Why we need, not just should want, diverse works in ‘Great Books’ curricula

Jan. 24, 2018, 3:00 a.m.

Shortly after its publication in the The New Yorker, Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” went viral. The story, which tells of a young woman’s terrible first date with a man she knows little about, seemed to resonate with many of its female readers.

But, as one journalist noted, some readers erroneously referred to the piece as an “article” or “personal essay.” This was despite the fact that the story is narrated in the third person and latent with free direct discourse — two distinct literary devices. The fact that some readers ignored these signals, all which point to the piece as a work of literature, is concerning.

Nonetheless, this oversight raises an important question: What kinds of stories do we count as being literary?

As Miguel Samano wrote in a previous Daily article, ethnic texts readily acknowledge that “cultural differences impact each of our lives.” This kind of discourse about ethnic texts stands in stark contrast to that about “Western canon works,” which are framed as underscoring questions and values that all humans share. Supposedly, canonical works raise fascinations and solutions to questions that have undergirded human understanding for all time.

This expectation for “canonical works,” however, is a high bar to hold literature to — a standard that fails in its conceit. In insisting that a subset of literary works, typically written by male European authors, raise concerns that are universal to all, we delude ourselves into ignorance. We make cross-cultural illiteracy a source of undue intellectual pride.

According to philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in his work “The World as Will and Representation,” “[the poet] seeks to know mankind according to its inner nature.” This “inner nature … is identical in all its phenomena and developments” and transcends all relation and all time. Works that elucidate this “universal nature” comprise literature worth reading.

But the experiences that “Cat Person” helps to expose, as one article notes, detail “the interiority of a certain kind of (middle-class, thin, white) woman perfectly: the guessing at what might possibly be going on in a man’s head, the slow piling-up of red flags that cannot quite be named and as such are dismissed, the desperate need to be considered polite and nice at all costs.”

Thus, the protagonist’s experience is rooted in her position as a middle-class white female in the 21st century — which is perhaps why so many women identify with the protagonist of “Cat Person” and men do not. By contrast, the same article notes, short stories like John Updike’s “A&P,” “in which a man watches women and thinks about how hot they are,” are taught in high schools and seldom questioned as literary classics.

Apparently, “great literature” appeals to genderless, sexless, raceless, ageless and classless ideals; in truth, the works that we consider canonical mask the ideals of a white, healthy, middle- or upper-class, heterosexual and male person. By excluding ethnic or feminist texts from “Great Books” courses, we are not just robbing the authors of these works their due prestige. Even worse, we are cheating readers of all identities important opportunities for growth.

Literature allows us to, as Joyce Carol Oates put it, “slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin,” and, in an age where literary reading is declining, it is imperative that we incorporate, if not center, ethnic and feminist texts to our humanities curricula.

We perpetuate a dangerous cycle when we earmark the works of “marginalized authors” as “non-classical works”: a cycle that sidelines the experiences of marginalized peoples to the periphery. Centering marginalized works will prepare students to enter an increasingly globalized world — one where students have to interface with people from various backgrounds.

One argument in favor of studying the “Western canon” is that its texts and ideas founded modern thought. Yet racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia (the list goes on) pervade modern thought, too. To subvert the schools of bigotry that stall cross-cultural and intersectional empathy, we must acknowledge that the Western canon’s “universal” system of human thought is narrow and not universal, let alone deeply flawed.

It is not coincidental that while sexist power dynamics have existed in the workplace (as the #MeToo movement has shown), stories told by women authors and in the perspectives of female characters like “Cat Person” have historically been ignored. The current model for core humanities courses in universities (take Columbia College’s core “Literature Humanities” course, which all of their undergraduates are required to take, for example) teaches students that they can bypass serious engagement with ethnic and feminist texts and still be “informed,”  cosmopolitan citizens, or that reading two or three of these works is enough. Invariably, this practice as a system of valuation is one that students, our future leaders, carry to other realms of life.

When Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” he observed that what we learn to value in art shapes our real-life values. For a more compassionate and cross-culturally empathetic world, it is high time that we include ethnic and feminist authors into the “canonical” fold.

— Eliane Mitchell ’19


Contact Eliane Mitchelle at elianem ‘at’ stanford.edu.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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