Saturday, June 4, 2016

In a bid to "de-colonize" the English major, students at Yale have apparently come to the conclusion that anything written in the 1800's/1900's or prior should be struck from the required reading list:
It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors. 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. ... We ask that Major English Poets be abolished, and that the pre-1800/1900 requirements be refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity. [Click here for the full petition]

"I don't agree with these people; they offend me; therefore, I should not have to read them." In retrospect, I think it must be an act of mercy that most of my former English literature professors are now deceased. I can only imagine their utter disappointment if they were to bear witness to this latest display of narcissistic whining.

Now, I'm not necessarily opposed to the inclusion of other voices and perspectives and those that came later in history. My Shakespeare prof at my alma mater WELCOMED diverse viewpoints -- I recall one classroom experiment where we had to each adopt a critical hermeneutic and "read the play" through the lens of various critical perspectives (feminist, Marxist, etc.). It was challenging and intellectually-stimulating -- and perhaps while an indulgence in the literary criticisms of the day, did not see any need to expunge the Bard wholesale by virtue of his being a DWM ["Dead White Male"].

Used to be the case that acquiring a "liberal education" involved exposure to a vast array of "dead white people" -- you weren't necessarily expected to agree with them, but perhaps those who set up such a curriculum hoped that you would, at minimum, engage critically with them, reason with them, and digest their works; or even further: cultivate an appreciation, however minimal, for WHY they came to be regarded as "Classics" in whatever field they occupied (philosophy, literature, art, music etc.

Personally, I could no more imagine pursuing a major in English WITHOUT the exposure to Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, et al. than to pursue a major in philosophy with the assumption that I needn't bother myself with the old, dead philosophers that came prior to the 20th century. Or study American history and dismiss the obligation of learning about the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution because hey, they were also written by dead white males. … I'd consider such a deprival rather stunting and malnourished, impeding one's ability to engage and appreciate the cultural riches of the past.

Demanding the wholesale expungement of "The Classics" from the curriculum, or the obligation to engage it, is tantamount to sticking your head in the sand, putting on rose-colored glasses, and immersing yourself in a safe little cocoon of sameness. This kind of cowardly, small-minded, self-segregation and censorship seems to be the mirror image of Christian fundamentalist book-burning.

I am reminded of Camille Paglia's observation, as relayed to Rod Dreher:

I remain concerned about the compulsive denigration of the West and the reductiveness so many leading academics in the humanities have toward their own tradition,” she tells me. “They reduce it all to the lowest common denominator of racism, imperialism, sexism and homophobia. That’s an extremely small-minded way of looking at culture and a betrayal of the career mission of these educators, whose job is to educate students in our culture."

(Camille Paglia, Defender of the West Dallas Morning News 04/25/07)

Or further, from this Catholic blogger's favorite feminist, atheist and critic of post-structuralism, two more revealing anecdotes illustrative of this impetus to bury our heads in the sand and forsake our heritage:

... When it came time to cover the Renaissance, Paglia decided to introduce her students to Michelangelo’s two-part panel from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, “Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden,” a memorable work that she nearly included in Glittering Images. After Paglia’s lecture on this surreal scene from the book of Genesis, a woman student approached the professor. In Paglia’s telling, this student “cheerfully said that she was so happy to learn about that because she had always heard about Adam and Eve but never knew what they referred to!”

More recently, in the early 2000s, Paglia was teaching a course that she founded in the eighties, Art of Song Lyrics, which was directed at musicians. The course covered arias, blues, lieder, and “negro spirituals.” For the spirituals, she taught a song called "Go Down, Moses." It describes the scene from Exodus 7:16: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.” The song, once an anthem for fugitive slaves who fought for the Union in the Civil War, has gone on to have a life of its own in the popular culture. Louis Armstrong and Paul Robeson both covered the song, William Faulkner named his 1942 novel after it, and it was featured twice in Will Smith’s comedy from the nineties, the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air".

Paglia played the song and distributed the lyric sheet for her students to review…

"When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,

Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.

Go down, Moses,

Way down in Egypt’s land,

Tell old Pharaoh,

Let my people go."

But as the students read these words, and as Paglia talked them through the spiritual, there was something wrong. The students were not connecting with the song. “It was hard going,” she explains. “There was a disconnect as I kept talking and talking. I felt I was struggling, and I didn’t know why. And then it struck me with horror that of a class of twenty-five students, only two seemed to recognize the name ‘Moses’ and understand what I was saying—and they were African-American students." A few others had heard the name "Moses" before, but it was clear that they did not know his story of bondage in Egypt or anything about his role as the liberator of the Jews.

"They did not know who he was," she tells me in disbelief. "If you are an artist and you don’t recognize the name of ‘Moses,’ then the West is dead. It’s over. It has committed suicide." (My Camille Paglia Interview: The Outtakes, by Emily Esfahani Smith).

I remember the first time I heard Johnny Cash's song "The Man Comes Around", one of the last songs he wrote before his death (and incidentally, the opening theme to a really great remake of the classic horror film 'Dawn of the Dead). It also happens to be replete with apocalyptic biblical imagery, and I found myself thinking just how sad it is that most people these days, upon hearing it, would most likely lack the biblical knowledge to recognize, understand or appreciate its lyrical depth and scriptural references?.

Hell, even Andrew Eldritch of the goth-rock group Sisters of Mercy gets it to some degree -- musing in an interview as far back as 1997 -- on the loss of the bible as a locus of cultural references:

Leonard Cohen tells me he would no longer bother to write a song about Isaac, because people wouldn't know what he was on about. That doesn't only diminish the vocabulary of songs, it has wider implications. If the reference points for our whole belief system are forgotten, we find it that much harder to understand a shared belief system, or even to disagree coherently with a shared belief system. We end up in a vicious circle of incoherent, half-baked individual utlitarianism where nobody has any belief system at all and we lose the ability to communicate with each other. I think that's one reason why football is so popular again - it's a game which the citizen can focus on, where the rules are defined. Unlike his life. The citizen is becoming a pawn in a game where nobody knows the rules, where everybody consequently doubts that there are rules at all, and where the vocabulary has been diminished to such an extent that nobody is even sure what the game is all about. Hence the concomitant rise of fads like astrology, spiritualism, and generic "I want to believe"-ism. I'm a humanist. I believe people should be able to sort themselves out, as does the Judeo-Christian tradition, obviously, but for rather different reasons. Even for Western-European humanists, it's helpful to know about Isaac and Abraham for any discussion of belief/hope/obligation, especially if we wish to join a discussion which has been developed over two thousand years. It's a bit tedious to have to start the discussion from scratch every time by mulling over yesterday's soap-opera with the few people who actually watched it. ...

It's nevertheless hard to talk to Thatcher's Children. Apart from anything else, they have no concept of right and wrong beyond an apathetic and half-baked utilitarianism. I was recently asked if we are "relevant to them". Probably not. Proust is probably not "relevant to them". He's clever and funny and useful, but they haven't got the faintest idea what he's on about. I've been described (by myself, of course) as "Kierkegaard meets Elvis". They may have heard of Elvis, but he didn't wear adidas, and they probably think that Kierkegaard is about as much use as a dead Danish philosopher. Which he is. Is he relevant to them? I think so. Would they agree? I doubt it.


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