Why I Want to Abolish the English Canon; Or, Why I Sometimes Want to Quit Being an English Major and Just Go Eat Ice Cream Instead

Note: I wrote this a few months ago, and then promptly forgot about it. I was planning on editing it a bit more, but at this rate, it’ll never see the light of day. So here it is, in all its unedited glory.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially as I’m spending my third year completely mired in white-washed American academia as an English major who is also a woman of color.

Here’s some context: Within the English department at good ol’ Cal, we have a nice one unit class where we meet as small groups every other week to discuss, well, being an English major. And while there are definitely times I enjoy it, and enjoy getting to know fellow English majors in a small environment, it often becomes extremely trying for me whenever the problematic nature of the English department is brought up.

So, yeah, in short, as one would expect, these meetings, more often than not, devolve into a realm of self-congratulations and self-justification on the part of my fellow students in their desire to extoll the virtues of the English major. (Of course, not everyone does this, and it’s not something exclusive to the English major, but that doesn’t really make me feel any better, really.)

Some more context: I hate, hate, hate the English canon with passion.

I’ve taken all the required English courses, from Chaucer to Milton to Defoe to Shakespeare, and I absolutely can’t stand the early “classics.” Sure, a professor will often step back and note how racist/sexist a passage would seem in today’s times, but this statement is so often qualified by a, “Well, we have to read it within the time period it was written in.” And then the matter is never brought up again.

So while I do agree that context is often important (hey! look! I’m giving context now!), I also believe connection to present circumstances/changed context is important and extremely valuable too, as I’ve stated before.

Now, I’m not saying I hate the entirety of the English canon. There are definitely some canonized text I really, honestly enjoy. I had a lot of fun with Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and I would be the first to admit that James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald were really, really amazing and incredible writers.

Of course, that, in no way, shape, or form, excuses the existence of the English canon, which I see as this intimidating, formless entity that’s representative of, as bell hooks would say, “white male capitalist patriarchy.”

So, each semester, when these groups meet for the first time, and the question of “What is an English major?” is brought up at the first meeting, I always, without fail, mention the English canon and its toxicity and how I hope it’ll eventually be abolished.

And, of course, I am usually always met with apalled protests.

One of the most interesting responses I have received was, after the speaker’s previous insistence that her classes were full of PoC literature, the words, “But you can’t change the English canon.”* And this statement is just so telling about the current state of the English department.

These students can’t even begin to fathom not learning about Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton because they’ve been so innoculated with the idea that THIS IS IT! THIS IS WHAT TRUE ENGLISH LITERATURE IS ALL ABOUT! And they don’t even consider the very important question of: Who defines English literature? Who is given authority to define this literature?

Of course, I also get protests of: But so many people were influenced by (insert name here)! How can people not have that background if they want to be an English major?!

And I wholeheartedly agree: A lot of people were influenced by these people, even writers of color, and even if it was primarily due to western imperialism and colonization, it doesn’t change the fact that the influence is still there. So, yeah, I do think background is necessary.

BUT, when I’m speaking of abolishing the English canon, I don’t mean, “Let’s never teach Shakespeare ever again!” I mean, “Can we not be required to take an entire class dedicated to Shakespeare in order to declare English majors. Like, please.”

And then I have people that cry, “But you need that much time to understand (insert name here)!” But the thing is: you don’t. Especially with how oversaturated the English department already is with analysis of Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton, it’s so incredibly easy to find and consume analysis of them.

Have a semi-relevant aside because I love those: In my Black Science Fiction class, we’re starting out the year reading Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym from Nantucket and a selection of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories related to the Cthulhu mythos. Neither author is black. Both are incredibly, astonishingly racist. BUT, they are influences to a lot of later science fiction works, so background of them is necessary to fully appreciate/understand later narratives. AND my professor is an amazing black woman who’s able to articulate perfectly the problematic elements of both novels.

THIS is a brilliant example of how getting rid of the English canon can work. If we’re doing, say, a class on Religion in Modernist Literature (or something), a week or two can be spent prefacing it with Paradise Lost and then the rest on, well, actual modernist literature. And if someone happened to discover that they are super into Milton, then they can go ahead and look up a course about him and take that next semester.

My entire point about abolishing the canon is about abolishing the requirement for these courses, not the courses themselves. It’s about providing a wider variety of choice, of giving something other than cis dead white guys to read about. Because learning about literature shouldn’t be restricted, and that’s what canonizing does to this learning, it restricts and divides and separates. It builds a gate to the English major that says KEEP OUT to basically anyone who’s not cis and white.

And some people think this gate is necessary, that it’s maintaining “quality,” as someone in my most recent discussion said. But, as I asked before, “Who is the authority? Who is maintaining the gate?” I think these are important questions to all disciplines. Why do they have the power to decide quality? How did they obtain this power?

Another point someone brought up today, in reference to this abhorrent article we were reading and critiquing** is the idea of certain other English departments (if the article is to be believed) making a far too radical shift into other disciplines — into “politics.” So, as he said, it seems that UCLA’s department is “going too far” and becoming “too political,” that perhaps we should take more care to maintain the standard (I could hear “purity” lurking there in the background) of the English department and keep it as “English.” Because, after all, don’t we have other majors/minors for the “politics” stuff, like gender and race and sexuality? Can’t we just finish the canon first and then move into a defined focus?

My first thought was, undoubtedly, “Only a cis white guy could’ve just said that.” (Hint: he was a cis white guy.)

My second thought, going back to the academic gatekeeping bit, is the question of authenticity. As in, “What is this oh-so-mythical standard of the English department that shouldn’t be defiled?” What do these people consider as the “authentic” English major? Why do they think this?

In a previous class I took, my professor also brought up this question of authenticity, of identity amongst Southeast Asians after colonization. What is the “true” Filipino? Indonesian? Malayasian? If we peel enough, can we find a core — completely pure and devoid of influence — an authentic aboriginal experience? The answer, he argued, was no. There was no one, singular, pure authentic core to any culture. Even before the internet, before mass globalization, intracultural influences was already happening. People had boats! Had trade! People were already growing and changing and meeting each other!

And, after all, who decides what’s authentic or not? The previously colonized people, who have suffered losses in culture and language because of the domination? Or the white anthropologists who visit them in order to discover this authenticity?

While not a perfect analogy, I think this discussion fits neatly into the question of “What’s an English major?” It used to be “cis white dudes” but now there’s “cis white girls” too, and even some smatterings of PoCs here and there (I’m here!).

And in that case, authenticity is something political. It is something that’s determined by the personal, sure — personal opinion, bias, etc. — but the personal undoubtedly influences the political.*** And as we like to say in the Gender & Women’s Studies department, “The personal is the political.”

There’s no way to separate the English department from politics because there’s no way to separate politics from a person’s life. Even white folks who are seemingly apolitical are involved with politics each and every day — the politics involved with their own white privilege. It’s just an invisible, unperceived circumstance in contrast to PoCs who experience it sharply and keenly every day of their lives.

So to say that the English department was getting too “political” was, quite frankly, absolutely indicative of the clearly privileged mentality of students who have been able to ignore the political implications of their own actions at the expense of others. It’s representative of the culture of domination that we’ve all been subjected to and that we’ve all internalized.

It’s as many others have said: In order to change the world radically, we must first radically change our thinking, and in order to do that, we must radically change the way we perceive the world.

*By the way, during this particular discussion, the only one that backed me up was a Latino Biology major who was taking the class for his Creative Writing minor. Says something, doesn’t it?
**By critiquing, I meant that most people took issue with the wording of his stance and the incredibly right-winged way he used to express it, but many of them also agreed with the fact that “Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare” still need to be taught in schools.
***I hope I don’t have to go over systemic oppression here, but if you want a quick overview, Beverly Tatum’s Defining Racism is a good primer. (You can easily google for a pdf.) Particularly as she’s the one who popularized the “racism = prejudice + power” definition, which is a (sometimes overly) simplistic summary of a much more complicated and overarching system, but I digress.

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