To the Editor:
Last week, the English Department informed the Phillips Academy community that it had decided to eliminate the core texts requirement from the English curriculum. Students will no longer be mandated to study works once viewed as cultural necessities. This pedagogical shift marks a progressive change in the mindset of the Department. Last week, however, the Editorial condemned the shift, saying “while the idealism of the English instruction rooted not in core texts and requirements but in developmental goals is commendable, the lack of definition and structure in the new system threatens the integrity of the English Department as a whole.”
The regressive opinion of the Editorial causes one great discomfort. While the Department’s policy shift was sudden, the Editorial’s condescending comments grossly exaggerate the threat of departmental disintegration. We must first dispel the idea that the English Department has ever had any real unity. While certain core texts were mandated, teachers have always had different grading systems, different expectations and different teaching styles. At a school like ours, where teachers are given great autonomy in the classroom, this becomes inevitable.
We must first attempt to understand the “idealism” behind the Department’s decision. In a TED talk delivered at Oxford University in 2009, Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian novelist who addressed us last Friday evening, warned of the dangers of the “single story,” which she defines as narrow, limited stories which omit other viewpoints and oversimplify others. Single stories, she said, constrain our understanding and force us to examine things through limited lenses. Since 1778, Phillips Academy’s English Department has more or less required texts only from the Western Canon. One cannot deny the merits of reading Chaucer, Twain, Shakespeare and Homer, but mandating only these authors restricts us, by and large, to a single story. Studying these authors contributes to our cultural repertoire, but we must expand our cultural repertoire. The English Department eliminated the core texts requirements because it recognized that these text represented a narrow and, in the words of the Editorial, “limited” story.
Moreover, the pedagogical approach which mandated these texts alone is both hackneyed and antiquated. It was once the case that at prep school, one would study, along with the ancient Classics, a set of texts which included “The Odyssey,” “The Canterbury Tales” and Huck Finn. Unfortunately, however, there was no mention of the diverse breadth of literature spanning from post-colonial Brazil to apartheid South Africa to communist Romania. Ms. Adichie mentioned some of these authors, like Chinua Achebe and Derek Walcott, in her address to our community. Is it not as important to read Du Bois as it as to read Shakespeare? Does Rand bear less weight than Twain? Are Neruda’s works less significant than those of Homer? Students should not have to wait until Senior electives to study Salman Rushdie and Kurt Vonnegut. By requiring only a certain set of texts, the Department implied that certain literary eras and cultures were less significant than others. In doing so, the Department clung to an outdated pedagogy and overlooked many esteemed authors and their works.
The Editorial called upon the English Department to “define expectations.” Yet we, the students, must bear responsibility for redefining expectations. This is to say that students should have input in deciding which authors, time periods and works they wish to study in classes. Students often complain about English classes being boring and dry. So, why not allow our voices to be heard? When was the last time that a teacher asked a class of English 100 or English 300 students, “What do you want to study this term?” English teachers must change their approach, including students in the decision-making process. I do not advocate that we change the English 300 curriculum to one based around teen fiction or anime, and the faculty should still have the ultimate say in deciding the curriculum, but English teachers must have meaningful conversations about finding a way to study the works which interest students.
While we may lose some uniformity, we can afford to sacrifice it for the sake of literary exploration. The Department will not disintegrate or fragment into splinters, but there will be change. Teachers will not stop teaching Shakespeare or Twain, but authors like Nabokov and Bradbury will enter the scene en masse. The Department made its change not for the sake of mere ideology, but for the sake of broadening our cultural horizons. Certain works are cultural necessities only because people refuse to defy their “necessity.” Defiance, however, is only half the picture. In order to change what we study, we must cease to be entrenched in a bygone era. Our responsibility is to expand our definitions of cultural necessity. So here’s to the Department: thank you for overturning regression.
With utmost respect,
Junius Onome Williams
Class of 2014