Students at Yale have just presented a petition complaining that too many of the poets in the English literature curriculum are dead white males. Students at Seattle University have just succeeded in forcing the Dean of Western Civ to go on administrative leave, on the grounds that Western Civ involves too much Western Civ.
I almost want to agree with them. I sometimes think of myself as the original protestor at how culturally narrow the traditional humanities curriculum is—I was arguing this way back in the early Seventies. That's why I ended up, having started as an English major, majoring in Comparative Religion. Comparative Religion was the only strategy allowing me to study perhaps ninety percent of the best thoughts of mankind. Anywhere else, you were effectively limited to post-Renaissance Europe. A rather tiny corner of the world.
I believe we are failing to educate ourselves, or our future generations, if the typical humanities curriculum does not include full majors, let alone courses, in the Chinese classics, the Vedas, and the Talmud. In any one of them, there is a hell of a lot more worth knowing, studying, and thinking about, there than in any given subject in the social sciences. Plus, of course, the valuable intellectual exercise of trying t ocome to terms with a foreign culture. Why, other than laziness or chauvinism, this obsession with only the Greeks?
But still I cannot agree with these present protests. They are moving in exactly the opposite direction. Instead of adding the study of other cultures, they are actually subtacting the study of any cultures at all.
Witness what has come to be called “culture studies.” They include no study whatever of the named culture. Instead, they deal only with modern politics. It is as if there was no China until Westerners appeared at the ports, no India before Clive, no Arabia before T.E. Lawrence.
So why does that appeal to “minority” students? I guess it's because it's an easy degree. It limits everything effectively to the twentieth century and its views; it limits everything to familiar issues. It limits things by and large to things they might well already know. The more so since they can then generally hand in essays based only on their personal experience as a “minority.” No thinking, no reading involved. And they cannot be challenged—everyone is the final authority on their own life.
And easy for the profs—they don't have to learn anything either. They just have to be.
Yet it is a special kind of madness to complain that English literature should cut out all the dead white males. That's like demanding that English studies drop the English.
In one of the bitter ironies of nature, the English turn out to be white of skin. And the major you sign up for is, after all, English, not Hindi or Swahili. English has become an international language over the past hundred years or so, and you begin to see contributions from folks of other ethnic backgrounds. But if you are going to study English literature, inevitably, something like ninety-nine percent of available authors will be white.
Insist on something like the demographics of the American present, and you are going to force-feed random junk, if anything. But then, what the protestors really want is that the course be limited to current authors. Much easier to read, if perhaps of much less educational value.
As for women, since women have not traditionally had to earn a living, there were, until recently, far fewer women spending the blood, sweat, and tears to get published. To insist on proportions reflecting their proportion of the population, instead of their proportion of actual published authors, would again force us either to read only random junk, or current authors.
If current authors are easier to read, they are not English literature. First of all, we cannot communaly judge their quality until they have stood a test of time. The top-grossing novels, or movies, of any given year are rarely the best-remembered. I despair of Dan Brown's chances.
And, too, in literature, the dead get a vote. Writing is immortal by its nature; everyone who ever wrote in English is still in the conversation. To read only the living would be the greatest discrimination.