Where is the Milton of ableism?

From the “this must be parody” file, Yale students launch a petition telling the English department to stop requiring English majors to read Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton.

The prestigious Connecticut university requires its English majors to spend two semesters studying a selection of authors it labels the “major English poets”: “Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and TS Eliot or another modern poet in the spring”.

Now, if I were in charge of that course I might swap Spenser for someone else – like, maybe push Milton back into the first semester and add Keats to the second. I can see quibbling over which “canonical” poets to include – but I can’t see saying “no ‘canonical’ poets at all!!” English majors read English literature – that’s what the major is.

It would be fabulous if there were comparable women poets from those centuries, but there just aren’t, for the familiar obvious reasons – most girls weren’t even taught to read, let alone encouraged to futz around with writing down words. It’s a huge historical injustice, but that’s not a reason to skip reading Shakespeare.

But students have launched a petition calling on Yale to “decolonise” the course. They want the university to abolish the major English poets requirement, and to refocus the course’s pre-1800/1900 requirements “to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity”.

I’m betting Yale already does include courses that do things along those lines, to the extent that one can with regard to literature that was unfamiliar with most of those categories; it’s not clear why students think it should get rid of major poets from the curriculum altogether.

The petition says that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of colour, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity”, and that the course “creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of colour”.

Setting aside the tiresome didacticism of the language for the sake of argument, that’s true in a way. It’s true that it can be depressing (at least at intervals) to immerse yourself in a literature that someone like you could never have had a share in creating. The students aren’t completely wrong to say that. But…they are wrong to say that the thing to do then is throw out Shakespeare and Wordsworth. The cure is far worse than the disease.

One student, Adriana Miele, told the student newspaper that change was needed in the English department “because it openly rejects the very legitimate scholarship, criticism and analysis that many other academic departments at Yale embrace”.

In April, Miele wrote a column in the Yale Daily News in which she criticised the course because while students “are taught how to analyse canonical literature works”, they “are not taught to question why it is canonical, or the implications of canonical works that actively oppress and marginalise non-white, non-male, trans and queer people.”

No. Shut up. Don’t be schewpid. The works don’t “actively oppress” anyone. Maybe if Miele read a little more poetry she would manage to wean herself off language like that, with its combined staleness and dishonesty. It’s true that no one in the 16th century took the trouble to recruit non-white, non-male, trans and queer people to write poetry so that it could be taught to Yale students in the 21st century – but that by itself is not oppression, and it doesn’t makes the poetry that was written “actively oppressive.”

“It is possible to graduate with a degree in English language and literature by exclusively reading the works of (mostly wealthy) white men. Many students do not read a single female author in the two foundational courses for the major. This department actively contributes to the erasure of history,” Miele wrote.

They don’t read a single female author in the two foundational poetry courses because women don’t loom as large in English poetry as they do in the English novel. I hope Emily Dickinson is one of the alternatives to T S Eliot, but other than that – the supply is thin.

Slate writer Katy Waldman, who studied English literature at Yale, advised students that “if you want to become well-versed in English literature, you’re going to have to hold your nose and read a lot of white male poets. Like, a lot. More than eight.”

“The canon is what it is, and anyone who wishes to understand how it continues to flow forward needs to learn to swim around in it,” writes Waldman. “I am not arguing that it is acceptable for an English major to graduate from college having only read white male authors or even 70% white male authors. But you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male.”

It is what it is. Women can be poets now. In the past? Not so much. Affirmative action doesn’t work well on the past.

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