Reconsidering Our Priorities Through Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

By Victoria Garafola

Speaking as an African American Professor at Harvard University in the Early 1990’s, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has a unique perspective on both the value of literary studies and the need for change within the discipline. Indeed, Gates understands the African American challenge, the barriers that exist both academically and socially between aspiring African American students. Within his powerful essay, Pluralism and It’s Discontents, Gates cites that the “real crisis in American education [is]: a new generation of kids are going to be functionally illiterate” (138). How can we, as students, as scholars, nitpick over an archaic literary canon when our children are not afforded the “luxury” of a decent education? While Gates’ voice may have been drowned out by the blaring boom boxes of the 1990’s it is still clear to educators, parents, and politicians today that the American education system is ‘in crisis’… whatever THAT means. What I do know, through my own observation, is that most of the freshmen coming accepted into my “good” university, tucked into the mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania, USA, are not prepared to write a basic research paper. Most students struggle through their Writing Skills courses and, time and time again, students shrug off their English courses as “unnecessary,” “unimportant,” “a waste of time.” Students flood our English department every semester begging for pink slips to get into Children’s Literature and Film as Art because, they believe, these courses will fulfill their core requirements without actually making them read a novel. Every semester students spend hundreds of dollars “buying” their degrees through online paper writing websites and the occasional “friend” who writes the paper for less than google can offer. What is the point of a “liberal arts college” if our students are being milled out into a world where their degrees really haven’t helped to enrich their own knowledge or prepare them for the real world that lies beyond the undergraduate doors? If I may quote 1992 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. just once more, “Forty-four percent of black Americans can’t read the front page of the newspaper. Wen we’re faced with some brutal facts like that one, all the high-flown rhetoric about the “canon” becomes staggeringly besides the point” (138).

Gates, Henry L., Jr. “Pluralism and Its Discontens.” Profession 2012. Boston: Modern Language Asspociation, 2012. 135-42. Print.

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