In this morning’s Sunday paper, I read this article by Danny Westneat: Dead white dudes don’t corner the market on words of wisdom. He was writing about Seattle University students complaining about the overwhelming emphasis on studying work by “dead white dudes” and the fact that they took action by actually compiling an alternate reading list of diverse works. He talks about the influence unconscious bias in forming reading lists and curricula, using his own participation in a book club as an example.
The list of books the students suggested is interesting as well. I consider myself to be fairly well-read and open to many different authors and writing, so I was a bit surprised to realize that I’ve only read two of the books. I read both of them in college, way back in the early 1990s. Coincidentally, I started re-reading one of them (Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich) about a week ago.
This got me thinking about college, and the fact that this “dead white male” complaint has been around for a long time and is nothing new. And I guess I’m just a little surprised that this is still a matter of debate and controversy.
Why is there such resistance to including alternate perspectives in what is supposed to be higher education? What bad could possibly come from including more voices, more ideas, more perspectives on life and history?
It makes me think of the type of people who want to ban books, as though exposure to ideas they disagree with is somehow dangerous. This is another impulse I’ve never been able to understand. You can read books containing ideas you disagree with. You will either change your ideas based on what you’ve read, or you’ll keep your ideas, but have more understanding of the opposing view. Either way, you come out ahead, a bit closer to truth. Where is the downside?
Anyway, this column sent me back through my memories of my own college years. I earned my degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was a “Rhetoric” major, which was their way of referring to “Creative Writing” major (I think they have since renamed this major, which is a good thing). This was offered by the English department and was essentially like an English degree with several additional writing classes. We had to fulfill many of the same requirements that English majors did, which meant that I took a lot of literature courses. There was plenty of emphasis on the “western canon” and “dead white males.” One requirement I remember was an entire class on Shakespeare, for instance. (As a side note, I looked up the current degree requirements, and it appears that Shakespeare is still required).
But when I think back to the books and stories that were the most memorable for me in those college years, it is not the dead white male works. I spent years in high school reading western literature. It was nothing new. No, the books that stick out in my mind, the ones that I’ve kept all these years and have even re-read a few times would probably be right at home on that list from the Seattle University students.
In either my junior or senior year, I took a newly-offered elective class on Native American Literature. The class initially focused on oral literature that had been written down. Given the vast history of these tales, and the perhaps rough translation from oral tradition to written work, it was a bit like working through Chaucer or Shakespeare. It took effort. The effort wasn’t always fun, but it was certainly rewarding.
Then the class moved into more modern literature and we read books by Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, D’Arcy McNickle, and many others. Again, I was in a world I did not recognize, a world defined by poverty and reservations and about as far from my own middle-class upbringing as you could get.
And if you were to ask me today to name some of my favorite books, you’ll find a few books from that class on the list: Love Medicine by Louse Erdrich, The Surrounded by D’Arcy McNickle, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko.
The trade paperback copies of those books that I bought in a college bookstore sometime around 1991 or 1992 are still on my bookshelf. I’ve hauled them with me from apartment to apartment, house to house, from Illinois to Montana and finally Washington. Never once in over twenty years have I even briefly considered relinquishing those titles to the “book donation pile.” I’ve re-read Ceremony at least once since college; one of these days I’ll re-read The Surrounded, and I expect it will have even more meaning than the first time, after living in Montana and visiting places mentioned in the book.
Any college class that can put books on my lifetime list of favorite books is worthwhile!