English curriculum needs diversity


It is not uncommon to go a full school year here while reading only books by white men in English classes. With the reality being that this is the majority, or perhaps totality, of all reading that most students do, this is unacceptable.
Common Sense surveyed English teachers here to find out which books they taught this year. The responses show that there were 58 distinct books by 50 distinct authors. Only 16 of the authors were women and only 18 non-white (with 10 overlapping). Only 17 of the books were by women and only 20 by non-white authors (with 11 overlapping).
This does not properly reflect the student population. In the 2016-2017 school year, 45.6 percent of the student body was white, and the literature read in classes should be at least somewhat relevant to students’ home cultures. And of course, there was a 49.5 percent part of the student body that was female. The books taught this year certainly do not reflect this, and they should. The continued dominance of a white, male perspective in literature around them can leave students with the sour taste that maybe their perspective and experiences are not important to their surrounding culture or that no one like them before has made an impact on literature as much as the droves of white men have.
Not only should literature taught relate to students on a personal level, but reading books solely from a white, male perspective is simply unrealistic when attempting to give a worldview reflective of, well, the real world. The truth is that not everyone adults interact with have the same or even similar experiences to themselves, and with empathy and understanding being fundamental to respect, students need to be exposed to the diverse backgrounds that adults come from as early as possible.
The fact that there are influential white male writers does not justify ignoring the many influential writers of other races and genders. Of course, some white men need to stay in the curriculum, most obviously Shakespeare. His influence is unavoidable: seven of the 58 distinct books taught this year, 12 percent, were by Shakespeare. Omitting every book by a white, male author would, in fact, be irresponsible if one wished to give students any semblance of a complete course in literature, over four years. But with the operative word being “complete,” just add to the curriculum. Recognize that there are some non-white and non-male writers who match if not exceed influence and ability. To William Golding and Ray Bradbury, we offer Mary Shelley and Octavia Butler. To Charles Dickens, we offer Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. To Walt Whitman and T. S. Eliot, we offer Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda, and Langston Hughes.
Diversity in books read by students is essential, and this needs to start with English classes. With no lack of influential, diverse authors and the benefit of teaching students about the world by representing all of them, the English curriculum here needs to change.