Barnard rejects demand for less ‘Eurocentric’ literature

The Barnard College English Department has refused to bow to hundreds of activists who are demanding that it drop its focus on “Eurocentric” literature.

Launched in April, the “Petition for Diversifying the Barnard English Major” urges the department to implement numerous reforms, including a requirement to have “at least half of the syllabus composed of marginalized voices” and a demand to “hire more teachers of color.” 

“This is a call for diversity and inclusion within the English major. Barnard’s English major requirements give total focus to overwhelmingly white (not to mention male) authors,” the petition complains, asserting that “This is due mostly to the four pre-1900s requirements, a lack of diverse courses overall, lack of faculty of color, and focus on the Western Canon as the standard for literary excellence.”

[RELATED: Barnard student petitions against ‘Eurocentric literature’]

The petition goes on to argue that “by focusing on Eurocentric literature, Barnard’s English major perpetuates a vicious, exclusionary cycle,” alleging that the college only values the culture of “white Europeans.” 

Despite the fact that the April petition has received more than 300 signatures, a Barnard spokeswoman told Campus Reform on Monday that the department has no plans to accede to the activists’ demands.

"Barnard's English curriculum teaches Anglophone literature from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present, and requires our students to engage with a range of texts from literary history,” the spokeswoman said. 

The official also suggested that the petition was redundant, since the department already strives “to help our students appreciate…that issues of representation, race, gender, class, and ethnicity are vital to understanding Anglophone literature in all of its manifestations.” 

[RELATED: Students rip down Shakespeare portrait at UPenn]

In an interview with Campus Reform, lead petitioner Mya Nunally accused the current curricula of “fostering an environment of Eurocentrism and implicit racism that leaks into the ‘real world.’”

“When the major pushes away writers of color, and centers white narratives, it perpetuates this [lack of racial diversity in the publishing industry at large],” she added. 

Since Barnard isn’t budging, Nunnally hopes to bring the petition to a referendum through the Student Government Association once classes resume in the Fall.

Campus Reform also reached out to Lisa Gordis, head of the Barnard English Department, but she declined to comment on whether the department is considering making any curricular changes as a result of the petition. 

[RELATED: Prof: ‘privileging of standard English’ is ‘linguistic racism’]

Glenn Ricketts of the National Association of Scholars argued that the petition is an example of how students try to “shoehorn such voices” into the curricula “for all the wrong reasons.”  

“This petition is what happens when the author's skin color or sex is the only thing you notice,” Ricketts told Campus Reform. “A ‘classic’ in any genre seeks to take you beyond the accidents of race or place—great authors want you to forget about those things and take you to the realm of the universal, which touches our common humanity.” 

“As Virginia Woolf once observed, the very best literature leaves a reader wholly unaware of the narrator's race, sex, or similar traits,” Ricketts observed. “Too bad students don't realize this at Barnard.” 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen