Decolonize versus Diversify: Why We Must Read More, Not Less
I don’t wade into political or religious discussion on this blog as the material here is focused on education, literature, teaching and anything else that would resonate with my college journey towards becoming a secondary education English Teacher. It’s important that the goals, ideals and considerations of my future public school teaching remained unbiased and untainted. As I discuss this issue, keep that in mind. I do not approach this conversation from a personal or political perspective. I am coming at this straight on course from a educator’s view.
The conservative political blog Hot Air posted a entry on June 1st, 2016 entitled, ‘“Decolonize”: Yale students circulate petition opposing white male “Major English Poets” requirement’. That article links to the Reason.com post, “Yale Students Tell English Profs to Stop Teaching English: Too Many White Male Poets”. You should go read each of them from stem to stern and marinate on what exactly is being suggested. The idea presented is one that I’ve heard plenty of times both from students and professors.
We need to stop teaching the Dead White Men. They’re not relevant anymore. We need to get rid of them and bring in more inclusive authors of color and varying genders. The ideas presented in these old texts are homophobic, sexist, transphobic, racist, gender offensive and just all around backwards.
Sound familiar? Keep this carefully in mind – I’m not suggesting any of those arguments lack merit or evidence. Shakespeare’s characters – Othello is one magnificent example – are all of those things. However, we must be careful when we take characters, plots and stories that are 400+ years old and put 2016’s ideas of equality, gender and racism against them in judgement. It doesn’t work. You’re taking two incredibly different cultures and trying to compare them as if they are equals. It is not productive towards understanding the very foundations of literature. I took two classes this last semester. First is the traditional – “Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton”. Then there was “Later Shakespeare”. In both of those classes the learned, long serving and incredibly intelligent (both Dr.’s) professors confirmed that they understand the why of desiring to finally sink the Titanic of White Dude Literature. But they confirmed what I was starting to understand – where our literature comes from, how it was formed and how it got us here is paramount.
Milton’s Paradise Lost alone is responsible for a multitude of modern ideas within the Christian faith and beyond. Milton challenged the status quo in his massive epic. There’s a little rebel Milton throughout the story pushing theology a little farther than it was used to being pushed. There’s an epic moment in Book 3 in which we get to see Milton the Poet and what all means. It runs 40 lines. I wrote a research paper on it. Check it out. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a creative and beautiful work – in an essentially dead language that literally begs to be studied. The characters are each a criticism of the church, the kingdom and more. It is brilliantly written and once you begin to dig in, the greatness of the story and the language begets literary beauty.
William Shakespeare’s Sonnets and plays cover incredible ground discussing the discourse of race, otherness, gender and love. The elements within are rich with verse, plot, character, arcs, settings, dialogue and more – pieces that help expand out understanding of literature as a whole. How can you talk about villains without Iago? How a discussion on race not include the incendiary racial language employed by Iago, Roderigo, Brabantio and others? Not to mention the various staged versions of the play or even the movie versions? Orson Wells crafted a black and white film using shadows and angles to echo Othello’s struggle. You can’t ignore the flagrant blackface at play in Laurence Olivier’s film version and no discussion would be complete without the modern Othello featuring Fishburne and Branagh and how the vamped nature that was interpreted within the scenes. This is the power of Shakespeare. You can’t deny him. You can’t decolonize him. His works are an indelible mark upon our history, culture and even our language. Sayings that permeate our modern lingo come straight from The Bard’s works.
I do not believe decolonizing is the right way. I believe diversity can be achieved. You can find a way to bring the old world and the new world together. You can discuss the racism and sexism of 400 years ago and how that cultural element permeated the writing of that time. You can talk about how Shakespeare turned plenty of it on its head and what lays between the lines of those mysterious sonnets about love, dark ladies and the lover. You can bring in the diversified authors. Compare their styles. Contrast their plots, characters and settings. See how writing has changed and what that has meant for literature over the thousands of years.
I wrote a research essay on the case of reading Othello and it’s radicalized language. I’ll link it here, but the main point was that Shakespeare (and others) makes us uncomfortable. It challenges us today. It forces us to look inwards and examine our hearts, our mind and our views. It pushes. It refuses to let you walk away without at least coming to one or two conclusions. We should never remove literature from study. We should interrogate it, investigate it and research it. Find out the why, the how, the when, the who and the rest. It can teach us so much about where we’ve come from, where we are and where we are going.
I stumbled upon Dawn Potter as I was doing research on Milton and Paradise Lost for the essay linked near the top of this post. I wish I had included more of her perspective in the essay. I followed her on twitter on a lark and it proved fortuitous. She recently wrote a blog post entitled, “Shakespeare in Middle School” and in it she describes how she uses a 400 year old text and author to inspire middle school students. She makes a precise point (that I absolutely agree with) when she says,
I try to emphasize how important it is to introduce young students to classic literature rather than just stay with self-styled children’s or YA materials. Too often 9th graders are overwhelmed by the sudden shift from the expectations in their 8th-grade language arts classes to the expectations of their high school classes. I saw how gob-smacked my own boys were when they suddenly had to wrestle with Homer and Shakespeare after an in-school diet of YA chapter books.
She goes on to relate how she uses Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales in tandem with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to discuss the history of the English language. To wit she confirms,
This approach, which takes all of 5 minutes, is a great diffuser of defensiveness (no “why do we have to read this old stuff?” etc.).
You should read her entire post and follow her on twitter. The rest of the post includes how she taught the sonnets, how she helped them understand Shakespeare on a deeper level and she ends with this –
At the end of the class a couple of kids asked, “Are you coming back next year? We really want you to come back next year.” So my heart is full. This is what it’s about, teaching: seeing your students’ eyes shine, seeing them long for more opportunities to read and experiment and share. My heart is very full.
Diversity is the better way. It is the way that will challenge our intellect, our perspectives and our world view. That is the greatness of literature. It is why reading more is truly better. The world is a big place full of so much. As a future teacher, I harbor a deep hunger to help my students do as Dawn Potter suggests. We can’ do that if we going to start locking away key foundational literature. We need to widen the gates, bring in some more bookshelves and get to exploring the entire world of writing.