BY DUR-E-MAKNOON AHMED ’20
At its core, the study of English literature as an academic discipline is meant to be centered around the appreciation of artistic merit. Various frameworks are used to explore literary works, but the human fascination with art is ultimately at the heart of the study of literary works. While this value is universal enough, the worldwide culture in which the English discipline emerged is biased, and English education still struggles to transcend Eurocentrism.
The overwhelming majority of literary works taught in English programs are written by white Europeans or Anglo-Americans, and even when books from other countries and cultures are included in syllabi, analyses of them are largely Eurocentric in nature. This worldview emerges when the Western world is assumed to be central and standard, while other regions are treated as deviations from that norm.
In the study of English literature, this deeply entrenched worldview manifests in many ways. Some of these are glaringly obvious, even in popular discussions of literature. For example, searching “best English books of all time” on Google yields a variety of links, the first of which is a list of 100 books gathered by “The Guardian.” In this list, the first book that is not written by an ethnically European or Anglo-American author is V. S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River,” in 90th place.
Eurocentrism is prevalent in the formal teaching of English literature as well. The United States’ AP English Literature and Composition course does not have one required reading list, but instead cites a list of “Representative Authors” as suggestions. The overwhelming majority of authors listed are white, with few people of color, and even fewer people from countries without white majorities. The English major at Mount Holyoke College requires that students take two classes concentrating on literature before the 1700s — which includes only European authors — and one American Literature class. There is no specific requirement in the department to study another country’s works from a particular time period. These Eurocentric requirements are not a problem specific to Mount Holyoke undergraduate programs across the country respond to pressures from graduate schools in the United States.
Eurocentrism manifests in the classroom in subtler ways, even when works from either side of globe are studied. Thanks to colonialism, these biases extend to schools in other countries as well. Aria Pahari ’17, a recent Mount Holyoke alum from Nepal, feels that there was a marked difference in the way discussions about books by white authors and books written by people of color were led.
One form of analytical Eurocentrism she noticed was the frequent de-politicization of Western literary works. While political, historical and cultural context was discussed for works by people of color, none of this backdrop was provided for works by white authors. “As a result,” Pahari explained, “the way we discussed the white, European and largely male authors seemed to accept their words as truth[s] that somehow transcended political, social and geographic realities of their times.”
Given that Eurocentrism is so deeply and often subtly embedded in the way literature is taught around the world, it is not surprising that students of color grow up internalizing these ideals. Throughout my 12 years of school in Pakistan, only one English book I was assigned featured short stories by Pakistani authors. For a long time, I believed that works of literature had to be set in Anglo-American places and center around Anglo-American characters to be considered good. Siddhi Shah ’19, an English and French double major who hails from Dubai, once believed that only white people could be published authors. Despite her passion for literature and writing, she said she thought that her work would never be as successful as a white author’s due to her cultural and racial identity. These examples are emblematic of a multitude of issues, including microaggressions, that students of color face in the context of English literature.
At Mount Holyoke it appears that English professors largely try their best to diversify their course materials and discussions. While Mount Holyoke is not perfect, Aicha Belabbes ’19 declared that compared to Belfast, where she is studying abroad this semester, Mount Holyoke is “heaven.” In a class she is currently taking, called “Writing Colonial Africa,” half of the works assigned are written by white men. She is grateful that even when white European authors are studied at Mount Holyoke, professors try their best to bring in different perspectives and ample criticism, as this is not the case everywhere.
Pahari appreciates that for every work that is discussed in classes, context is taken into account. Literature is treated, she says, “not only as a product of the authors, but also [as products] of the era the author lived in.”
Shah echoed these sentiments as well, saying that while Mount Holyoke has room for improvement, she was able to read much more diverse and inclusive literature here than she could in Dubai.