In Korea, you are considered one-year-old at birth, and turn a year older on the first day of every new year thereafter. I mention this because according to this system, I am now a quarter of a century old. This is alarming — my five-year high school reunion is coming up, and while my classmates will be working their way up to being titans of industry or tweed-clad savants wandering Gothic college campuses, I’ll still be here in college.
I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, but this time I vowed to try to live younger, to retain a sense of wonder and curiosity and carpe diem the hell out of life. Then English majors removed a portrait of the inventor of modern English from the English Department.
Cue the cane and prune juice. I’ll have the early bird special with the senior discount, please.
While it was not clear from The Daily Pennsylvanian’s article who was responsible for removing the portrait, Jed Esty, the chair of the English Department, wrote in a statement sent to English majors that such action was taken due to “their commitment to a more inclusive mission for the English department.”
The English faculty had already voted several years ago to replace the portrait to “reflect a more diverse range of writers” and were in the process of figuring out the best way to do so before certain students decided to take matters into their own hands. The students initially replaced the portrait with a poster of the writer Audre Lorde, and the department afterwards put up a collage of 88 writers including both Shakespeare and Lorde.
While I applaud the good intention to recognize a wider range of writers, I cannot help but feel that this act — and frankly, the vote that preceded it — was based on the idea of progress for the sake of change itself, which is ultimately an alluring and dangerous form of self-indulgence.
Perhaps a telling sign is that students who removed the portrait did so after a town hall meeting held by the English Department to discuss the results of the United States presidential election. The increase in tension and hostility since then is noticeable and very much real. Perhaps, those students ought to consider that this kind of diminishing of the past and replacement of it, regardless of how flawed it may be, is exactly the kind of disdain felt by Trump’s main support base that caused them to turn out in droves on Election Day.
Dealing with a flawed past is a complicated issue; Yale University’s debate over renaming Calhoun College is one example. However, it is difficult for me to imagine that people feel the same kind of fear or disturbance from Shakespeare. It bothers me that those very same people condemning identity politics would see no wrong in equating Shakespeare with an oppressive white male mainstream literature canon.
Furthermore, considering that the portrait was displayed in a building dedicated to the study of the English language and literature composed from it, it seems ludicrous to pretend as if the accomplishments of 87 other writers are as significant as the inventor of modern English. What’s next? Are we going to get rid of all the Ben Franklin statues on campus? Must we re-carve Mount Rushmore to include proportional representation of all worthy Americans?
One student responded to the removal, “You don’t necessarily need to have a portrait of Shakespeare up. He’s pretty iconic.” Undoubtedly true. But it seems to me that that’s exactly why you put up a huge portrait of people like Franklin, Shakespeare or the Founders, because they deserve to be immortalized.
Not everything has to be an awareness campaign or an agent for social change. Shakespeare being recognized does not mean that others ought not, nor does it signify that writers of other races and genders do not deserve to be. And surely no one can say that Shakespeare personally is responsible for the lack of representation for writers such as Lorde.
Instead of engaging in such high-profile, controversial acts that do little more than create divisions and temporary publicity, perhaps students concerned about equal representation should focus more on actual change, such as making syllabus recommendations to professors or the department.
One thing is for sure — the Bard himself would have found all this outrageously hilarious. And so I suppose that all this old-timer can do is laugh about it and mutter something about there being madness in method. A second glass of prune juice, please. And don’t forget the cane.
JAMES LEE is a College junior from Seoul, South Korea, studying English and philosophy, politics and economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Conversation” usually appears every other Monday.