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THEY CAME FOR CHAUCER.
Late last January, the U.K.’s University of Leicester sent out a staff email proposing that authors prior to the year 1500 be dropped from the English curriculum to make room for “a selection of modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum and new employability modules.” That would put Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Thomas Malory, and Beowulf on the chopping block. Just what students expect from an English degree, Micah Mattix wryly observed at The American Conservative: “politics and vocational training.”
In spite of strident protests, the proposal is still on the table. If it goes into effect, there’s another brick removed from the wall of Western culture for the sake of contemporary relevance. Also for the sake of future English majors who can’t navigate “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote.”
The university administration insisted it was not removing Chaucer because of his “whiteness.” The same can’t be said of educators here in the United States, where #DisruptTexts has quickly gone from hashtag to movement. On its website, #DisruptTexts is described as “a crowdsourced, grassroots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve.”
The influence of these teachers is significant: They speak at conferences, write for publications, and have the ear of organizations like the International Literacy Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. They are recruited by publishers to promote diverse literature for children. They insist that “disrupting” does not mean book-banning but elevating authors of all races, genders, religions, and sexual orientations to a platform previously dominated by whites.
Opening the floor to diverse views is a reasonable, even praiseworthy, objective. Often, though, the implementation means either shouting down historical voices or putting them under a social justice microscope. Writing in School Library Journal, novelist Padma Venkatraman recognizes the literary excellence of the classics. But, she argues, justice demands we relegate them to social studies classrooms, “where inherent ideas of inequity are exposed and examined; where Huckleberry Finn may be viewed as an example of literature that showcases the white lens.” Students should not read classic texts as literature, or even as valuable insight into the faults and virtues of the past, but as analytical challenges: to dissect the subtle and unsubtle underpinnings of white supremacy.
Whatever an author’s faults, classic fiction offers readers a chance to experience lives beyond their own narrow experience and limited perspective.
The American Library Association’s decision to rename its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, as condemnation of the racism depicted in the Little House series, alarmed traditionalists. Perhaps it shouldn’t have: Huckleberry Finn has been under fire for decades from both left and right. But educators now look askance at modern classics. Ten years ago, The Catcher in the Rye was still considered a countercultural must-read—now, it’s the glorification of a whiny, privileged white kid. The Great Gatsby likewise: mopey, privileged white grown-ups. To Kill a Mockingbird was on every high-school reading list. Now it’s a problematic example of the white-savior narrative. Protest novels like Brave New World, 1984, and even The Handmaid’s Tale (only yesterday standing tall in the resistance against Donald Trump) are all too white. Whatever their virtues, they must be pushed aside to make room for diverse voices. “The subtle complexities of literature are being reduced to the crude clanking of ‘intersectional’ power struggles,” wrote Meghan Cox Gurdon in The Wall Street Journal.
Whatever an author’s faults, classic fiction offers readers a chance to experience lives beyond their own narrow experience and limited perspective—to expand imagination and deepen the soul. When fiction is about justifying a creed or movement, we call it propaganda. When it’s about living, in all of life’s complexity, conflict, and conundrum, we call it art. The value of art lies in touching the eternal, not amplifying the present.
Alan Jacobs calls this “personal density” in his most recent book, Breaking Bread With the Dead. “A book becomes a classic for you in part because of its power to compel you to hear something that you not only hadn’t thought of but might not believe, or might not want to believe. In this sense a book can become very much like a friend.”
Jacobs cites a Frederick Douglass speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” as an example of how to think constructively of past sins. Douglass acknowledged he could not, as a former slave, uncritically admire his country’s Founders. Yet, “for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.” While detesting their tolerance of a wretched institution, Douglass could sort out the good and work toward the better. This, writes Jacobs, “is a model of negotiating with the past in a way that gives charity and honesty equal weight.”
Charity and honesty are virtues worth developing when it comes to literature—virtues canceled by overzealous reformers.