University of Cambridge student Lola Olufemi penned an open letter to the university’s English faculty that sought to broaden the current English curriculum to include more writers of colour. This belief was shared by fellow students and academics who signed the missive earlier this year in June. On 25 October, The Telegraph ran a story with Olufemi’s picture on the front-page, the headline reading “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors”, the headline warping the sentiment of the letter. Though The Telegraph would go on to issue a correction on the statement that helmed Olufemi as some saboteur of English literature, the reactions from the piece revealed two very distinct lines of thought that always seem to arise in situations like these. And just like that we have to wonder how much weight we should give our notions of progress if these discussions are still receiving vicious backlash and that these conversations still have to take place.
To decolonize is not merely to admit these writers into the syllabus, but making sure other voices are accepted and respected
When it comes to thinking of our literary canon, we need to interrogate why we hold it in such high regard, why we view the slew of white (and overwhelmingly male) writers that inhabit its hallowed vestibules as literary leviathans? These are writers whose place in history are signatures of the vast injustices that Edward Said describes as “shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated”. The open letter considers Said and his work on post-colonialism to be as essential to the English degree as Barthes, discussing meaningful incorporation of BME writers. We shouldn’t relegate these writers into obscurity by putting them in an optional module or having one writer take on the weight of their entire racial, ethnic, gender or class group in reading lists that still boast the hegemony of the white narrative. To decolonize is not merely to admit these writers into the syllabus, but making sure other voices are accepted and respected, to the degree that a student who hasn’t read James Baldwin is given the same perplexed reaction as someone who hasn’t read George Orwell.
In fact, studies have shown the benefits of racial diversity in higher education. A Stanford study, titled ‘Effects of Racial Diversity on Complex Thinking in College Students’, finds quantitative data to back up previous claims in research which states how “racially diverse educational environments are associated with positive intellectual and social outcomes”. This parallels the Watson, Kumar and Michaelson 1993 paper on cultural diversity which found that racially heterogeneous (racially diverse) groups had a more extensive set of alternative solutions to a structured problem than homogeneous (racially alike) groups. We benefit from having a diverse cohort of students; imagine the effects of having a racially diverse literature degree.
We cannot hold onto the security of tradition if as a consequence we are failing to give recognition to the writers who improve our understanding of the world
The myth that writers from the global south do not contribute to an English degree to the same extent as their Western counterparts is fuelled by fear; fear that students will not want to apply to a university if they are not receiving the comprehensive literary education they expect. Yet, as learning institutions, the role of universities shouldn’t be to run programs that necessarily suit student and societal expectation. University shouldn’t be a commodity that can be bought and run by those who pay for it. We cannot hold onto the security of tradition if, as a consequence, we are failing to give recognition to the writers who improve our understanding of the world and help us understand how the world can improve. Such disfigurations shouldn’t be tolerated.
The recalibration of the canon will not be without its difficulties. But we can only improve as scholars and academics and citizens if we are willing to be challenged morally and critically, and to move on from exhaustive systems that are not preparing us for the world outside of our classrooms and our own experiences.