Yale Students Call For Abolishment Of Prerequisite Course Featuring White Male Authors Like Chaucer and Shakespeare

200px-yale_university_shield_1svgWe 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is alarming is not only the pace of such demands but the support of some faculty to stripping away core courses and historical references.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.”


200px-ShakespeareYale 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.”

51 thoughts on “Yale Students Call For Abolishment Of Prerequisite Course Featuring White Male Authors Like Chaucer and Shakespeare”

  1. Been to a college campus, bettykath? The students that challenge the status quo on campus are roughed up by women like yourself saying, “I need some muscle over here.” The students who challenge the status quo invite conservative speakers and have them shouted down. The status quo is liberal fascism. In what worlds do you reside? You read posts here but you seem ill equipped to grasp what you read.

  2. Woe the poor students who are being accused of not being independent thinkers but then are blasted for suggesting changes that challenge the status quo.

  3. Paul C. Schulte….I think this is a petition by English majors re the requirements for degrees in English.
    I don’t know the required mix of “classic/modern” literature for those majors, but I’d guess that English majors could fit in a pretty good mix in 4 years.

    1. Those core requirements for English majors can be maintained, and still leave” room for others”.
      And even the petioners aren’t asking to “abolish” the classic works; they simply say don’t do away with the standards and requirements of English majors.
      The same kind of logic could do away with requirements to study the constitution for the majors I mentioned.
      The inmates are attempting to run the asylum.

    2. bettykath – having worked on a full set of high school literature books, the making room for others excuse means that someones are going to be left out. You only have so much teaching time. So if you now teach X, you now no longer teach A or B.

  4. Given that the U.S. Constitution was written by middle-aged and older white males, the next petition may be to eliminate requirements to study it.
    Yale’s history, poli.sci. Dept, and the Yale law school could make the necessary deletions, bowing to the wisdom of the petitioners.

  5. Issac,
    Well said.

    “This should be a discussion based on the historical timeline showing the influence of artists on artists on peoples dating back a few thousand years.”

    The historical element is part of the problem, in that, history is too often taught in a piecemeal fashion. How can students frame their understanding on a timeline when they have not learned history as it developed? They cannot, and it shows.

  6. I like the comment above, several hours ago, by Mark Karlin who went to Yale and graduated in 73. I would never have been an English Major– largely due to some of his comments here. Making Gods out of Shakespeare is a mistake. It is much ado about nothing.

  7. Karen,
    Your comment about the library of Alexandria made me think of Bradbury:

    “…until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.”

  8. “For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics.”

    From the Coda of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

  9. “I beg you, do not be unchangeable:
    Do not believe that you alone can be right.
    The man who thinks that,
    The man who maintains that only he has the power
    To reason correctly, the gift to speak, the soul—
    A man like that, when you know him, turns out empty.”

    Wisdom from a dead white guy.

  10. “I think Tin has simultaneously called it right and disseminated useful new ideas. BDS as part of its ‘anti-Zionist’ agenda should finally get around to purging the OT of Hebrews. Maybe something simple like add ‘and the Palestinians’ every time it says ‘Hebrews’.”

    It’s all about the poor, beleaguered, powerless Jews, for some people, isn’t it?

    I have noticed Zionists trying to capitalize on the backlash against campus censorship. It is quite laughable. Zionists and a significant portion of organized Jewry generally have been in the vanguard of trashing free speech all over the west. Just look at what has happened in Europe.

    Nobody needs to re-write the Hebrew Bible to make an argument against the blatant injustice that is the Jewish state.

  11. Largest double chin.
    he is now about 90, and sadly lost all of it…

  12. Does Harold Bloom have a goiter, or just the world’s largest double chin?

  13. here is a good discussion of Harold Bloom on the subject on Canadian Radio

  14. Try creating a Medical Program by eliminating Core works produced by white males …
    Then ask those students if they are willing to be operated on by a graduate of such a program…This is ridiculous…
    There is an very interesting book called “the western canon”. And it’s really ironic that its author is from Yale University. In fact about 40 years ago, he resigned from the English department for similar issues , and has been lecturing as a humanities professor ever since. He is also considered the world leading Literature critic of the English Language. His name is Harold Bloom.

  15. Strange things happen

    I use to watch Kung Fu star David Carradine. It had a poetic flavor. But Carradine was into kinky sex. The Ex-wife Marina Anderson spills beans on long history of “deviant sexual behavior which was potentially deadly”.

    He was in Bangkok to shoot his latest film, titled Stretch. A police official said that Carradine was found naked, hanging by a rope in the room’s closet, causing immediate speculation that his death was suicide. However, reported evidence suggested that his death was accidental, the result of autoerotic asphyxiation.

    “Maybe someone would want to do that for money. David always carried a lot of cash and he always wore expensive watches — you can attract unwanted elements,” . “Given what David was into, Thailand, Bangkok is sex heaven, and I think he indulged and something went incredibly wrong.”

    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.”

  16. “the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk”

    One of the most useful books that I ever read was “Art of War” by Sun Tzu. I’m not a Chinese male but I learned a lot from Tzu’s philosophy.

    I learned about morality and compassion from Jesus, a Hebrew male from the Middle East.

    My childhood hero, Mahatma Gandhi, taught me the value of a simple and selfless life. I am not a male from the Indian subcontinent.

    Anne Frank taught me about courage in the face of terror. I am not a young Jewish girl.

    I learned most of the business skills that I need for my job from–horrors!–white males.

    Yet according to current educational theory, there’s no way that I could possibly have learned anything from any of these people because they are not “just like me”.

    What has this world come to?

  17. I graduated with honors, cum laude, as an English major from Yale in the ’70s.

    I applaud the proposal to do away with a required core list of dead white European writers.

    The notion that these writers are essential to understanding English literature is farcical (unless one is talking about the early years of British literary arts). There is no academy that selects who are “essential” writers in English. Luminaries who reach “core” status have arrived there through an ongoing preference of, yes, primarily white male English professors. The canon of “indispensable” English authors is not subject to any standards other than the historical academic notion that they are essential to an understanding of English literature. Such a notion is highly questionable.

    I enjoy reading the “core” authors, as I did while at Yale, but I don’t think that they should be imposed upon anyone toward the granting of a degree in English. In fact, I believe that the emphasis on exalting a limited group of white male writers as fundamental to English literature long kept the vibrant diversity of those non-white authors from being more intensively promoted in college curriculums. By holding out these ancient writers as literary “Gods'” those who seek to enable the growth of an English literature that matches our times can become stultified rather than invigorated.

    Decades after my graduation as an English major at Yale, I am in awe of the diversity of authors now writing, their imaginations, disciplined writing and perceptions. Requiring English majors to pay their due to the dead white writers historically revered by white male English professors can be more of an anchor than an illumination when it comes to the scintillating and richly rewarding writing by so many authors today.

    The “core” historical English writers are admirable in their skills, but they are not essential required reading for an English major in 2016. The diversity of authors and literary themes to be studied at this time is astounding.

    There is no need to oblige students to take courses by the canon of venerable dead “canon” authors unless one is majoring in the history of English (as in British) literature. If one is choosing to focus undergraduate studies on the glorious power of the written word in English, these authors are easily enough left optional.

    Mark Karlin
    Yale University
    Class of ’73

    1. Mark – there is a canon of works that should be read and studied since those affected the authors that came after them. I am always fascinated by modern authors who are asked who their influences are and what their answers are. The people they mention are more modern than the canon but they have all read the canon. You can see the canon in their works.

      My mother took her Ph.D. in English Literature. What she had to read I usually read as well. There are some authors I like better than others, but none I would drop just to add a lesbian poet or person of color.

  18. Yale eliminated grades years ago, so now they can drop actual learning too.

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