At the end of last semester, Yale students published a petition calling on the English Department “to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings.” The debate was picked up by national media and has continued this fall.
It’s not that the English Department doesn’t offer courses on African-American writers, postcolonial writers or feminist and queer theory; it has done so for many years. It’s that the undergraduate major classifies such courses as the periphery — like colonies subjected to an imperial power — around the core of “Major English Poets,” the prerequisite course on eight white men: Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Eliot (T. S., not George).
For some of my colleagues, this sequence is what the periodic table of elements is to the chemist: The subject they teach isn’t imaginable without this basic foundation, and they expect mastery of it by students in upper-level courses. They find it hard to give up this sequence even when students say it makes them feel unwelcome. But not only does this requirement turn away potential majors, it discourages nonmajors from trying a class or two, because it suggests all our courses will be tinged with dead-white-men conservatism.
Instead, our most popular course is the one that teaches students how to write academic papers while scrupulously avoiding fiction and poetry. It’s a useful course, to be sure, but what does its growth say about our commitment to imaginative literature?
We are, in effect, steering generations of Yale students away from the kinds of courses they most need. We should “decolonize” the English major, but not just for the reasons the petition cites.
I took a course like “Major English Poets” in my first year in college. When we got to Wordsworth’s “the picture of the mind revives again” — not in the mind, but of the mind — I was hooked. Revisiting the picturesque ruins of Tintern Abbey after five years, the poet realizes that what he remembers is not so much the beautiful land — and ruin-scape itself but the scene-making power of his own mind: his imagination.
Everyone from chemists to policymakers needs to exercise their powers of imagination: It’s the “what if?” part of the brain that journeys to unvisited territory and tries out new ideas. Whatever their futures hold, Yale students need to practice entering fictional worlds, empathizing beyond their range of experience and thinking — as many writers do, not just Wordsworth — about the mind’s capacity to create. They need to understand the tremendous power of stories.
But critically, I could have learned Wordsworth’s lesson just as well from Adrienne Rich, recommitting herself to poetry: “these words, these whispers, conversations / from which time after time the truth breaks moist and green.” Or from Audre Lorde, on the brink of fear: “the words become sabers / cutting my boundaries / to ribbons.”
We teach and study literature for many reasons; witnessing the powers of imagination is only one of them. Another is the value of learning to read carefully and to appreciate ambiguity. Just as Wordsworth’s line balances on the razor’s edge between the actual stones before him and the picture in his mind, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” provides in its closing refrain — “This is not a story to pass on” — a great exercise in interpreting ambiguity. Does she mean that this harrowing tale of slavery should not be told? Or is this a story not to pass over and leave untold?
The skill of close reading taught in “Major English Poets” should be basic equipment for life. Surely it can be learned from sources outside that canon. We could demote the course to one option among many, and devise a new entry course with a constantly changing and diverse reading list that might occasionally include some of those poets.
The argument usually made for diversifying the English curriculum is that the student body has changed. Neither women nor students of color (now about 40 percent of the Yale student body) can be considered a “minority” anymore, and these groups need readings that reflect their identities. I disagree with my colleagues who say that identity politics is a bad way to select a reading list; listening to a diversity of voices, coming from diverse social positions, should be a bedrock principle of any good English curriculum.
But it’s not the only reason to decolonize the major. We should make such a change regardless of student demographics. In fact, it would be even more important had Yale remained white and male.
All students need access to all the worlds that literature imagines, not just those of Chaucer and company. Literature’s invitation should feel open to all. Our hope is that Yale students will see the English Department’s “welcome” sign, too.
Margaret Homans is a professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is also a Public Voices Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.