In Defense of Reading Dead Rich White Guys ... Like Shakespeare.

Students at Yale University recently sent a petition asking the English department to drop two required classes covering "Major English Poets" because reading those poets "creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color." As a graduate of Hillsdale College who benefitted from not just reading but deeply digesting the works of William Shakespeare, John Donne, and John Milton, among others, I must protest. Reading these particular dead, rich (some not-so-rich) white guys is extremely valuable, and every English major should have to do it.

I must also condemn the spirit of these students. Their letter explicitly rejects the mere adding of works written by "women, people of color, and queer folk," and instead insists that these white male literary giants be excised from the curriculum. "It's time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings," the students write (emphasis added). It's time to yank out excellent works of literature, just because of the race, class, and gender of their authors. Hmm, I thought conservatives were supposed to be the racists.

The students object to a "Major English Poets" sequence, a mandatory two-course commitment for English majors. In these classes, students read Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and T.S. Eliot. It's the kind of list you'd expect every English major to know well. After all, these are the most influential poets in the English language.

Never mind the class's literary merit. "It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors," the students wrote (emphasis added). Oh, it's "unacceptable" that any Yale student just considering studying English "might," just maybe, "read only white male authors." So what are you going to do, have a mandatory black lesbian literature course? These aren't reasons against the required course, but reasons for another one. The hyperbole here is telling -- it suggests the students don't really have an argument.

The students go even further: "A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms students, regardless of their identity." Wow. So reading dead white men without the saving grace of some minority transgender lesbians is a kind of abuse? I went through such seminar discussions at Hillsdale for four years, and I don't have PTSD. Guess I might just be lucky.

Returning to the topic at hand, the students argued that "the Major English Poets sequences (sic) creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color." Here comes the point in the essay where any good English student would cite a source or two, provide some quotes, explain how Shakespeare, Donne, and Chaucer expressed prejudices against these sacrosanct minority groups. You know, actually investigate some literature and come up with arguments against it.

Oh, were you expecting some intellectual heft? Here's what you get instead: "When students are made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, or get up and leave the major, something is wrong." So students who say they feel alienated is enough evidence to prove that the giants of English literature create a "hostile culture"? Anyone can claim to be offended. This is no argument.

Next Page: What the "Major English Poets" do teach.