Even if you care nothing for Chaucer and Milton, you’ve likely heard about a petition from Yale University students urging professors to “decolonise” the literature curriculum. (Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of Yale University.) The petition called for the university to change a traditional prerequisite course in major English poets, replacing many of the “dead white males” on the reading list with “women, people of colour, and queer folk”.
The students claimed that a course dominated by the titans of the English poetic canon “creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of colour”. It “actively harms all students, regardless of their identity”.
The news has been reported by the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and elsewhere – but so far, we have heard little from Yale officialdom. However, Professor Langdon Hammer, chair of the Yale University Department, has kindly provided me with an advance copy of a statement he will post to the English Department website.
“The petition, so far as I know, exists in the form of a google.doc to which news articles have linked”, Hammer writes. “It hasn’t been presented to the English Department faculty, and it’s anonymous.”
Hammer’s statement does not comment on the petition’s demands, saying only the following:
“The questions on my mind about English 125/6 [the course in question] are: How can this course be made better? What is its relationship to the rest of the English Department curriculum? What should and shouldn’t the faculty require of its majors? What does a strong education in the discipline of English look like today? And what should it look like tomorrow?”
Hammer says the Department asks these questions about all their courses “in formal and informal ways every year, and we will again next year. We’ll be in conversation with our students, who have a range of views. And we’ll make decisions about what we teach and what we ask of students that seem appropriate to us.”
This is a very diplomatic statement. If you are tempted to call it “cowardly”, consider that Professor Hammer and his colleagues are operating in the most bizarre time in American academic history. It is a time in which the students exercise considerable power over the faculty. All it takes is a cell phone video of an enraged pack of teenagers screaming at a cornered professor to force abject resignations.
Still, the American culture war is an asymmetrical one. If, say, students at Hillsdale College petitioned their English Department to remove WEB DuBois from the curriculum, citing the “hostile” climate one must endure in reading “dead black males”, I can’t imagine there’d be anything less than a federal investigation of the matter. Just to be thorough, I contacted the Yale University Office of Public Affairs and Communications with a query: do any of the university’s higher-ups, I asked, think it appropriate that many in their student body judge writers by the colour of their skin? As of this writing there was no response.
The Yale English Department has not sought my advice on how to deal with radical student demands, but I’ll give it anyway. Do not assent to anything. Don’t grant any wishes. In fact, don’t even acknowledge the students. Opposition to the “dead white male” curriculum used to be a matter of simple diversity: the argument went that traditional professors weren’t teaching enough non-white writers. Now the argument has shifted to one of open hostility. (“It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings”, the students’ petition says.) The trend will continue until canonical English writers have been completely removed from reading lists. The students’ logic requires it. After all, if white writers are “harmful” in too large a quantity, what rationale is there to have any on the curriculum?
There is a connection between what’s happening on our universities and the movement to elect Donald Trump. I have been trying to explain to people that Trump is a proxy figure. By and large, the conservative movement in the United States — with its obsessive focus on free markets, tax rates, and military campaigns in the Middle East — has ignored cultural issues such as the long march against traditional Western culture. Is it any wonder people have become desperate? Much of the support Trump enjoys is not due to his often vague and contradictory platform. His role is symbolic: the radical culture is an unstoppable force, and he is the immovable object.