditions with laudanum, which fostered a lifelong opium addiction.

    He has an American connection and a hippy approach to drugs!
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  • The guys just might be better. As when we consider fiction writers, playwrights, songwriters, and film directors. Why not read them, hear them, and see their work, and decide for yourself? And if you think someone doesn’t pass muster, tell the world why. In doing that, go ahead site who you think is better, giving us excerpts from their body of work.
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  • William #1

    Why not make a new canon that isn’t those things?

    Do you understand what canon means in this context?

    The Western canon is the body of books, music and art that scholars generally accept as the most important and influential in shaping Western culture.

    We might well add for good or ill. Canon doesn’t mean “what we like now”, but “what was influential up to now”.

    History like any brute fact is a bitch but unless you learn it and from it you are condemned to repeat it.
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  • “Sounds like a good reason not to read it. Why not make a new canon that isn’t those things?”

    As phil rimmer alluded, a canon is those works of art or literature that are considered the most important for a particular period and place. A canon, such as the canon of English literature (the period coinciding with the existence of the English language, the place with the geographical dispersal of the language), can become reevaluated over time. But it would take an unprecedented golden age of creativity for Chaucer, Shakespeare or Milton to be replaced in the canon any time soon (say, in the next couple of centuries).
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  • Has anyone suggested to the Yale students that they could demonstrate their disgust with such offensive material more emphatically? It was precisely university students before them, appalled at works of incorrect (!) fiction, succeded in revising the history of literature. German students and their bonfires. Well temporarily revising…
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  • The fact that this even got published demonstrates the depths that are now being dredged to fill these courses. If you don’t want to read English poetry ( written in English ) by English people that are dead then you should learn another language ( I would suggest French or Japanese ) and then study modern literature in one of these languages. The complaints in this piece are typical of today’s whinging students when they suddenly realise that history are things that actually happened and it wasn’t all daffodils pretty streams !!
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  • 15
    bonnie2 says:

    Perhaps part and parcel of recent whirlwind removal of confederate flags and certain plaques from Ivy Halls? They feel the time is ripe to swing the pendulum opposite direction? Naturally, eventually, the middle is where it rests.

    Chord progressions upon which the rest of us continue to improvise…

    Wonder if music students at say, Julliard, feel the same.
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  • It’s simple enough. Start a project to scour the literature and find the pieces that were overlooked because they weren’t by white guys. Reevaluate the complete body of works and form a curriculum about the best 8. Include historical context and show how other works managed to be Influential.
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  • Dan Dare #16

    Start a project and find the pieces that were overlooked

    But this has been ongoing for decades with sadly little material to show for it. These will mostly fall outside of the canon because “influential” they clearly were not. There is a great study of why these few neglected pieces were influential or not, but “influential” is the big question. How art formed and reflected society.

    In a generation this will be far less of a “problem” as societies have an ever fuller spectrum of voices informing and reflecting them. But reach back and what was published and read was what was published and read.
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  • @OP- “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,

    These are poets, but I would think a novelists section should open their minds!

    G. Orwell, G. Greene, D Adams……

    DanDare #16
    Jun 13, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    It’s simple enough. Start a project to scour the literature and find the pieces that were overlooked because they weren’t by white guys.

    If they want poetry which is different, it’s rumoured the Vogons were not white, but the search might take some time! 🙂
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  • Folks: I’m new here as of today, but have done quite a bit of reading. Anyway.
    While a general complaint of too much emphasis on DWM may have some justification, when it comes to literature over the centuries (especially pre 1900; or pre what?) the term should be DM. For Europe, the W is mostly justified, but where anywhere else in the world had it not been an M? Persian, Arab (probably as diverse as European), African, Indian (subcontinent), Chinese, Japanese, Korean, whatever … it’s almost always exclusively M! For Japan, and perhaps east Asia more generally, there may have been some non-M authors, though I have no idea to what degree these may be considered canon (JRRT may be heading in the direction of Shakespeare, but what about J.K. Rowling, P. G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, …?).
    Perhaps as a comparison: whatever the merits of the music composed by speakers of variants of the German language from J.S. Bach (or earlier) to L. v. Beethoven (or later) may be (me, I’m more into music centered on blues-rock), artists from almost all of the world have considered it worthwhile to study this music and become very proficient in it. If you have decided on an English major – surprise! there will not be any Sanskrit reading. On the science side: you decide on majoring in astrophysics, please do not complain that genetics is not touched on in the least in the lectures you hear.
    Should somebody detect sarcasm in my post, they are welcome to take it home in a handy wheelbarrow (or whatever)
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  • This is life imitating art.
    A Very Peculiar Practice (1986/1988) was a black comedy set in a university (The Guardian ranks it #5 in the top 50 TV dramas of all time, as of 2010). I believe the English professor got in hot water for exposing his students to DWPs (and then made the situation worse by answering the door to complainant students in the nude, him being a nudist at home and somewhat absent-minded). But that was satire, an English professor couldn’t get in trouble for sticking to the canon…
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  • 21
    Pinball1970 says:

    The dead poets were mostly white blokes get over yourselves Yale.

    All the great composers, scientists and engineers are mostly dead white men too.

    (Ignoring Curie, Noether, Bell, Hodgkin and Franklin et al – key word “mostly”)
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