The struggle of studying English in the 21st century

The current state of “cancel culture” has sparked the debate over whether or not we should hold people and media from the past to the same standards we have today.

It’s become normal to open Twitter nowadays and see a person, a movie, a TV show or a book from the past exposed for being problematic. The current state of “cancel culture” has sparked the debate over whether or not we should hold people and media from the past to the same standards we have today. Many people say, “things were different back then” as a way to excuse some of the behaviors that are deemed inexcusable today. The response to that statement is usually, “why are we celebrating people and media that were damaging just because it was normalized back then?” Some people fall somewhere in the middle, not wanting to excuse ignorant behavior but also unsure how to participate in canceling Benjamin Franklin.

Despite the ongoing debate over cancel culture, it’s hard to deny that our modern standards affect how we learn and how we take in history. Many books we read in English classes, especially English history classes, were written in a time when social standards were different and things like racism, homophobia and misogyny were normalized. Whereas today, these behaviors are unacceptable and shouldn’t be rewarded. There are a lot of historical texts or writers of historical texts that we know to be problematic. It becomes difficult to separate the artist from the art when the artist is sometimes a raging misogynist. It’s rare that I find myself cracking a smile while reading the satirical works of Jonathan Swift that are usually pointed towards women.

Students take English classes to delve into the history of literature and learn from the past, but it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to feel like there is a lesson to be learned when the person who wrote the text or the text itself is problematic. As I said before, these behaviors were more normalized at the time the text was written but should we continue to learn from material that doesn’t reflect our current society’s ideals and values? As someone who studies literature, it’s sometimes difficult to overlook the glaring ignorance to try to unearth what the author wanted to say.

There are often important themes to be learned and analyzed from historical books that can be applied to the present. But, as students and members of the younger generation, we will also be looking for elements that go against our modern standards in addition to those that reflect them. Sometimes, the ignorance overtakes the lessons we are supposed to get from the text and can cause a shift in the analysis. Does this mean we should change the texts we read to create a more accurate understanding? Or should we change the way we analyze literature to fit our modern lens?

I think it’s interesting to see how our values have changed throughout history through novels and other historical works. But I do see the importance of pointing out the ignorance of the writers and the messages that run throughout the texts. I don’t always agree with looking the other way when it comes to some of the problems that appear because pointing out these issues can also help when it comes to analysis. Applying a modern lens to a historical text can enhance the depth of the analysis because we have a more elevated understanding of problematic behaviors. Sometimes discussing the misogynistic or racist subtext can tell us more about the author and the text itself than if we were to dismiss it as “a societal norm” of the time.

The process of analyzing literature has changed and is constantly evolving based on what our current values are. Reading historical texts through our modern lens makes for interesting conversation, but it can also make the learning process more difficult. In the future, the texts we use for these classes will inevitably have to evolve as society progresses or learning anything from them will become more difficult. There are important skills that can be gained through studying history through literature and it is a study that should continue. But, the ways in which we discuss and analyze it should also reflect the current standards of our society. Adapting the courses and texts we read to create space for this discussion can encourage a deeper understanding of the text and the historical context. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to behaviors that cause harm to a group of people just because it was a long time ago. We should call it out when we see it. There is still a lot to be learned from history and literature, but the analysis and what we take away from it may be ever-changing.

BY LILY WILLIAMS first published at March 24, 2021