Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Teaching the Texts of Dead White Men

There is always, in the discussion of literature, the push-and-pull arguments about teaching what is commonly termed, "Dead White Men."  Especially among Americanists and feminists, there is a large population that finds the works of the "canon" (Shakespeare, Milton, Twain) to be repugnant because white men have held such a historical privilege. 

I found a particularly striking example of this recently, in Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy:
I remember a meeting we once had, as members of the English majors committee, with the department faculty: We were there to tell them about a survey we'd given out to English majors, the majority of whom said they wanted at least one classics course to be offered at our college.  We all bought the party line that such a class should never be required because that would suggest that Dead White Men were more important than female and nonwhite writers.  But we figured it couldn't do any harm for them to offer one canonical literature course for those of us who wanted to grasp the references in the contemporary Latin American poetry we were reading in every other class.  It seemed like a pretty reasonable request to me.  After I made my pitch for it, the woman who was head of the department at that time looked at me icily and said, "I would never teach at a school that offered a course like that. (Page 77)
While I certainly agree that we need to read works written by the Other (women, immigrants, writers of color, LGBT, etc.), I don't think we can do so to the complete exclusion of everything written by white dudes.  If we don't read William Faulkner, for example, we won't be able to understand the foundation upon which Toni Morrison was writing when she entered the literary scene.  There is an entire history of literary thought at our disposal, and we ignore it to our own detriment.

(Note: Of course, this is coming from someone who was firmly grounded in the "canon" at UCLA: two upper division courses on Shakespeare, one course on Milton, one course on Chaucer, one course on Dante; medieval literature, literary theory, Romantic literature--it was all taught to us expressly so we could understand its historical/critical relevance as well as references to it in later works.  For some feminists (or whoever) to claim, therefore, that there is no value in such an education is an insult to the student loans I'm still paying off.)

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