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Killing Wordsworth: Decolonizing the Campus Humanities
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On it goes, the puzzling, never quite resolved distemper in colleges and universities.

Tantrums, threats, hoaxes, hurt feelings, and demands have been on parade this dismal academic year. Still, many school observers, liberal and conservative, have trouble figuring out what infuriates protesters and feeds campus discontent. Much of the outrage feels contrived.

The costs are already painfully evident. The University of Missouri is hemorrhaging students. The Christakises are saying enough at Yale’s Silliman College. Trigglypuff is the monster in the lecture hall, ever vigilant, waiting to pounce on common sense and shut off serious, valuable thought.

Yale University discontents have now zeroed in on the English Department. “In my four years as an English major, I primarily was lectured by old, white men about rape, about violence, about death, about colonialism, about genocide, and I was repeatedly told by many of my professors that these evils were necessary or even related to spiritual enrichment. This was horrifying,” student Adriana Miele reports in the Yale Daily News.

“It’s time for the English major to decolonize — not diversify — its course offerings,” demands a widely circulated Yale petition, whose authors and signatories remain anonymous (itself a flapping red flag).

The petition demands that Yale’s yearlong gateway course into the English major, “Major English Poets,” be abolished. It wants department studies “refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.” Ending with near pathological grandiosity, it warns the august English Department: “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”

“Major English Poets” features eight English poets Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot.

The current curriculum contributes to “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color,” the petition insists. “A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.”

“Harm” is the nut word here, the center of the Yale complaint. The Western canon is harmful, not only to students of color but everyone. Powerful student and faculty factions in the humanities and social sciences fault still rooted in pernicious “white” ideas and letters. Decolonizing courses, reading lists, departments, and entire fields is the next step, but with what remains uncertain.

You could trundle down to New York University in Gotham to marvel at UCLA music professor Tamara Levitz’s cri de coeur, “Decolonizing the American Musicological Society,” given as the centerpiece at a recent high-level colloquium:

In the past decade, musicologists have sought to make the American Musicological Society more inclusive … on the assumption that they can achieve social justice by increasing representation within their society, without fundamentally altering its institutional structure. Such approaches ignore the society’s system of white supremacy.… I hope to encourage a shift in the American Musicological Society away from its current emphasis on strategies to increase minority representation that maintain the status quo, and toward direct political activism that ends white supremacy.

And that finishes off pretty much everyone from Monteverdi on. Good riddance, I assume, in Prof. Levitz’s mind. (Levitz is a Stravinsky specialist.)

According to decolonizers, courses of study enable and privilege white colonialism. Diversify is a term that itself is Eurocentric. The “white” curriculum imposes white content on the conquered, take it or fail. Decolonization is revolutionary, liberating, and long overdue. We are reclaiming, say students of color and their allies, what is ours and never belonged to you. Subtle biases permeate the curriculum. Conscious and unconscious emanations of white superiority and entitlement inside and outside the classroom result in campus slights and micro-aggressions impossible to understand if you are white.

When confronted with Yale’s quarrel last week, the eminent English professor Harold Bloom replied to the Daily Beast: “I am too weary to comment again on this nonsense.”

Bloom’s right, of course. But Bloom is 80-something. It’s more instructive to consider outlooks of rising humanities professors a generation (or two) younger than Bloom, very much on board with what’s stylish and hot on campus.

Jill Richards, an assistant English professor who advises majors, and also featured in the Daily Beast article, holds views different from Bloom’s. “I think it’s time to revisit our understanding of what is foundational to an English major,” Richards said.

Richards sides with the petitioners, hoping their demands are heard in the wider English department. “It is unacceptable that the two semester requirement for all majors routinely covers the work of eight white, male poets,” Richards said.

What has disoriented liberals during the year’s campus unrest that “none of the disputes followed normal ideological divides,” the New Yorker’s Nathan Heller reports from Oberlin College. Students and their faculty allies seem ready “to shift the meaning of contemporary liberalism,” starting with a frontal attack on what remains of the classical corpus of learning.

Inclusion at Yale, NYU, Oberlin and other top schools is about as complete as can be humanly engineered. Many hardworking students find the campus antics embarrassing and annoying. Some professors, notably in sciences, worry about damage to the brands. But the decolonizers and their allies have sympathetic ears in college administrations, foundations, and other culture centers. Most learned scholars not in on the game are eager to avoid open conflict. They fail to confront zanies and troublemakers with the scorn they deserve, inviting contempt. Pay attention –– or else. Sophistry and charlatan ideas have a field day.

Intelligent and calculating, with personal or professional interest in minimizing or erasing “white” culture, the new radicals stand to benefit from the propositions they are pushing. They have the wind behind them. They are persistent. To have students and rising professorial talent condemn courses of study that universities have spent a generation trying to expand and make right exposes profound institutional failure. It also points to continuing campus discord.

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