So, for our Critical Issues class, we each chose a “critical issue” in education today and gave a presentation about our given issue. We had presentations on cutting PE out of secondary schools, No Child Left Behind, the WASL, bullying, growing up online, etc. Everyone that I got to see did great! It was fascinating to see what people came up with and to watch them put such passion into a 15-minute bit of teaching. Because this was an individual project on a topic of our choosing, I decided to give a presentation about a Language Arts/English topic. What follows is an approximated written version of the presentation I gave titled “Diversifying the Literary Canon”:
Here is a list of the ten most-taught titles in high school English classes (grades 9-12):
- Romeo and Juliet (taught in 84% of 9-12 English classes)
- Macbeth (81)
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (70)
- Julius Caesar (70)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (70)
- The Scarlet Letter (62)
- Of Mice and Men (56)
- Hamlet (55)
- The Great Gatsby (54)
- Lord of the Flies (54)
What do you notice about these ten books? First of all, all ten of them were written by white authors. Four were written by William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Hamlet), five were written by other American or British male authors (Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lord of the Flies by William Golding), and one was written by an American woman (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee).
“But wait,” you might be saying. “This sort of research isn’t really helpful! We read plenty of books by authors from diverse backgrounds in the secondary schools, there just isn’t a standardized canon of their novels. Therefore, the statistic isn’t significant because it tracks individual titles, not ethnicity of the authors.”
Fortunately, this same study coded each title by the author’s sex, country of origin and ethnicity and ran those statistics. It found that 81% of the books we read in the secondary schools were written by male authors, 98% were written by white (non-Hispanic) authors, and 99% of those were either written in the U.S. (63%), U.K. (28%) or Western Europe (8%).
Why does this keep happening? Why do teachers persist in teaching the “dead white guys” instead of embracing authors from all backgrounds?
Well, there are a number of reasons. First of all, many English/Language Arts teachers remain personally unfamiliar with titles outside of the current literary canon. If they don’t know what great works of literature from other traditions are out there, how will they be able to convey that information to their students? Secondly, teachers are often uncertain about the literary merit of such diverse texts or the potential appeal to students of anything that hasn’t been taught before. If a teacher hasn’t read a book and doesn’t know anyone who has, the search usually ends there.
Finally, teachers are also worried about the potential community reaction that could arise if they change the books taught in their classes. We’re teaching good books in the schools, they just happen to be almost exclusively by a particular ethnic group. I am fully convinced that if one high school student reads 20 books in his high school career and another student reads 20 completely different books, the two could each have complete, enriching educational experiences. By inserting a greater diversity of authors, we would no doubt be leaving out great works of literature. However, we are already leaving out thousands great works of literature from around the globe.
So what? What are we supposed to do with this?
First of all, we have to do away with prescribed lists of authors from the district, state or (God forbid) federal level. Brand new English teachers might benefit from being told exactly what to teach, because they could focus more on learning the mechanics of teaching during their first couple of years. However, these lists will eventually become a crutch that stifles the teacher’s creativity.
Secondly, we must require diversity. That isn’t to say that we need to have quota systems where teachers are required to teach X number of American authors, X number of Asian authors, etc. etc. Instead, we need to require a diversity of genres. The research shows that the biggest cultural gap is in book-length works of literature. In fact, the top poet taught in American high schools today is Langston Hughes, an African-American author during the Harlem Renaissance. That’s a step in the right direction. When more short stories and poems are taught in secondary schools, teachers are generally better at including non-white authors.
Finally, you have to trust English teachers. Ideally, the high school English teacher is a creative trained professional, capable of discerning what literature is right for his or her students and excited to find innovative methods for teaching the lessons to be found in that literature. With a list of what books need to be taught each year, it takes away many opportunities for teachers to use that creativity.
My personal suggestion is to include a “World Literature” course at the high school level instead of squeezing one or two works by diverse authors into an otherwise-dead-white-guy-dominated course. This would get students to really digest the overarching course theme of “understanding different perspectives,” as well as helping to prepare them to be culturally sensitive, global citizens.
At my high school, the English curriculum had two courses at the freshman level (Frosh English and Reg Frosh English, which was remedial), three courses at the sophomore level (Reg Soph English [remedial], Soph English and Advanced Soph English), four at the junior level (Junior English, Humanities 1, Advanced Junior English and AP English 1), and four at the senior level (Senior English, Humanities 2, College Prep English and AP English 2). Speaking from my own experience, Frosh English was a survey class (mostly dead white guys), Advanced Soph English was a survey class (ditto), Advanced Junior English was an American Literature course, and College Prep English was a British Literature course. In my ideal scenario, the freshman and sophomore classes would be directed (American Lit and BritLit). The junior class would become a World Literature course, and the senior class would be a survey encompassing authors from all three categories.
To conclude, here is a sample reading list for a semester-long World Literature class aimed at advanced high school juniors:
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (Mexico)
- If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (Italy)
- Blindness by Jose Saramago (Portugal)
- The Famished Road by Ben Okri (Nigeria)
- Wedding Song by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)
[Note: After the presentation, two friends suggested that I add We Never Make Mistakes by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan to the above list. I haven’t read either of these books, but I will soon. My classmates were adamant that these books were fascinating, and I believe them.]