It’s not racism that makes us value Shakespeare

Sheffield University thinks the only reason we study the classic works of literature is ‘racial bias’.

Gareth Sturdy


The first thing Sheffield University wants its new students to know about Shakespeare, Blake and Dickens is that their work is celebrated not because it represents the best literature ever written. No, apparently the real reason we celebrate and study these authors is racism.

This bizarre message is delivered in a five-minute film produced by the university, which is shown to freshers as part of their induction. The film is aimed at tackling racist attitudes, but it is one of the most startling examples yet of the politicisation of the contemporary academy.

The softly spoken narration intones that ‘racism and discrimination have played major roles in the development of today’s society and, more specifically, of our university’, belying the producers’ jaundiced view both of how societies evolve, and what life in modern Britain is actually like.

Despite decades of initiatives across higher education to increase student diversity and open up access to larger numbers of BAME school-leavers, the film insists that ‘there hasn’t previously been enough action from us, or other universities across the country, to stop this [discrimination] from continuing’.

Surely no one actually believes any of this? BAME students are statistically more likely than their white counterparts to go to university these days &#8211 black students represent four per cent of 18- to 24-year olds in the country, but eight per cent of university students. What the film seems to communicate is the anxious desire of universities to divest of their ‘white guilt’.

Most troubling was the film’s sequence on ‘decolonising the curriculum’. It calls academia a ‘white-dominated space’. It shows a mosaic of figures who have come to define the canon of English literature, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, James Joyce and Mary Shelley. Their presence on the curriculum ‘doesn’t necessarily mean they are the ones producing the best work’, it says. Apparently, these authors are studied because they ‘simply better fit into an academic culture that’s affected by the same racial biases that we see in the rest of society’.

All this reveals is the staggering ignorance of those who commissioned the film at this apparently top-tier Russell Group university.

One of the figures cited as an undeserved beneficiary of ‘racial bias’ is poet, painter and printmaker William Blake. Blake was so beset with ‘privilege’ that he lived in obscurity, died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Yet despite this, Blake created some of the most exquisite artistic celebrations of political revolution ever created. He drove himself half-blind by painstakingly engraving copper printing plates with songs urging the poor and oppressed to break the chains that bound them.

These were dangerously subversive tracts, and, indeed, Blake was arrested as a spy when a young man and tried for sedition when in his prime. He rioted against the conditions of prisoners. He worked on books for the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, including those by the feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft.

Tate Britain recently put on a blockbuster exhibition of Blake’s work. However, his engraving of the horrors of slavery on the American plantations – which promoted the abolitionist cause – was considered so shocking by the gallery that it gave the artwork a ‘trigger warning’.

In his poem ‘The Little Black Boy’, Blake attacks the idea of racial superiority. The lines are simple and written for children, but they also contain some biting social criticism for adults:

‘And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:

I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our father’s knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.’

Racism still exists in Britain, of course — though it is in long-term decline. At a recent performance in London, the black jazz singer, Vimala Rowe, spoke of the racist abuse she has encountered, and how, at her lowest ebb, Blake’s portrayal of suffering in his Illustrations of the Book of Job inspired her to keep fighting it.

Thousands of people, of all races and backgrounds, have been flocking to the Tate this winter to see and read Blake’s creations, because they speak to the universal human condition. This is why he, Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf and the rest of the canon have endured. This appears to count for nothing to the moral guardians at Sheffield University, who see Blake as merely a dead, privileged white guy of questionable worth, propping up a racist society.

As Italian novelist Italo Calvino once wrote, ‘The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through’.

Yet Sheffield University actively works against this spirit of engagement with the past. Instead, it promises to ‘rethink our curriculum’, in order to change the present. As we have already seen on other campuses, this means calls for certain authors to be struck off the syllabus or for whole courses to be cancelled.

A classic, for Calvino, is ‘a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’. It is time for us all to start fighting for the right of the classics to speak anew.

Gareth Sturdy teaches mathematics and English in London and is co-organiser of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum.

Picture by: Getty.

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Ellen Whitaker

12th February 2020 at 10:12 pm

This video seems like the latest installment of cancel culture. It makes a giant leap from criticizing current-day, well-meaning but annoying comments from white students to BAME students, to attempting to negate 1000 years of English history, literature, and culture, because it was created by white people. It implies that writers such as Shakespeare and William Blake were elevated at the expense of the large numbers of black and brown writers toiling away in England from the 16th – the 18th centuries. It implies that writers and thinkers from other countries and cultures are not considered and studied at English universities, and never were, which is not true. It is biased to the point of untruthfulness.

Cedar Grove

14th February 2020 at 11:09 pm

As many students arrive at second-rate universities scarcely literate, they can’t read Shakespeare.

Judging by my last batches of students, no one has even taught them to read in units of meaning, or between punctuation marks – they stammer their way through a line, stop at the end, pause, and read another disconnected line. I was once asked to set a different Victorian novel because students had complained the one we were reading was too heavy to carry about.(Middlemarch, in paperback.)

I once had a discussion with 1st Year students at a Manchester university, who expected me to change their grades because they weren’t happy about getting C-grades. I said I wouldn’t change the marks, but would go through their essays with them to explain why the grade wasn’t higher, and how to improve. In the course of our conversations, 3 of them, all hoping for a BA in Eng.Lit., said they’d never read a whole book, just excerpts…

Brandy Cluster

12th February 2020 at 10:07 pm

The barbarians have moved well beyond the gate and are amongst us, alive and well.

Christopher Tyson

12th February 2020 at 7:46 pm

Finnegans Wake, no apostrophe. Is it an imperative or a command, imploring the Finnegans to wake up, or is it a reference to death? Perhaps the Finnegans are inadvertently celebrating their own death. I’m no Joyce scholar, I must confess I became aware of that play on words, courtesy of TV magicians assistant come private investigator Jonathan Creek. But it puts me in mind of the ‘woke’, are they really awake or are they celebrating their own sleep. As a kid I did not believe that I slept, I argued with my siblings about it, eventually I conceded, such was the force of my opposition. The point is just because you believe that you are awake, does not mean that you are awake. Descartes tried to get to the bottom of these things, personally I think he did a good job.

Neil McCaughan

12th February 2020 at 5:42 pm

If not Shakespeare, then what should we study? Africans haven’t produced anything noteworthy in the last five thousand years (apart from AIDS and Ebola). The Caribbean, Middle and South America are cultural deserts. Asians are a waste of a continent. European literature is presumably excluded on the grounds that its authors too are white.
The only remarkable point about this story is the news that a shit hole like Sheffield has a university, however poor. I don’t suppose many people knew that.

Christopher Tyson

12th February 2020 at 7:28 pm

The Caribbean has certainly had a disproportionate impact on your psyche and on the world. In the English speaking Caribbean the largest island is Jamaica with a population of around 2 million, most of the other islands are considerably smaller. The European powers did fight war over the Caribbean Islands, such is their strategic importance, but you comparison is odd, The Caribbean is not a continent, I mean Nigeria alone has a population of about 200 million, the English speaking Caribbean wouldn’t be much over 5 million. The culture of the British Caribbean is largely British, certainly writers like VS Naipul and CLR James are Trinidandians firmly within the British tradition. Of course Jamaica has made a huge impact on the world in terms of popular culture, not the sort of thing that you would appreciate though, you come across as snobbish and ignorant, not a good combination.

Neil McCaughan

12th February 2020 at 8:33 pm

You seem badly stung, my little turkey cock. At least I don’t post rambling, incoherent nonsense, as you do. In stating plain facts I don’t care how I come across to the likes of you. The intellectual and cultural contribution of the black, brown and yellow world is wholly negligible. If Africa had sunk with all hands any time in the last five thousand years, it would have made no difference to anyone. And the same is true for Latin America and the Caribbean. Neither a plate lip, nor a bone through the nose signify.

Now off you toddle, and prate somewhere else.

Christopher Tyson

12th February 2020 at 9:53 pm

You seem to be saying that I shouldn’t take you seriously. But you’re taking cheap shot about things you know nothing about and don’t care about.

Brandy Cluster

12th February 2020 at 10:08 pm

It’s hard to disagree with you here.

Neil McCaughan

12th February 2020 at 5:12 pm

Racism inspired the vote to leave the EU.
Racism asserts the cultural importance of Shakespeare.

The only rational conclusion is that racism must be a very good thing.

Jim Lawrie

12th February 2020 at 4:17 pm

Perhaps these trumpets could help me find the racism in the speech that Shakespeare gave to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

Brandy Cluster

12th February 2020 at 10:18 pm

What about racism in this masterful bit of cultural appropriation? This argument has a looooooong way to play.

Jim Lawrie

17th February 2020 at 12:28 pm

It is the convention in debate to meet directly the point made. Not to refer the speaker to sources unknown on subject unknown.

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12th February 2020 at 11:07 am

We should continue to study Shakespeare due to his obvious brilliance and pre-eminent place in the Western Canon. However, the British have little or no knowledge of the geniuses of other cultures e.g. Joost van den Vondel, Schiller, Lope de Vega, etc. As they understood during the Renaissance, in order to be an educated, cultured person, one must have knowledge of many languages and cultures.


12th February 2020 at 11:04 am

This article is quite interesting; even more interesting is the question of why the British persist in supporting the corrupt, freeloading Windsors:

Michael Lynch

14th February 2020 at 10:41 pm

Shakespeare was the first playwright to demonize Kings in an age where you could loose your head for the saying the Lords Prayer incorrectly. If he were around today he’d be also taking a pop at the House of Windsor.

Ed Turnbull

12th February 2020 at 10:48 am

Plato and Socrates weren’t English, are we allowed to read them without being expected to display a cringing white guilt? After all, their works aren’t part of the English canon. Or are they too considered ‘problematic’ writers? White cis-heteronormative patriarchal bigots that they no doubt were. 😛

Given the thrust of the Sheffield film – ‘decolonising the curriculum’ and ‘white-dominated space’ – it would seem its producers are making value judgements on books based on the amount of melanin in the authors’ skin. Isn’t that a tad…well…racist? Oh I forgot: racism is ok when done in the service of anti-racism. Got it. Now, can someone please show me the way out of Wonderland? I’d like to get back to the right side of the looking glass…


12th February 2020 at 1:46 pm

Socrates wasn’t a white cis-heteronormative patriarchal bigot but he was incredibly annoying.

Ed Turnbull

13th February 2020 at 9:06 am

Ah ZP, was my sarcasm too subtle for you? [I sigh, shaking my head resignedly]. Do you have evidence that Socrates was fully on board with the tenets of social justice? No? Then he *must*, axiomatically, have been a white cis-heteronormative patriarchal bigot. It’s 2020 ZP, you really must keep up with how history is refracted through the lens of social justice. Time, perhaps, for a new hashtag: #SocraticMethodSoWhite, don’t you think?

David Craig

12th February 2020 at 9:11 am

The terrible bit is that this sad idiocy from the Purity Spiral will spawn sad idiocy. The glimmer of hope is that there will always a backlash and the sad idiots will be mocked for their cowardly foolishness.

Philip Humphrey

12th February 2020 at 8:49 am

Isn’t this really a product of intellectual bankruptcy? Take something you don’t really understand (Shakespeare, Blake, Dickens, or indeed any difficult subject you care to choose) and then try to redefine it in terms of something you think you do (racism and social justice). It must be hard if you’re a second rate academic dealing with writers from the past who are clearly brilliant and have all sorts of insights. But you can reduce it all to your level if you simply accuse them of racism and see everything in terms of that. And of course you can use it to deflect any awkward questions from your students.

Stephen J

12th February 2020 at 8:44 am

As I believe Groucho Marx once said, any club that has me as I member is not the sort of club that I would want to join.

Having been told just how unworthy I am, I will go off to learn actual useful stuff elsewhere.


12th February 2020 at 12:04 pm

I don’t think Shakespeare is that useful for life…

Cedar Grove

14th February 2020 at 10:33 pm

Your powers of apprehension must be very limited, then.

patricia rodgers

12th February 2020 at 8:41 am

Those with a political agenda use the uneducated young to further their aims. Being from Sheffield, I am not even shocked that this is happening. This is becoming the norm.

david rawson

12th February 2020 at 9:07 am

Yes Patricia, I wonder what the tens of thousands of Chinese students paying millions into the University & Poly’ coffers think of this nonsense ?

Christopher Souter

12th February 2020 at 8:33 am

“Decent Humanities academics” will not speak out unless they are 100% confident that, consequent to having spoken out, they will be able to find alternative employment in their chosen fields, because they will certainly be dismissed from their present positions.

Claire D

12th February 2020 at 2:12 pm

I think you are responding to my comment further down and I sympathise with your position. It’s easy for me to say what I said with no risk to my career or livelihood. How appalling that anyone should be in that position today, in Britain, it just shows how far authoritarianism and intolerance have insidiously developed already. If decent academics don’t speak out now in a few years time they may wish they had. Perhaps if there were some form of venture/group whereby they all stood together against this intolerance instead of facing it as individuals ?
I hope I’m wrong and it all fizzles out but it’s not looking good.

Michael Lynch

12th February 2020 at 7:38 pm

I agree, Claire. However, the academics are too far down the rabbit hole now to speak up. They want their jobs, the pension and associated perks. Unfortunately, they’ll loose them anyway in the end as the purge reaches ever new and ridiculous heights. One of the most chilling YouTube videos you’ll ever see is Stalin addressing the plenum after the first of his five year plans. The people were ridiculously outdoing each other in their applause and cheers, it goes on for 15 minutes, until he eventually put a stop to it when he, presumably, started to get embarrassed himself by the charade. The chilling part is that more than two thirds of that audience were eventually purged and ended up in the Gulags.

Mark Houghton

12th February 2020 at 7:18 am

Ah the modern university – n political re-education camp that you pay to go to.


12th February 2020 at 12:05 pm

Probably as true in the 19th century as it is now.

Michael Lynch

12th February 2020 at 2:18 am

I’m truly lost for words. This is cultural vandalism in the extreme. Damning books is a step away from banning them. Banning books is a step away from burning them and that is a mere step away from burning people. What disturbs me most is that highly educated people are indulging and encouraging this bizarre behavior. Modern Westerners are loosing all sense of proportion and the ability to rationalize.

Claire D

12th February 2020 at 8:06 am

Are they highly educated though Michael ? Are’nt they the first generation educated (indoctrinated) from a post-modernist perspective, from the 1980s onwards. They have reached maturity, achieved position and power and now seek to enforce their ‘enlightened’ viewpoint on everyone. How many of these people have read the canon rather than a load of post-modernist critique of it ?
If there are any decent Humanities academics left at Sheffield University then they need to speak out, I hope they will.

Michael Lynch

13th February 2020 at 1:13 pm

I can’t believe how far this cheap rot has penetrated Western academia. It is, perhaps, a result of Blair’s ‘University for all’ policy. In order to attract and compete for foreign students they have had to debase Western culture. It’s also shocking how much these Academics can earn. I hope their money keeps them from the cold when the Mob eventually comes for them.

Claire D

12th February 2020 at 8:13 am

It is tragic for the youngsters, it is an impoverishment.

Cedar Grove

14th February 2020 at 10:58 pm

Couldn’t agree more.
I left Academia when I saw I wasn’t going to be able to pass on the unbroken heritage of 1000 years of English literature that I’d been freely given. And when i was told to refer to students as “customers”.

It meant that my income plunged, and surviving on zero-hours jobs, I have no pension, but my integrity and love of literature are intact. I can only hope there’ll eventually be some recognition of the monstrous nature of this betrayal of young people.

Nor do they seem to be aware that many of the writers to be discarded were actually leading figures in raising awareness of the issues that we now think paramount. Aphra Behn wrote the first anti-slavery novel in the 17th century. The speech Shakespeare gives to Shylock is an arresting argument against antisemitism, & he shows with piercing clarity how the racism of a play’s villain destroys the sanity of a brave man.

As for the idiotic video, they can’t even get the stereotypes right – as if a hijabi is going to smile when some random guy clamps his hand on her shoulder!

While racist attitudes do persist, albeit in more subtle ways than formerly, the lives of ethnic minority doctors and lawyers are framed much more by income and social status than family origin, and they have a great deal more power, and much greater freedom of choice, than the working class and indigent. If this is the level of “thought” at Sheffield, I don’t recommend anyone to send their child there.

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