Category Archives: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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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We’ve got bigger problems.

-Katie Owens

Most of the time, I think people start arguments because they have nothing better to do. Or because they love the sound of their own voice and they think that because they hold a certain opinion, it is the opinion that everyone else should have.

You think gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to get married? Cool.

You think Madison looks ridiculous in that sweater? Awesome.

You think only the American and British classics deserve to be taught in literature classes? Delightful.

I don’t care.

Agree to disagree.

The second people start devoting large chunks of their personal time crying, “CRISIS. WE HAVE A CRISIS!” about anything that isn’t a life or death situation, part of me wants to roll my eyes and part of me wants to slap them upside the head.
I am not arguing against change in the humanities. I think I am all for it. But I also think there are more important things to worry about than what we’re reading. In Henry Louis Gates Jr’s “Pluralism and Its Discontents,” he talks about the bigger problems that face our education systems. “Because the truth is,” he says, “that curricular changes in history or literature are irrelevant is a kid doesn’t know how to read or write or add.” These are problems worth spending time worrying about. Go out there are teach people the basics and then they will be informed enough to make decisions for themselves. Gates continues on in saying that “the only way to transcend those divisions… is through education that seeks to comprehend the diversity of human culture.” I feel as though, as an English major, I know more about the world than I ever would have if I had, God forbid, studied math. I have been given the opportunity to learn about the history of the world, as well as contemporary understanding of cultures, people, and events around the world.
Another point that Gates makes that I feel is important to understanding what it is that we should be experiencing in university is when he uses the metaphor of comparing education to traveling. In this section he says that if we must have decided on who we truly are when we reach the outside world, then while in school, we must be everyone possible. I find this to resound quite well with what I believe about an English education. I have traveled to the Congo, Tintern Abbey, and high school classrooms in Maine. I have been teenage boys, a dying cancer patient, and a knight in shining armor. All without ever leaving the LAC.
More or less, I think that people need to calm down. Let us read whatever we want. Mix it up. Give us a bit of everything. Because that’s what life is going to give us.