“European Literature” Requirement to Become “Foundations of Literature”

European Literature, the required English course for sophomores, experienced a name change to Foundations of Literature in an effort to expand the course beyond Eurocentric works of literature and create a broader definition of foundational texts in the course.

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By Julia Lee

Think of texts such as “The Odyssey,” “Oedipus Rex,” and “Macbeth,” and chances are, you or someone you know has read at least one of them in European Literature, the required English course for sophomores. Eurocentric works like these have been staples of the English curriculum for decades and are considered to be foundational texts—literature considered essential in order to better understand large, substantial texts. But in an effort to expand the idea of foundational texts, the English Department has renamed “European Literature” to “Foundations of Literature.”

This name change was brought about to increase the inclusivity of the course. Though the objectives of the curriculum and the curriculum itself will stay the same, the name shift demonstrates a switch from a narrow Eurocentric sphere of literature to a wider range of literary origins. “The goal of the class was never to privilege Eurocentrism above other canons of literature. That said, the idea of foundational texts has always been a part of the class, from ancient Greek works like ‘The Odyssey’ or ‘Oedipus Rex’ to passages from the Judeo-Christian Bible to Shakespeare and Jane Austen,” Assistant Principal of English Eric Grossman said. “The idea of ‘foundational’ doesn’t have anything to do with Europe; we’re just expanding to keep the foundations idea but include more.”

Teachers of the course voiced their support for the new name and cited the freedom the change can lead to. “I feel good about it. Nothing is entirely necessary, but I think it was time and it makes sense. I don’t think anybody wants to throw out the classics of Western literature, but I think it is worth thinking about how we can think more representatively,” English teacher Judd Staley said. “There [are] so many classics of literature not just in Asia, but Africa and Latin America that we can be bringing in [to make a] much richer curriculum.”

Foundations of Literature will choose texts based on their timelessness and influence rather than their place of origin. As a teacher of European Literature and AP Great Books, a senior course, Grossman emphasizes the significance of foundational texts as prerequisites for future English courses. “The idea is that foundational works are foundational for a reason,” he said. “They set students and readers up for having richer, more meaningful experiences as they go on as readers.”

Though the name change is only being implemented now, the idea has been considered for a few years. Its implementation does not represent a sudden change in the course, and the course is still known as European Literature on Talos. Instead, teachers of the course are recommended to gradually deviate from the Eurocentric aspect of the name. “The change did not require that every teacher [scrap] everything that they taught before and start wholly new with 100 percent new texts,” Grossman said. “The new inclusions are going to be gradual because reading a bunch of works and deciding what makes sense to include [and] studying them to the degree that one would feel confident teaching them [...] That all takes a lot of time, but teachers have started experimenting.”

Staley added, “Adding books to the curriculum takes time and it takes money so obviously it hasn’t happened yet, but this is sort of the first step in a process of diversifying what we mean by ‘Foundations of Literature’ and bringing in a wider range.”

However, Staley has begun to prepare his curriculum to adhere to the name change. “I’m planning to have my students grapple with that question and do a project where they have to argue for other authors and other texts that would make sense to add to the list,” Staley said.

Some students have reacted to the change with enthusiasm, citing the increased number of perspectives that the class can include. “You get to include authors who aren’t just from Europe, like [...] authors from other countries,” sophomore Jade Doan said.

Other students feel that they need to see more tangible progress toward diverse perspectives before they can appreciate the name change. Sophomore Ankki Dong zeroes in on the lack of substantial changes in the current English course she is taking. “I read two books and they’re both European—unless you’re changing what you’re supposed to read, I think it doesn’t change much,” she said. “I feel like [the name change] is necessary if they are moving away from European Literature.”

Overall, the faculty’s decision in the course’s name change is a response to a larger trend in the world. “It’s a response to what’s going on in the world outside of the walls of Stuyvesant,” Grossman said. “There’s a greater sense of demand for diversity, and it matters to us to be responsive.”