In response to a student petition, the Yale University English faculty recently voted to “decolonize the English department” by rearranging their course requirements to minimize exposure to, among others, Shakespeare and Chaucer. New course requirements mandate that undergraduate students choose three out of four core courses, in which only one includes Chaucer and Shakespeare, while another includes Milton.
In other words, students graduating with a degree in English Literature from Yale University may never read Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Milton in the course of their university educations.
Since all major works of English Literature from Donne to Shelley to Rowling descend from these three authors and their classical and medieval forebears, this is the equivalent of undergraduates in science erasing Galileo, Newton, and Darwin from scientific studies.
To borrow from Freud, who borrowed from the Classics, this is Oedipal. It is the violence of children against their fathers.
The Yale student petition claimed that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students.” To put it another way, these English students assert that English literary tradition is inhumane. In fact, the petition originally requested that the university abolish the Major English Poets sequence entirely. This is not about including authors who are “women, people of color, and queer folk.” They are not calling for diversity, but destruction. To them, the dissolution of English literary tradition is a moral act. It is time, they claim, not only to reject the fathers, but to erase their legacy from the earth.
Anybody who has studied the classical tradition recognizes the theme of patricide. Oedipus famously killed his father and married his mother. From Sophocles to Dostoyevsky to George Lucas, stories with themes of patricide explore what literary critic Harold Bloom called the “anxiety of influence,” or the fear of a younger generation that it will remain forever trapped by the past. The Bible expounds on this in Ezekiel 18, resolving the discussion with the conclusion that “the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” (Ezekiel 18:20).
They are not calling for diversity, but destruction. To them, the dissolution of English literary tradition is a moral act.
This passage names the solution of the anxiety of influence: personal responsibility. Scripture tells us that “whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” To those of us who accept this, the literary canon is a trove of riches, because what is literature but a fictional record of characters who make choices? It is founded on the personal agency of its characters, and the best characters are the ones formed by this power, including Hamlet, Arcite, and Adam, characters from Yale’s now marginalized poets. Thus it is no wonder that the anxiety of influence in this generation has festered into cultural patricide, since this generation is not known for embracing personal responsibility with fortitude, preferring instead to “smash the patriarchy” instead of endure its authority until it establishes a cultural authority of its own. Get rid of it all, they proclaim, and replace the voices of the fathers with the cries of the fatherless.
Righteous human fathers desire their children to surpass them.
Harold Bloom argues that, properly oriented, the anxiety of influence motivates poets of each generation to brilliant discoveries and masterful artistic achievements. Thus, Virgil’s great Roman epic The Aeneid proceeded from his desire to imitate, even surpass, Homer’s Greek epics. Unlike Yale students and faculty, however, Virgil did not burn Homer in the public square. He studied him carefully and then produced his own masterpiece. He stood on the shoulders of the giant of the classical world, and thus became great himself. Without this formative anxiety, argues Bloom, there would be less great art. Yet this generation, with all its access and opportunity, advocates destruction rather than creation, and erases its past rather than building upon it.
The question of whether or not our culture or its higher education can be saved is beyond us all, in spite of the many opinions on the matter, but I offer a humble idea: read Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. I am neither an alarmist nor a reformer, so I do not advocate running for the hills or attempting to save Western civilization. My aims are more prosaic. I am a mother and a Christian classical educator raising children and teaching students in this wasteland, and whether or not I will read and discuss Shakespeare with my children and my students is still within my power. David Hicks recently argued in the CiRCE magazine that a true Christian classical education is no longer possible in a secular world. I do not know if he is correct, but either way I am going to read and discuss Shakespeare (and Plato, Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Milton, and Eliot) with my children and in my classroom.
As we face into the wasteland, it becomes harder to feel hopeful, but Andrew Kern remarked in a recent lecture, “I have hope because mothers love their children.” This is a mighty truth. If our nation’s children are engaged in an Oedipal quest to “smash the patriarchy,” what is the hope? It is the hope of families. We build strong, connected families who harbor no desire to destroy each other. Whether these families read Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton is not the whole point, which is, of course, the gospel of Jesus Christ, but if we love these authors and believe in their legacy, we can no longer depend on higher education to preserve their heritage.
If personal responsibility is the healing of the anxiety of influence, then let us be responsible, not for reforming the culture, but for personal decisions. We can read our children’s versions of the great books to our students when they are young, transition to original texts as they get older, and engage in discussions along the way. Christian classical educators can speak into a complex problem by simply reading great books within the small spheres of influence we have. If and when we lose that freedom is another matter, and in the meantime, let us read Shakespeare and Chaucer.