Decolonizing the Curriculum: The Problem of Underrepresentation in the Humanities

Anna Lee ‘24

Opinions Editor

After a year of racial reckoning across America, many colleges started their own discussions about racism and diversity issues on their respective campuses. Among these discussions were concerns about representation in the curriculum—not just among the staff teaching the subjects, but about the content itself. 

College of the Holy Cross is well-known for its rigorous curriculum. Biology and computer science majors leave with full arsenals of knowledge and many have offers waiting for them after graduation. And regardless of a student’s major, most take away a basic understanding and appreciation of a subject they never considered studying. But for students majoring in the humanities, their department leaves them with a disproportionately skewed understanding of their subject, gravitating to Eurocentric models at the center of the curriculum. As a result, some students are left with major gaps in their understanding of the subject and are considerably less well-off than they would be with a wider exposure of topics.

To give an example, an English major at Holy Cross needs only one “marginalized voices” course in order to meet the requirement. This means authors like Jane Austen, Edgar Allen Poe, Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson dominate the rest of the curriculum. Though it is an intensive and extraordinary set of authors proposed by the department, it is also damaging and exclusive. One course on marginalized voices cannot do justice to the vast collections of books written by non-white authors. 

By creating one class that is intentionally labelled “marginalized,” the department may be exercising another form of marginalization by giving non-white authors just enough of a feature so as not to cause outrage. The “marginalized voices” category also suggests that the default to literature will always be white, Eurocentric, or American authors. Such an implication can be damaging to students trying to pursue English in fields other than the ones offered. And at a base level, featuring the same sorts of authors from the same racial backgrounds and social strata is not just damaging to learning English literature, but it is also just boring. At the center of this issue is an underlying message that the best works of literature must be written by white Europeans and Americans. 

This is not to retaliate against the works of great European and American authors, since there is certainly value in understanding that style of literature. After all, it tells modern researchers how trends come and go, and it’s had a major influence on many modern authors. Additionally, not all Eurocentric-based classes omit authors of color completely from their curriculum. But at the same time, there is a disproportionate favoring of white authors over non-white authors. Austen, Poe, and Woolf are essential to any literature degree, but so are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Sherman Alexie. 

English isn’t the only department that ought to have a second glance at its curriculum. While the history department offered courses like “Slavery, Industry, Empire,” and “Gender and Power in African History” for the fall 2021 semester, most courses are dedicated to American or European history, such as “British Soc and Empire,” and “Radicalism in America.” As a result, huge chunks of formative history are omitted from the list of offered courses. Such a focus on just one branch of history forces students to think only along the vein of Eurocentric implications and matters. The study of, for example, Middle-Eastern society or the history of LGBTQ+ people in a foreign nation are not analyzed or taught as critically.

For many cultures, history is one way of preserving traditions that would have otherwise been lost. Generations of Americans, for example, celebrate the country’s independence on the Fourth of July because it is consistently taught in American schools. But when histories of entire groups never appear on the Holy Cross curriculum, that does a disservice to many students and brands many non-Eurocentric traditions as inferior. 

There is no easy fix to the curriculum when it comes to incorporating more literature and history about non-white people. Issues that deal with diversity and representation issues are not remedied by simply “good” and “bad” solutions. But doing nothing is also an action that the College has resorted to in the past, and is possibly the worst choice of them all. That being said, one progression in the humanities could be cutting down on the frequency of featured authors, so instead of using multiple books by one author, replacing a few with works by non-white authors would make a better use of time. And for historical timelines that have been constantly repeated since secondary school and into college (Revolutionary War, Vietnam War, etc.), there is room for introducing new historical information into the curriculum in lieu of the old. 

Illustration Credit to Eleanor Doughty

Departments might also benefit from asking students and professors what they would like to see. An opportunity might present itself in the feedback forms at the end of each semester, where a new section could be created for recommended topics, books, or authors that aren’t typically featured in mainstream courses. The purpose behind gathering this data is making sure every student at the College feels represented. While white students can see themselves in characters portrayed in white America or Europe, international students and students of color are lucky to see any outline of themselves in a character. Mind, if they do, sometimes it is only a caricature of their racial identity or culture.

Understanding literature, history, and other humanities subjects in a diverse way is not only important for representation purposes, but it also stays true to what the major offers. When English and history majors declare their majors, they do not declare “White Voices in English Literature,” or “European and American History” as their dedicated path of study. They sign up for a diverse breadth of all of it—subcultures of the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and more. Therefore, including a diverse range of topics stays true to what English and history truly capture: the histories and works of a combination of groups…not just one.

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