A few months ago I was reading through an online forum when I saw a conversation about this article. It’s not necessary that you read through it, it’s an argument I’m sure you’ve heard before. I’ll summarize it for you.
Dana Dusbiber, a high school English teacher in Sacramento, argues that middle schools and high schools should cut Shakespeare out of the curriculum to make room for literature and mythology from more diverse backgrounds. She says Shakespeare is an old white guy in “a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago.” And that canon is full of other old white guys.
The posts in the forums weren’t focused on the merits of Shakespeare in the English literary canon. They were arguing about the much bigger idea that media and academia are biased against white men. This is the part of the argument that I expect you’ve heard before. It comes up as people changing #blacklivesmatter to #alllivesmatter. It comes up as people asking “Why is Africa for Africans, Asia for Asians, but white countries are for everyone?” It comes up as people worrying about white people becoming a minority in the USA.
Since The Civil Rights Movement, there’s been a permeating fear in some white American cultures that they’re under siege and losing the battle. I don’t know enough to say something worthwhile about #alllivesmatter or any of those other things. But because this White-Shrinkage fear has come to literature, now I’ve got something to say.
To be clear from the beginning, I don’t agree that we should completely eliminate Shakespeare studies. His influence is inescapable in English literature. What I’m doing here is explaining why literature classes are becoming more diverse.
First, consider why people read. There are many academic benefits students get from studying literature. There’s a reason it’s a core-class, even if its results aren’t as tangible as math and science. But what’s interesting is that many of us continue reading literature even after graduation. I don’t think any of my friends have picked up a math book, but many have gotten back into reading. What do we get from it?
Literature develops empathy. This is the primary harvest we reap from books. In reading, you are quiet and you listen. You listen as someone opens their mind to you with every story, every word choice, every focused detail. You’re not allowed to interrupt them. It’s as close as you can get to jumping into the mind of another person.
You see, this isn’t about about white-shaming. The focus isn’t on minimizing white, male authors. It’s about showing the true depth of humanity by maximizing representation. And no, this is not hurting white men. Trust me, white men are very much not under-represented. We’re doing fine.
Here’s a specific example of how it works. This example is about Native Americans, but you can extrapolate it onto women, other ethnicities, other religions, or whoever else. Four years ago, I became obsessed with learning about pre-European influence Native American culture.
It started because I got five minutes into Pocahontas–right around to when she’s dashing through a lush paradise and singing to a raccoon–and I thought, “These guys are people, right? There’s no damn way it was like this.” Granted, that’s a Disney movie. But we do have this idea of Native Americans living in a sparsely populated natural paradise, at complete peace with man and beast. And this is a new idea. Fifty or so years ago, we had the idea that they were all sub-human savages. Both of these theories are empty of humanity.
So I did some research. It was a simple query. I wanted to know what life was like in the Americas before European influence. Here is a summary of what I learned after a night of intense research: Jack shit.
There is an embarrassing lack of research. It’s as if historians thought the continents were in a history-less stasis, waiting to be unfrozen by the arrival of Europeans. And then POOF! History began. There could be entire university classes about each Roman emperor, but you’d struggle to put together a class on the entire Aztec empire before the Spanish showed up. And the Aztecs even had a culture of writing and literature! We can learn about every facet of daily life in ancient Greece almost three thousand years ago, but what about the about the daily lives of the people who helped us found our young nation and are buried under our feet?
I dug deep and found a few academic books that could help me. The only quality ones I could find were fairly recent. It’s as if we’ve suddenly realized the Natives have stories too.
I dug deeper and read journals of early American settlers. I read accounts of white settlers who were captured and lived among the Natives.
This was all pretty cool, but I still felt like my understanding was foggy. There was a block between me and my intended study subject. It was a white guy (me) reading a white person (the author) telling the story of Native people. I was learning facts about Natives, but not understanding Natives.
A few months ago, I found a book of Native American speeches. It removed the block. Now it’s a white guy (me) reading the words of a Native American person. I’m not just learning facts, I’m connecting with them. They are explaining how life feels to them and I am able to say, “Yes, I know that feeling too.”
Again, you can take this same idea and apply it to any other group of people. This is the work academia is trying to do. It is not about white-shaming, it is about adapting to globalization. It’s about expanding our idea of humanity to actually include all of humanity. It doesn’t matter how many history books you’ve read, you do not understand someone’s story until they tell it to you. In their own words.
My friends, I have been asked to show you my heart. I am glad to have a chance to do so. I want the white people to understand my people. Some of you think an Indian is like a wild animal. This is a great mistake. I will tell you all about our people, and then you can judge whether an Indian is a man or not. I believe much trouble and blood would be saved if we opened our hearts more. I will tell you in my way how the Indian sees things. The white man has more words to tell you how they look to him, but it does not require many words to speak the truth.