Lehman Students Want an Updated Canon

By Shivani Boodhoo 

Updating the canon is a good idea according to Lehman students. Photo from Creative Commons.

The English canon, or books considered to be classics, consists mainly of books written by dead white European men. To this set of classics a few writers of color have been added. In 2017, in a globalized world full of writers of different ethnicities and faiths, many students believe the canon should be revised to introduce more writers that aren’t white and male. At Yale University, for instance, students have started a petition to revise the courses. According to The Daily Beast, the petition states, “It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors.” This inclusivity is important because as Mark Lilla, a Professor of political philosophy and religion, wrote in The New York Times, “What Americans yearn for in literature is self-recognition.”

Several Lehman students cite Junot Diaz as an author that gives them this sense of self-recognition, and concur that the canon should be expanded. Edgenis Abreu, a senior, and environmental science major, loves Diaz because “when he speaks about certain Dominican traits or cultural things, I can see how true they are.” For example, he explained, Diaz talks about how sexist guys are, which Edgenis agrees is a very big thing in Dominican culture. Having started off with Diaz’s novel “Drown” and liking it, Edgenis continued to read other books by Diaz, loving the way his characters speak. “It’s in tune to the way we speak other than an old-fashioned story. It’s more relatable to our age than other books might be.” Abreu believes is important to have authors like Diaz in whose work students can see themselves through characters that are minority or POC.  

Other Lehman students would also like to see the traditional canon adjusted. Jose Lazo, a bookworm and Lehman alum, believes that the classics are relevant today, and that we should update, not replace, the canon. “I think it hasn’t been updated because literature doesn’t get as much attention and people don’t read as much as they used to. Students only read because they have to,” he said, adding that it’s rare in his social groups. He doesn’t think race plays a factor in the chosen classics. When he reads, he said, he doesn’t look at the author and think of color, he hardly even notices the author,  just judging the book on whether or not it is a good read.

Lehman junior Ndeye Fatou Coundoul, an English Literature major, thinks the classics are great, but also overrated. “We are learning from the old traditional stories and plays, but at the same time we are readers who as students are missing a lot of other great books,” she said. “I think we should most definitely update the classics. There are authors who have been set aside due to societal standards, class, and race and that takes a lot from the overall learning and understanding differences through literature.” Coundoul doesn’t want people to give up on trying to expand the canon, but feels it is difficult to even try to talk about it. She added, “It almost feels like no one is listening.” 

Several of Lehman’s faculty members agreed that the canon should be more diverse. J. Bret Maney---a professor of English who teaches courses in American literature, critical theory, and composition---said, “The literary canon, or set of ‘classic’ texts we read, reread, and teach, should definitely present a rich diversity of perspectives, which can be broken down by race and ethnicity, faith traditions, gender and sexuality, class, and other pertinent categories.”

Maney also explained that historically, DWEMs, or Dead White European Males, made up the majority of the canon, and that in the 1970s and 80s, feminists, African Americans, and Latinos fought for the canon to be expanded so that it would represent accurately the diversity of the human experience. This, he believes, led to the Latin American, Latino, and Puerto Rican, as well as the African and Africana Studies Departments at CUNY.

Another English Professor, Phil Mirabelli, who specializes in English Renaissance literature and culture, echoed Maney. He holds that the canon wars have calmed down now and that the canon has been expanded in different ways because, “Many teachers and editors of anthologies have taken a wider view of what we mean by literature.” Mirabelli said, “I think it’s important to study not only our own culture and society but also other cultures from around the world and through history. It seems to me to restrict our students from studying any type of literature, media, theory, criticism, and culture, either historical classics or more recent classics, including those from all cultures and subcultures, would be impoverishing our education.”