In Sidney Clarke’s last column discussing the value of older literature in University courses, there is a lack of a strong stance on whether old literature is worth reading in college courses. I was left with this question: is it worthwhile to slog through racist/sexist/homophobic old books?
The answer to me is a very obvious YES. I take issue with the idea that we must not read old books because they are “politically incorrect” by today’s standards. While “political correctness” isn’t a term we should concern ourselves with at the University (we are after all not politicians, but educators and students) racism, sexism and homophobia are issues that we should take very seriously in literature. And I will not deny Sidney’s claim that many older books are rife with racism and sexism, any critical reading will show you that much. But it is still vitally important for the intellectual health of students that these texts be read and criticized.
Of course there is the historical value of reading old books: they introduce you to times and places that we can no longer experience. But that’s only a surface level value and perhaps not that important overall. What’s more important is that students learn to not trust authors. It’s easy to assume that because an author has written very many good books that we should trust their assumptions. In fact, I feel that it’s the prevailing notion. Who hasn’t had a conversation with their Mom about a book that is deemed a “classic” and been told that it’s such a good representation of the world?
But the true value of literature courses is that we (should) learn many respectable people were also racist and sexist because they lived in a time and place where it was natural to them to be racist and sexist. Epistemic racism and sexism haven’t gone away either, they have only become hidden to us because we are now the people who have grown up with assumptions that perhaps are racist and sexist. But unless we learn to question our own perceptions we will never be able to progress past our basic assumptions. And we cannot learn to question our basic assumptions unless we practice. Classic literature is our practice. By reading old books in college classes, we learn how to be critical of authors, and by extension, authority.
The most important skill for college students to learn is healthy skepticism, and there is no better way to learn to be a skeptic than to read racist old literature.
Geoffrey Ayers is an english major at the University of Minnesota.