When will we start teaching ethnic texts as ‘great books’?

Opinion by Miguel Samano
Oct. 30, 2017, 1:00 a.m.

The debate over Western culture at Stanford did not start in the 1980s. It began in 1968 with the call for two curricula, Structured Liberal Education (SLE) and the program in African and African-American Studies (AAAS). Students have criticized SLE because it purports to study universal human questions while focusing primarily on European thinkers. Conversely, they have praised AAAS and other ethnic studies programs for recognizing that cultural differences impact each of our lives. Simply put, their claim is that there can be no universal search for truth without investing in the particulars of human experience across time and culture.

The proponents of ethnic studies and, specifically, ethnic literature at Stanford readily recognize that their fields of study illumine the concerns of a people across time and place. Nonetheless, by discussing the same concerns that have preoccupied the Western mind in terms of ethnic writers, they have not yet fully understood the radical potential of their programs in reframing the debate over the canon. This is not a research problem; the numerous anthologies and critical studies folding ethnic literature into the canon attest to that. This is a communication problem that will not be resolved unless faculty and students begin discussing ethnic literary texts as “great books” — that is, as canonical texts.

The problem lies with the conflicting missions of humanities departments at a research university like Stanford. Mainly, the issue that the questions that lead to fruitful research projects are not always the same ones that inspire students. While researchers are rewarded for moving beyond existing knowledge about a text, each new generation of readers turns to the “great books” to rediscover what past readers already new.

As the conservative critic Damon Linker explains, progress under this ideal can only be “each individual’s advancement in coming to understand the perennial problems and puzzles of the human condition.”

Linker does not necessarily shutter what counts as canonical. In fact, his words echo those written by Black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois at Atlanta University, one of the first Black colleges: “The true college will ever have one goal — not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”

My contention is that ethnic literature classes offered at Stanford have strayed from this goal. To examine but a few based on their syllabi: ENGLISH 12A: “Intro to African American Literature” has students consider some of the defining debates within the history of that literature. Included are “slavery and the literary imagination, the status of realist aesthetics in black writing … and the emergence of black internationalism.”

Nowhere does this syllabus hint that African-American literature is the type of writing that clarifies to students — and not just African-American students — who they really are or ought to be. Student reviews on Carta, even when they are positive, are lackluster. At best, students deploy words such as “interesting,” “engaging” and “thought-provoking.” What about “life-changing?”

In contrast consider how one freshman described SLE on Carta (or read my previous articles on the program): “Enter thinking that you know something. Exit knowing that you know nothing. It will haunt you, it will shape you.”

Even when students dislike SLE, they nonetheless continue to acknowledge that texts are discussed in a certain way and that others, those by ethnic writers, deserve to be discussed in those terms too. As one student wrote: “Consider whether you are prepared to listen to people, both students and teachers, talk about the ‘great books’ as if they were the best things ever written and as if ‘diverse’ thinkers could never produce something of a similar quality.”

Indeed, consider where we should go on campus to hear ethnic literary texts discussed in just that way, as if they were “the best things ever written.” Certainly not the two introductory courses for AAAS and Chicanx/Latinx Studies, both of which, despite covering, respectively, the long span of Black history and culture in America and the diversity of Latinx experiences, devote less than a week to literature. The Carta reviews for these courses lack the sense of urgency, of beauty, of true existential angst associated with SLE and other humanities courses about the “great books.”

Can Black and Brown be beautiful? If we believe they can, we ought to push for courses that teach about the experiences of Black and Brown people in ways that can only be described as beautiful. That’s not happening in the courses above; moreover, it’s not happening despite the University already having provided a rationale for talking about ethnic literature as “great books.”

According to the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), a course WAYS-certified as Engaging Diversity (formerly Engaging Difference) helps students “develop a rich appreciation for both human commonality and the diversity of the human experience.”

That’s not much different than the certification a typical course dealing with “great books” receives. Of the artifacts studied in those courses, the SUES report states “though infinitely various in conception, content and form, these enterprises all represent fundamental human efforts to understand ourselves, the world and our place within it.”

To clarify the challenge being broached here: If I truly believe that Black and Brown literary texts are beautiful, I want them to be beautiful for everyone. If someone asks me why I believe these literary texts are those of great beauty or importance, I owe them an account, and Stanford should teach me to give it. If I cannot defend the texts I read, what right do I have to insist that they belong in the canon?

This is not to insist, as a recent Stanford Sphere article so readily does, that the texts of ethnic writers already belong in the canon simply because their authors draw on ideas from canonical thinkers. These authors are not mimics, and they are not even simply the inheritors of all the thought that came before. Instead, these authors give voice to the silences within the canon. They have something to say, but we have not yet been given the tools to listen — not the least of which because we don’t consider them as authors of “great books.”

We are not currently being taught to read ethnic literary texts as contributions to canonical thought. We are asking broad, meaningful-only-in-context, questions such as What is race? or What is modernity for writers of color? This is different than asking How does this ethnic writer offer us a different answer to a fundamental question of human experience? or How does this text being about a particular ethnic experience affect its response to the same question?

Once we recognize that the issue is one of communication or pedagogy rather than about ethnic literature itself, the solution is easily within our grasp. We must change how we discuss and teach ethnic literature.

We need to stop reducing ethnic literature to a series of sociological, political or even literary-critical questions. Once we do so, we can recognize how these texts beautifully achieve a balancing act between wonder and resonance: They lend themselves to an appreciation of the universal while remaining so self-consciously focused on the particulars of a time, place and people.


Contact Miguel Samano at msamano ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Miguel Samano is an opinions editor majoring in Comparative Literature and Chicanx-Latinx Studies. He loves sleeping, drinking night coffee, seeking out new books to read, and eating tacos with friends.

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