We have been discussing the erosion of free speech and academic standards at our universities and colleges. What is alarming is not only the pace of such demands but the support of some faculty to stripping away core courses and historical references. The latest such example can be found at Yale University with undergraduate students have demanded that the English department abolish the prerequisite course requirement to study such writers as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. Students claim that it is “unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors.” Of course, this is not the only course for students but simply one course designed to introduce students to “major English poets.” However, the students find it oppressive and some faculty support their cause like English Professor Jill Richards who insisted that “it is unacceptable that the two-semester requirement for all majors routinely covers the work of eight white, male poets.” The students have demanded that “It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings.”
Yale requires that English majors spend two semesters studying a selection of “major English poets”: “Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and TS Eliot or another modern poet in the spring.” The course is meant to “provide all students with a generous introduction to the abiding formal and thematic concerns of the English literary tradition.”
Yet, the students have denounced the course as oppressive and dehumanizing: “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 Major English Poets sequences 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.”
Adriana Miele, Assistant to Director of Communications at Yale University Library, insists that “it is possible to graduate with a degree in English language and literature by exclusively reading the works of (mostly wealthy) white men. Many students do not read a single female author in the two foundational courses for the major. This department actively contributes to the erasure of history.” Of course, nothing prevents students from taking the many courses featuring women or minority writers.
The concern with such petition is that universities and colleges seem willing to abandon core curriculum and core standards to appease protesters claiming racism or sexism or the ill-defined notion of “micro aggressions.” As someone who took the core curriculum at the University of Chicago (one of the most influential common core programs), I have long benefitted from the foundation given to me as an undergraduate. We also read an array of non-Western works. The irony is that, after struggling to gain admission to Yale, students are seeking to dismantle a world-class educational tradition.
It is possible to read classics while placing them into a greater historical and literary context. That is very essence of education and the understanding that comes from it. At the risk of quoting a white male writer, Shakespeare did caution in As You Like It that “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”