Many thanks for Priyamvada Gopal’s excellent piece on the moral, intellectual and cultural necessity of widening the literary canon and curriculum (English teaching has to go beyond elite white men, 28 October). As an English teacher, I am passionate that my students come into contact with – and love – all manner of great literature, from wherever and whomever it may come. That includes Chaucer, Shakespeare, Coleridge, et al – but by definition it must also include many others, including Morrison, Tagore, and Breeze.
Some years ago, I taught The Color Purple. My students were roughly split down the middle in terms of enjoyment and engagement – to be expected with large classes of adolescents. I did my utmost to support everyone to engage as far as possible, and to work critically with the text: students in the main did well. Less expected, and more troubling, was thinly veiled hostility from some outraged parents, complaining that it wasn’t “proper English”. Despite explanations that it was vernacular African-American English, and just as valid as, say, Burns’ Scots English, or indeed the language of another novel option, Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (which I also love), they remained unconvinced.
Interesting that these same parents were far more comfortable with viewing Burgess’s proudly ergodic piece as a worthy linguistic challenge – while seeing real-life speech in Walker’s equally thought-provoking work as somehow degrading. As my fantastic head of department (who opted for A Clockwork Orange) asked, if literature isn’t about experiencing life in someone else’s shoes, what is it good for?
Barnsley, South Yorkshire
As academic staff at the University of Cambridge, we offer our solidarity with Lola Olufemi and express our condemnation of the distorted coverage in some sections of the media of the “decolonising the curriculum” efforts at Cambridge. A large and diverse group of students and faculty from nearly a dozen subjects has been working during the past year to explore ways in which our curricula can become more inclusive and representative. We’ve also discussed how to study European subjects, ideas and events within their imperial contexts. The Telegraph’s presentation of this effort as a confrontation between students and faculty – or, even worse, an attempt by a black woman to “drop white authors” from reading lists – is deliberately misleading and racially inflammatory. In a week when public attention has rightly focused on the need to increase the numbers of BME students and other underrepresented groups at Oxbridge, the errors, misrepresentations and tone of the articles in the Telegraph, Daily Mail and elsewhere can only set back the cause of equality and inclusion.
Maha Abdelrahman Reader in development studies and Middle East politics, Ben Alcott Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Seth Archer Research fellow, history, John Arnold Professor of medieval history, Tom Arnold-Forster Research fellow in history, Gonville & Caius College, Melissa Calaresu Lecturer in history, Gonville & Caius College, Ha-Joon Chang Reader, economics Ben Alcott Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Seth Archer Research fellow, History, John Arnold Professor of medieval history, Melissa Calaresu Lecturer in history, Gonville & Caius College, Ha-Joon Chang Reader, economics; Director, Centre of Development Studies, Andrew Arsan Senior lecturer, history, Arthur Asseraf Lecturer, history, Gareth Austin Professor of economic history, Patrick Baert Professor of social theory, Sociology, Duncan Bell Reader, politics and international studies, Adam Branch Director, Centre of African Studies; Lecturer, Politics and International Studies, Brendan Burchell Reader, sociology, Joel Chalfen Fellow and director of studies for drama, Homerton College, Ian Chambers Lecturer, history, Joya Chatterji Professor of South Asian history and director, Centre of South Asian Studies, Martin Crowley Reader in modern French thought and culture, Devon Curtis Senior lecturer, politics and international studies, Aled Davies Teaching associate, politics and international studies, Lucy Delap Reader in modern British and gender history, Leigh Denault Fellow and director of studies in history, Churchill College, Tyler Denmead Lecturer, education, Manali Desai Lecturer, sociology, Jane Dinwoodie Fellow in history, Jesus College, Katie Dow Senior research associate, Sociology, Saul Dubow Smuts professor of commonwealth history, Elizabeth Duignan Bye-fellow and director of studies in education, Homerton College, Harri Englund Professor of social anthropology, Bronwen Everill Lecturer in History, Gonville and Caius College, Shailaja Fennell Lecturer, development studies, Sarah Franklin Professor of sociology and head of department, Nicholas Gay Professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry, Loraine Gelsthorpe Professor and director of the institute of criminology, Gary Gerstle Mellon professor of American history, Jenny Gibson Lecturer, education, Priyamvada Gopal Teaching fellow in English, Churchill College, Andrea Mariko Grant Lecturer, social anthropology, Jeremy Green Lecturer, politics and international studies, Julia Guarneri Lecturer, history, Nicholas Guyatt Reader in north American history, Eva Hartmann Lecturer, education, Lottie Hoare Teaching associate, education, Georgina Horrell Teaching associate, education, Iza Hussin Lecturer, politics and international studies, Maria Iacovou Reader in quantitative sociology Sam James Lecturer, Christ’s College, Ewan Jones Lecturer, English, Sebastian Keibek Research Fellow, History, Sarah Kennedy Research fellow in English, Downing College, Mary Laven Professor of early modern history, Sian Lazar Senior lecturer, social anthropology, David Lehmann Emeritus reader, sociology and Latin American studies, Charlotte Lemanski Senior lecturer, geography, Rachel Leow Lecturer, history, Peter Mandler Professor of modern cultural history, Ella McPherson Lecturer, sociology Noémie Merleau-Ponty Research associate, sociology, Thomas Jeffrey Miley Lecturer, sociology, Mónica Moreno Figueroa Senior lecturer, sociology, Renaud Morieux Senior lecturer, history, Kamal Munir Reader, Judge Business School, Yael Navaro, Reader, social anthropology, David Nally Senior lecturer, geography, Joanna Page Reader in Latin American literature; Director, Centre of Latin American Studies, Tiffany Page Lecturer, sociology, Maria Lúcia G Pallares-Burke Research associate, Centre of Latin American Studies, Sarah Pearsall Senior lecturer, history, Kate Peters Senior lecturer in history, Murray Edwards College, Helen Pfeifer Lecturer, history, Robert Pralat, Research associate, sociology, Andrew Preston Professor of American history, Sarah Radcliffe Professor of Latin American geography, Gabriela Ramos Senior lecturer, history, Pedro Ramos-Pinto Senior lecturer, history, Andrew Sanchez Lecturer, social anthropology, Sertaç Sehlikoglu Research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, Pembroke College, Sujit Sivasundaram, Reader, history, Paulina Sliwa Senior lecturer, philosophy, Matthew Sparkes Teaching associate, sociology, Emma Spary Reader in the history of modern European knowledge, Arathi Sriprakash Lecturer, education, Jay Stock Reader, archaeology, Andrew Thompson Lecturer in history, Queens’ College, Paul Warde Reader in environmental history, Chris Warnes Senior lecturer, English, Ruth Watson Lecturer, History, Steven Watson Lecturer, education, Darin Weinberg Reader, sociology, Lauren Wilcox Lecturer, politics and international studies, Graham Denyer Willis Lecturer, development studies and Latin American studies, Fiona Wright Research associate and affiliated lecturer, social anthropology, Ayşe Zarakol, Reader, politics and international studies
I’m mystified by the controversy over the lack of black and minority ethnic authors on English courses at Cambridge University (Coverage of call to decolonise English course made student ‘target’ for abuse, 27 October). Studying humanities (English literature and history) from 1998 to 2001 at the then very new University of Lincoln, there were several units on post-colonial literature, with extensive reading lists including Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the work of Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, Hanif Kureshi’s Buddha of Suburbia and the Malgudi novels of RK Narayan. What does this say about the quality, breadth and progressiveness of the education students get at the UK’s supposedly top university?
Priyamvada Gopal asserts that the purpose of literary education is to “enable self-understanding” and therefore minority groups need to have their identities more prominently reflected in the canon of classic literature taught in universities. However, as Montesquieu put it, the purpose of education is actually “to render the intelligent yet more intelligent” by teaching the finest thoughts and words from the past, not to reflect the “experiences, concerns and achievements of particular identity groups”. Quality, and not ideology, race, gender or sexuality, should be the only criteria for inclusion in the canon of classic literature. Few would argue that the authors Ms Gopal recommends, such as Una Marson and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain are the literary equals of Milton, Wordsworth, Eliot or Dickens. The identity, experiences and opinions of an author should always come second to the style and substance of their writing.
Jackie Ashley’s recent op-ed (Oxbridge, run by lefties?, 26 October) is a terrific piece. But I have to take issue with one passage. On decolonising the curriculum Ashley suggests that, contrary to what conservative pundits would have us believe, the revision of curricula is nothing new and nothing to be alarmed about. True. Then she writes: “Though [as a college principal] I have no influence over the English faculty at all, I can confidently promise that deceased white men will continue to feature very prominently on its very long reading lists. We will continue to be a place that demands ferociously hard work and high academic rigour; and everything will follow.”
My question is: why should anyone need to be reassured that works by deceased white men will continue to feature very prominently? And why does the author implicitly equate these works with “academic rigour”? I hear arguments like this all the time when it comes to inclusion and diversity in higher education. They give me pause. The point about decolonising curricula is to include voices that have previously been excluded. That doesn’t mean throwing entire literary traditions out the door. It does mean that greatness in literature isn’t very narrowly defined or linked to only one particular class. Can we not be inclusive and also rigorous? And if one day our canons don’t look the way they do today, would that really be all that bad? Perhaps students would, perish the thought, learn something new. I hope we can get to a time when arguments like these don’t need to be made. They’re tiresome, and playing into unfounded fears of “irrelevance” is also just bad politics.
Associate professor of music, University of Oxford
I can’t speak for Cambridge, but in my English department at a Harrogate comprehensive school, over the years we taught texts by VS Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, ER Braithwaite, Samuel Selvon, Chinua Achebe, and Wole Soyinka, all of which were on exam board syllabuses, not to mention “poems from other cultures”, which was a longstanding component of GCSE English. It seems surprising that a degree level syllabus should not reflect the diversity of texts studied at A-level and GCSE.
Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
Sadly Linda Bellos’s analysis of the teaching in Lambeth in the 80s is seriously flawed (Opinion, 29 October). I was head of sixth form at Tulse Hill school in the 1980s, the first in the country to introduce a multicultural curriculum. Between 1977 and 1989, 161 of our students went on to university, including Oxbridge, and polytechnics and of these, 93 were from ethnic minorities and 45 from African-Caribbean backgrounds. Amazingly, Tulse Hill was closed by Linda’s Lambeth council in 1990. A unique piece of educational vandalism.
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